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Edwin Neo: From Cobbler to Master Shoemaker

Edwin Neo: From Cobbler to Master Shoemaker

Five years ago, Mr Edwin Neo was a cobbler repairing shoes and handbags at a Master Fix outlet in Raffles City.

But he had a big dream. He wanted to be a master shoemaker, crafting not only bespoke shoes but also designing and producing his own line of footwear for discerning Singapore men.

He read books on the subject, watched YouTube videos and, after scrimping and saving, hightailed it to Budapest, where he honed his skills under an accredited master shoemaker.

Later, armed with just a piece of paper with the address of a shoemaking workshop he found on the Internet, he headed for Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Today, Mr Neo, 35, is a shareholder in that workshop. It has helped him produce six collections of Oxfords, Monk Straps, Dress Boots, Penny Loafers and Derbys in different leathers and an assortment of colours.

Mr Edwin Neo’s shop ed et al opened in MilleniaWalk about two years ago. It is decorated with a seasoned Chesterfield sofa and leather coffee table to look like a “gentleman’s living room”. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Mr Edwin Neo’s shop ed et al opened in MilleniaWalk about two years ago. It is decorated with a seasoned Chesterfield sofa and leather coffee table to look like a “gentleman’s living room”. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

These shoes, alongside bespoke and custom-made ones stitched together by him and two other shoemakers in a workshop in Ubi, are sold in his exclusive shop ed et al in Millenia Walk. Prices range from about $350 for a pair of ready-to-wear to about $3,000 for a bespoke creation.

“I’m very happy I turned a pipe dream into reality,” he says.

In his Budget Speech earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam trained the spotlight on him and said Mr Neo’s resolve to master specialist skills has taken him places.

Trimly built, Mr Neo looks every inch the hip artisan. His hair is styled like a Japanese ronin or samurai, the front pulled back from the forehead and tied into a little knot at the crown of his head.

His outfit today is a pair of stonewashed jeans, a navy blue army shirt over a grey polo T and a pair of tanned ostrich-skin Monk Straps.

He looks right at home in ed et al, which is decorated with, among other things, a seasoned Chesterfield sofa, leather coffee table and bottles of Yamazaki single malt whisky to look like a “gentleman’s living room”.

But he is not to the manor born.

The youngest of three children, his father is a taxi driver, his mother an accounts clerk with a coffee shop. He grew up in a four-room flat in Upper Aljunied Road.

The former student of Cedar Primary School and St Andrew’s Secondary School had an uneventful childhood, but his teens were a bit troubled.

“It was maths. I couldn’t do well and kept failing the subject. Because of that, I lost interest in school,” says Mr Neo, who was demoted to the Normal Stream in Sec 4 and had to do an extra year to get his O levels. Demoralised, he started hanging out with some dodgy characters, playing truant and smoking. “I hung around with guys who joined gangs but, fortunately, never led that lifestyle myself. I didn’t do things that broke the law,” he says.

Because his lacklustre O-level results ruled out junior college and polytechnics, he enrolled in Lasalle College of the Arts. “It was one of the few schools I could get into,” he says, with a rueful grin.

Although he had half a mind to specialise in fine arts, his parents “coerced” him to take up interior design as they felt it could land him a stable job.

Although he earned his diploma, he did not do well. It was not surprising as he had worked part-time throughout his three years in Lasalle. “My family had financial problems, so I didn’t have any allowance. I had to work because the fees, as well as art materials for my course, were not cheap,” says Mr Neo, who pulled in more than $1,000 each month working as a waiter for several bars and karaoke joints in Boat Quay.

After graduating from art college, he decided to sign up as a regular with the Singapore Armed Forces. “To a kid from Lasalle, the prospect of earning more than $2,000 a month was very attractive,” he says.

He spent five years in the army’s artillery unit where, among other things, he worked on weapon development. In 2002, he resigned to explore other career options.

His brother-in-law, who was running a couple of Master Fix shoe repair outlets, asked him to come on board as a cobbler.

Mr Neo agreed, even though the pay packet was less than half his last-drawn salary in the army.

“I thought that I’d just join him for a while,” he says.

But that decision changed his life. It sparked a love affair with shoemaking and led him to ed et al.

Although it may not be everybody’s idea of a choice profession, cobbling, Mr Neo says, gave him a sense of fulfilment.

“You know you are gaining skills which you will never lose when you work with hand tools and leather. I was pretty good at it and it was something I could see myself doing,” adds Mr Neo, who learnt on the job.

As time passed, his curiosity for the craft grew, and he felt he needed more than the informal training he was receiving.

At the back of his mind, he wanted to, one day, start his own shoe repair counter, such as the ones he saw in Japan. “They’re very professionally set up, the cobblers are dressed nicely and their handwork is exquisite,” he says.

He started to read up on shoemaking. “It was never meant to be a career. I started learning to make shoes more as a preparation for my own counter and to gain more in-depth knowledge about the subject.”

