Tokyo Shoemakers: Seiji McCarthy

Tokyo Shoemakers: Seiji McCarthy

This is Part 2 in a multi-part series on some of the shoemakers I was able to visit on a recent trip to Tokyo. Click here to view the summary post. 

Seiji McCarthy has been making waves lately. Although he's a relative newcomer among the Tokyo based bespoke shoemakers, the image he has established is one of the most impressive for both its reach and effectiveness. In fact, I'd go so far as to say his example is a masterclass in branding. Despite starting his business making traditional English style shoes, he's been able to pivot and essentially monopolize the category of American style bespoke shoes. 

Some of the reasons I think this has worked so well for him are as follows:

  • Seiji is American. He was born to an American father and Japanese mother, and he grew up near Philadelphia. He actually didn't even know how to speak Japanese before deciding to move there. Therefore the association has an innate element to it. 
  • His branding is consistent and broad. Though he could certainly still make English style shoes, when he decided to pivot, he remade all of his samples and now only displays the new ones. He also doesn't rely on solely the samples to drive the brand. He uses imagery outside of the shoes, like album covers, and even his own personal style to strengthen the association. 
  • American style bespoke is a relatively vacant category. The bespoke side of American shoemaking never developed its own overarching distinctiveness in the same way that European cities and countries did because, America being the melting pot that it is, it took after the heritage of innumerate different immigrant traditions. Though America was once the world's powerhouse of mass manufactured shoes, it has always been in a position of following other traditions in the artisanal sphere. (Note: I'm not a historian and this may not be entirely factual, so I'd be glad to hear refuting evidence to the previous statement if you have any. Although, I think most would agree with that assessment.)

It's no surprise, then, that Seiji's samples are mostly recreations of ubiquitous factory made styles. On a craftsmanship level, one could be forgiven for discounting the magnitude of this feat. After all, bespoke shoemakers have complete freedom to design every last detail of their shoes. In actuality, it's quite difficult to recreate existing styles from scratch, particularly when the subject of imitation is made using entirely different materials and techniques. The Long Wings are a great example. This sample is inspired chiefly by vintage Florsheim Longwings. When a particular shoe reaches iconic status such as these, their look and feel, along with all of their imperfections get seared into peoples' minds, after which, any slight deviations, even improvements, tend to cloud their overall impression. So, generally, when bespoke shoemakers make longwings, they tend to have an uncanny element about them. Something feels off when you see a "gunboat" made with a sleek almond toe, narrow flat welts (as opposed to storm welts), narrow waists, and high SPI sole stitching. Therein lies Seiji's achievement - he has simultaneously made his versions of the iconic styles look handmade (because they are), while retaining the design elements that evoke the same emotions you feel when looking at the familiar, original versions. I didn't ask Seiji about this, but my guess is that his lasts and patterns each went through many iterations before landing on what you see here.

Even as I write this and stare at the photos, I have a hard time putting my finger on just why it works. The rounder, more voluminous toe shapes are certainly part of it, but it's more than that...I think...right? Anyway, I don't have to fully understand it to appreciate it. 

Seiji's workshop is in Jingumae, Shibuya, right near the popular Harajuku shopping area. It's right around the corner from Bryceland's, which is a great store that also displays some of his samples. Judging by their expletive filled interactions, Seiji and Ethan Newton, one of the founders of Bryceland's, are either best buds or mortal enemies. His workshop is on the ground floor, where you'll be asked to remove your shoes before ascending to the showroom and fitting area. He offers bespoke, made to measure, and made to order options, and he has a range of fitting shoes to help determine which direction is right for you. 

Here are another couple of samples that particularly caught my eye. In this case, they still have an American feel consistent with the others despite not being a uniquely American style. 

One of the very refreshing things about Seiji and Japanese shoemakers in general is their lack of pretension. Although their work is of the highest level, they are generally very friendly and welcoming, and most maintain good relationships with each other. Seiji mentioned that he and the other shoemakers nearby, Yohei Fukuda and Hiro Yanigamachi, are not infrequent drinking companions. Seiji certainly made me feel like part of the club too, if only for a brief few days. 

If you're interested in getting a pair of Seiji's shoes, he will be traveling to NYC this October for an event at J.Muesser in collaboration with Permanent Style. 

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