Buddy Tan, shoemaker and craftsman

Buddy Tan: Shoemaker and Craftsman [TLC 04]

The Creative Life (then Creative Stories) is a mini series where I sit with emerging creatives and seasoned professionals to know and share their stories. They show a side of the creative life that we don’t often see: vulnerability, mistakes made, questions about the way their industries work, and lessons they’ve learned, both the painful and the eureka moments.

Buddy Tan is a craftsman at heart and a shoemaker by trade. His brand, Black Wing Shoes, focuses on creating world class locally-made custom shoes every Filipino would be proud to wear. I’m honored to share his story and the lessons he’s learned throughout his creative entrepreneurial journey.

Describe the journey. How did you get started as a craftsman and shoemaker?

I used to only design low-cost sandals as that is what was closely tied to our family business. That was 10 years ago. After a long hiatus from the footwear industry, I came back but with the intention of making upscale sandals, casual loafers, and customizable footwear. I decided to make better use of my afternoons since it was during this time when the family business is most relaxed. I found a shoemaker who was willing to work with me in rediscovering how to make good shoes. It doesn’t have to be great shoes yet, but so as long as we keep improving our pairs I was fine with paying for monthly wages. I wanted to know the process so I can find ways to further develop the process and try to inject something new into the traditional way of shoemaking, so I studied with my master shoemaker as well as watched tons of videos from various shoe companies and studied their business models and processes.

After months of practicing and working on prototypes, I was introduced to the bazaar clients who eventually ordered some custom shoes from us. We started with topsiders and oxfords which were a big hit at the bazaars at that time and from then on we kept moving forward.

The name of your brand is a creative process in and of itself. Why Black Wing Shoes?

Credits: Black Wing Shoes

The simple answer is that the first pairs that were sold were black wingtips since it was all the rage back then, hence Black Wing. But as I was considering different brand names to use back then, I wanted something that can be a hit locally but still with the goal of going international.

I could have easily gone with Buddy Footwear or some really local sounding brand name, but I wanted the brand name to embody the perspective that I use when I set up the workshop which is target local but aim for global. I want the brand to be easily recalled even in the foreign markets and Black Wing Shoes is a very basic name which is easy to remember, even for non-English native speakers.

Black Wing Shoes sets out to change the shoe industry by creating custom high-quality leather footwear for any size and purpose. Could you describe the process that goes into each pair?

I don’t believe that we are doing anything out of the ordinary yet aside from the “diskarte” method in customizing the fit of the shoes. Basically, once we take the client’s foot measurements, we adjust the shoe last that will be used to accommodate for the girth at key points as well as adjust the proportions if need be. We have yet to perfect the whole process but with every pair that we make, the experience brings us closer and closer to finding a good manual method with only basic tools. Once the last is finished we will adjust the upper patterns if need be and start with the shoe construction. When the client comes to claim his/her pair, a fit to comfort principle will take over and we will adjust the shoe if need be.

I think the most notable change that Black Wing is setting is actually in the business model. Traditionally, shoemakers in Marikina often go for mass production, low-cost shoes with little development on styling. Also, workers are forced to churn out so many pairs since they only get paid by piece rate. We went on to prove that with locally sourced materials, a finer attention to detail and quality, we can produce shoes that can compete with the imported brands which have beaten the Marikina-made shoes for over a decade.

Also, to be fair to the workers, we developed a wage system which ensures that they have regular take home pay as well as extra for each pair that they finish as an incentive. The better and higher quality their work is, the more they take home. A recent goal of mine is to uplift the shoemaking profession into a respectable and worthy career because even until now, sadly, the term “sapatero” is still considered as a low-end job like how our farmers are treated while it is actually a very hard and skilled profession, which requires years of training and experience to master.

You’ve been in business for two years now. What was it like starting out and how did you establish your current following (i.e. 2,973 Facebook likes)?

Buddy Tan

The workshop has been around for the two years but the Black Wing brand is only over a year old. When we started out I was really in the negative. We would only produce around 15 pairs a month for BWS in the beginning. But with my wife marketing for me and a couple of her friends helping out by coming out with blog articles, the inquiries grew and we eventually started getting regular clients.

