In the Shoes of Taipei’s ShoemakerWritten by Sarah S
Oxford shoe in hand, EJ So walks us (no pun intended) through the story of how he created a thriving bespoke shoe company that taps into Taipei’s creative awakening.
Growing up as a self-proclaimed “sneaker-head” in Taiwan, EJ So has always been involved in the fashion scene. Today, he owns Kazuo Craft – a bespoke shoe company that uses Japanese and English shoemaking techniques to produce custom-made, hand-crafted shoes. Designing and crafting from the heart of Taipei where the Hive Taipei is located, EJ offers a funky alternative to commercial footwear rooted in Japanese creativity and English techniques. Here, he tells us how he got there.
Despite being an avid sneaker collector, EJ’s first experience in commercial fashion came via clothing with a streetwear brand he launched with a friend in 2007. Failing in just under a year, EJ explains, “While I didn’t lose any money, I definitely learnt something. I stopped liking fashion because there were always rules to follow and a market to please. This experience made me realise that I didn’t want to do apparel or clothing, but rather something that was timeless.”
From here, EJ looked more into the craftsmanship of shoes, becoming fascinated with the way small details changed a customer’s experience. Inspired, he jumped on a plane to Japan to study traditional Japanese shoemaking under his influential mentor and company namesake, Hanada Kazuo. Another turning point in his life was his decision to move to London in 2013. “I was happy with what I was doing in Japan, but I felt that, if I didn’t do and see more, I would have a very limited view. My creation and my life would just stay in Asia.” And so, alongside working for a UK shoe company, he launched Kazuo Craft from London in 2014.
Now living back in Taiwan, EJ’s innovative, custom-made footwear reflects his travels in a fusion of traditional Japanese shoemaking and English handcraft. Classic in shape, each bespoke shoe takes three days to make, with whatever the customer has requested, from fabrics to leather to design, firmly embedded in the creative process and reflected in the end result. As he puts it, “You don’t have to be limited by those options from shops, you can have your own idea and I’ll help you make that happen.”
Whilst he was relatively successful in London, Taiwan has afforded EJ a niche opportunity. The UK may have already had a thriving bespoke shoe offering, but Taiwan wasn’t awash with creations like his luminous blue, Oxford-style strides. Admitting that his girlfriend moving to Taipei was part of the reason for his return home, he still says, “For more official reasons, I also knew that, in Taiwan, there was no market for bespoke shoes. People either wore flip flops for comfort or sneakers if you were a hipster. If I came back, I would be one of the only options in the country, which would give me more opportunities.”
Today, when EJ is not busy melting hot wax or threading shoelaces, he is consumed with unlocking the thriving, creative culture that is unique to Taiwan. “We’re in the middle of Asia. It’s not just about how easy importing things is – it’s the cultural, artistic influence we have,” he enthuses. “We get a little bit from Japan, a little bit from China and a little bit from South-East Asia. It’s the mixture of these cultures that makes this place interesting, or at least that’s how I understand it. So, I’m pretty positive that you’re going to see more and more interesting art happening in this city.”
Inspired and inspiring, EJ is evangelical about his experience as an entrepreneur. “My advice is simple. You will never be ready to start, just know that when you do start you will be able to learn everything you need. Everyone always says, ‘One day, I’m going to do this!’, but my advice is that you need to make it happen now.” And alongside that, he recommends a true love of what you do. “The best time of the day for me is when I get to sit down and make shoes. Even though it has become quite rare with all the other tasks I have to do, it’s something that I have come to really cherish.”
Feature image and image 1 by 破點POINT