Interview: The Man Behind Lady Gaga’s Shoes, Noritaka Tatehana [1/2]

Currently on a world tour, Lady Gaga always appears wearing the most progressive and avant-garde fashion that fans and the media can’t help but notice. From her hairstyle to clothes to accessories, each piece of her wardrobe is imbued with a certain sense of “Gaga-ness.” But did you know that one of her supposedly most favorite items, her heel-less shoes, are made by a Japanese shoe designer? That shoe designer’s name is Noritaka Tatehana. In this interview we spoke with Tatehana, who is based in Japan, about his work process and what led him to become a designer.

[Noritaka Tatehana Profile]
Japanese fashion designer and artist. Born in 1985, he started producing his own clothes and shoes at 15 years old. He attended Tokyo University of the Arts and majored in traditional Japanese fabric dyeing. He then made kimono and geta sandals using the Yuzen 1 dyeing method. In 2010, he founded the NORITAKA TATEHANA brand and began using traditional Japanese artisan techniques to make designs that reflect both modern and classic sensibilities. His heel-less shoes are also loved by Lady Gaga.

A Natural Start as a Maker

──So you’ve been making things since childhood?

Noritaka Tatehana: Since I was a kid, my mother started bringing other children and their young mothers together in my hometown of Kamakura and teaching them how to make waldorf dolls. I would see my mother using these strange tools to make dolls, and the materials would be scattered across the floor. That sort of environment was normal for me. So because I was always seeing her making things out of the corner of my eye, once I started playing with whatever was nearby, I just naturally began making things as well. In some sense, the process of becoming a maker came naturally for me.

Once I started high school, I began considering what I wanted to do in the future and if I wanted to continue on to college. That’s when my mother happened to give me a pamphlet she picked up for a cram school to prep for the art school exam.

I had been into art since middle school, and was adept at making things with my hands. So that’s when my mother came and gave me the pamphlet and asked me to consider it. I had never attended a cram school or had a tutor for anything before, so I was a bit hesitant about it, but I still enjoyed the process of actually making things. From then on I started thinking that it would be enjoyable to be able to do what I loved as a job.

──When did you become interested in fashion specifically?

NT: When I was about 15, after I joined the cram school. Before I started attending the cram school, when I thought about the world of art, I thought that my only choices were to be a painter or a sculptor or something. I had never thought about the possibility of going to an art college and studying to become a fashion designer, and at that time it wasn’t even what I thought I wanted to be. But then I went to the cram school, attended various lectures, and learned about what it was to be a product designer, an architect, a sculptor, and more. In the process of taking those lectures, I began thinking that I wanted to do a job where I could work with other people.

And at that time, the job that stuck with me as a job that would let me work with people, was fashion design. Clothes are made to be worn, so that meant I would have the chance to dress someone besides myself. I thought being about to do that as a job would be interesting. I was just 15 at the time, but I knew that the things we make also function as tools for communication. I felt that potential was particularly present in fashion. I couldn’t really discriminate what part of that was art, what part was fashion, or what was business. I just knew that I wanted to become a fashion designer. That was the beginning.

And then, even though I had never been outside of Japan, I was focused on becoming successful abroad. I wanted to be an artist, a designer that would be recognized by the world, as a Japanese person. From that time I was very intent on having my own brand. And now I do (laughs).

Japan’s Unique Fashion Sense

──What made you feel like you had to compete with brands abroad?

NT: At the time when I thought of fashion, I was mainly concerned with Western clothing. But the true center of fashion was not Japan, but Europe and the large American market.

When I thought about that, I was sure that I wanted to learn about the center of the fashion industry and compete there. In order to become a professional, I thought the fastest way would be to go to where the culture was born, and study it there. But then I stopped and thought about it more.

I’m Japanese, so even if I go abroad, can I really become a French person? I don’t speak French. I don’t speak English. I don’t know what to do. And I look like a Japanese person. I felt a kind of barrier there. So I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

So if that was the case, I thought, what can I do as a Japanese person? What can I use to my advantage? And at that time I realized––though it’s less true now––that Japan has it’s own unique sense of fashion.

Japanese kimonos and geta sandals – I thought I should first study about traditional Japanese fashion before trying to go abroad. So I went to one of the few places where I would be able to study traditional Japanese culture and crafting techniques, Tokyo University of the Arts. I learned a lot, from the industry side of things to textiles to the kind of detailed manual work turning 0s into 1s. It was a very valuable opportunity.

I Am Not a Shoe Designer

──What brought you to shoe design?

NT: To be honest, I don’t really consider myself to be a true shoe designer (laughs). It just feels like I’ve somehow made it as one; it’s like I’m a wannabe shoe designer. I’m not a genuine shoe designer. I feel this way because I was never taught shoe design. I learned it all on my own.

When I was in college, I would draw kimono designs by hand, I learned Yuzen dyeing techniques and made kimono and geta sandals. When I was working on my thesis, I started to think that I wanted to make things better suited for modern people to slip into or put on. My idea was to create works that were a fusion of modern and traditional styles that could be passed on to the current generation. Contemporary Western clothing worn by Japanese people was the result of a unique interpretation of European culture, which changed the styles to fit us modern people who tend not to wear traditional Japanese garments. I thought that if there was a collaboration between that and traditional Japanese fashion, something brand new could come out of that. So I made shoes for my thesis and have been making them ever since.

