Suzuki Michiya Director of ブーツのミカタ, Former General Manager for Red Wing Japan
/Biography/ Mr. Suzuki was born in Tokyo and raised in Fukuoka, Kyushu. He served as General Manager for Red Wing Japan from 2005 to 2019. During his career, he directed the development of Red Wing’s Heritage Division and re-shaped the brand’s image from functional work boots to high-end fashion worldwide. In April 2019, he started to work as freelance consultant, promoter and ambassador for hand crafter leather boots and shoes brands. At the same time, he has just launched his Youtube channel to introduce interesting Japanese boot shops, brands and products. The channel is named “ブーツのミカタ・Boot Advocate Japan” The Japanese title “Boots No Mikata” means “the ally of leather boots”. The video clips in the channel are, for the moment, in Japanese language only but we expect that Mr. Suzuki will add English subtitles to them in future.
► My Favorite Boots
The first time I met Mr. Suzuki was at the CC Show in the fall of 2015 and we didn't realize we were already following each other on Instagram. He gave me an in depth perspective about Red Wing continuing to keep in touch with today’s shoe industry. Towards the end of our meeting, Mr. Suzuki invited me to visit Red Wing Japan’s headquarters in Ebisu, Tokyo and it wasn't until this past March that I finally made the visit.
It was a breathtaking and inspiring moment for me to see the infamous vintage collection of Red Wing Japan. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to further my knowledge and learn more market trends for leather boots from Mr. Suzuki. I’ve always considered Mr. Suzuki the "Jedi Master" and a pioneer of Red Wing boots. It is an honor for us that M.F.B. would be Mr. Suzuki’s last interview during his tenure at Red Wing Japan. Mr. Suzuki shared his valuable experience in boot design, production, and manufacturing and took us through day to day operations at Red Wing.
► Interview Lin: Let’s start with the beginning of your leather boots journey.
Suzuki: When I was a freshman in high school back in 1977, I started to become interested in American culture and I happened to find a magazine called "Made in USA". This was the magazine that paved the way to introduce the American lifestyle to Japan because it not only talked about fashion, but also real American culture like campus life, surfing, California casual apparel at the time, and so on. In the mid of 1970s, America’s youth, especially college students on the west coast, became aware of "dress down" and they started to have the freedom to decide what to wear. So they chose t-shirts carrying lots of messages and jeans with work boots. This was unprecedented compared to traditional button-down shirts and dress shoes on the east coast of the United States. This is how work boots, like Red Wing, were first introduced to the Japanese market by this magazine. Japanese people gained interest in buying imported products from the USA due to prosperous economics in Japan during the 1970s. Since then, work boots have always been more of a fashion item for Japanese consumers rather than its authentic purpose to be worn by blue collars in the work field. So, I can say that this Made in USA magazine was the beginning of my work boots journey. I even brought this magazine to my job interview with Red Wing to illustrate how fond I was of Red Wing boots even since high school. It was not until I graduated college in 1986 when I purchased my first pair and to this day, I still keep my classic engineer boots #2268 on hand even though they don't fit me anymore.
Lin: What is your personal favorite pair if you had to choose from your collection?
Suzuki: It is a very tough question because I enjoy all of my boots, but if I had to decide, I would probably pick the Beckman boots 9011 "Prototype”. I always like the simple, classic, and timeless design of Beckman boots. Besides, the aging result of the blackcherry Featherstone leather is charming and fascinating to me. What makes this pair of 9011 special is that they are a prototype built without box-toe (flat toe). Since 2011, I had considered launching boots without box-toe, which was quite common in 1930-40s. I think soft-toe boots are just so comfortable. This is why numerous pairs of our customized boots had the box-toe removed. I tried to persuade my team to manufacture boots without box-toe and we produced this pair of soft-toe version of #9011 in 2012. From the viewpoint of factory, it was an unorthodox request, but I strongly believed this concept had the potential. Finally, Red Wing Japan officially launched the soft-toe Beckman boots in 2017 and it was a hit. It all began with this pair of #9011 so they mean a lot to me.
Lin: Speaking of Beckman boots, I remember that in 2005 there was a series of boots called "Centennial Boots" that launched prior to the Beckman boots and they are quite similar in style. Can we say the Centennial boots were the forefather of Beckman boots?
