The business of artisanal shoemaking is one that has become a ‘lost art’ in recent years, with manufacturers increasingly relying upon the efficiency of modern machinery to create shoes that dominate the market. So, when we received an enquiry from Billy Tana Bespoke Shoes to join the BFA, we jumped at the chance to have such a skilled shoemaking presence in our community. Here, we speak to Billy Tana to discover his story, his skills and what he loves about his job.
From shaping leather by hand to building a sole from scratch, every element of Billy Tana’s bespoke shoes is handcrafted using age-old techniques from across the globe. Tana’s specialisms include elegant bejewelled high heels for women as well as timeless and practical loafers for men, to name a few. We spoke to Billy Tana, a master shoemaker for over 40 years and founder of Billy Tana Bespoke Shoes, which launched in 2018, about his journey to becoming an artisanal shoemaker and what keeps his business alive despite competition from the high street.
What drove you to become a shoemaker, and what are your biggest inspirations?
The journey started when I was 11 years old. My father was a carpenter and had his own workshop. My uncle came to visit, and he had a shoemaker’s hammer that he had freshly polished. I asked my uncle what it was. He said if you’re curious, come to visit me after school tomorrow, and I’ll teach you how to make shoes by hand. So I started going after school for lessons at my uncle’s workshop to learn, and that is how I started my shoemaking journey. By the age of 17, I started working independently.
In terms of my biggest inspiration, it will have to be the father of Gina Shoes – Mehmet Kurdash (may he rest in peace). When I moved to London from Istanbul in 1988, I got to know him, and he was an amazing person who was very kind-hearted and knowledgeable in the art of making hand-made shoes.
The majority of shoe manufacturing in the UK was done with machinery, which was all new to me. Mehmet would stay for an hour after work with me so that he could teach me how to use all the machines. For this reason, I will never forget the kindness and knowledge he gave me.
Having learnt how to use the machinery, do you now prefer to use these tools or continue in the hand-making methods of your youth?
I prefer to make shoes by hand as I have more control over the work being done and can deliver a finer completed shoe.
What do you wish consumers knew about the nuances of bespoke shoemaking?
To be completely honest, I think the one nuance with bespoke shoemaking is that bespoke shoemakers create many beautiful shoes for clients, who then have celebrities wearing the shoes with the maker receiving no recognition. I think the art of shoemaking isn’t considered much and is often overlooked by customers. A fully bespoke pair of shoes can take up to five days to be completely finished and ready to wear (presuming measurements and materials are ready). The first day would involve lasting the shoe and allowing the stiffener and toe puff to dry. Then we would finish the soles, and, finally, we would leave the shoes on the last to affirm their shape.
Can you share any anecdotes of unusual bespoke commissions?
I think the most challenging story would be making a pair of boots for a client using salmon leather. It was a truly unique experience, and the results were perfect! High heels for women are my favourite to make because of their elegance and luxury designs. In terms of techniques and processes, I enjoy all aspects of creating shoes. However, my favourite would be creating a sole from scratch. Cutting the shape from the leather, trimming, polishing, edging and painting the edges for the shoes, as this is a technique that is not properly known.
What type of bespoke shoes do you specialise in, and do you have any signatures that make a pair recognisably Billy Tana?
If I have a speciality other than being able to make any shoes by hand (particularly ladies’ footwear) – it would be making a sole by hand from start to finish. It is an essential skill for bespoke shoes that is not very common. Other than the shoes being a work of art and comfortable to wear, there is currently no signature style or design I work to.
Why is it important for Billy Tana Bespoke Shoes to be part of the BFA, especially in today’s climate?
Working with the BFA is especially important as it allows us to connect with potential clients and make others aware of our services – which was previously very difficult to do. It’s also to have like-minded and creative individuals in the shoe industry under one roof where we can all support and help each other grow.
Where are you based? Do you have any exciting plans for the future?
I am based just outside of North London in Hertfordshire. I run Billy Tana Bespoke Shoes with my son, who is also named Billy, who graduated with a First in Business Management and joined the company to support the growth of the business. We have plans to launch our own brand very soon, so are excited about that!
Billy Tana documents the process of creating his shoes over on his LinkedIn profile, so be sure to check out some behind-the-scenes footage here. To feature on the BFA Footwear News Blog, contact us via: email@example.com. Discover the benefits of being a Member of the BFA here, and access the Individual Member application form and Company Member application form. Find out more about Billy Tana via LinkedIn.