Few people played a more pivotal role in shaping the heritage footwear revival at Red Wing Shoes than Michiya Suzuki.
A few years prior to the worldwide launch of the Minnesota-based icon’s Heritage division in 2007, Michiya became general manager at Red Wing’s Japanese subsidiary, where he helped concoct some of the most intriguing (and for Americans, hard-to-get) Red Wing models around, such as the Beckman Flatbox and 1930s Sport Oxford (a personal favorite of our editor-in-chief).
During his time at Red Wing, Michiya became obsessed with the footwear of the early 20th century, taking great interest in the blurred boundaries between workwear and formalwear, and what he saw as the more “organic” lines exhibited by the design language of the era.
Michiya’s newest undertaking—The 2 Monkeys—is a continuation of that obsession. No longer constrained by the confines of the Red Wing archives, Michiya has pursued a much more ambitious style, one that spans decades as well as continents.
Michiya was kind enough to provide us with a detailed look back at his Red Wing tenure, plus a full briefing on the design and inspiration of his new “French vintage style” boot, a moc-toe model known as the Sportif.
Red Wing Japan
Michiya was hired on as general manager of Red Wing Japan in 2005, after operating in the high-end liquor (repping brands like Moet-Hennessy) and writing instruments (A.T. Cross) industries. He was deeply familiar with and passionate about the Red Wing brand, having first worn their boots in the 1980s.
In 2005, business was booming in its workboot line, but the notion of a Red Wing “lifestyle” brand was still in its infancy. In North America, few people wore Red Wings as a fashion statement (unless they were really going for that “jobsite-core” look).
But in the 1980s and 90s, the local Red Wing distributor in Japan had been given some latitude to tweak Red Wing’s products for a lifestyle market. With the new Red Wing Japan—a wholly-owned subsidiary of Red Wing Shoes—the team led by Michiya would find much more flexibility and freedom to create styles of their own design. That design process was a collaborative effort, carried out by about half a dozen people at Red Wing Japan: a lead designer (Aki Iwasaki), a sales team, and Michiya himself.
Around the time that Michiya joined Red Wing, the brand launched what would end up being a pretty big hit: the Beckman (originally known as the Gentleman Traveler), a ruggedly handsome plain-toe boot that was marketed as a fashion-forward product. The Beckman’s success led to a brand strategy that leveraged the same kind of old-school style—what Michiya and his design team referred to as a “Classic Dress” segment.
“The concept is more classic-style boots inspired by the early-century era, when what we call ‘dress’ and what we call ‘work’ are blurred in their designs and constructions,” Michiya explained. He felt that dressier styles that were rooted in workboot designs could appeal to a more sophisticated Japanese market that would be willing to pay for a more premium product. Models like the Caverly Chukka and the Mil-1 Oxford were all part of this push towards getting new customers to adopt the Red Wing brand.
In addition to steering Red Wing towards a new audience, Michiya was also focused on reviving some of the older facets of the brand’s identity, including teacore leathers, the old Irish Setter tags, and unstructured toes. Creating these changes “was not difficult from a technical viewpoint, but was more so from key persons’ mindsets,” Michiya said. “I worked very hard to convince the key person in the tannery and manufacturing that they really worked in the market.”
Nonetheless, Michiya was successful in his persuasion, and the results were impressive—he had managed to turn back the clock on some of the modern manufacturing processes at Red Wing. All of the features he sought to revive were exemplified by one of the most memorable models from Michiya’s tenure at Red Wing Japan: the Beckman Flatbox, which featured a similar design to the original Beckman boot but with an unstructured toe that would flatten out as it was worn.
In addition to helping launch the aforementioned models, other highlights from Michiya’s time at Red Wing included the Huntsman—a 110th-anniversary commemorative release that Michiya took the reins in designing—as well as other vintage-inspired pieces like the aforementioned 1930s Sport Oxford and 1920s Outing Boot.
