Japan’s reputation as a society backboned by remarkable craftspeople is well earned. But the picture of a devoted artisan creating unmatched footwear by hand—whether a bespoke dress shoe master such as Hiro Yanagimachi or Yohei Fukuda, or custom bootmaking icon Show Goto—is also quite incomplete.
Japanese bootmaking also thrives and distinguishes itself both technically and artistically in a more traditional factory setting. There, handwelting may be exchanged for a 90-year-old beast of a Rapid E, or even a modern Italian sole stitcher without all the the curves and quirks and lore. But an obsessive focus on material selection, construction techniques that facilitate highly specific goals, and the fanatical historical research that powers those decisions can nonetheless create something rare and different and extremely worthy of notice.
SKOOB is most certainly one of those brands. While the relative newcomer that came onto the scene in 2017 has graced the pages of iconic Japanese magazines like Clutch and Lightning and is sold at European retailers East West Apparel and stuf|f, it’s not currently available stateside, and little has been written about SKOOB before now in English. Which is exactly why we needed to chat with SKOOB founder Koji Sasano.
Sasano has been in the shoemaking industry for well over a decade, and wears ample shoe-hats, including designer, shoemaker, and manager. SKOOB’s factory in Asakusa, Tokyo was originally a private label manufacturer for other brands, but like other great brand/manufacturers eventually began offering its own designs. The SKOOB catalog features patterns that touch upon styles from multiple decades of the 20th century—from 1950s-inspired engineers to ‘20s-style dress boots, and even the button boot pattern popular in the 1900s.
In our conversation below with Koji Sasano we learned a great deal about him and SKOOB: how he became involved in the shoemaking industry, the story behind the company’s quirky name, and some of his favorite styles that exemplify what he set out to do with SKOOB.
[Massive thanks to our friend Michiya Suzuki for the endless assistance with this interview]
Stitchdown: What inspired you to become a shoemaker and eventually start your own shoe factory?
Koji Sasano: My generation is heavily influenced by the heritage/Americana lifestyle. In Japan in the 1990s, denim style, 1950s style, vintage clothing, Red Wing and Dr. Martens—wearing such [clothing] was what I always aspired to since my junior-high age. There were many lifestyle magazines that featured those products, and I always went through them. It was about when I graduated high school and entered a university that I planned to get a pair of cool boots. To decide what I buy, I read several magazine articles that explained what are good and why. Some of them explained how they are made with which materials. This made me become interested in leather footwear.
When I was about to start my professional career, my idea was to be a craftsman. To make something by my own hands is what I always enjoyed since my childhood, and I wanted to make something as a professional. On considering what to make—clothing, furniture, or something else—I happened to know of a shoemaking workshop near my place. I went to the evening shoemaking workshop twice a week, and the experience led me to work in a shoe factory that makes leather shoes by stitchdown construction as OEM [original equipment manufacturer] for some major Japanese brands.
I worked in the factory for about four years. I made patterns and operated shoemaking machines on the line. The factory’s OEM customers had difficulty in keeping up their business, and it required us to obtain many different clients. They are mostly apparel brands who wanted to have their own leather shoes. The factory needed to respond to many different needs of those clients and started Goodyear welted construction. It was good for me to learn different processes to make shoes.
However, the factory went bankrupt in 2011. After that, my partner who was my colleague in the factory and I decided to start up our own factory. It was the beginning of our company, BOOKS LIMITED.
Where does the name “SKOOB” come from? And what motivated you to begin making your own footwear designs under the SKOOB brand in 2017?
When my partner and I had set up our factory, we needed to give it a name. We did not have time to think deep as we needed to register our entity in the local administrative office. We quickly decided to make it BOOKS. “BOOK” comes from my partner’s family name, Honda (“hon” means “book”), as we did not think of a better alternative. We needed to buy the machinery from the factory where we used to work so that we could start production for the client base of the old factory.
For some years after the setup, we concentrated on OEM business to satisfy the clients that we inherited from the old factory. It was about 2014 or 2015 when we had the idea to launch our own brand.
