Liebe Hsing is a new footwear brand that highlights Taiwan’s traditional shoemaking industry
By Catherine Shu / Staff Reporter
Former fashion marketer Hsing-ju Lin (林倖如) wrote a master’s thesis entitled “Stylistic Change in Women’s Footwear” at the University of Leeds and enjoys poring over books about the history of shoemaking. Lin’s interest in shoes, however, is not purely academic. Her year-old brand Liebe Hsing is dedicated to creating stylish women’s footwear while drawing attention to traditional shoemaking in Taiwan.
Once an important part of the export industry, the number of craftspeople who make shoes by hand began to decline sharply in the mid-1980s after many jobs were outsourced to China and Southeast Asia. All of Liebe Hsing’s colorful, classic designs are produced by the Juisheng Shoemaking Center (瑞晟鞋樣中心), a tiny Greater Taichung workshop run by Lu Kuang-mao (呂光茂), who has over 30 years of shoemaking experience.
Traditional shoemaking “is a part of Taiwan’s culture. I’m still a new brand, but I’ve already thought of how to bring it forward to a new generation,” says Lin, adding that her goal is to make footwear that will last for years.
“My challenge is creating a design that people will look at in three decades and still want to use because it looks contemporary and not outdated,” she says.
Liebe Hsing (the name is a combination of the German word for “love” and the first character of Lin’s given name) footwear, which ranges in price from NT$3,480 to NT$7,280 for a pair of lace-up boots, is designed to flatter a wide variety of body types and can be custom ordered. The back of a magenta suede lambskin sandal is carefully sculpted into a sexy curve that gracefully accentuates the wearer’s ankle, while the straps on a pair of classic Mary Jane high heels dip into a gentle “v” over the instep to create the illusion of longer legs.
Lin avoids sequins and rhinestones because the glue used to attach these embellishments damages leather. Instead, she adds visual interest with unusual color or texture combinations, thoughtfully placed seams and finishes that highlight the leather’s natural grain. Hidden details include narrow edgings around innersoles in a color that contrasts with the shoe’s exterior.
“I don’t like using a lot of bling because I think they take away from the wearer’s own light,” says Lin, who keeps inspiration scrapbooks filled with photos from fashion blogs like The Sartorialist (www.thesartorialist.com) and magazines like Elle Decor. Her frequent travels (Lin tries to go abroad once a year) also influence her designs: The sweeping lines of Stockholm sailboats and yachts inspired several sandals in her latest collection.
Lin’s emphasis on comfort and wearability is influenced in part by her mother, she says. The two women wear the same shoe size and when Lin left home to attend high school in Changhua County, she bought footwear to send back to her mother in their small hometown in Yunlin County, which only had one shoe store.
“My mom’s feet were always very delicate and she had to buy well-made shoes. She got blisters easily from fake leather, especially during the summer,” Lin says. “That’s when I started to see the difference quality makes.”
Lin, who earned a certificate in shoemaking from the Footwear and Recreation Technology Research Institute (台中鞋技中心) in Taichung, has exacting standards for the animal skins she orders from a Taiwanese supplier: Cow leather has to be 1.2mm thick, lambskin just 0.6mm. She wears all of her shoe prototypes to make sure they are comfortable and is frank about the potential shortcomings of shoes made by hand.
Because the leather upper is hammered to the sole by hand, the join between the two parts is less uniform and sleek than one that has been pressed together by a machine. Traditional techniques, however, allow shoemakers to work with more delicate leathers like lambskin, add hand-tooled designs, and conduct thorough quality checks after each step of the manufacturing process to ensure that all components are securely fastened together.
Before agreeing to work with Lin, who at that time had little shoe design experience, Lu grilled his potential client for almost six hours about her business plans and goals.
“Shoemaking is not an easy business. It takes a lot of work, you need to understand footwear construction and if you make limited quantities, the production costs are high,” Lu said during a break at his workshop.
Lu usually works with two to four other shoemakers. On a recent day, two women carefully cut and joined leather pieces, making sure the line of stitching was just one millimeter away from the seam. Lu painstakingly hammered the body of a red lambskin high heel to its sole, steadying a heavy plastic last in his lap. On average, he says, each of the workshop’s shoemakers completes two pairs per day.
“Their skills are not in their machines, it is in their hands,” Lin says. “I want people to see the amount of detail these artists can put in each pair of shoes.”
A step into the past
When Lu Kuang-mao began an apprenticeship with a shoemaker more than three decades ago, it wasn’t because he was passionate about footwear. “I had to make money and eat,” says Lu, who grew up on a farm.
Since then, Lu has cultivated a reputation as one of Taiwan’s top traditional shoemakers. He estimates he has made tens of thousands of shoes over the course of his career and teaches at the Footwear and Recreation Technology Research Institute.
Hsing-ju Lin makes frequent trips to Lu’s workshop in Greater Taichung, and the two collaborate closely on each of Liebe Hsing’s designs. A new set of plastic lasts (forms in the shape of the foot) is made for each style. Lin carefully checks each new shipment from her leather suppliers, making sure that the animal skins used in her shoes are free from defects or flaws in the dye (sometimes as much as one-third of a hide is unusable). Many Liebe Hsing designs are made with delicate lambskin, which Lu stabilizes with an all-natural adhesive and stitches with thin nylon thread. The body of each shoe is carefully hammered to its sole; some are baked at low heat in an oven to mold the leather.
Lu estimates that half of his students at the Footwear and Recreation Technology Research Institute hope to become shoe designers, while the other half plan to develop new shoe manufacturing technologies. Though traditional shoemaking skills are still being passed on to the next generation, Lu says small workshops like his are gradually disappearing as their owners retire.
“The construction of shoes is complicated and there are so many steps,” Lu says. “It sometimes takes the same amount of time to make 10 pairs of shoes by hand as it takes a factory to produce 100 pairs.”