Meet The Tastemakers our November column featuring four industry mavens as they share what drives their passion and how they enhance and even transform our lifestyle through their unique areas of expertise.
When one thinks of a shoemaker, one would hardly picture a young, fresh-faced Singaporean like 34-year-old Joshua Leong. But to eliminate any doubt, just take a look at his hands. They are the blistered, and often glue- and dye-covered hands of a craftsman; one who has worked relentlessly over the last five years to launch three artisanal footwear brands that specialise in handcrafted and bespoke leather shoes.
His eponymous brand, Josh Leong, offers made-to-order and bespoke leather dress shoes for men that are not just entirely handcrafted, but also made using what is often considered the Rolls-Royce of all shoe construction – the hand-welted construction. This is a laborious method of hand-stitching the outsoles to the rest of the shoe that significantly contributes to the average 70 to 90 hours it takes Joshua to complete a pair of shoes. Unsurprisingly, he is the only shoemaker in Singapore that makes hand-welted made-to-order and bespoke footwear.
Such commitment to the craft stems from a long-time love for leather, which began with leather-crafting. As a hobby, Joshua would make small accessories from scrap leather he sourced from furniture upholsterers and by learning from books and information online.
In 2014, he left his tennis coaching career and headed to Florence, Italy – a city synonymous with leather and craftsmanship – to enrol at a trade school and train as a leather artisan. As soon as he started learning how to make shoes, he was hooked. Shortly after, he embarked on a year- long shoemaking apprenticeship at the renowned, Italian bespoke shoe brand Stefano Bemer. “It was one of those life-changing moments where I realised that the shoemaking industry was where I wanted to be for the rest of my career,” says Joshua.
“What I love about shoemaking is that it is the perfect combination of the arts, in terms of the lines and the designs, and science, in how we calculate certain measurements that affect the fit and function of the shoes. Every single one of the over 100 steps in the shoemaking process has a compounding effect on the next step. An accomplished shoemaker is one who can execute as many of these different steps as cleanly and precisely as possible.”
Walking the talk
When he started his business here in 2015, no one in Singapore was offering bespoke shoes at a similar level. “It was an incredibly difficult period for my businesses as there was absolutely no ecosystem in terms of local suppliers or skilled labour. Everything I needed to make my shoes had to be imported from various parts of Italy, Spain, France and Germany,” he explains.
Educating consumers was also a challenge as the term “bespoke” was often misused and misrepresented. “Customers often got the definitions of made-to-order, made-to-measure and bespoke all mixed up,” he adds. While the first two terms involve some standardisation in the process, bespoke shoes are made according to specific measurements of the wearer’s feet and can be uniquely designed. “This lack of education meant that there was little to no market at all for bespoke shoes and I had to create my own niche market by educating customers one at a time.”
Singaporeans also struggled to accept the idea that locally made shoes could be just as good as, or even better than a pair made in Italy. “It wasn’t uncommon for customers to give us incredulous looks upon hearing the prices of our shoes, or make comments like, ‘Made in Singapore, how come so expensive?’.” But he let his products speak for themselves. Joshua found that the best way to educate customers was simply to get them to wear his creations.
“When my customers put on my shoes and they gasp or exclaim that they can feel the difference, I know that I’ve done my part in raising the level of appreciation people have towards handcrafted shoes,” he says. “I’ve had sceptical customers who needed a lot of convincing before trying their first pair of shoes from my brands but now swear by my shoes and their quality. They told me that they can no longer go back to wearing the brands they used to buy.”
Best foot forward
In addition to Josh Leong, his other brands include Heirloom by Josh Leong, which specialises in dress sneakers, and Palola, which offers made- to-order and off-the-rack women’s leather ballet flats, heels and loafers. Earlier this year, Joshua opened the first Palola flagship boutique at CityLink Mall, after having only previously stocked the brand in multi- label retailers. Another small win for the brand was when international tennis superstar Elina Svitolina bought a few pairs of Palola shoes while she was in Singapore for the WTA Finals in 2018. “It was the first time a celebrity had worn our shoes, and incredible validation that we were on the right track,” he says.
Going global and putting Singapore on the map for quality shoemaking and shoes is his long-term goal: “The only way for us to elevate local shoe brands to the world stage is by sharing knowledge and resources, so that everyone grows together. I also hope to inspire the next generation of Singaporean shoemakers to have the courage to pursue this disappearing craft.”
(Main and featured image: Prestige Singapore)