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Jan Jansen's Old-School Humility

Rather than fame or wealth, becoming one of the best shoe designers in the world was Jansen's life dream.  Now there, he hopes to bring some of his craft back to his customers with a new concept store that draws shoe lovers more into the production process.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 21-09-2009

After a successful showing in the Museum Het Valkhof in Nijmegen, Dutch shoe designer, Jan Jansen will once again exhibit a retrospective of his collection - this time in Amsterdam as part of Dutch Design Double.  Running alongside the exhibition is a concept store Jansen has been thinking about for twenty years.  “I really just wanted to do it before I died,” he says.

The idea is to develop a space whereby half finished products are displayed for purchase allowing people to customize their orders and pick them up a few hours later.  “They can select the shape of the toe, the colour, the material for the sole, and the type of heel,” says Jansen.

When Jansen first pitched the factory store idea to big companies, he didn’t receive the reaction he had hoped for.  “They all loved it, asked me to do it and said they’d buy it from me in two years time, but that isn't my skill,” he says.  “I am not the right person to set something like this up.  I wanted them to set it up and I’d tell them how.”

This time around, Jansen is hoping that someone will recognize that the concept well suits current market demands.  High-end shopping today is seen as an investment in personalized, credible products that contain a narrative and stand for a type of morality.   

“I do think the timing is good,” says Jansen.  “People like handcrafted things, they want to understand the process and like to respect it. I think when they pick up a heel, hold it against different shoes, it does something to the relationship between the shoe and the person.”

But Jansen remains adamant:  “I can’t organize it and I can't finance it,” he repeats.  “Ever since I started, I’ve been looking for the right business partner to do that side of things, but I just never found one.”  

Jansen started making shoes in 1961 in a pattern-making school.  After that he moved to Italy to learn how to hand-sew shoes and then moved back to Holland in 1963.  "And that's what I have been doing ever since,” he says.

These days Jansen teaches at the Bunka Academy in Japan, designs two collections a year, has 120 retail clients in Holland, and seven eponymous  shops - two in England and the rest in Holland.  His shoes are mostly produced in Italy, in the same factory that makes Prada and Gucci shoes, but he says the rest of the world has caught up with the Italians when it comes to actual shoe production. “Even the Chinese,” he says.  “But the Italians are the only ones who know how to tan leather.  It's a very difficult process.”

And like a proper old-fashioned craftsman, Jansen designs all his shoes in his tiny studio on the Rokin in Amsterdam and he lives upstairs.   All the ideas for his collections come from within.  “Sometimes my wife shows me styles in magazines, but I hardly know what is going on in the rest of the world when it comes to shoes,” he says.  “I just do what I like … It comes from the cosmos.”

When pressed, Jansen points to designers like John Galliano and Stella McCartney as interesting, but neither relate to his own distinctive look, which focuses on colour and construction.  His double-layered boots have a transparent exterior and suede interior.  His bamboo wedges are constructed from plywood and cords of wound cottom.   “You can't tell if my shoes come from 1964 or 1994,” he says.  “And looking back, I think I did manage to predict many trends.”

As for grand fame, Jansen remains ever the humble shoemaker and despite accolades from big talents like Viktor & Rolf, he says he has always been happy to stay local.  “I’m well known in the trade,” he says.  “Every little heel factory in Italy knows me, but I’m not known to the public.  Of course if Gaultier asked me to design shoes for him I would, but he probably doesn’t even know who I am.”

Jansen puts this down to the role that shoes play in the fashion industry.  “The clothes are of course so much more important,” he says.  “Shoes are just an accessory.  On a woman, first you notice her dress, then her hair and only lastly her shoes, but they are what have always fascinated me.  Being a shoe maker is what I wanted to do and that matters more than fame or success.”

Jasen talks about how as a young boy he was always so curious about how one piece of leather could bend around a shoe and yet remain flat.  “I think as a shoe designer you have to be very down to earth,” he says oblivious to the irony.  “It’s like the guy behind the drums who will always play a supporting role to the guy behind the microphone.”  

As the afternoon draws to a close Jansen gets out some of his very early designs and talks about how new materials will make them more functional.  “I think I’ll bring this design back albeit with some changes,” he says.  “I’ve always been like this.  It is how I am.  I just wanted to be a very good shoe designer.  I wanted to be one of the best in the world and I’ve reached that.  I never really wanted an empire and it just never happened.”

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