How Tokyo inspired cobbler Lou Clifton

Shoemaker Lou Clifton may have grown up in a small one-shoe shop town in New Zealand, but travel has been integral in her quest for shoemaking knowledge.

Bespoke shoemaker Lou Clifton. Image credit: Shoe School
Bespoke shoemaker Lou Clifton. Image credit: Shoe School

Most of us have a favorite pair of shoes. Perhaps they’re a trusty pair of sneakers that transport you from place to place in a familiar comfort, or a treasured pair of dress shoes, stowed carefully in the back of your closet, wrapped in tissue and reserved for special occasions.

Most of us spare little thought with regards to the knowledge, skill, and effort that goes into creating a quality pair of shoes, but it’s this process to which New Zealander Lou Clifton has dedicated her life. She’s traveled many miles to learn from the best. First to Australia, where she mastered shoemaking fundamentals from veteran craftsperson Luna Newby, known as Luna Boots, and then to Japan to study under Tokyo-based and internationally renowned shoemaking sensei Tekano Keitaro, who makes just 60 pairs of luxury shoes per year from his shop in Tokyo’s Ginza district, an area known for its high-end goods.

For Clifton, the time she spent in Tokyo with Keitaro was transformative. She immersed herself in Tokyo’s thriving shoemaking scene and discovered there was a legitimate demand for handcrafted, bespoke shoes, fueled by those who are willing to pay more for unique, quality products. She made it her mission to spark and nurture a similar passion for shoemaking back home in her native New Zealand. 

Clifton is based in Wellington, New Zealand’s creative capital city, where she runs her Shoe School. She passes her hard-earned knowledge on to others through a series of workshops, where attendees have the opportunity to create their own pair of shoes or sandals from scratch, and by hand. 

Clifton's Shoe School in New Zealand. Image credit: Ted Whitaker
Clifton’s Shoe School in New Zealand. Image credit: Ted Whitaker

Clifton is a source of inspiration to anyone who longs to turn their passion into a career, but her road to success hasn’t been easy. We spoke to Clifton about her love of shoes, her reservation about crocs, and the journey she’s taken to master her craft.

When did you first discover your passion for footwear?

I grew up in a small, isolated town. We had one shoe store and one clothing store which were closed on weekends. It was the 90s. Grunge was big and I was obsessed with owning a pair of Dr. Martens 8-eye boots. I saved up all my money painting signs for the local whiteware store (3 NZD a sign!) and eventually bought a pair [at the age of 15] on a family trip to Christchurch [New Zealand’s Southern capital].

How were you introduced to the craft of shoemaking?

Shoemaking is something I’ve always been curious about. I think most people have wondered how shoes are made; they’re such a common object and a fantastic mixture of fashion, craft, and function. 

I found a book in a secondhand store called “Simple Shoemaking” by Sharon Raymond. I wrote an email to Sharon in the U.S asking how I could learn… and she recommended I travel to Australia to learn from Luna Boots.

The process of shoemaking. Image credit: Ted Whitaker
The process of shoemaking. Image credit: Ted Whitaker

Can you tell us about the first pair of shoes you ever made?

I made a pair of slippers from Sharon’s book from scrap felt and an old car-mat. They were so ugly. But I was thrilled. I made shoes!

How did they feel compared to store-bought shoes?

So comfortable. But I’d never wear them out of the house. In fact, I think I threw one away so I couldn’t. I made them because I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible. That they existed and that I made them – at that time – was enough for me.

What motivated you to commit to becoming a shoemaker?

I had moved to Dunedin [the second-largest city in New Zealand’s South Island] from Hokitika and couldn’t find work. I had nothing to lose and shoemaking was the best job I could imagine doing. It was really tough – you couldn’t learn the craft in NZ at that time so I traveled to Australia and Japan multiple times. Most of NZ’s manufacturing industry went offshore in the 80s and 90s and along with it the equipment, materials, and knowledge.

What was it like training in Japan?

I came away with a new level of respect for the commitment and skill involved in bespoke shoemaking. It really is a life-long journey—even if you understand the technical principles of bespoke shoemaking, your body must be trained to attain that level of accuracy.

I think I saw a very different version of the Tokyo you might see if you were to travel as a holidaying tourist. I’m often asked if I enjoyed the food. My workmates worked so hard they hardly ever stopped for food. I ate standing up at the convenience store. If I was organized enough when I got home at midnight from the workshop, I would make “onigiri”, rice balls, to take with me the next day. Clients were always bringing Takano-san gifts of food though. We’d break at 3 p.m, gather around my table with green tea and coffee…and eat all sorts of exquisitely wrapped and beautifully made cakes.

On my days off I’d go shopping. Not to buy, just to stare at shoes that I’d only ever seen online. It’s so incredible to see the objects you’ve fawned over digitally in real life. To feel the weight of the shoes, notice the surface quality of the leather, the construction of the uppers was so inspiring, as it makes the craft seem so much more possible. It absolutely inspired me to expand and experiment with my practice back home. 

Clifton runs regular classes to encourage others to build their own shoes. Image credit:  Image credit: Ted Whitaker
Clifton runs regular classes to encourage others to build their own shoes. Image credit: Image credit: Ted Whitaker

How has travel shaped your creative outlook?

Travel gave me a sense of context for my own shoemaking path – after seeing how established shoemakers were in Japan I saw clearly that starting a Shoe School would create a demand for skills and supplies and this would kick-start NZ’s shoemaking industry.

Can you describe a few accomplishments or moments that stand out for you in your career so far?

I invited my Japanese tutor and his assistant to Dunedin for iD Fashion week (the city’s premier fashion event). Initially, it was going to be a modest exhibition, but the idea expanded, like an exploding star, and became a two-night ticketed catwalk show. I had only just launched Shoe School and had no income, so it was a very brave move. But I was so proud of myself. It was a wonderful event and my Sensei and his assistant were treated like celebrities. I was so pleased that I could do something special for them in return for all the help they gave me.

If you could only wear one pair of shoes, what type of shoe would you wear and why?

Crocs. Just kidding. Though I hope I never set foot in them. What if they’re so comfortable I could never take them off? I honestly can’t imagine a world in which I’d wear one pair of shoes. I have so many. Some of them I wear for comfort, some of them I wear because they’re beautiful and handmade, and some of them I wear because they make me laugh.

An odd question perhaps, but when you have laced shoes, what is your favorite way to tie them?

I like the Oxford style – it’s called the “Straight European”. I think it’s because it reminds me of my shoemaking family in Japan and bespoke shoe styles.

What type/style of shoe should everyone have in their closet and why?

Not crocs. But if you like them, then go for it. I would never tell anyone what they should have in their closet if it brings them happiness, but preferably not shoes that are made in a factory that comprises workers rights. Perhaps in a few years time, my students will go on to open their own shoemaking businesses and handmade shoes will be available to everyone in NZ at a reasonable price. That’d be nice.


Grace Catherine

Grace is a freelance writer and digital project manager from New Zealand currently based in Mexico City. She is an avid traveler who loves destinations with an eclectic history, a bike-sharing scheme, and plenty of cool animals.