Noritaka Tatehana – Extreme Shoemaker



The location of his studio is already a statement in itself. The mid-century brick building where Noritaka Tatehana lives and works is located in the fashionable district of Omotesando, directly behind Herzog & de Meuron's shimmering Prada store. In the foyer, a wall-sized poster of a birch tree grove captures our attention while, on the second floor, the designer awaits us at his door.

The waiting list for the apartment was long, and Noritaka thinks his increasingly frequent presence on television probably helped expedite his application. Noritaka grins broadly as he tells us this. Only 28, the man obviously plans to go far. Currently he's best known as the man who made Lady Gaga stand tall – by creating her famous platform shoes. The highest pair adds an extra 60 centimeters to her height. Outwardly, he doesn't give the impression of being a trend follower, certainly not one of the shrill sort. With hair bound back in a simple braid, pale skin, a hint of dark down on his chin, and a clear, light voice, Noritaka looks more like a young philosophy student. Once he starts speaking, however, with a boyish smile, and the calm assurance of a successful man, he gains stature and charisma. "To me, work is an activity that falls into the same category as eating, sleeping, or talking with my friends. I enjoy all of these things equally," he explains while standing in front of an impressive bookcase filled with art books, skulls, and humorous objects. To the right, pet rabbit Juku is placidly nibbling on a lettuce leaf. To his left, Tatehana's assistant, Sophie, who act as an interpreter and otherwise does his correspondence, takes a seat at her desk. In a glass case next to her, two furry toy rabbits are on display – obviously Noritaka's favorite animals. The entire set-up exudes a wonderful sort of Peter Pan idyll.

This is just as I imagined my adult life would be.

Sophie tells us, "This is our typical everyday mode." The only person missing is another young woman who is responsible for making the shoes. For his first assignments, Noritaka executed every single step himself – with the vintage shoemaker's tools on his workbench. Tools he buys up all over the globe as they aren't being made any longer.

At 15, Noritaka Tatehana made a first pair of boots for himself, a sturdy pair of ranger-style boots that still hold a place of honor in his collection. Already back then he was thinking about turning his name into a brand. His goal is to be recognized internationally as a Japanese designer and artist – like Yohji Yamamoto or Rar Kawakubo from Comme des Garçons who both base their designs on classic Japanese lines. The first step toward achieving this objective was to diligently apply himself to the history of Japanese clothing culture at the Tokyo School of Art and Design and "paint a lot, to get a good sense for proportions and balance." He majored in the art of producing kimonos using traditional Japanese dying techniques. During this period, he became fascinated by traditional Japanese platform shoes. Especially the high wooden pokkuri and the geta kimono clogs dating from the Edo period (19th century). He started playing around with these models, moving the platform from the back to the front, while leaving off the heel entirely. His various experiments culminated in the shoe he created for his final examination – the shoe that went on to made him famous: a pink-colored, gigantic platform shoe in embossed stingray leather. The futuristic design is closely linked to Japanese shoemaking history and said to be much more comfortable than it looks. When Noritaka was finished, he boldly sent off a couple of e-mails to introduce himself to the world’s most famous stylists. Only one of them actually replied and became a client, but the low return rate didn’t matter. It was the client he had been aiming for all along: Lady Gaga's stylist, Nicola Formichetti. From that point onward, things started moving very quickly. Lady Gaga was enchanted by his shoes: "She's a wonderful and really funny person, it's just a shame that everything always has to be ready within a few days." Almost impossible for handcrafted shoes as sophisticated as these.

I understood what Lady Gaga could mean to my career, so I worked day and night to finish the assignment.

With Lady Gaga's endorsement, his name started appearing in the big fashion magazines of New York, then throughout the fashion world. And to cap it all off, in 2010, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York bought the shoe he had created for his final examination for their permanent collection. In a mere few months, Noritaka had achieved more than many try – and fail at – in a lifetime. He had attained brand status and was being introduced to the people he had long admired. Such as fashion icon Daphne Guinness, whom he has meanwhile come to regard as a real friend. Although his English is not very fluent, their shared fascination for ingenious extravagance creates a sort of spiritual kinship.

Tatehana's own clothing is unremarkable, though it subtly and cleverly underlines his self-image: part artist, part designer, part visionary. Today he is wearing an extra-long blue linen jacket and dark blue baggy trousers from his favorite label Comme des Garçons. He has held several vernissages in their stores – and increasingly exhibits in museums as well. His iconic shoe models lend themselves perfectly for this purpose. In March, he held his most recent exhibition in a London gallery in cooperation with fashion photographer Nick Knight and Daphne Guinness.
Calmly, Noritaka relates the events of these last few years to us – as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a boy from the coastal city of Kamakura to rise like a shooting star to the upper echelons of the fashion and art world. Granted, the conditions were favorable. Noritaka comes from a good family and had a happy childhood. His father converted the family's traditional Tokyo bathhouse business and built up one of Tokyo's most influential real estate companies; his mother taught classes on how to make Waldorf dolls. One of these dolls is displayed in his bookshelf – and Noritaka proudly publishes the dates of his mother's exhibitions on his website. Obviously her creative drive has had an influence on him. Yet, success did not fall into his lap. Despite his gentle manner, Tatehana is a skilled planner and strategist. And he is a master at self-marketing on Facebook. Recently he has even started giving lectures at the University in Kyoto to young fashion students on how to promote themselves successfully.

The most important thing I want to impress on my students is that they have to start believing in themselves.

"At 18 one is still so soft and vulnerable," he says with a smile. "I want them to start believing in themselves." His message? "Usually I tell them things from my life." The last three years provide more than enough subject matter. However, for himself, he is already thinking about where the next step should lead. He plans to start creating works specifically for museums, but doesn't want to reveal any details at this point in time. Only so much: Noritaka Tatehana intends to reinvent his brand in the art and fashion world over and over again.

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Comments (1)

Tabea Keslau | 14.09.2013


ein hervorragender Artikel, jedoch hat sich ein kleiner Fehler eingeschlichen. Die japanische Modedesignerin heißt nicht Rar sondern Rei Kawakubo.


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