One of the reasons behind the idea was to improve the profitability of our business. OEM is a low-margin business, and it was tough to make enough money to feel comfortable about our future.
Another reason, which was more important to me—in the OEM business for apparel brands, we make shoes that the brands want to have. The brands come to us with renderings and ask us to make the actual footwear the same as the pictures. I created patterns, selected materials and parts, designed manufacturing processes, and worked on the line. By doing so, I often had a dilemma, as I thought I had better ideas about designs, materials, product details, etc. To fill the gap between what I have to do and what I think is better to do, I realized that making our own footwear is the best and only means.
The third reason for us to think about our own brand was our vision to become like the brands which have a worldwide reputation. Those brands—American, English, French, etc.—make their footwear by themselves and sell them by themselves.
These ideas to have our own brand continued to grow, and my partner and I decided to launch our own brand “SKOOB,” the reverse spelling of our company name “BOOKS.” It sounds too easy-going, but I like a simple name. I am not in favor of names that try to express brands’ ideas, concepts, or visions.
Skoob’s designs draw a lot of inspiration from 20th-century workwear and militarywear. What is it about these kinds of styles that inspires and excites you?
I used to believe that bespoke is the way to make the best shoes. As I experienced more of shoemaking in the factory where I worked before, I came to understand that ready-made shoes could have a decent level of quality as well. In my experience in the OEM business, many of my clients often want to make something similar to big brands’ classic models, or reproduce vintage shoes/boots that they found.
To respond to those customer needs, I tried to understand such classic and vintage footwear from what is not seen from the outside—their patterns, constructions, the kinds of parts that they use. Reiterating this process so many times, I came to understand how well those vintage products were designed. Their designs are well-worked out not only for the users of the products, but also for those who make the products. I found it wise to make them built in the most efficient, most solid ways to assure their quality.
This discovery made me even more interested in those classic models, mostly from the middle of the 20th century. When it comes to sturdy leather footwear made with Goodyear welt or stitchdown constructions, that era is when they were at their best. That footwear was also made to respond to the user’s functional needs in the workplace and the military. Sometimes, they had serious needs for their safety, even for their lives. Many of the products made in this era haven’t changed or needed to improve since then. I came to be fascinated by them. This is why I decided to make shoes and boots which are inspired by them under my own brand.
By looking for the source of inspiration, I also came to be interested in the footwear before that era—from the early 20th century.
What is your current favorite Skoob footwear?
One is the boots in the Old Kangaroo’s line. They are inspired by early 20th-century American boots. Even in Japan, where many brands offer a sort of reproduction of various vintage shoes/boots, there are few who got into that era’s style, and I believe that we are the pioneer.
The other is the USMC Service Shoe. Although this is mostly a reproduction of an old American military shoe, there are many original elements that I put on the shoe, such as the last shape, as well as the boarded leather, which is manually processed to have natural grains. I liked the natural fine grain of some leathers I found on very classical vintage boots, and wanted to find and use such leather for my product (especially for the Service Shoe). The texture is different from those of any printed (embossed) leathers. The printed ones have grains that are too even and clean.
I looked for such leathers and asked leather suppliers to find them. I realized that the natural grain that I was looking for cannot be done by printing/embossing, but only by the “boarding” process. None of the leather suppliers were willing to do it, as it is too time-consuming. Then, I understood that I needed to perform the old-school boarding by myself.
By doing it, I found that the result is more variable due to the nature of each hide, but each of the results were so nice and unique. Thus, I decided to do it by myself. The fact that I add the original texture to the leather of the USMC Service Shoe makes the product very special to me.
Are there any plans to bring SKOOB to North American retailers?
As we are small company where all of us (including me) need to work on the line every day, it is not easy to proactively go to international markets to find new dealers. We usually respond when we have business enquiries, and when it goes well, we then have international dealers. I just have not had the opportunity with North American dealers, but if we do, we are more than happy to do business with them.