Internet forums, he discovered, were good places to start.

“I found out how people did things, how they primed leather, what chemicals they used.”

Soon, he was buying shoe lasts – the moulds around which shoes are moulded – and specialist tools, such as lasting pliers and French hammers, from eBay and other sites. “I didn’t even know if they were the right tools, but I would just buy them,” says Mr Neo. “Everything I knew then was self-taught.”

It took him nearly four months to make, entirely by hand, his first pair of Oxfords.

“After a while, I felt I had learnt all I could from books and the Internet. I needed a master to guide me through the process to make sure that whatever I studied and had learnt was correct.”

That person, he decided, was Mr Marcell Mrsan, who has an apprenticeship programme and whose YouTube videos he had been following. The third-generation Hungarian shoemaster has his own acclaimed line of bespoke shoes called Koronya.

Rustling up the finances for the six-week apprenticeship in Budapest in 2010 took a bit of planning.

There were two other apprentices – one German and one American – on the programme with him. Their days began early at 7.30am, and ended at 4.30pm.

“We were with him in his workshop, and learning as he worked on his clients’ shoes. I acquired not just skills, but also respect for the craft. I started looking at shoemaking in a different light. It’s a very specialised profession,” says Mr Neo who, as an apprentice, also had to sweep floors and clean the workshop.

He must have been good because Mr Mrsan offered him a job, which he regretfully turned down.

The idea of making shoes had already started percolating in his head. “I worked for my brother-in-law for another year but I knew I had to do something,” says Mr Neo, who got married not long after his return from Budapest.

“My wife told me that, if I wanted to strike out on my own, I should do it before we had children.”

That was when he started coming up with his designs and sourcing for shoemakers in Vietnam to make them.

As he had little savings, he maxed out his credit lines to start ed et al. His father-in-law gave him a little space for a workshop in his machinery factory.

Together with an old friend, he pumped $14,000 into the business.

“I don’t know if he really believed in the plan but he wanted to support me. We were supposed to put in $10,000 each in several tranches but, luckily, by the time we invested $14,000, we had already started making money.”

Serendipity was kind to him. He met former photographer and gallery owner Dominic Khoo, who gave him a space at his posh indie art gallery 28th Fevrier, which was then in Jalan Kilang. Mr Khoo was a big patron of artisans and craftsmen.

Mr Edwin Neo honing his craft during his six-week apprenticeship in Budapest in 2010. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EDWIN NEO

Mr Edwin Neo honing his craft during his six-week apprenticeship in Budapest in 2010. PHOTO: COURTESY OF EDWIN NEO

Mr Neo says: “He didn’t charge us rent. We just paid him 20 per cent of what we made, which was very fair. He had a lot of connections and introduced us to a lot of people. We had a lot of publicity.”

He started taking orders for bespoke shoes, which take at least 40 hours of hand work to fashion.

His first customer was an agricultural scientist based in Jakarta, who wanted special soles for a pair of shoes which could take him from field to office.

A special shoe last was made for the client; there were a couple of fittings as well. “He is still my client. But for that pair, I charged him only $500, which was dirt cheap,” says Mr Neo, whose bespoke prices now start at $3,000. Those from famous Italian shoemaker Berluti, he says, cost more than $8,000.

Two months after he started ed et al , Mr Neo launched his first collection. “The weekend that we launched, we did $10,000 worth of business. The shoes were going for $250 a pair. We had a Facebook page but we didn’t know we had so many fans from the Net.”

The second collection was launched at multi-label boutique Front Row at Raffles Hotel, after the store manager saw their shoes. It did even better, raking in $16,000 worth of business on the first day.

Encouraged, the budding shoemaker moved out of his father-in-law’s factory and set up a workshop in Ubi. He also decided to invest in the Vietnamese workshop which produced his shoes.

“We trained their staff and took a share of the workshop,” says Mr Neo, who met other patrons who encouraged his craft, including design gallery owner Roy Teo.

His store ed et al opened in Millenia Walk about two years ago. Before that, his shoes were sold, alongside other curated men’s fashion items, at 55 in Boat Quay.

“There are now several tiers in our business,” he says. “We offer ready-to-wear, a custom-made ‘by request’ range, a prestige range and bespoke services.”

His shoes are also stocked by premium men’s lifestyle store Benjamin Barker.

Mr Neo now has eight staff, including two shoemakers, and his annual turnover is nearly $1 million.

His wife, Karen, handles logistics and administration for the company. The couple have a two-year-old daughter.

Asked what it is like being an entrepreneur, he says with a laugh: “On very busy days, I wonder what kind of monster I have created. When you’re an entrepreneur, you can’t switch off, your mind is always working. But I have a very good team.”

Expansion is already on the cards.

“We’re hoping to go international. Our next stop is Australia.”

(…..Collected and Edited)

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