Occupying a nondescript building on a quiet and unassuming streetin the Asakusa district of Tokyo, the Hender Scheme atelier blends into its surroundings amid the other factories and workshops of traditional Japanese industries. Situated on the northeast fringe of central Tokyo, Asakusa displays a greater concentration of mid-century architecture than any of its neighbouring communities. Coupled with an abundance of temples and shrines, the area preserves an atmosphere of decades long past; it’s for these reasons that Ryo Kashiwazaki laid roots here for his burgeoning leather goods brand.
Rendered in cowhide, pigskin and suede, a product by Hender Scheme lends the impression that it was designed with the utmost attention to detail with importance stressed on longevity and high-quality craftsmanship. With a design philosophy fixed on the time honoured approach to craft, Ryo and his small team of artisans have challenged the modern ideas of discarding worn items, rather seeing beauty unfold with each scar and imperfection. It is only after a Hender Scheme product displays the unique characteristics and individuality of their owners through these lustrous patinas, that Ryo deems his work complete.
We sat down with the soft-spoken director of Hender Scheme at his atelier to discuss his past, how psychology permeates through the brand and why this level of craftsmanship is integral in preserving the rich history of shokunin in Japan.
Can you tell us about your time working in various shoe repair shops during your youth?
If I remember correctly, I was about 19 years old and attending university at the time. There was an footwear atelier right in front of my friend’s house on the outskirts of Tokyo and I remember thinking to myself “I don’t need to be paid to work here” so I volunteered there and that ended up being the catalyst for my career working with shoes. Shortly after, I began working on repairs in the same shop, It started taking up a lot of my time and I ended up not going to university as much. Around that time I started going to the workplaces of various shokunin (Japanese master craftsmen) in Asakusa. They were mostly working on shoes and bag making. As I started spending more time with them they began teaching me their craft.
You studied philosophy, which seems like a big contrast to what you’re doing now with design. Have you retained any ideologies or viewpoints that you express through your product?
When I was in high school, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. So, in a way, I wanted to learn how to consciously make myself more unconscious of things if that makes sense [laughs]. That’s why I also studied psychology at university. I went to a local school called Mejiro University, I’m not so sure if what I learnt there directly relates to what I’m doing now, but on a subconscious level, I think there may be a link between then and now.
Can you shed light on your interest in Sandra Bem and her gender schema theory and how that ties into the brand?
The brand name is probably the only exception where it has a direct relation to philosophy. As a theory, it was something I studied. Traditionally in Japan, the men are expected to work and the women expected to stay at home to care for their children. I thought it would be more interesting to do away with these social conventions and gender gaps when it came to designing or making things. Instead of saying, “these are shoes for men and these are shoes for ladies,” I wanted to be able to make something unisex, and have full sizes for both. We subtly modify each silhouette with minor changes, but not to the extent where the overall design is compromised. I think certain design foundations don’t need to be changed; everything still needs to work physiologically. However if it’s more concerned with colour or (design) lines, then I don’t think there is a need for these elements to be determined by gender.
“I use shoes as a medium to subconsciously express what I feel or want to say at the time.”
What is it about working with footwear that appeals to you?
I use shoes as a medium to subconsciously express what I feel or want to say at the time. While I’m crafting them, I look at the balance of each collection, season by season. Instead of deliberately trying to design a collection with an overall theme, I start with an abstract word, and from there, instill my thoughts and feelings into what I’m making instead of consciously trying to express something so deliberately. I want to be in the middle, and instead of saying, “This is dyed with a very modern dying technique,” or “This is a very natural dying technique,” I would like things to be seen just as natural or as modern, and take a position of being balanced.
Before you started the brand, what kind of sneakers did you wear? Are there some that are more nostalgic to you?
I wore a lot of Nike, Air Force Ones, Dunks, etc. For Adidas, I’d wear Superstars, Stan Smiths…and I used to wear a lot of Vans. Authentics, Eras etc. To be honest, I don’t actually think much has changed with sneakers since then, but I do think the knits in modern sneakers are fantastic. The science and technology behind them, that’s something people like us who work in analogue could not possibly do. I think it’s incredible. I’m sure the process of how they are made would be quite fascinating. With that said, I don’t want the balance of my shoes to look too much like sneakers or leather goods. Ideally, I want to express them from a 50/50 point of view- in a way that falls in both categories.
“Hender Scheme doesn’t have a shop or a publicly accessible space, so if asked to do a workshop, and if it seems interesting, we’d like to go out there to do it.”
You’ve taught various workshops on footwear in the past, how did that come about? Are you still active in these classes?
Occasionally I’ll teach a few workshops. There’s a bookshop in Aoyama called Ultrecht, I met the store’s director- Iguchi san through an acquaintance and he offered me a space to teach a class. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I listen to the radio frequently while I work, and I learned later on that he was a radio personality introducing book titles on a show that I tuned into every now and again.