Deciphering exactly how early-20th-century footwear was designed and constructed was a huge part of Michiya’s day-to-day. “Many of the boots were made very lightweight, using softer, thinner, leathers,” he noted. “Regarding design, they had more ‘curves’, which are sometimes organic—such as squeezed waists—or intentionally emphasized, such as spade soles.”
Enter: The 2 Monkeys
Since leaving Red Wing in 2019, Michiya has remained heavily involved in the Japanese shoemaking space. His current projects include Ol’ Shanks—old-school gaiter boots and engineers made in partnership with CLINCH—as well as KOTOKA, a collaborative minimalist leather footwear effort with a collective of shoe manufacturers in the Nara prefecture.
Then there’s The 2 Monkeys, the brainchild of Michiya and his friend Yohei Goto. Yohei is the head of Jelado, a clothing brand whose garments combine a vintage-inspired quality with more-modern silhouettes. A couple years ago, Yohei had expressed interest to Michiya about his desire to make a footwear line for Jelado.
“The first recommendation I made to Yohei was a few boots in heritage Americana style,” Michiya said. “We had a prototype made, a boot made like a 1940s American hunting boot.”
This initial sample was more in line with the rest of Jelado’s collection, but after further discussion, Yohei suggested they lean more into Michiya’s areas of interest—which meant reflecting not only classic Americana fashion, but also French and other European styles of clothing.
“Yohei then came up with the idea to create a small line of clothing that fits the boots, designed by me,” Michiya said. What had begun as an addition to the Jelado lineup began morphing into an entire sub-brand. The 2 Monkeys was born.
“We were much more excited by this idea,” Michiya said. “It was like two kids who had found some super-fun game to play.” He added that the name “The 2 Monkeys” was chosen to suggest “two guys passionately doing something fun.”
The 2 Monkeys capsule is inspired by French and American workwear mainly from the late 19th century through the early 20th century. The apparel takes cues from France’s Belle Époque, a time of relative peace and prosperity for the country. In Michiya and Yohei’s view, this was an era where the lines between French and American fashion were blurred, before the two eventually forked off. Most of the era’s clothes were also made by hand at a relatively small scale and with great attention to detail, which resonated with Michiya and Yohei.
As for the footwear, the initial offering from 2 Monkeys is a moc-toe boot dubbed the Sportif, which Michiya designed as a nod not only to the moc-toe style that American manufacturers began to adapt to Goodyear welted footwear in the 1930s, but also the “exquisite style of French and other European early-century boots,” he said. The name “Sportif” itself alludes to this double meaning: the boot bears a faint resemblance to the American moc-toe outdoor sport boots that began popping up in the 1930s, while sportif is French for “jock” or “athlete.”
Michiya isn’t aware of any French manufacturers who were making moc-toe welted footwear the same way American makers began to in the ’30s. Nevertheless, he points to the moc-toe’s prominence in brands like Paraboot and J.M. Weston as a marker of its significance in French fashion. He also notes that France first encountered the moccasin style way back in the 18th century.
“Many French trappers,” he explained (referring to 18th/19th-century traders such as coureurs de bois and voyageurs), “traveled to North America, especially to Nouvelle France,” the French territory that stretched from modern-day Canada’s east coast towards the Upper Midwest of the United States and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. “I suppose that they had brought back many Native American products to France, including their moccasin footwear. When I pictured this story in my imagination, moc-toe and French vintage style went together.”
Another dimension to the Sportif’s “French vintage style” is how it is constructed to achieve a more elegant silhouette. The Sportif has a 180º Goodyear welt construction on the forefoot, with a subtle spade shape to the half-sole, but a Blake stitch on the waist and heel. Amongst Michiya’s massive vintage collection are some French boots from the early 20th century, built in a similar fashion. He enjoys the juxtaposition between the wide forefoot and the narrow heel, and he feels that the more-sculpted look lends itself to the vintage aesthetic the Sportif is trying to evoke.
“The Sportif is not made to reproduce any existing vintage boots,” Michiya said, “but combines my ideas of the graceful style of classic French boots, which, I suppose, are made in a more old-school, handmade way than American boots of the same era.”
