When a bootmaker constructs a boot, they drive nails through the upper leather, lining, heel counter, and insole. Each nail hits a steel plate mounted on the bottom of the shoe last, making the nails curl, forming a hook that locks them in place—the clinch.
Minoru Matsuura has performed that action thousands of times. In 2007, he opened BRASS, a shoe repair shop in Tokyo with a unique purpose: to revive beloved Goodyear welted shoes and boots thought to be long dead. Broken welts, demolished insoles—what other cobblers may have considered lost causes, Minoru saw as opportunities, challenges. His services expanded, as BRASS began relasting customers’ shoes on his own speciality lasts, transforming their shape to something unique; the shoes were still themselves—but reincarnated.
Five years later, Minoru felt that he had learned enough to create his first boot from scratch—a cap-toe lace up boot. Then came an engineer boot. And from them sprung his very own boot brand: CLINCH.
EXTREMELY WORTH WATCHING: THIS VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH MINORU ON CLINCH FROM THE BOOT ALLY, CO-PRODUCED BY STITCHDOWN
Today, Minoru and four other craftspeople construct a tight but impressive range of boots, shoes, and some uniquely intoxicating trainers while shuttling between two small workshops in Tokyo to complete different processes. They also continue to perform Lazarus-level repair work on shoes. “I believe it is important for us to do both of them,” Minoru told me.
I’ve been deeply interested in CLINCH for some time now. Their engineer boots—constructed of thick veg-tanned horsebutt hides that are hand-selected to create the proper “roll” on the boots’ vamp when worn—are considered by many to be among the finest in the world. Their lace-up Graham work boots are an archetypal six-inch cap-toe lace up, executed at a level that precious few bootmakers can rival.
For much of the last seven years, CLINCH boots have been available through CLINCH’s shop and website, and a tiny handful of retailers. But with two CLINCH models (the engineer and Hi-Liner) now available for the first time in the US at Standard & Strange—the Oakland shop that has carved out a niche in large part by developing relationships that allow them to bring some of the most unique and interesting Japanese products stateside—I thought it was the perfect opportunity to speak with Minoru, and go deeper into the brand and what makes it so special in the world of boots.
Inspiration and Construction
As unique as CLINCH boots are, they arise from a place of familiarity. “I tend to use the known classics as platforms,” Minoru told me. “Such shoe designs have existed for a long time because they have a high level of perfection. I use my own feeling to modify them to the style which naturally comes up from my inside, which results in the CLINCH style.”
Much inspiration flows from the vintage shoes Minoru repaired over the years—some from as early as the 1920s. “Such old leather footwear tends to have the details and design—not simply aesthetic aspects but the design to actually construct the footwear—that we cannot find from today’s shoes.”
“The aesthetic design is therefore less important to me, compared to bringing back the ways of shoemaking that make the most sense—the ways it used to exist, but which are lost in today’s ‘efficient manufacturing operations’.”
Minoru feels that much has been squandered with the introduction of such efficiency, most crucially a focus on the wearer, and what is best for them over the life of their shoes. Almost everything CLINCH does is with the wearer in mind, which means leveraging time-honored techniques that are rarely employed these days by most shoemakers.
The majority of CLINCH boots are hand-welted lasted, meaning all inseam stitching is completed by hand throughout the upper, insole, and welt. From there, a Pederson Rapid E stitching machine is used to stitch midsoles and outsoles to the welt. Minoru doesn’t look at the Rapid E as a shortcut, but instead as something essential to properly creating the boot.
“I think hand-sewn inseaming adds value to our products, but not hand out-stitching,” Minoru said. “Many of our shoes use hard, thick rubber soles or half soles, for which hand out-stitching does not create good results. I might use hand out-stitching sometime in future, when I make the shoe that will really need it.”
Plenty more hand work and quality consideration goes into every pair. Insoles are molded to the foot bottom shape one by one, after being soaked in water. The process is time-consuming, but Minoru feels it creates a superior fit. Leather heel counters (in lieu of leatherboard counters) are another essential, as are leather toe boxes.
Minoru is as fanatical about his leathers as he is construction. European horsebutt for engineer boots comes from the shell of the horse—essentially, it’s tanned from shells that did not have the right level of fiber density to undergo the processes to become shell cordovan. The range of fiber structure in horsebutt can be huge, however; Minoru feels that some are much more akin to steerhide than shell cordovan.
So Minoru engages in an intense selection process—”I usually find that only 50% of the dealers’ stock satisfies our needs”— to choose articles that are plenty dense, to deliver an incredibly smooth grain, and create vamp rolls that are much more akin to those you’ll see on shell cordovan boots (compared to the smaller, more abundant creases you’ll see in most cow and calf leathers).
