Going against the grain, follow a Singaporean bespoke shoemaker’s entrepreneurial journey of grit and passion.
Leather is an interesting medium with multifold meanings. For some, it is a code of opulence with roots that go deep into the DNA of luxury brands. For others, it is an enduring symbol of elegance that continues to withstand the tests of times.
Regardless, it is a revered material amongst craftsmen, and for Singaporean bespoke shoemaker, Joshua Leong, it is his favourite medium to create footwear.
In the taxonomy of leather craftsmen and craftswomen, Joshua Leong’s passion for shoemaking was an unexpected find. The former full-time tennis coach had previously tried his hands on creating leather trinkets for his friends and family, before deciding to pursue his passion in Florence, Italy.
“I started off in a little trade school, called ‘Accademia Riaci’. I was learning how to make bags, and I found out that there was a shoemaking course as well. Since the timings did not clash, I figured, why not take on both courses?” He says.
“After I started shoemaking, I was completely in love with it. I stopped making bags and dedicated my 100% to creating shoes.”
When Joshua graduated, it was clear he needed more experience. He wanted to learn what running a bespoke shoemaking business entails and he was desperate to find a mentor. With only a pair of leather shoes, he found his calling answered at a Florentine bespoke shoemaker company, ‘Stefano Bemer’.
“That’s really when and where I took the craft from a hobby to a profession,” he recalls. “Because when you start making shoes for people to buy, it actually gets serious. People are not going to pay for a pair of shoes unless they really see value from it.”
When he returned to Singapore a year later in 2015, the Singaporean shoemaker founded his first business “Josh Leong Shoes”, which offers bespoke shoemaking services for discerning clients. Hand-welted and hand-stitched, Joshua can spend 100 to 150 hours to piece together a pair of leather shoes.
“Shoemaking is an age-old craft. Modern machinery may be able to produce a pair of shoes quickly, but they are not necessarily better shoes,” he admits.
The 32-year-old is also candid and honest about the prospect of his bespoke business. With the advent of fast fashion and changing consumer tastes, running a bespoke shoemaking line in the 21st century may not necessarily be a profitable venture in the long run.
“Do I really want to do bespoke shoemaking for the rest of my life, knowing full well it is not really scalable and that I may not earn enough to support my family?” he quips. “That’s when I started ‘Heirloom’ later in 2015, which allowed me to have an alternative sort of income and at the same time it gave me an outlet of creativity in the same line.”
At ‘Heirloom’, Joshua imbues the modern-day sneakers with a classic twist. Utilising high-quality leather, skilful artisans from the Marche region in Italy reconstructs and recreates a timeless and sleek sneaker silhouette, befitting the modern gentlemen. “All the properties you look for in dress shoes are also good qualities you want in the sneaker,” Joshua says.
“What other brands do is to use a higher grade of leather for dress shoes and a lower grade for sneakers. A sneaker is not an inferior pair of shoes, it is not a second-class citizen.”
While one would expect Joshua to be hectic (and satisfied) with running the two businesses, the shoemaker’s entrepreneurial spirit blazed even further. Two years later in 2017, he and his business partner, Jeremiah, tapped into the women’s market with “Palola”, a brand proffering artisanal flats to the contemporary ladies.
Then, conceptualising the aesthetic and design for a pair of Palola flats proved to be quite the hurdle for the duo. “When we presented a female friend a prototype, she said, ‘This pair of shoes looked like it has been designed by two straight men. No woman would buy that.’” Joshua says, smiling.
“We realised we can’t design things just the way we like it. We needed to understand our new consumers, experiment with all sort of different leathers, colours, designs, and get feedback from female audiences.”
Like all businesses, the start of Joshua’s entrepreneurial journey was challenging too. “There was no shoemaking ecosystem in Singapore. I had to look overseas to get my materials, and these add to the costs,” He confesses.
“There was also a lack of knowledge and appreciation in the market too. The idea of paying four figures for a pair of shoes is mind-blowing to the average Singaporean.” 🤯🤯
For Joshua, who was born to a family of doctors, the decision to leave his professional pursuits in Singapore for an uncertain venture in Florence had his family initially sceptical. “I’m sure my parents had wanted me to be a doctor. But I knew I am better off doing something else,” the shoemaker says wistfully. “I was quite fortunate that my parents even if they thought of it, they didn’t voice it out verbally.”
Cut to the present time: the shoe atelier can be found in the humble two-storey shophouse along Ann Siang Road, seeking validation from satisfied and loyal customers. He has since partnered with Ryan Tay of the now-defunct Lusso Tailors to co-found “Seamless Bespoke”, a retail boutique that offers guests the exquisite experience of tailoring up a pair of bespoke shoes or a set of bespoke clothing.
For some, speaking to Joshua at Seamless Bespoke is akin to embarking on a learning journey of sorts. From finding the best shoe last to fit the feet to learning the different qualities of leather, guests are taken through the intricacies of shoemaking. In simpler words, the intimate exchange is often meticulously executed, rewarding, and for the uninitiated, wholly refreshing.
“There are a lot of things in this world, where the more you use it, the more it breaks down. I want to offer something that can withstand the tests of time,” Joshua says. “Leather has that special quality. And the more you used it, the more beautiful it becomes.”
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