Interview with Gary Tok, Author of Master Shoemakers

The Hanger Project headed to the World Championship of Shoemaking in London and was able to catch up with Gary Tok about the inspiration for his recent photobook, Master Shoemakers. This book focuses on the artistry of bespoke men’s shoes and follows Gary Tok’s journey with eleven master shoemakers from England, France, Germany, and Italy.


Transcription

I'm excited to be here in London at the World Championship of Shoemaking. I've got with me Gary Tok author of Master Shoemaker. Gary thank you so much for spending a little bit of time with us. Thank You Kirby You did an absolutely fantastic job with this book, and I was totally blown away. You know truly a library piece a coffee table book incredible photography and I know you and I you know we share our love for shoes. It's something we have in common. So tell me you know what was the inspiration for this book because it was a pretty broad you know broad survey of some of the best shoe makers in the world.

Well it really started when I decided to explore the world of bespoke shoe making for myself and I was going to go to Europe and research about twelve few makers to find the right one for myself. And I thought I was going to take photos anyway and I was going to write about it. So, I thought why not put that all into a collection because it's very rare to find an entire collection of Bespoke shoe makers in in one spot.

Absolutely.

And while we could have done something on online or do it on the web I thought being artisanal producing a book would actually be very nice. And it's something that you can keep keepsake.

No absolutely. I mean in your writing I mean the approach that you took was you know less about you know the you know like an exhaustive history of all these different firms. You know that's not what this book is about. So kind of describe to us you know what your approach was and really what you tried to capture.

In the last say five to six years there's been a real explosion on interest in Bespoke, all things Bespoke. Whether suiting, shoes, etc and one of the things is that there's a lot of social media and also online content about the shoe makers. So, if you wanted to read about the history and the background of a lot of these shoe makers -- there's a lot of content on the internet. So, I wanted to then focus on the personal stories and the craftsmanship and the artisanal nature of what it means to be a Bespoke maker. So, of all the shoe makers in there we followed their personal story their journey into how they became a shoemaker to start with. Also, how they saw the future shoe making. One of the consistent themes we found about, in speaking to all these shoemakers, is that the it's very difficult to find young new people who want to take up the craft. So, apprenticeship and preparing themselves for the future is a common theme that comes out from the narrative we found. So that was a very interesting piece. So, you never get those insights just from a historical background of a particular shoemaker so that's what we focused on.

I mean one of the things that I particularly enjoyed is you know you really you know I felt like captured and wrote about you know just your personal story of what it was like to have a relationship with these shoemakers. I mean that's so much a part of the Bespoke process. You know it's not just the product that someone's able to make for you. You know, but it's the relationship you have with the maker, the chemistry, you know their kind of personality, their quirks, their eccentricity. And I mean was that something you found hard to capture? I mean how did you approach you know being able to write that?

Well part of it was spending time with them. So at a minimum with each of these shoe makers I spent about three days with them. Sitting down with them at their workshop, watching them work, taking photos as we go along, and having conversations. And I think that was part of the process for me to find out whether I could work with that shoemaker because ultimately with Bespoke you're really buying into the relationship. Absolutely. Otherwise there's no real reason to go to the extent of doing a Bespoke because you could easily buy a shoe of a well-known reputable ready-to-wear brand and that's it. So ultimately it’s working with the artisan. With the shoemaker getting a sense of how they see things. Also, getting a sense of how they might challenge you and perhaps push back on certain ideas that might not work. And that to me was a very interesting... fruitful process. Of all the shoemakers I met there are certain ones that I eventually didn't make from, and that was not because I didn't... think that their work was any lesser than anyone else. It's just simply you know I realized that their style didn't really adhere to what I wanted out of the shoe. Interestingly enough one of the funny stories we had out that process was that it's very easy to get attracted to a chisel toe shoe because it's not something you see readily available in ready-to-wear. So as a novice... I was certainly a novice at that time I got really attracted to...

Its got to be exaggerated aesthetic.

Exactly. But as I became more experienced many of my shoes now around Toller very classic. So that's the thing that I personally experienced.

So I mean one of the things that I've always kind of really enjoyed about you Gary is that you kind of have a very kind of methodical deliberate approach towards Bespoke. I mean it's really kind of what made this book possible. As you said look I want Bespoke shoes. I'm gonna go do a broad survey. You know, I'm gonna meet these guys. Interview them. Look at their work and kind of narrow it down. You then had what? You said five shoes made and then you kind of experienced that. And then you whittled it down even more. And you know now you're gonna left at the people you're making from. I mean from that journey like what advice would you give to someone that's looking to begin in Bespoke? I mean there's so many options out there especially now. You know they're all doing something different. They all have different personalities. I mean how does one you know really go about finding the Bespoke maker that's right for them?

Well one of the things is I really think is understanding what is the shoe maker capable of doing. And that primarily means the shape of their last and how they design their last. And part of that was captured in the book because I compiled all the very various loss that these shoe makers made and put them all into one section where you could easily compare whether a particular proportion is right for you or not. So, the first thing we I would advocate is that firstly understanding how you're fit is. You know how your feet are. So not all last and toe shapes are appropriate for every feet... Then having that innate understanding is important. Having an understanding of how your feet would fit into some of those shapes would be important. And then after that is having the building the right relationship and actually having some investment in time. I think one of the important things to understand is that as an investment in time when you're working with Bespoke shoes.

Absolutely...

or Bespoke anything for that matter. So investing in time to understanding you know what they can do, what aesthetics they bring to your ideas, and also giving them the right to make the first shoe the way they want to make it for you. So one of the things I do with Bespoke is... and whether it's tailoring or shoes is that the first garment or shoe is the shoe makers or Bespoke tailors common.

The house style.

The house style. Exactly. They're going to make that how they think best fits me, and once we have that we don't have a basis of comparison to what I liked and what I didn't like and then we start making the tweaks from there.

So it's about it's about you know establishing the baseline of the house style and then evolving from that. You know through the process, the Bespoke process in the relationship. You know not trying to force something on to the tailor or on to a Bespoke shoe maker that inherently is incompatible with their tastes.

Exactly. And I think a lot of a lot of the the more professional and well-known shoemakers will suddenly push back on anything that is outside of what they feel is doesn't represent their aesthetic or their view or their philosophy of the craft. And I think that's what you're also buying into. I think that's a very important element that that often for a more sophisticated bespoke via can appreciate.

So where do you see kind of you know your work going? I mean you get this book. Are you working on any other projects you can share with us or?

We're working on a book called Master Tailors and there we're going out and commissioning Bespoke suits from potentially nine of the most renowned tailors in the world... and effectively going through that same meticulous process of comparing.

Yeah. Wow. And so allowing them to do their house styles.

Correct. So that we do their house styles. They would work on and they would you know demonstrate their craft and how they see fit and what their interpretation of the aesthetic is.

Great! So anyone that's interested in purchasing a copy of Master Shoemakers where can they find it?

So for Master Shoemaker is @master_shoemaker on instagram, and you can follow me personally @gazmin70k.

Okay. Great. Thank you! Hey Gary thank you so much!

Thank you so much! Really enjoy this.

Great seeing you.

Thanks alot, appreciate it!