“Considering the fact that mass production of shoes with machines for lasting, nailing, and stitching was pioneered in the US followed by Europe—and also the sharp increase of the worker population made American shoemakers skewed to function-driven, tough work boots—I think it makes sense to assume that European early 20th-century boots were, in general, more exquisite and graceful by having more organic curves that only [human hands] can create.”
The first edition of the Sportif features an Italian calfskin that has been pigment-dyed in Japan, which will exhibit an old-school teacore effect as it ages. At only 3oz, this calfskin is very light weight, but is fully lined. Michiya noted that this lighter leather is something of a throwback to a time when many boots for work were made with soft articles such as kidskin or kangaroo. “I wondered why we do not have such comfortable boots anymore,” he said, “and came to have an assumption: today’s shoemakers put much importance on ruggedness (or durability), even sacrificing the comfort, and letting sneakers take care of the consumer that needs to have comfortable footwear.”
Because of the lighter-weight leather and the partial Blake construction, Michiya said that the Sportif offers a “truly different level of lightness, flexibility and comfort.” In comparison to modern work boots, “it wears like sneakers and there is no time to break-in necessary, as the soft leather comfortably wraps the wearer’s feet from the beginning.”
“It might not be as durable as 5-6 oz. steerhide leathers as major work boots brands use,” he added, “but I believe that it is durable enough for urban boot lovers to wear the boots for their lifestyle.”
For those who are looking for a firmer, thicker leather, the Sportif in Bordeaux Vacchetta might be more up your alley. This cowhide leather comes from Italian tannery Conceria 800, and is veg-tanned, then oiled for a wear experience that will initially feel a bit stiff, but break in quite well over time. The Bordeaux Vacchetta’s hatchgrain texture and pronounced pull-up also offers a distinctly different character from the black calfskin Sportif.
Meanwhile, if you’re in the mood for a Sportif with a bit more of a funky look, there’s the upcoming Sportif 2 “Chamonix” (below), which will arrive this summer. This model bears a slightly different upper pattern, and features black Annonay calf in tandem with a white Japanese steerhide.
If you’re not a moc-toe fan at all, keep your eyes peeled for later this year when The 2 Monkeys will release the recently-announced Vaudeville boot (below). Built with the same Goodyear/Blake construction as the Sportif, the Vaudeville features an obliquely shaped “bulldog” brogue cap-toe, along with a slightly elongated quarter panel. The name, of course, comes from the vaudeville theatre troupes that were popular in North America in the late 19th century through the early 20th century. These boots will be available in both a black teacore and “oak brown” horsehide from esteemed Japanese tannery Shinki Hikaku.
2 Monkeys Sportif Sizing
Michiya explained that the Sportif last is slightly large, and customers will likely want to take the same size as they would for a Red Wing moc toe for a more roomy fit, or go down half a size from that for a more snug fit. He also noted that because the Sportif’s leathers are softer, they will likely provide a more forgiving fit even if you go for more of a smaller, snug fit. He was kind enough to illustrate the differences of fit between the Sportif and a Red Wing moc (below).
Where To Buy
The one big downside for us North Americans is that The 2 Monkeys isn’t widely available for purchase—yet. As The 2 Monkeys is a sub-brand of Jelado, all it would take for a store to start carrying them would be to become a Jelado dealer. We could easily see them fitting in at Brogue or Standard & Strange. (Hint hint, guys.) For now, the brand is mostly available at Jelado dealers in Asia, as well as stuf|f in Germany and Blue Works in Australia.
We do truly hope to see The 2 Monkeys land in North America someday. The Sportif offers a unique and captivating interpretation of vintage style and design motifs from both Europe and North America, and in a way, it feels like something you might have even found in an 100-year-old Red Wing catalog. Even Michiya himself makes note of this—while the Sportif isn’t directly related to Red Wing, “it is like I am giving shapes to the concept of ‘Red Wing Classic Dress’ that I had pictured when I worked for Red Wing.”