Suzuki: Yes, I would say so. For the Centennial year of Red Wing Shoe Co. in 2005, they launched a series boots based on the early century’s styles by using leather soles. At the same time, another series of the Centennial collections used Horween Chromexcel leathers on the iconic styles such as 6” Moc-toe and Round-toe. Later, Red Wing launched Beckman boots based on the early century’s style of Centennial Boots with Horween Chromexcel leathers which was, later, replaced by Featherstone leather tanned in S. B. Foot Tannery. Since then, Beckman boots have been one of our best sellers.
Lin: What are your criteria when you decide to purchase a pair of shoes or boots?
Suzuki: First, they need to fit my feet and they must be comfortable when I am wearing them. If they are not wearable, then I don’t want to put them on even if they look good. Second, I always prefer the boots to be "authentic". I’m talking about boots that are not made to embrace the mass market, but for some specific purpose like hunting, working, and hiking. When I’m wearing an "authentic" pair of boots, I can feel the pride of the shoemakers and this makes the boots more attractive to me. Simply put, the passion and attitude matter most to me. That's why I don't like the logo on the appearance of boots. If they are well-made, then there is no need for the logo to advertise them; the finished product itself is enough evidence to prove the quality.
Lin: Based on our experiences, there are many Taiwanese consumers that prefer the logo on boots. For example, some of the Red Wing styles are made with logo stamp and they are considered to be more valuable than the non-logo styles. It is an interesting situation.
Suzuki: I can understand that demographic. Some people just like logos and others don't. I am just a guy who doesn’t prefer them, but the reason may be from 2008 when many Taiwanese consumers were introduced to Red Wing from a Taiwanese movie. I forgot the name, but something like Hai Jiao?!
Lin: Hai jiao qi hao (Cape No. 7)!
Suzuki: Yes, Hai jiao qi hao! Many Taiwanese consumers got their first pair of Red Wings because of the actor who wore them in the movie. During that period, Red Wing boots were made with the classic logo stamp. It could have left a lasting impression that Red Wing boots are supposed to have that logo stamp.
Lin: This is really an interesting observation! I also noticed that most of your boots have been customized or modified to some degree.
Suzuki: I do customization not only on boots, but also with clothing. I change the buttons on the shirt I am wearing today for a tighter fit. A simple modification is done for a better fit or appearance and it reinforces functionality. I remember when I got a backpack that had to be repaired many times. I replaced the leather straps for better strength and added a leather pocket to organize what I carry. Each change I've made will make it even more special to me. When it comes to custom boots, sometimes it is very useful to test a new idea for our potential future products. Of course, sometimes the customization is just for my personal preference.
Lin: Currently, what are the most desired boots that you intend to purchase? Maybe they are no longer being sold or still available on the market.
Suzuki: I always want to get the earlier models of Red Wing engineer boots from 1950-60s. What makes the earlier models more unique to me is the crimping process. Crimping is pre-shaping the vamp into a curved shape. Thus, it can help the uppers be closer to the shoe last. This is the reason why we can always find the ridge caused by the crimping process at the instep of the uppers. Some people call it "toe track." The ridge on the earlier models of Red Wing’s engineer boots was so vivid and protruding that I don't see how any modern bootmaker could achieve this result. That’s why I have partnered with one of the best Japanese bootmakers, Mr. Matsuura of Brass Tokyo, to see how we can achieve it.
Lin: The Japanese market plays an important role in promoting the American heritage style. This is why Japanese-made leather boots and shoe repair services are at the top in quality. We noticed that you wear both Japanese-made and American-made leather boots. What is the attraction of Japanese-made and American-made boots to you respectively?
Suzuki: When comparing Red Wing to Japanese brands, such as Clinch or Rolling Dub Trio, the major difference lies in the price. Japanese brands are expensive because they put more effort and take more time to make each boot. Brands like Clinch and Rolling Dub Trio are trying to provide more details found on vintage boots to keep up with today's market. On the other hand, American-made boots are still being made in factories where efficiency matters. For example, the crimping process that we just talked about requires more time and labor to achieve this result. The crimping process would just be replaced or abandoned by factories. However, Red Wing’s factory can make four hundred pairs of shoes per day and that amount cannot be made by any Japanese shoemaker. So for me, there is no such thing as a better choice when we are evaluating Japanese-made and American-made boots; it is just a matter of different markets. American-made boots will definitely meet your needs if you are searching for boots of consistent quality at a reasonable price. Japanese-made boots won’t let you down if you are looking for boots with more details made by artisans.