One of the first workshops I taught was on simple items like the Hender Scheme piggy bank, that garnered some attention and after that I was asked by Levi’s® America to teach a class. Although recently I haven’t been doing these so much anymore. Hender Scheme doesn’t have a shop or a publicly accessible space, so if asked to do a workshop, and if it seems interesting, we’d like to go out there to do it.
Can you describe your knowledge of the history of the leather trade in Asakusa?
Since the past, leather tanneries in Asakusa were all situated along rivers. When you tan leather, you need access to running water, so in terms of location, there’s always been a culture of being close to a river. The Sumida River runs through this area, and as a result the local leather industry is prevalent here. These days labourers working with shoes, bags and other leather goods still remain associated with Asakusa.
There are many stages of production with footwear and leather, and a lot of physical components involved. It’s still almost impossible to do everything in one factory, from machine sewing to binding the sole to the upper. For sewing, there would be a sewing factory, for cutting, there would be a small cutting factory. There are many of these in the area, and that’s the characteristic of Asakusa as opposed to big factories overseas. Asakusa was and remains an area of many different and specialized craftsmen. Originally, it seemed to be a very chaotic place, and back then, it was supposedly confusing and in disorder. It had many different cultures and a variety of people all mixed together, but from that came the culture of shoemaking and other crafts. By the time I was in the picture a lot had changed, but I learned that Asakusa had gone through a lot of hardships and difficult times. Nowadays, it’s very different, since a lot of people now look to overseas manufacturing, there’s actually not a lot of work. Consequently, a lot of factories have had to close. But that’s where we can do our part, and keep the tradition going.
Can you tell us about shokunin craftsmanship, and what it means to you?
There are many good shokunin craftsmen in Asakusa and I want that to always remain, but most of these people are already in their 70s. If they are still in their 50s or 60s, they’re actually regarded as young within the industry. I can’t help but think that within five years or even ten years time, things are going to get very difficult for them. This is exactly why I think it’s important for us to do something about this, and it’s why I’m trying to continue this tradition in some form.
Typically, shokunin would charge by the sole, so things are always prone to being unstable, just like with fashion having “terms.” Even if suddenly a lot of work came right before an exhibition or a specific delivery, we are always doing things in inconsistent waves. It takes a lot of time and is quite difficult. It’s not something you can learn within two or three years.
What is generally the turn around time for a single pair of shoes from start to finish?
It can take around two to three months, but a single pair of shoes can be made up of many components. Of course, if all of us weren’t that busy, we could turn it around a lot faster, but the reality is, everyone already has a big workload.
What in particular usually takes up the most time?
It really depends on the number of components and which product. For example these shoes, (points to the Samidare shoes) are meant for the rainy season. The cover is designed to repel water, so for these, we had to make around ten samples to come to a final design. None of us had ever made something like this. A lot of time can be taken up just within the sampling process. If a silhouette doesn’t make it in time for a collection, we end up having to push it to the next season.
Is there a reason why you choose to work exclusively with leather?
There might not be a specific reason as to why, but I just really like it [laughs] I’m not sure if I like a particularly aspect, it’s more an intuitive thing when it comes to leather. If I had to be specific with one aspect, I do quite like cross sections of leather. I enjoy working it in an unrefined and rustic form; it’s alive in a way. There are a lot of people who say polished koba looks more expensive, by applying the ink and polishing it, but I actually prefer it in its rough and unkempt state. Normally it’s folded over, tucked in and ends up being concealed, but I prefer to show it with these distinctions.
“Design-wise, I’ll usually start from drawing pictures, but the idea for a piece will often begin from a certain word and I’ll write it down.”
Can you describe why you choose certain leathers over others? How and where are they sourced?
It really depends on what the design requires and whether or not the leather is compatible. Sometimes an idea for a design will start when I find and touch the leather. I’m not bothered by where the leather comes from, whether it’s from Italy or another foreign country. As long as it’s good leather, and I like it, that’s all that should matter. The thickness of the leather and the needlework going into it is actually where a lot of the attention goes.
Most of it comes from Japan, however a certain component sometimes comes from Europe. For the most part, the leather we use is generally from around here, or from a place called Himegi in Kobe. There’s another tannery area there, so I usually end up going to Kobe around four times a year to source and buy. When it comes to production, we like to operate with the people we know, on a face-to-face basis.
Can you share some of the methods behind your works?
Design-wise, I’ll usually start from drawing pictures, but the idea for a piece will often begin from a certain word and I’ll write it down. I’ll write down other key words and start forming them into images. I’ll draw up a huge collection of images, and will narrow them down. I’ll sketch these forms into patterns, which are then cut out into leather pieces. I’ll gradually minimize the designs further at this time for the final selection. Once this is done, we really just have to make them [laughs]. There’s the kigata, (the wooden, mockup form of the shoe) katagami, (the pattern-making) cutting of the leather, and the final construction of the shoe which takes place at a factory close by that we’ve been using for a while.
