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Features

2024 SUMMER

Craft Shoe Center Reboots

Seongsu-dong, once the largest hub for handmade shoe manufacturing in Korea, is being revitalized, thanks to government initiatives and young entrepreneurs taking over their family’s businesses and injecting fresh sensibilities. 

Reminders of Seongsu-dong’s history as the epicenter of Korea’s handmade shoe industry are scattered throughout Seongsu subway station.  
ⓒ Choi Tae-won

Leaving Exit 2 of Seongsu subway station in Seoul puts you at the starting point of a 600-meter stretch of handmade shoe ateliers. These workshops have long been the cornerstone of the area’s identity, although flagship stores of chic fashion and cosmetics brands now dominate. 

The alley’s history began in the late 1960s, when the headquarters of Kumkang, one of Korea’s leading shoe manufacturers, moved to nearby Geumho-dong. In the 1970s, Esquire, another major shoemaker, set up its production operations in Seongsu-dong. The gradual migration of the two behemoths’ subcontractors made the area the epicenter of Korea’s handmade shoe production, attracting artisans from across the country.

Inside Seongsu station lies Heritage SS, a showcase of the neighborhood’s specialty industry, which reached its zenith between 1980 and 2000. Established in 2021, the facility exhibits a mélange of items, including work orders and models of shoes.

SEASONED ARTISANS 

After 2000, the shoe business environment gradually soured. Facilities became outdated, demand diminished, and rent became unmanageable. Most of the leather and materials suppliers moved out, and shops were relegated to cheap places in back alleys. In the early 2010s, the city stepped in to resuscitate the ailing area.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government began promoting the value of Seongsu-dong’s crafted products by identifying master artisans and skilled workers, while the district office launched From SS, a modern arcade run by local shoemakers right below a subway overpass. Simultaneously, shoe sales companies sought to improve distribution by starting a collective sales center under a joint brand, Seoul Seongsu Sujehwa [handmade shoes] Town (SSST).

Artisans with over four decades of experience are not difficult to find in Seongsu-dong. Some of them serve as mentors to budding ateliers. Among them, Yoo Hong-sik, the first master craftsman designated by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in the shoemaking field, is famous for making shoes for former President Moon Jae-in. Master Park Kwang-han, who runs “Dad’s Shoe Store,” is another prominent figure.

Jeon Tae-soo, another designated master craftsman, made his name with the clog-shaped shoes worn by First Lady Kim Jung-sook during her and President Moon’s visit to the United States in 2017. He added to his reputation with slippers for Ivanka Trump, daughter of former US President Donald Trump, during her visit to Korea in 2019.

Seongsu-dong has a number of skilled craftspeople who have been making handmade shoes for decades. One of them is Jeon Tae-soo. He has been part of the area’s artisanal shoe industry for over 50 years and devotes much effort not only to shoe production but also to design research and materials development.
ⓒ Seoul Metropolitan Government 

As you wander along Yeonmujang-gil, a long café-lined alley running through Seongsu-dong, you will see a building adorned with a striking red high heel sculpture. This is Jeon Tae-soo’s workshop, JS Shoes Design Lab, where an assortment of meticulously crafted shoes showcases the artisan’s skill. Among them, a pair of flower-adorned slippers catches the eye. Commissioned to complement the traditional hanbok worn by actor Hye Soo Kim in the 2022 tvN drama Under the Queen’s Umbrella, these exquisite shoes feature an elevated heel. A short stroll away is The Gentle Park, celebrated for its expertise in the patina technique, which s a gradual color gradient on the shoe’s upper.

CHARLSE VOTUM, found close to Ttukseom station, also serves as a testament to the area’s legacy. Led by Kim Chul, a seasoned men’s shoe expert with over two decades of experience in global luxury brands, the establishment embodies the essence of salon culture.

Driven by a desire to establish his own brand, Kim left a corporate job to pursue his passion. His vision is to blend European sensibilities with the craftsmanship of Seongsu-dong artisans. Upon entering the two-story residential building renovated into a shoe shop, a deep green door welcomes the guests into a haven of refined elegance, accompanied by melodies from vinyl records.

Interior of the Seongsu-dong branch of CHARLSE VOTUM, a long-established handmade shoe brand, where tools for each stage of the shoemaking process are displayed.
ⓒ Choi Tae-won

VITALITY OF A NEW GENERATION

In recent years, a new generation of shoemakers has emerged, injecting fresh vitality into Seongsu-dong’s handcrafted footwear industry. At the Finoacinque showroom, near Exit 3 of Seongsu station, visitors encounter shoes featuring curved silhouettes and a commitment to comfort, with heels not exceeding five centimeters in height. 

Finoacinque represents a fusion of tradition and innovation. It was founded six years ago by designer Lee Seo-jung and technician Kim Han-jun, who honed his skills under his parents’ guidance while working as an apprentice in their factory. Their creations have garnered acclaim both at home and abroad.

At the Tranoï trade show during the 2024 Paris Fashion Week, negotiated price tags exceeded 5,000 euros. Fine-tuning of production volume is underway with buyers from select shops in New York, Paris, and Milan. Kim explains, “We believe in transparency, disclosing the name of the artisan responsible for each pair of shoes, from pattern making, stitching, and sole attachment to final inspection.” This practice underscores Tranoï’s commitment to quality and respect for craftsmanship.

VETIANO.
ⓒ Choi Tae-won

VETIANO is another Yeonmujang-gil destination for shoe enthusiasts. Inspired by her shoemaker father, footwear design graduate Baek In-hee has taken the reins of the family business. Visitors to the store are greeted by an eclectic selection, from flats and sneakers to trendy heeled styles.

“Our shoes benefit from the expertise of seasoned technicians in my father’s factory, allowing us to offer reasonable prices and attentive customer service,” Baek emphasizes. The synergy between her father’s workshop and her own store ensures consistent quality throughout the production process.

It is yet to be seen how the efforts of all these people will contribute to the reinvigoration of the area. However, it is clear that the artisans’ meticulously crafted products bring customers immense satisfaction.  

Chung Chung SukReporter, Korea Textile News

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