Lin: This reminds me of when I asked Mr. Tokunaga of Rolling Dub Trio about what other brands Mr. Tokunaga recommended. I remember he said “Red Wing” because it is so well-made for its price range.
Suzuki: Yes, Red Wing is still using classic methods and machinery to make high quality boots at affordable prices. Red Wing boots are always good enough for the majority of consumers, but we need to look at Japanese-made boots if you are pursuing more special, handmade, and detailed characteristics of boots. For example, hand-dyed horsebutt leather with beautiful patina and wear is quite common for Japanese brands to use, but you can never expect Red Wing to use such leather that requires high labor and cost.
Lin: Speaking of horsebutt leather, I think we all agree that Japanese consumers are extremely obsessed with horsehide. Anything made with horsehide seems to be more valuable. What do you think about this trend?
Suzuki: You’re right. Horsehide certainly has a good character, but it doesn't mean it is always better than steerhide. In fact, horsehide is not suitable to make boots because horsehide will does not stretch enough sometimes. Many consumers choose horsehide since everyone says it is better, but I like both horsehide or steerhide and each has nice character. When I was ordering the George boots from Clinch, I went for the Latigo leather because it is steerhide that will age beautifully with wear.
Lin: During your career, Red Wing’s brand image has been re-shaped from a “blue-collar” type of work boot to high-end lifestyle apparel, especially in the USA and Europe. Thus, more and more customers will consider wearing Red Wing shoes to be a cool thing. What do you think about this transition?
Suzuki: In Japan, Red Wing has always been viewed as fashion since they were introduced to Japan in the 1970s. So I don't think the change in brand image is strange; it is natural to me. When I first began my career, I met a customer at a trade show. He was so frustrated with the quality caused by the changes that happened in early 2000s. I felt that we needed to bring back all the attractive details of old Red Wing boots. Undoubtedly, it was a big challenge and it took me a long time to do so. We brought back Irish Setter tags, re-introduced some old style leathers that will age beautifully and added more new styles. This worked well to help relaunch classic Red Wing. However, it took much more time to achieve than we had expected and that was the frustrating part. During my time at Red Wing, many products have become more authentic and inspired by old and original details. For consumers, it was a good change that we brought back all of our core DNA of old Red Wing, but most business relaunches always have ups and downs because we never know what new products will bring us such quick turnovers. In the future, the company may choose to go for the mass market for continuous growth. If this happens, it may be good for the company but there should be some who will miss original, authentic and heritage part of the brand…like me.
Lin: We know about Red Wing’s two main divisions, Heritage Boots and Work Boots. What are the differences between them?
Suzuki: Products from the Heritage division are designed to be lifestyle items. On the other hand, the Work Boots Division is aimed at real industrial workers who have safety needs in their work fields. The Work Boots division accounts for majority of Red Wing's business and industrial work boots are still its core business. Red Wing Japan established in 2005 is under the Heritage division and oversees operations in the Eastern Asian market since the consumers here focus more on lifestyle products. A good amount of the Heritage products were not available in the North American market back then. However, since 2010, Red Wing started to sell its Heritage products in the North American market due to strong demand from local retailers, such as J. Crew and Nordstrom. Later on, Red Wing’s Heritage products were also available at some select shops nationwide. Ever since then, the sale of heritage products has been growing in the North American market and now the demand is greater than the Japanese market.
Lin: How do you discuss new products with the chief designer of Heritage Division, Mr. Aki Iwasaki, since he mainly works at Red Wing’s factory in the US?
Suzuki: Aki travels to Japan more than three times a year and we meet with all the key people from our sales team to discuss the new product design. We are planning at least two years ahead for Red Wing’s product designs. We are now thinking about the potential products for 2021 SS. Even though Aki is not in Japan, we can all still exchange ideas through video meeting or email.
Lin: So how do you come up with the design for new products? Do you look back through the old Red Wing catalogs to search for "new" ideas?