How long do you intend a pair of Hender Schemes to last?
Well, we do in-house repairs and maintenance, so if properly looked after, you can use them for a long time. We try to make a single pair of shoes last at least ten years, but that can be longer if maintained with care.
Steadily, your collections evolve and offer a wide range of product from various styles of footwear and accessories, though you’re mostly know for your “hommage” capsules. How do you feel about this?
It does make me happy when people admire the hommage collection. They’re natural and all handmade shoes, but I do wish people would take more notice of the concept. I see the hommage collection as quite conceptual. What we are making is not as significant, but why we are making this is more important to me.
It’s an expression of the idea that you can take something that’s mass produced, and turn it into something completely different. I’m not trying to say one is better than the other – it’s not about that at all. They are both good things, yet entirely different because of the people, the background of production, and the surrounding environment in which it is made. It’s something I’m doing as a personal project. It’s all the same philosophy with the homeware goods, the shoes, and the hommage collection. We’re not specifically trying to focus on just one part. We aim to make everything at the best of our abilities. In Japan, the accessories actually receive a lot more attention (than the hommage collection). I guess with the overseas market, the eyes inevitably go towards the sneakers. Most of what we make, really are things that my staff and I end up wanting.
Do you foresee a time when you might expand your collection into garments or a supplementary clothing line?
We don’t have any plans to make apparel in the future, because, we really don’t know the production and the thought process behind it, if we don’t know all these things, we just can’t make them. Quite a lot of people do ask me about this though.
You recently collaborated with Chitose Abe’s sacai label for SS16. Can you describe your relationship and how the collaboration materialized?
There wasn’t anyone who worked with footwear at sacai, so an opportunity arose from there. They (sacai) came over to our atelier, we explained our philosophy and what we were able and unable to do, and after that, they wanted to move forward. While communicating back and forth, we were able to maintain a good working relationship, and things took shape from there.
Did the overall process take a long time?
Yes, we were on a very tight deadline, as they’re a collection brand. With those kinds of labels, you can’t really have an idea of what shoes are suitable until the clothes are finally designed and made. The shoes only really come at the end, so the deadline gradually became tighter. Despite this though, they weren’t demanding when they wanted everything to be done by. They were very understanding of our manufacturing process, and I think this is why we were able to do it. That’s probably why we were also able to collaborate a second time.
Until now, I’ve been doing the designs by myself, so I’m used to making the decisions if I believe it’s right. For this collaboration, it was quite a new thing for me to allow someone else’s judgment come into play. If two opposing personalities are too different, then things won’t ever move along. At Hender Scheme, when we’re making the collection, we’re never really in the position of being told what to do by someone else. We aren’t affected by something consciously. At anytime we are expressing the things and the objects that we feel are unconscious. With this collaboration, we had to make sure everything properly went with the collection. In the end, I was really pleased with the final outcome, and I believe they were happy too.
Why is it important to pass on these artisanal techniques in an increasing technology fascinated society?
I think technology is a great thing just as it is, but I believe there’s a certain warmth that it lacks. Certain things can be interesting because they are analogue in the first place. I think it’s probably better being able to enjoy both worlds. Operating in an analogue environment may not be as efficient, but the end result can be good. I do think it’s important for these techniques to remain and be passed on. What’s really interesting, is that the very things these people are making, can now be found in New York or Paris. These craftsmen, who come from very small towns, have never even been overseas before. It almost seems like a paradox. To begin with, we never even thought of making these to sell overseas. So it’s been an interesting process to see the growth, the craftsmen are often in disbelief. The old shokunin have mercilessly said, “those will become dirty, so you should properly apply some dye or colour, or something!” All the while, I’ve had to convince them, it’s right just as it is.
Things have come a long way, the first two or three years seemed like a constant battle with the shokunin, and there have been people who’ve suddenly not been able to work anymore because they’ve passed away from old age. However, everyone seems to understand the mentality now, and even if I want to do something very difficult or unorthodox, my team is more willing to test it out.
What is it that defines a Hender Scheme product? What are you aiming to express to the person that picks up a pair of your shoes for the first time and the hundredth time?
Hender Scheme is something that comes into contact with many different kinds of people. Each and every one of their personal habits and characteristics take their physical toll on the product, and in doing so, the product eventually takes a new shape. I don’t actually regard a brand new pair of Hender Scheme shoes to be in its final and complete form, because it’s made to be used. It’s ultimately a tool used for walking. Ideally, once a person has a pair and starts using them, it becomes their own. They might look nice on display, but it’s a tool meant to be used. The way the sole wears down, whether someone likes their leather dirty or clean, in the end, I see a new pair of Hender Schemes at 80% of its journey. The remaining 20% only takes effect once someone puts them on and starts walking. This is what I believe to be at the foundation of Hender Scheme.