There was doubt, of course. The workshop was not making money and I had to continuously pay my employees even if we are not meeting our sales quota. But as with all small beginnings, we had to keep at it and not give up. I kept on praying for a break and we eventually got it. People started to recognize and old followers eventually took an interest after they have seen our growth in shoemaking since we started marketing our products. We just kept doing what we do and eventually, clients wanted to help out so they told their friends about us and their experience in getting their own custom shoes.

Do you have a pair of custom shoes that you consider particularly significant, that you have an emotional relationship with?

Every new pair is like a baby. I watch how the client fits them and like a dad sending off his kids out into the world, I want to be sure that they are ready for the task ahead. That is why we do not release shoes that do not meet the client’s approval in terms of fitting and workmanship. We also take back pairs for refittings if the fitting changes, if the client starts feeling uncomfortable with them. So all pairs are our babies until they leave the workshop.

But one of my most notable pairs would be my wedding shoes. It is the pair which made me realize that we can beat the foreign brands in our territory and bring back the hearts of Filipinos to support quality local crafts.

Let’s focus on you and your experience as a creative. Who are your mentors or models?

My experiences outside the footwear industry taught me most of my management methods but for shoes here are the notable brands which I studied:

  • Onitsuka Tiger — this brand inspired me to learn how to build something out of nothing and think outside the box.
  • TOM’S — I studied their business model extensively. I learned that we can integrate business with social initiatives which can help bring about change.
  • Allen Edmonds — classic shoes and their info videos over YouTube really helped me get a grasp on traditional production line shoemaking.
  • Santoni and other Italian brands — classic Italian styling which served as the peg for the first pairs that we tried to make and continues to inspire our current styles.

It is all about learning from the masters, studying their works and to keep on trying to replicate their works while striving to create something original.

What is your biggest struggle as a shoemaker/craftsman?

Local suppliers find it hard to produce higher quality materials, which is really becoming an issue since it gets harder and harder for us to sort through the leathers which we use. Also, maintaining the balance between being a business manager and a creative is hard since we still have to recoup the investment while at the same time, not lose the spirit of wanting to create more original designs and constructions. The way we managed this now is we set a maximum production limit so we can still have some time for prototypes and experiments.

What is the most important thing people should know about you as a creative?

I never gave up. There was a time where all things creative was thrown out the window due to work but I always kept a small notebook where I kept on doodling and writing down various concepts and thoughts.

What do you aspire for? What steps do you intend to take to get to that point?

I am hoping to be known as someone who found an alternative and helped revive the craft. Because part of the creative process is finding something different in the ordinary and bringing it out for others to see.

I will keep on studying by experience and experimentation. Learning won’t and shouldn’t end. I will keep on doing this with the same passion and drive from when we first started Black Wing and let our story and achievements speak for us.

What advice can you give to the young creative starting out?

Credits: Black Wing Shoes

Never ever give up. Delay your plans if you must, but never forget yourself and give up your dream. Even if your situation forces you to pursue a different path, never forget who you are. Always have a little time to practice your craft and keep at it. You never know when you might get your break.

How do you spend your free time?

Taking care of my baby and my wife, daydreaming while keeping an eye out the next idea that pops into my head.

What book would you recommend to fellow creatives or up-and-coming entrepreneurs?

I’m partial towards art books, but in reality all the inspiration that one would ever need is in one’s surroundings. Your family, friends, experiences, these would be your primary source of lessons and inspiration.

For entrepreneurs, read up on how other people achieved their success and learn from it. Do not imitate their method, find your own. But it helps to read and learn about others experiences.

What is your favorite tool to use when creating work?

  • Mars® technico 780 for my pencil (I’ve had this since freshman college).
  • NBS Best Buy sketch pads for working with sketches.
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 for presenting and sketching new designs for clients.
  • Crocodile masking tape for shoe patterns.

How can the community best support you + Black Wing Shoes?

Believe in us. Believe that we can make quality shoes and leather goods. Challenge us with new and exciting builds so we can push ourselves beyond what we are now. Pitch ideas, we are willing to collaborate and help others grow with us.

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