Suzuki: Searching old catalogs is one of the sources. Besides, like I said, we have a strong sales team. Most of sales members are from Midori International, the previous Red Wing distributor, and have been in our industry for more than 20 years. We always treasure their opinions during the development of new products.
Lin: What is the most difficult situation you’ve encountered during your career at Red Wing Japan?
Suzuki: I believe I mentioned a similar situation earlier, but the most challenging thing is that we cannot go beyond our factory's capacity to make products. We need to make sure all the processes can be done by the factory each time we receive a new design. Factories are meant to mass-produce and efficiency is the key in doing so. That's why any step that slows down the production is not welcome in the factory, but I totally understand both sides. It is very important for me to visit the factory from time to time so that I can learn new things and know what the factory can and cannot do. We need to know the capabilities of the factory, but designing a new product is a process of negotiations and compromises as well.
Lin: Do you ever come up with a new design that you think will be 100 points, but ends up with 85 points when the final product is eventually made?
Suzuki: It could be, but at least it is better than 80 points and it is good enough to launch. For example, the Klondike leather is the cha-shin (brown core) leather that we developed to mimic the leather on early Red Wing boots. However, it is different from the old version, but it is still good enough to achieve the aging result we expect.
Lin: Previously, you’ve been dealing with Red Wing’s East Asian market, such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore. Could you share some similarities and differences among these markets?
Suzuki: When compared with other Asian countries, Japan has the longest history with work boots like Red Wing (since the late 1970s). Even so, most Asian countries have a similar taste in styles. Especially in places where consumers can read Japanese characters easily like in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. The Japanese magazines have always been the source of information with their fashion magazines and dramas. I also found that consumers in South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia tend to gravitate toward the information from English-based website or media. Generally speaking, consumers in Asian countries do have more similarities than differences based on my observations. Besides, there seems to be more dedicated collectors in Taiwan than in other Asian countries. When I looked at your past M.F.B. interviews, I was so amazed with the collections of those leather boots enthusiasts!
Lin: We realize that Red Wing’s Heritage division always looks back to the past to design their “new” products. Is there any previous style that you want to re-introduce to the market again, but you never had the chance to do so?
Suzuki: As I mentioned, I am so fond of the Red Wing engineer boots from 1950-60s (the #600), so I would have most likely developed my own ideal engineer boots if I had the chance.
Lin: As a sole maker and cobbler, I’m excited to see Red Wing start using new rubber sole options, such as the Gro-cord combination sole and the King “B” sports sole and heel. Are those soles available for shoe-repair service in the future?
Suzuki: Yes, they are available for repair service, but in the case of Japan, we don't sell our original parts to the market. They are only available for repair service. Customers would need to send their boots to us and we will resole them with our original parts.
Lin: What would you suggest to someone who is about to purchase his/her first pair of leather boots?
Suzuki: It really depends on the person, but I would say that it is really important they fit and try them on. Sometimes we just can't explain why we like a pair of shoes. I can always tell you how well they’re made and what materials were used. I believe people are buying boots because they feel the connection with them. It is very similar to marriage and I can always describe the personality and lifestyle of my wife. There must be someone else with the same character and habits like my wife, but it doesn't mean I would love that person as well. It is just a feeling and inspiration. People should just follow what they feel and what they are inspired to like. Also, I would suggest to stay curious as much as possible and try to get as much information as you can since online shopping is very common nowadays.
Lin: Marriage is really a good metaphor and online shopping could be like going on a dating website? You would have the background of who you are about to date, but you would never have feelings for him or her until you see them and get to know them in person.
Suzuki: Yes, I agree. So experiences matter. But even though we have lots of experiences, we all still need to be prepared for the unexpected and unknown when shopping online or even meeting your spouse through dating websites for that matter!
Lin: This is a strong ending. Thank you very much for your time.
Suzuki: My pleasure!
► Conclusion You can always find Mr. Suzuki's passion for leather boots when you sit down with him. Mr. Suzuki is still very much actively involved in the trade of leather boots after his career with Red Wing Japan. In the near future, we can expect Mr. Suzuki and his new project, Boots No Mikata, to bring more people into the field of leather boots and help us all realize and feel our fascination with fashion.