Bertrand Mak is giving all the shoes displayed in the presentation of Alke, his new athletically inspired shoe collection, the once-over with an air pump. No shoe goes uninspected, whether it’s on a high shelf or artfully perched on one of the pillars placed around the exhibition space.
To say Mak is an aesthete is to only acknowledge a fraction of what compels him — from his appreciation for art and craft to his unrelenting quest for perfection. Having pivoted from a career in watches to setting up R. Sanderson, originally an Asian offshoot of English shoe brand Rupert Sanderson, but now owned outright by the Hong Kong-based entrepreneur, he attributes the journey to his attention to detail.
“I’ve never imagined myself as someone who could do this,” says Mak. “My obsession is watches. The cogs and screws are so minuscule, and you have to strive for perfection because otherwise the mechanism won’t be able to last. So I think I’ve brought that mentality into what I’m creating here. It’s that obsession with detail and trying not to overlook the smallest of details.”
Reception to R. Sanderson has been enthusiastic and the brand now has stores in Beijing and Taipei alongside two locations in Hong Kong. At the Landmark boutique, it’s normal to see groups of women begin trickling in at around quarter past noon and then, within 30 minutes, it’s at full capacity with crowd control in place. As some customers wait outside, those inside are looking for new styles, new colours and, more often than not, R. Sanderson’s greatest draw, new pebbles (pieces of smooth, rounded nickel that adorn the vamp) to ornament their existing pairs of shoes.
“Hong Kong people are very open minded and they’re very open to new brands and new designs, but in the beginning we didn’t really have a signature, so I fastened on to that,” Mak says. “It’s something that’s so essential to a luxury brand, having uniqueness, and by chance I met a number of artists who did gold-leaf painting and I really pushed this idea of using gold leaf as a signature on the heel, because for heels the heel is really the soul of the shoe. So I pushed that through and it became the backbone of our business.”
Having established the signature heel, another characteristic element of the shoes is the pebble, which as well as coming with each pair are also sold separately (as a pair). Mak has invited artisans and craftsmen from countries such as Japan and Germany to turn each set into works of art, inspired perhaps by Chinese brushwork or Andy Warhol’s Shadow series (of which Mak just happens to own one set).
“The way I look at our creations, they’re not really shoes,” he says. “They’re objects of art. I hope I can better demonstrate that through our new charms and boxes, which seem more like art pieces than the shoes. But ultimately it’s about a jewel, the placement of the pebble, which I always have to underscore is not flat, so it takes a lot of skill to lacquer or work on the surface. Then there’s the heel and how we work with artisans.”
For his different pebble collections, Mak has scoured the world for artisans, recruiting German glass makers to provide the “diamond dust” that’s unique to the Shadow collection and replicating Warhol’s own technique to achieve the glitter effect. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry uses Swarovski crystals and strass because that’s the easiest answer to bling,” says Mak, “but I’ve always wanted to stay away from it because it’s tiring and it’s not innovative.”
Thanks to what he describes as “a long and passionate email”, Mak also secured a long-term partnership withcraftsmen in Japan, whose gold-leafing technique stretchesback to 1661. It also transpires that some of the best gold-leafing craftsmen are right here in Hong Kong, all of whom, Mak says, are working on his shoes.
“I want to be able to provide a platform for this and I want to be a part of preserving this craft so that it doesn’t get lost,” Mak says. “A lot of techniques have been lost and I’m not talking about gold leafing alone. I’m talking about, for example, watchmaking, the way we make bags, doing etch stains. I could go on, but my vision is to create something that can bring together artisans and unsung heroes and not only respect the elements and heritage of the craft but to innovate from it as well.”
The gold-leafing technique used by the brand, forexample, was invented in-house. “Gold leaf is thinner than paper, you know,” Mak says. “And if you polish it, it will tear. So the question was, how to polish it to a stage where we achieve that mirror effect without tearing the gold leaf. That’s something that we invented in-house by trial and error, and discovering techniques with constant failure along the way.”
This is especially impressive when looking at the progression of the pebbles in the Ink collection. The Japanese artisans that Mak persuaded to work with him have elevated their technique from the first series, where they lacquered and gilded the pebble to mimic brushstrokes. A bicolour gold and gloss finish was used for the second series, while the third Ink series introduces even more depth — and now, the pebbles of the fourth series contain more than 30 layers of lacquer and gold leaf.
“You have to really admire it in the flesh, to see the incredible depth and different layers of ink, gold leaf and lacquer,” Mak says. Even the craftsmen are impressed with what they’ve been able to achieve, thanks to Mak’s insistence. “The layering technique that our Japanese craftsmen are doing for us is something that they’ve never done in 300 years. What we’ve created here is lacquer that contains a translucent red hue,” Mak says. “It’s almost like enamel and they only did it through a mistake that we’ve now learnt to control.”
From the moment he asked his Italian manufacturer to add an inbuilt rubber sole into each pair of heels, Mak has been told time and again that realising his vision was an impossibility. “Many people have told me no,” he says.“They’ve told me, ‘You can’t do it as someone from Hong Kong,’ ‘You can’t be in Landmark,’ and ‘You can’t work with artisans from Japan who’ve been in the business for three centuries, they wouldn’t entertain your request.’”
Even the Alke collection can be seen as a response to naysayers. “The collection is, of course, shoes but in a design language of sports and athletics. Everyone told me that this wasn’t the answer. The answer instead was an ugly, faddy sneaker,” Mak says. “But you know, I found that really repulsive and something I honestly couldn’t force myself to make, so that’s how the slogans [for customers to personalise their laces with] came to be — ‘Be Brave’, ‘Trust Yourself’, and ‘Believe in the Extraordinary’. They really ring true in my mind and they’ve guided me throughout my journey.”