The musky smell of leather perfumes the cosy studio of Josh Leong Shoes at Joo Chiat Terrace. Things get headier as you meet its namesake, a charming shoe atelier whose chat can keep you rapt through a crash course in his complex process, which involves more than 100 different steps and techniques.
It’s an intimate afternoon inside his world, as he opens up. “I am happiest when I am at my workstation,” he confesses. “When my mind is in that state of intense focus, I am in my own little bubble where it is just me and the shoes. Stress and worries disappear, and my mind is at peace.”
An archetype of a growing maker culture in Singapore, Mr Leong has become synonymous with a bespoke heritage once associated only with the Italian leather industry. He is focused on fine workmanship, attention to detail, and a sensibility that combines the nation’s famed pragmatist streak with a broad world view.
Mr Leong left his path in advertising sales, events management and tennis coaching, for the Renaissance city of Florence, Italy, three years ago. There, during his one-year shoemaking apprenticeship, the 31-year-old fell in love with shoemaking.
He recalls being inspired by an old gentleman. “He brought his shoes to us for resoling. The shoes were about 20 years old and in an absolute mess. But they were made with great quality leather. With some polishing and resoling, the shoes looked as good as new. I want to make shoes like that.”
The bespoke business
His intense involvement in technical aspects of his trade would fly above the heads of most. Referring to the shoe mould or “last” that acts as the carbon copy of the wearer’s foot, he says: “The last of the shoe comes first.”
With the shape in place, the stitching of the shoe upper is done, followed by layering of oak-tanned leather for the heels and a final round of stitching and welting. The languorous, painstaking process yields just three pairs for his clientele each month, but the outcome is sublime: something to last for decades, its unique grooves and curvature perfectly fitted to the feet they were destined for.
It explains why getting a made-to-order pair from Mr Leong sets you back $1,900, while bespoke creations start at $3,500. Customers come from all walks, are usually in their mid-30s to 50s, and appreciate the experience as much as the product they get.
Mr Leong lives for that moment when their faces light up with joy when they get their shoes. “It makes all the hard work worthwhile,” he says.
Business is not without its challenges. A key hurdle for him is not being able to get supplies locally. Old shoemakers have either closed down or moved to other countries like Malaysia to cut costs. Supplies such as wax, thread and even nails must be imported, adding to the cost.
“Bespoke shoemaking is more than just making a functional pair of shoes – I’m actually in the business of making wearable art,” he points out.
This love for bespoke is moving beyond shoes. This year, Mr Leong is partnering Lusso Tailors in a new business venture called “Seamless Bespoke”, which will specialise in bespoke and ready-to-wear clothing, shoes and accessories.
The new venture will be launched in August at his new storefront and workshop at 17A/B Circular Road.
Against all odds
Friends and relatives predicted Mr Leong would eventually return to the corporate world. His own father was his biggest critic -- he doubted if there was any market for bespoke hand-welted shoes, given their high prices.
He felt his son was more likely to succeed at setting up a tennis academy. But the younger Leong was steadfast. He explains: “At the core, I have an unwavering belief in my business. This belief helps me tide over the many times when self-doubt creeps up on me.
“The more someone tells me that something cannot be done, the more I try to prove them wrong. I feel that this is a necessary trait to survive the harsh business world out there.”
That dogged determination won over the elder Leong, who wound up being his first customer. “It was only after wearing the pair of shoes I had made for him that he became fully convinced this business venture could work.”
Still, it wasn’t until he got an order from a complete stranger that he felt true accomplishment. “When friends and family buy from you, you never know if they genuinely like the shoes or if they just want to help you out.”
Now, with a growing clientele comes a sense of validation.
Mr Leong shares what he knows with budding shoemakers who come to him for advice.
A walk in Mr Leong’s neck of the woods offers an understanding to Singapore’s own re-awakening to the appreciation of customised creations. As a creative force, his life is an inspiration to those who dare to dream differently.
This story is brought to you by the Singapore Tourism Board.