Sole purpose of work: prideOn the third floor of a small building in Euljiro in Seoul, Lim Chang-gyu treats a piece of leather as if it were a precious object. The 61-year-old cobbler stares at it for a moment through his thick glasses, then lets out a disapproving grunt, puts the leather on a desk and marks it with a pen.
Picking up another piece of leather and holding it directly beneath a lamp hanging above his head, his eyes closely examining the piece, a flash of a grin appears and fades quickly. “I guess that will do it,” says Mr. Lim, as he finishes designing the pattern for the shoe he’s making.
Mr. Lim is one of the last of a certain kind of craftsman. For the last 33 years, Mr. Lim has been making shoes by hand, a profession that is practiced by only a handful of people nowadays.
His studio at the shoe company Songlim is only lit by a couple of small lamps and the dim sunlight that peeks through a narrow window. Strips of leather and tools are scattered about, with an old radio tuned into an oldies station.
“I wish I had more students,” says the master with a sigh. He does not have anyone working under him. The last person to try left him a couple of years ago.
“Well, can’t blame them,” Mr. Lim said. “The pay is low; the hours to learn the trade are long.”
Shaking his head, he adds, “Young folks don’t have the patience anymore. Without dedication, you can’t do this job.” In his student days, he learned how to make the sole and gradually worked his way up to making the body of a shoe, a process that could take years to master.
Today, with the youngest employee in the company in his 30s, Kim Mu-woong, 61, who has 40 years of experience under his belt, says it is more difficult to groom young talent, but those who are left are more determined to stay. “Those who are here think of this as more than just work. It’s art,” says Mr. Kim.
Songlim has been specializing in handmade shoes since 1936. Although the company operates a Web site, it is far from a modern operation.
Every shoe at the company is made by hand, with fewer than 30 pairs of shoes made each week. Even with fewer than 10 employees, Lee Deok-hae, son of Songlim founder Lee Gwi-seok, says his company is by far one of the biggest in the handmade shoe industry, which shows just how small the business really is.
Loyal customers such as gray haired Lee Yun-ho, who has been buying shoes for decades at Songlim, make up the bulk of orders. Today, Mr. Lee has brought a pair of hiking shoes, purchased seven years ago, whose soles need some repairing.
When he hears that it will take at least a day, he says he can’t wait that long.
“I came all the way from Chungcheong province. I can’t make that trip again,” complains Mr. Lee. When he hears that the shoes can be shipped to him, he finally nods in approval.
“These people are our main customers. Once they got their first shoes here, they keep coming back,” says Lee Deok-hae, who is mainly in charge of marketing the shoes. Since the shoes are sold only at the store at Euljiro and available only at a few distributors, word of mouth is the company’s biggest advertisement.
Rise of the factories
There was a time when department stores asked for Songlim shoes, but after seeing his work mixed with shoes mass produced from factories, Songlim founder Lee Geui-seok decided to pull them off the department stores’ racks.
“My father had tremendous pride in his work. He just wasn’t comfortable with the idea,” says Lee Deok-hae. Many urged Mr. Lee’s father to go into mass production and expand the business, but Lee Geui-seok, who died in 1996, believed that each shoe required special attention.
It’s a philosophy his son firmly believes in as well. “Every person has a different face and so is it with the feet. Only handmade shoes can truly fit them,” says Mr. Lee.
While the experience of walking into the shop and selecting from the shoes on display isn’t much different from buying them at a department store, for people with special needs or hard-to-fit feet, handmade shoes are a godsend.
A foam mold is made of the customers’ feet. Usually, it takes about a week to make a pair, with prices ranging from 130,000 won ($111) to 300,000 won. Besides regular shoes, the company also makes hiking boots and specialized shoes for handicapped people.
During the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, the company almost had to close its doors but managed to survive on the loyalty of its customers, many of whom were aficionados of the company’s hiking boots with cork-embedded soles. Songlim had developed these boots shortly before the crisis.
The company isn’t new to innovation. In the early 1960s, Lee Gwi-seok introduced the country’s first hiking boots with rubber soles, an idea that came to him while his store was changing the soles of British sailors’ boots.
Since then, the hiking boots have developed a following. One devotee, Heo Young-ho, who went to the North Pole in 1995 wearing the company’s hiking boots, donated a signed picture to the shop, where it is displayed.
Although the company’s sales have been dwindling since the 1970s, when the majority of shoes began to be manufactured in factories, Lee Deok-ho says he thinks there is still a future for his products.
“We won’t be trying to increase our output or engage in a big advertisement campaign. That’s just not us. We’ll just keep serving one customer at a time, knowing he’ll come back no matter where he is,” says Mr. Lee.
by Brian Lee