Just how many people in the world really know how to make a sneaker? Most people have likely never even thought about it before. And if they did, they’d probably just think it involved getting a bunch of materials and somehow joining them together.
Well, Shoes Like Pottery tells you how to make sneakers in its very brand name; they are fired in a kiln like ceramics. Vulcanization is an old method for making sneakers in which the shoes are fired in a high-temperature oven and thermally reacted in order to induce a chemical reaction on the rubber. After a visitor once saw the shoes lined up in the kiln in the factory, they blurted out, “The shoes look like you’re making pottery.” And this then became the brand name.
Shoes Like Pottery comes from venerable shoes manufacturer MoonStar, a business in Kurume City in Fukuoka and with a 140-year history. With its minimal but highly sensitive approach to design, and superb quality that comes from being made by hand, orders now arrive not only from around Japan but also overseas. PingMag spoke to MoonStar’s Kenta Matsunaga, who was part of the team behind Shoes Like Pottery, to find out about more.
When did you start making the Shoes Like Pottery shoes?
We first made them in 2010 in order to give a simple explanation about vulcanization at an exhibition. They then went on sale in April 2011.
But what was it that made you want to start the brand in the first place?
Our first goal was to tell people about vulcanization, but the response to the exhibition was good and we had lots of inquiries, so then we end up establishing a new brand. The exhibition wasn’t MoonStar’s own event, though, but the “Designing?” exhibition that happens
I didn’t know how sneakers were made and was surprised that it involved “firing” them in kilns.
Well, it’s not so much “firing” as placing them in a roughly 130-degree kiln so there is a thermal reaction. Before it’s placed in the oven, the state of the rubber is kneaded. By adding heat to that, there is a chemical reaction in the sulfur component of the rubber and it transforms into rubber that is elastic and strong.
Lots of people seem to think sneakers are just joined together with glue, but with vulcanization the top part of the shoe and the sole are molded through a chemical reaction, so the rubbers and the materials stick together very tightly.
Who does the design for Shoes Like Pottery?
A team of four internal designers and project planners. It wasn’t a top-down kind of project. Instead, they asked to be allowed to do it, so the designing was then done when they got together in intervals between their regular duties.
When you first join the company and see how shoes are made up-close, you are really struck how sneakers are made in this way. Sneakers are regarded as disposable items that you just throw away when they get old and buy a replacement. But we wanted to tell people how much effort actually goes into making them. Vulcanization is only being done now at around three places in Japan so we also wanted to preserve the process.
Why have manufacturers stopped using the vulcanization process?
It’s originally an American manufacturing process. Since the labor costs are quite high and it makes the price of the product more expensive, it has declined in America and likewise here in Japan for the same reason. Today it is common in China and Indonesia. MoonStar also mass-produces some shoes cheaply overseas but also still adamantly keeps its factory in Japan.
Where are the other places in Japan that use the process?
There are two in Kurume, MoonStar and Asahi Shoes, which also makes gym shoes and indoor shoes like us. The other place is Nichiman in Hiroshima. Kurume is especially famous for rubber shoes. Long ago there were lots of rice paddies and commerce was flourishing, and putting rubber on the soles of tabi socks to make jika-tabi [outdoor footwear] started here.
The design and manufacturing process is getting a lot of attention, but it actually comes out of this long history, doesn’t it?
Yes, if you just look at the design, you might think it’s a sneaker you’ve seen somewhere before, but more than the superficial design, we want people to know about the history and the manufacturing process behind the shoes. We want to build up Shoes Like Pottery as a brand where the product exudes all this.
Is Shoes Like Pottery the only brand currently being made in your Japanese factory by vulcanization?
We have another line called Good Rubbers which uses the process, and we are also making sneakers for Converse and other apparel companies as OEM.
When you go overseas, rubber quality gets worse. MoonStar is also developing its own rubber materials and using rubber that fits each part. The careful skill of Japanese artisans is also important here. In this sense, you could make the same thing in Japan and overseas, but the quality would be different. For example, take the handiwork of putting rubber on the side of the sneaker. Almost all the work is carried out by hand, so you have to have real know-how if you want to make good shoes.
How has MoonStar changed since you released Shoes Like Pottery?
Young designers saw the shoes and then joined the company, plus we got more OEM orders from other companies that wanted us to make shoes like that for them, which led to a surge of activity for our Japanese manufacturing facility. And we sort of changed our image from being a indoor shoe-maker to being a manufacturer with more of an eye for the particular. I think many people learned about MoonStar after first hearing about the Shoes Like Pottery Brand.
And we also started to push overseas. A select shop in LA, South Willard, was the first to sell our sneakers and after that, Steven Alan also added them to their line-up. From around this time we started to get English inquiries from overseas via our website.
Steven Alan used Shoes Like Pottery in its lookbooks and from November this year we plan to sell custom-order models.
Since almost all the work for Shoes Like Pottery sneakers is done manually, they can only be made in small batches and often sell out very quickly. When we visited the factory, the most recently produced shoes were due to go on sale from November. If you fancy wearing a pair of “pottery sneakers” you should hurry while the stocks last!
Shoes Like Pottery