But you can see that I’m actually not particularly focused only on shoes. My thesis was not received very well at all. I think the teachers and I didn’t share a common interpretive view. I have a feeling that they were looking for something more traditional, and in a way conservative, without the modern elements. But I couldn’t make something like that so my work did not become an object of praise.

However, I personally felt confident in the piece, and I knew that I wanted to use it to put my work out into the world. From there I took pictures of the shoes and sent them off via email to various places.

──Did you focus on promoting your work abroad?

NT: Yes, I was focused on places abroad. I was under the impression that if you’re not accepted abroad, you won’t be well received in Japan. I felt like Japanese people are not good at measuring by their own standards to judge the value of things. That’s why I thought that my work might be recognized first by America and Europe. After sending my photos to a bunch of different people, one of the ones that got back to me was Lady Gaga’s stylist. He seemed to like the shoes and dress I made for my thesis, but particularly the shoes.

──And so after that you started making shoes for Lady Gaga?

NT: Lady Gaga herself really took a liking to the shoes as well. I’ve made about 25 pairs for her so far. I used to get one order every month from her when she was ordering a lot of them. Having her wear my shoes was a huge step towards getting my shoes seen by a wider audience, and as a result I naturally became recognized as a shoe designer.

But in reality, I had never really studied shoe design. I studied crafts in college. I learned about dyeing techniques and what you might call fine art. I did like fashion so I had some knowledge, but I didn’t learn anything about it from anybody. I’m not a professional, so it truly feels like I’m faking it at times, but I think that’s OK. As long as your business card says "shoe designer," you’re a shoe designer.

To a true artisan shoemaker, someone like me is definitely not a cobbler. The way that I make shoes isn’t how a trained craftsmen would do it. But I think there’s a difference in how we perceive and think about things to begin with. I focused on packaging my work. It was the result of trying to figure out what kind of branding I wanted. For example, I’ve promised to not sign any contracts with anyone besides Gaga. You see, if someone else wears my shoes, they’ll be called a Gaga-imitator, and that’s certainly not a win-win situation. This way, when someone talks about whose shoes Gaga is wearing, I’m the only one there is.

Successful Brand Packaging

NT: Heelless shoes have actually been around for a while throughout history. Oiran 2 here used to wear tall geta sandals that we’re similar. And in Europe, tall platform shoes have been worn for a long time. So in that sense there have already been many shoes that are similar to mine. But people just didn’t know about them. I learned about them through studying about shoes. I thought I wanted to try making something like the shoes that I saw; it’s not like a divine idea came down to me from the heavens or anything like that.

What makes my work different is how I’ve managed to succeed in packaging my work. In a sense, I’ve made my own genre. In other words, I established my work in the fashion industry as the most prominent heel-less shoe brand.

However, I can still make practically anything. I get customers that want me to make clothes for them, and others that want me to do sculpture work. That’s why I don’t put limits on what I make. The process of making something is essentially the same, no matter what it is you’re doing.

──Rather than “making shoes,” you consciously see yourself as “producing works of art.”

NT: What stands between myself and the customers is the work that I do. If I wasn’t doing creative work, I would not have met my clients. My work becomes a communication tool that connects me to other people.

Even now, this opportunity to talk to Tokyo Otaku Mode is in a way due to the work that I’ve done. If I wasn’t making shoes, I probably would not have met all of you. So that means my works have become communication tools, transmitting information to various places. When I think of it that way, I don’t see any reason to stick strictly to making shoes. Painting pictures, giving speeches, writing - any of these things are fine. I think it’s best to change your medium of communication to suit the content of your work.

However, I do think that it’s very important to have the correct goal in mind. My goal is not to make shoes. Since I was 15 years old, I knew that I wanted to connect with other people, and that hasn’t changed. I chose making things as my means of doing just that.

I’m incredibly thankful to have the clients that I do. The customers that come to buy my work usually stay in Japan for about a week. It could be because the work I do is in part an expression of Japanese culture, but they seem to really enjoy just coming to Japan. As soon as they get on the plane, it’s a new experience.

I think that my customers don’t come to me just to buy shoes, I feel that they also want to support me as a young artist.

^1^ A method of dyeing fabric. The name comes from the man who founded the technique in the Edo period, Yuzensai Miyazaki.

^2^ High class geisha centered around the Yoshiwara district of 18th century Edo, contemporary Tokyo.

Image-Makers Exhibition
Showing in Roppongi until Oct. 5. Tatehana’s works are also on display. Be sure to check it out if you’re in Japan!

NORITAKA TATEHANA Official Site

This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.

This picture is from Noritaka Tatehana's Official Pintrest Page (http://www.pinterest.com/noritakacoltd/pins/)
This picture is from Noritaka Tatehana's [Official Pintrest Page](http://www.pinterest.com/noritakacoltd/pins/)
Raven 2009, V&A Museum, Public Collection. This picture is from Noritaka Tatehana's Official Pintrest Page (http://www.pinterest.com/noritakacoltd/pins/)
Raven 2009, V&A Museum, Public Collection. This picture is from Noritaka Tatehana's [Official Pintrest Page](http://www.pinterest.com/noritakacoltd/pins/)

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