That Asia’s footwear market is booming is no news. Revenues for the sector have been steadily climbing over the last few years and currently amount to $62.5 million, according to online statistics portal Statista.
Western brands make up a big chunk of that figure. Anyone who’s anyone in the industry has invested in the region, whether through branding, physical retail or online strategies. (See: Reebok’s appearance on the Shanghai runways this week.)
But while both big conglomerates and established designers are looking East, a handful of labels from Asia are moving in the opposite direction, expanding their appeal to the international stage.
Hailing from South Korea, Japan and China (but stocked by top Western retailers — and even touted by quite a few celebrities), here are five Asian shoemakers making waves overseas.
Launched in 2010 by South Korean designer Sunyuul Yie, Yuul Yie has won a loyal following both in Asia and the West for its made-to-order sculptural shoes. The brand’s most recognizable style is its patented Y-shaped trapezoid chunky heel, but collections also include mules, slingbacks, Mary Janes and pumps. Ultraminimal and color-blocky, they often feature conceptually complex details such as pearl-embellished heels and sharp square toes, elaborate buckles and unorthodox fabrics. All of the hardware is created and manufactured at the brand’s factory in Seoul, while the leather comes from Italy.
Moda Operandi was the first to stock Yuul Yie in the States two years ago. Today, the label is carried by Farfetch, Nordstrom and Shopbop, among others, and has a presence in the U.K. at Dover Street Market and at BrownsFashion.com. It’s available in Italy, too, on luxury retailer Luisaviaroma.
Its largest market is America.
Reike Nen’s shoes are simple, sleek and slightly quirky. The brand was established in 2010 by former womenswear designer Rei Yoon Hongmi in an old shoe factory quarter in Seoul. Since then, it has grown into somewhat of a cult indie name back home for creating a contemporary style that’s changed the direction of Korean footwear from excessively dressy to quietly understated. It has received attention abroad, too. Today, Reike Nen is stocked on Shopbop and Moda Operandi, as well as multibrand stores across the States, from American Rag CIE in Los Angeles to Lynn Louisa in Washington, D.C. Its design codes rely on comfort and subtle eccentricity, with modern updates on classic shapes through exposed zippers and buckle embellishments; soft, muted colors (or black); and heels that are always low, whether it’s an ankle boot or a mule.
A Hypebeast favorite, Hender Scheme is a Japanese footwear and accessories label based in Tokyo. Designer Ryo Kashiwazaki started it in 2013, though not in the most orthodox way: Initially, the shoes he made were untreated, handcrafted tan leather versions of classic sneakers, like the New Balance 574, Air Force 1, Air Jordan IV, and Reebok Pump Fury. They were creative but essentially unauthorized reproductions of big-name kicks. Unsurprisingly, they got noticed. Some might even say they started the vegetable-tan leather trend of a few seasons back, when anyone from Celine to Nike came out with sneakers showing that same color palette. In 2017, Adidas announced a collaboration with Hender Scheme (more have followed), raising the brand’s profile and its collectable status. Meanwhile, artists like Diddy and Justin Bieber have been seen wearing Kashiwazaki’s shoes.
While sneakers still make up most of its selection, Hender Scheme’s range today also includes boots, slippers and derby shoes. The brand is sold through Mr Porter, Farfetch and Union Los Angeles in the West.
Japanese label Suicoke has been around since 2006 and built a dedicated following across Western and Asian markets. To date, its designers have never disclosed their identities, thus adding to the cult vibe around its shoes. The label focuses on functional outdoor footwear and sandals, which it produces in collaboration with Italian rubber manufacturer Vibram (all of Suicoke’s shoes use Vibram outsoles and have ergonomically molded footbeds). But there’s a clear fashion element to the overall aesthetic: Shapes are clean-cut and often show knitted or neoprene paneled uppers, as in the case of its bestsellers, the Kisee-V, Moto-V and Depa-V2 models. Over the years, Suicoke has caught the attention of many in the street-style and athleisure sector, and it has collaborated with names like Stussy, Highsnobiety, John Elliot and Aime Leon Dore. Already available at Barneys New York, Commonwealth, Revolve and FWRD, to name a few, it just launched its North American website — clear proof of big expansion plans.
Since its launch in 2006, Stella Luna has been elevating the concept of “made in China.” Founded by Shanghai-born Stephen Chi, whose family has been in the shoe business for decades, the brand is a well-established name in Asia. It counts close to 200 stores in China alone, where it’s a staple for high-end footwear ranging from platform sandals to cigarette mules and evening pumps.
For the past few years, though, the brand has also made quite an impression in Europe and the U.S. That has been due, in part, to a slew of celebrity endorsements — Anna Kendrick, Heidi Klum, Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union have all worn Stella Luna styles on and off the red carpet — but also to its international (one might say European-inspired) approach to all aspects of the business. Although still very much rooted in Chinese craftsmanship, Stella Luna’s ateliers are in France and Italy, and most of their materials are sourced in Europe. The company’s global marketing, communication and digital teams work from a showroom and offices in the center of Paris. Currently, it’s carried by luxury retailers and online platforms like Barneys New York, Harrod’s, Selfridges, Farfetch and Yoox. It also recently revamped its website, making it easier for Western shoppers to navigate.