When Ryo Kashiwazaki created his first handmade leather sneaker, little did he know it would become a hit amongst streetwear cognoscenti and hip-hop stars alike. The idea was deceptively simple: take iconic sneaker styles — like Adidas’ Superstars and Nike’s Air Jordan IVs — and reconstruct them entirely by hand in premium leather, using the kind of artisanal manufacturing processes typically reserved for high-end formal footwear. The legality of the approach was uncertain and the sneakers were expensive, retailing for over $1000 a pair. But the concept caught on like wildfire, first in Japan and then internationally. Every hype-beast who bought a pair acquired bragging rights over those who picked up a regular pair of Nikes.
Kashiwazaki called his brand Hender Scheme, a name that plays on Sandra Bem’s “gender schema” theory. By its third season, twenty stockists had turned up to buy the collection, including influential Canadian boutique Haven. Stockists like Ssense, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodmanfollowed. Then came collaborations with Sacai and the Ace Hotel.
Now, seven years later, the under-the-radar designer is about to expand his audience with a highly unusual partnership with Adidas Originals that turns the traditional sneaker collaboration model on its head. The first iteration of the tie-up (there will be others) is limited to three styles from the Adidas catalogue — a MicroPacer stripped of its pedometer; an NMD reimagined with its “Boost” midsole removed; and a Superstar — all rendered in Hender Scheme’s signature pastel tones. But critically, Hender Scheme is producing the sneakers and not Adidas. Indeed, each of the collaboration’s 900 pairs are being made by hand in the same ateliers as Hender Scheme’s core offering, using the same leather. The sneakers will bear Adidas branding, but otherwise will look unmistakably Hender Scheme. Models from the collaboration will hit carefully selected stores worldwide on September 2 and retail for between $900 and $1000.
“We are making these shoes our way, so we can only make so many,” says Kashiwazaki. “But we also love sneakers, and what Adidas does in a different way, like manual versus industrial products. So maybe we can find a way in the future where these methods can work together.”
Despite its success, everything about Hender Scheme is unassuming, from the presentation of its products that sit on unfinished plywood displays to its bare-bones store on the outskirts of Ebisu to its modest design studio in Asakusa, Tokyo’s unglamorous garment district. When you meet Kashiwazaki, you understand why. Soft-spoken and contemplative, the 31-year-old former psychology student is refreshingly self-effacing in a fashion industry laced with ego. For him, everything Hender Scheme does is about the product, the artisans who make it and the consumer who buys it.
While Kashiwazaki had plenty of opportunities to exercise his mind at university, he also longed to do something with his hands and so, at 19, he joined a shoe factory, sculpting footwear lasts and making soles. He then spent four years apprenticing at a cobbler. It was there that Kashiwazaki not only learned the craft of shoe-making inside out, but also the value of artisanal labour. He nursed that knowledge and wondered how it could be presented to a wider audience. After all, artisans usually work behind the scenes, often overshadowed by designers. And that’s when it occurred to him that starting with a familiar archetype would remove the focus on design and place the emphasis on craft. What could be more familiar than an iconic sneaker style? In order to reflect the spirit of the collection, Kashiwazaki named it “Hommage.”
In addition to sneakers, Hender Scheme makes footwear, bags and household goods, all out of leather and all in the same artisanal spirit. “My hope is that the customers and stores also notice our main collection,” says Kashiwazaki. “The ‘Hommage’ project is an important one, but it’s only a part of what we do.”
Kashiwazaki calls his work “Manual Industrial Products.” Many of his products are made from tanned leather in its natural colour. The variations in colour tones that bring detail to the original sneaker models come from using different animal hides. The designer says Hender Scheme creates a product that is unfinished until it acquires a unique patina from continuous wear. For Kashiwazaki, this means that the end customer becomes a part of the product cycle. It also helps to establish a personal connection between maker and wearer.