“Nevertheless, it happens sometimes that we make the upper with horsebutt and then find that the vamp does not have tight enough fiber structure,” Minoru admits. “In that case, we end up throwing them away. If we use them and sell the product, it makes our customer, who expects a clear difference from the horsebutt, disappointed. It is very important for me to make them satisfied by wearing CLINCH.”
Latigo leather from Wickett & Craig, the 152-year-old Pennsylvania-based veg-tan specialist, is deployed on their Hi-Liner and other boots. Minoru intakes the leather, but then snuffs and dyes it in-house at BRASS to create something more specific for CLINCH—a leather with the exact color he desires, which will patina rapidly to create the look of incredibly old, well-cared for boots.
Lasts, Fit, and Sizing
CLINCH lasts tend to have a narrow waist, a high arch, and a significant amount of curvature underfoot, another callback to how most shoes were made prior to mass production methods. They also run fairly narrow—for a very specific reason.
“The lasts are made to fit to narrow feet first,” Minoru explained. “Lasts for mass-production are made a bit wider so that they can fit a broader range of foot shapes. This means those who have narrow feet can never obtain the right fit from those lasts. As we make CLINCH in small workshops with much less quantity, I think we need to leverage what our hands can do, and the last design takes that into account.”
So what do you do if you don’t have narrow feet? Answer one: go to CLINCH and have them alter the last for your feet, specifically.
“We aim to provide tight and right fit to as many customers as possible, by enabling the last to be modified by adding width and/or thickness for wider feet. Obviously, such last modification is possible only when we customers visit our shop and allowed us to check their feet.”
Second answer: for both Standard & Strange boots (more on them below), Minoru pre-modified his trademark CN last to be more accommodating in terms of instep width and volume, for American feet.
One more very important thing on sizing, from Minoru: “Basically, Clinch size 9.0 can be converted to US 8.0. Of course, as we all know, size indication does not guarantee that the shoe fit to the foot which usually uses the same size of other footwear. Size and fit depend on brand, last, pattern, etc. We always recommend customers try the boots on in a shop and carefully select the size for them.”
Another pointer: generally, take one size smaller than your Brannock size.
The Boots and Shoes
Clinch is capable of creating pretty much whatever you can dream up, if you work with them and visit their Tokyo shop. But their ready-to-wear line provides plenty for all ilk of boot lovers—as well as some sneakers/trainers that I became more than a little personally obsessed with while researching this story. Here’s a quick highlight of their key styles, starting with the two coming into Standard & Strange.
CLINCH’s iconic model, the engineer was covered pretty heavily above, so I won’t run back over it too much. The main differences with the S&S model are brass buckles and, most importantly, the CN Wide last to better fit wider American feet. I also love the green O’Sullivan’s reproduction half-soles and heels, and the straps on the interior of the boot shaft to help you pull the sucker on.
Pretty much everything about these black overdyed, unstructured toe-box boots is “hi.” The 12.5-inch boot sports six eyelets, six hooks, and a final eyelet to, you know, make sure they don’t slip right off (wink emoji). The stitching detail work is fabulous throughout.
My personal favorite boot from the CLINCH line (although I’m admittedly not much of a high-boot guy—yet). A classic six-inch toe-cap lace-up that’s just done to perfection. I love them in the French calf grain leather, but the black grain and smooth black models are also something else.
I’ll let Minoru take this one: “1940s US Navy service shoes gave me the inspiration for the CLINCH Service Shoe. The inspiration shoes were the ones before US military changed the last in 1950s. The old last was, probably, designed to make the shoe with hand lasting—it has a tight waist, higher arch, and a lot of curvature in the forefoot. I found the shape beautiful and perfect.”
This is about as high a chukka as you’ll find—but I’m pretty sure it’s still technically a chukka. French calf leather, Biltrite nylon heels and half-soles.
A few weeks ago, a friend DM’d me and said “man, you are REALLY into monkey boots right now, aren’t you?” I wrote back, simply, “yes.” A lot of what I’ve been pulled towards in monkeybootland recently have been more robust, bulkier versions of the lace-to-toe work style. But CLINCH’s sleeker iteration in horsebutt are every bit as alluring—especially in the natural color with the natural midsole shown first below.
I barely know what it is about these shoes based on early 20th century athletic shoes—maybe it’s that monkey boot pattern (unsurprising; see above), or the the way the leather interplays so brutally yet brilliantly with the mostly-canvas upper, or even the perfect stitching up by the toe. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them, and don’t plan to change that anytime soon.
These sport the same “old-style” hard crepe soles and canvas/leather as the Masts above, but are lower-cut and feature a distinctive toe with more wonderful stitch work.
You can visit BRASS and CLINCH in Tokyo’s Setagaya neighborhood, at 5-8-12 Daita, and check them out at their website right here