Born in New York, Keiko Hirosue of k*shoes spent most of her childhood in a surfing town in the suburb of Tokyo. Growing up with a father who valued good food, good education and good shoes, she learned to appreciate the finer things in life. This meant, Keiko would get sandals from Thailand and moccasins from North America. From an early age she experienced a global culture. The nature of her father's work relocated the family abroad several times and they often hosted international guests in their home in Japan. "It sounds so normal in New York," she explains, "but in Japan, and in the small town where we lived, it was rather special to have enough space and to have international visitors."
And, then there were relics from generations ago in the cellar of her grandparents who survived the carpet bombing of Tokyo. Objects that would now belong in a history museum. Inspired by the mix of old and new, Japanese and international creations that filled her childhood, Keiko began hand-crafting one-of-a-kind shoes that reflect her chic global aesthetic blended with comfort and great custom fit.
Handmade Elita Sandal by k* shoes. Click to buy.
Keiko had come to New York wanting to do something completely different. But, once she wore shoes she had made herself, she was hooked. It started with "fetish shoe-making" class by Emily Putterman, the only one teaching shoe-making in New York back in 2003. After taking several classes, Keiko started to make shoes at home using hand tools. Earlier in her career as a shoemaker, Keiko had to bring the shoes to a shoe repair shop for them to be soled and finished. Spending countless hours at the repair shop on relatively quiet weekend mornings, Keiko quickly learned how to finish the shoes by herself. She also started collecting the tools to complete the process.
While she worked in the apparel industry during the day, Keiko produced her clothing designs in China and wholesaled to retailers. But, she missed being closely involved in the production process. "I admire the workers' dedication," says Keiko, "yet, I missed so much of the actual making. So, I went back to my roots and decided to make the shoes start to finish on my own. My favorite part of the entire process of making is the lasting (the process of molding the uppers of the shoe over the wooden shape). I love to see the shoes starting to take shape. As a shoemaker, if you outsource to a small-scale sample room or a factory, they may have a machine, but then you lose the fun of lasting yourself."
Keiko likes basic shapes and styles but she often plays with color and textures in her shoe designs. Sometimes you find unexpected cloth detail in a popping color on a mute suede shoe. Other times it's lace ties on a leather shoe. Another pleasure that comes with making shoes is shopping for leather and other materials. "I keep my lining in vegetable tan leather as much as possible, but I can't resist the colors and textures. Always trying to be conscious of where the leather comes from and how they are processed, I try to make a responsible choice in every step of the making."
As a busy mother of an eight year old boy, her everyday shoes tend to be colorful, lower heeled, and almond-toe shaped. When asked to define her current shoe style obsession, Keiko explains that, "shoes are supposed to fit your daily activities. There are dress codes and TPO (time, place, occasion) for them. Maybe shoes can reflect your fashion style. And, as you look at a collection of shoes someone wears, you'll see the style of the person. It's hard to narrow down to one style. As they say -- you can never have enough shoes. If I were to choose one style for myself right now, I would make a pair of either traditional oxfords or derby, but in a super great color that you won't find in the market, maybe patent leather, and with a quarter inch heel."
Ten years later, Keiko has continued to learn and grow through taking more classes, practicing her craft and networking with other shoemakers. Keen to pass on the craft and the satisfaction that comes from wearing a shoe that you have designed and made with your own hands, she now teaches her own shoe-making class as well at Brooklyn Shoe Space where she has her k* shoes studio.
"Your first pair is always the hardest and takes the longest to make, and probably not the best looking shoes you have ever seen, but it is all yours." Each class takes the student through various steps of designing and creating a shoe - construction, materials, sourcing, pattern-making, sewing, lasting and soling - from start to finish. Shoemaking requires attention to detail, patience, persistence and some amount of waiting as things set and dry. It takes anywhere from twenty-four to thirty hours to have a pair ready. Once a month, Keiko offers intensive weekend classes where the students make the pattern a weeknight before the class. It then takes one full weekend by which you have your very own pair of shoes. Once you make a pair, Keiko recommends making another one right after, before your hands forget.
Keiko likes to keep the class size small so she can give her full attention to each student. On our visit to her studio, we saw her patiently help one student in cutting a pattern, another one at the sewing machine and a third one in putting finishing touches on her third pair of hand-made shoes that she later walked out in. "Teaching has been absolutely inspiring. Each student comes to class with an interesting design, or questions, and I love the challenge," she says. "I like to encourage their ideas and work with it or suggest alternatives that could possibly work within their designs."
Always willing to learn sustainable ways of crafting her beautiful shoes, Keiko will soon be taking a hand-welted shoe making course which will help her make shoes without toxic glue. With that, k* shoes will expand more to custom-made hand welted shoes for both men and women. For k* shoes to offer a well-rounded customer care and custom shoes, Orthopedics is another topic she wants to learn more about.
Keiko's brand k* shoes is part of Brooklyn Shoe Space where a few shoemakers share machinery and studio space, and where the shoemaking classes happen. And, the Shoe Space wants to open a shoe repair service in the future. Over all in New York City, there are many shoemakers who are collaborating and networking once a month as a collective. In these multiple layers of creating a product, teaching and business together, k* shoes would like to grow together with the movement of bringing the shoemaking back home.
Words by Nadia Rasul. Photography by Garry Waller.