The Colourful CobblerWritten by Christy C
Meet Simon Tang, the artisan behind Hong Kong shoe brand SAPH+, a line of hand-painted, flamboyant dress shoes, as he shows us how he’s disrupting the sartorial status quo.
A graphic designer, photographer and artist, Simon Tang is a man with many talents. But he takes most pride in making and painting classic leather shoes. Working out of his dimly-lit atelier at PMQ, a beehive of local design situated in Hong Kong’s creative Sheung Wan neighbourhood, he has made a name for himself as the man reimagining men’s dress shoes for a technicolour world. He spoke to us about the beauty of bespoke and SAPH+.
Sitting next to pots of pigment lined up along Simon’s work desk are pairs of classic Derby shoes. Coated in vibrant hues of green, yellow, and red, they are a major departure from the usual black or brown dress shoes seen on men around town. Wearing a pair of burnished, self-painted lace-up brogues himself, Simon says his footwear is “always popping with colour.” “Too many colours,” interrupts a customer, jokingly. “It’s hard to make up my mind sometimes.”
Simon first encountered the techniques of colouring and bleaching leather whilst working in Japan almost a decade ago. Then, colourful shoes were the preserve of women. “Girls had loads of colourful options, but when you looked at men’s dress shoes, they only came in black, grey, and brown. I thought, why can’t men wear fancy colours as well?” he recalls.
It was a random thought, but enough to lead him on a new business venture. In 2012, Simon founded SAPH+ to specialise in custom, hand-painted leather shoes. “There were risks because I was probably the only idiot in Hong Kong doing leather shoes. Everyone else was painting Converses,” he remembers. “Besides, when I had learnt the craft in Japan, I was told I could only have one colour on each leather surface. Of course, I didn’t believe that.” To prove them wrong, he spent an entire year experimenting with colour layering, a technique which has now become his signature.
Since the debut of his hand-painted technicolour shoes priced between HKD800 and HKD3000 a pair, Simon has amassed a cult following of fans. From handcrafting a pair of brogues with high-quality leather scoured from Italy to jazzing up loafers with exuberant colour, he treats each pair of footwear like a piece of art. “I want to offer my customers something that’s one of a kind,” says the artisan. Nothing in the shop is mass produced. Customers enjoy a high degree of personalisation from the type of shoe to the colour and even the painting style and patterns. “I want to engage my customers in the creative process. It is not something you get from fast fashion brands.” Transferring his expertise to leather jackets, watch straps, and even furniture for international brands and celebrities such as German timepiece company Kerbholz and US rap group GXB, Simon’s skills are clearly at a premium.
Speaking to others keen to start their own creative venture, Simon says, “Starting your own brand means you have to take the risk of doing something that others haven’t already done. Colourful, custom dress shoes weren’t a thing in Asia when I started, but I did it anyway because it was a risk worth taking. That’s how you build your brand character. And once you jump in, you can’t give up. You can only improve your product.”