With intimate knowledge, artisans bring new life to their chosen materials, creating infinite possibilities with works of art that are as decorative as they are functional. In the first of a three-part series, Josh Leong, the founder of Josh Leong Shoes and Heirloom by Josh Leong, and co-founder of Palola, shares how the business of bespoke is so much more than a pair of beautiful shoes

The story of Josh Leong’s shoemaking journey can be told through his leather artisan apron. Over the years, the garment has acquired a patina where the material falls across his lap—the spot he rests his shoes on as he hammers in nails and stitches welts and soles by hand.

This result of time and experience is also why leather is his material of choice when it comes to the shoes he makes. “Leather is one of the few materials that are not just ultra-durable but it gets more beautiful and comfortable with use. It develops a unique patina and its own character depending on where it’s been, how it’s been used, and who used it,” expounds the founder of Josh Leong Shoes, which specialises in hand-welted made-to-order and bespoke shoes, Oxfords, loafers and Derby shoes included, using full-grain leather sourced from Italy, France and Germany.

(Related: Men’s Footwear Brands Every Gentleman Should Know Of)

Leong didn’t plan on becoming a bespoke shoemaker; he “fell into” the business serendipitously. In 2014, the former tennis coach decided to turn his leather-crafting hobby—he made small accessories such as wallets and pouches from scrap leather sourced from furniture upholsterers—into a full-time career. He made his way to Florence, the cradle of traditional Italian leather craftsmanship, and enrolled in a trade school. And when he started learning how to make shoes, something just clicked—and the rest, as they say, is history.

The year he spent in Italy, Leong apprenticed under master shoemaker Angelo Imperatrice and bespoke shoemaking brand Stefano Bemer. Upon his return home, he started his eponymous brand, and a year later in 2016 launched casual footwear brand Heirloom by Josh Leong with a range of made-in-Italy leather sneakers and driving loafers. He also co-founded women’s shoe label Palola, with leather artisan Jeremiah Ang, to offer ready-to-wear and made-to-order leather ballet flats, loafers and pumps from its CityLink Mall boutique.

For Leong, shoemaking is both an art and a science. “What drives me is the challenge of trying to perfect every single step, of the more than 100 required in the process.” As with any shoe he designs or makes, Leong ensures that there is as little compromise as possible between aesthetic and comfort. His knowledge of the shoemaking process and understanding of quality materials helps him achieve the tricky balance between form and function.

“When a client steps into a pair of shoes I’ve made, their feet should feel supported in the right places, without any pain or pinching. The leather should wrap snugly around their feet, and gradually begin to mould to the unique shape,” says Leong. “The business of bespoke is so much more than a client coming to me to purchase a pair of beautiful shoes. At its core, I’m in the business of giving my clients the confidence to stand tall and face up to the various challenges that they may face in their lives.”

(Related: 4 Bespoke Clothing Designers in Singapore Who Continue To Inspire The Next Generation)

  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • Art DirectionJana Tan
  • GroomingBenedict Choo, using Clé de Peau Beauté
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