We visit the artisanal shoemaker Korbinian Ludwig Hess at his workshop in Berlin and discover the significance of handmade shoes. It goes beyond the craftsmanship itself, delving into the captivating narratives encompassing everything from the creative process to the personal stories of the clientele placing custom orders.
IRMA: What do you think in times of today makes artisanal and manufactural work so very high in demand and valuable? How do you cater to this fact with KLH?
KORBINIAN LUDWIG HEß: The whole world is changing at an unprecedented pace. There are constantly new trends, brands, and products emerging. These continual changes are significant and beautiful, but they also have their downside. Ecologically, because new trends lead to the production of ever-new products, significantly contributing to climate change. Additionally, on a human level, this rapid pace can be exhausting. So, what I observe is that people often want to move away from “always the latest” towards “something that lasts.”
In the last 10-15 years, the definition of luxury has changed a lot. While luxury used to simply mean something expensive, nowadays, a luxury product is expected to tell a story—one that you can stand behind, ideally a personal one.
In a sense, what we do at KLH encapsulates the essence of contemporary luxury. The shoes that leave our workshop already tell a very personal, almost intimate story. One that, with proper care, goes on for a lifetime.
IRMA: It’s quite unusual for women to order bespoke shoes, what kind of women are your customers?
KORBINIAN LUDWIG HEß: By now, the ratio of male to female customers is nearly 50:50. Our clientele entrusts us, and we honor that trust with discretion. Hence, no names at this point. But, of course, there are times when we use the back entrance of the shop and roll down the shutters so people in the streets can’t look in. In general, our clientele ranges from international actresses to politicians to the “regular” employee. What unites them all is that they are all a bit nuts – you really have to LOVE shoes and our way of making them to wait so long for a pair of shoes and to invest so much thought and money. Just the good kind of nuts.
IRMA: Is there a certain style/ type that makes women become your customers?
KORBINIAN LUDWIG HEß: Currently, women are mainly ordering cowboy boots. They often approach the topic of shoes quite differently than men. They are more outspoken, more eccentric, and use shoes as a means of expression. It’s a way for them to communicate and emphasize their personality. With all its possible embellishments or even with a “black silence”, the cowboy boot is, of course, PERFECT for this purpose.
IRMA: To design my shoes or boots, what do I have to bring along when becoming your customer?
KORBINIAN LUDWIG HEß: The most important thing is time and ideally the willingness to reveal at least a part of one’s personality. In our approach it’s not just about quality and fit – those are the basic requirements. It’s about individuality and uniqueness. Creating a shoe that not only fits the customers feet but also matches their personality. To achieve this, I need to know my customer as well as possible.
The design of the shoe is developed together through conversation. However, helpful aids also include photos, old favorite shoes, or any other sources of inspiration.
IRMA: How does a women’s shoe differ from a men’s shoe, are they lighter , etc…and why are men ‘s shoes for women becoming a fashion lately?
KORBINIAN LUDWIG HEß: The main difference between men’s and women’s shoes is that women tend to have narrower heels and often smaller feet than men. For us, that’s the only difference between men’s and women’s shoes. But of course the smaller and more delicate a person, the lighter and softer we make the shoes.
When we look into the history of shoes, we see that the “upper class” has consistently presented extremely impractical footwear trends. Whether it’s super pointed shoes with a length of over half a meter or heels and platforms reaching heights of actually over half a meter as well. This demonstrated the lack of necessity to work physically.
With the breakdown of the prejudice that women cannot and should not engage in physical labor, there is finally a corresponding shift in trends in women’s shoes. In the last couple of years, this trend has experienced a boost. Consequently, more and more women are not wearing men’s shoes but the same shoes as men. Interestingly, this mirrors historical practices, as the idea that high heels, etc., are exclusively feminine is a perspective on shoes that has only been around for about 150 years.
IRMA: What was the most uncommon order you have ever received?
KORBINIAN LUDWIG HEß: Of course, I could now tell you about the customer for whose soles we coated with 22K gold. But that’s, of course, a bit boring in a way. The most extravagant, truly decadent, and touching story so far is a customer who had shoes made for his own funeral. They are stored at the back of my shop, and when the time comes, his wife will come here to pick them up for him.