Leather Soul started as a shoe shop but now aims to dress the gentleman in head-to-toe handcrafted elegance
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 20, 2012
The opening of Leather Soul Downtown — call it LSDT for short — marks a homecoming for Thomas Park, whose original downtown Honolulu store was the size of a walk-in closet.
"My shelves were from Nordstrom Rack. I used whatever I could put together. I had two racks, one couch, and I was my only salesperson," he said. "When I needed help, my dad would come; my wife helped on lunch breaks."
That was eight years ago. Three moves later, and now with stores at the Royal Hawaiian Center and on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Park is venturing beyond the footwear that launched his business. Now aiming toward dressing men from head to toe, he's introducing his haberdashery, or men's outfitter, with an emphasis on carefully selected goods, service and a salon ambience alien to much of retail today.
The new 1,900-square-foot store is in the historic Stangenwald Building at 119 Merchant St., recalling the "Mad Men" era of the 1950s when men gathered in clubby rooms of dark wood and mahogany leather to discuss business and important issues of the day. The store even houses a hideaway bar that will be used for gatherings and available to Leather Soul VIPs.
But first there are the shoes, handcrafted brands such as Alden, John Lobb, Edward Green, Saint Crispins and George Cleverly, in prices starting at about $300 for loafers and $600 or $700 for basic dress shoes.
Park's passion for footwear started with Nikes.
"I got my first Air Jordans when I was 5," he said. "After that I always wanted the newest Nikes."
He collected Nikes through high school and in college started working in a men's boutique, where he gained an appreciation for high-end footwear.
"You instantly notice the difference," he said. "You'll look like a million dollars and feel the comfort. A great pair of shoes can make a man's wardrobe and will last a lifetime."
Like other Gen-X-ers, Park experienced the economic recessions of the early 1980s and late 1990s and shopped thrift stores. He also gained an appreciation for handcrafted, high-quality goods, which for him carried over to sustainable artisan footwear that brings lifelong value.
Customers will find that many of the shoes carried at Leather Soul can be resoled over and over and will last a lifetime with proper care, as opposed to cheap shoes that must be cast out when worn. Short of bringing back the shoeshine boys of bygone times, the store will offer a cleaning station to allow men to drop off their shoes to be brushed, moisturized and waxed to bring back their luster.
Park's passion for shoes led him to the source, factories such as the Alden Shoe Co. in Massachusetts, where a high-quality welted shoemaking tradition began in 1884. Alden was part of a New England shoe industry that flourished until price-conscious consumers bought into mass production in the last century.
"It was very important for me to see and understand how a shoe is made and meet the people involved," Park said, noting that despite these companies' brand recognition, many of have quite limited output. A typical high-end designer brand might produce 500,000 pairs of shoes in a year, while Edward Green produces only 12,000 pairs annually.
Park opened his first Leather Soul store in 2004, hoping to share his appreciation of artisan-quality shoes with downtown's CEOs, bankers and lawyers. He had quit a job with Lexus to launch his own company, and business was slow to start. He relied on his wife, Lori, to pay the household bills, and says now, "I owe everything to her."
Over time, Leather Soul was discovered by Japanese visitors who shared his aesthetic and passion for Alden's made-in-America footwear with a long brand history. Park moved to another closetlike space in Waikiki to be closer to this market, and then in 2008 to the Royal Hawaiian Center. Successive years saw a move into a grander space, another expansion and the opening of a Beverly Hills store in 2010. Customers include actors Will Smith and Arnold Schwarzenegger, although Park says he doesn't actively court celebrities, preferring to appeal to the man on the street.
He said the most recent economic downturn actually helped his business.
"A lot of guys my age, who were in their 20s when I started, are now in their 30s or 40s, and they're looking for this type of product. They want something well made; they want craftsmanship and not some mass-produced pieces of plastic. They're looking for value in good quality and are willing to spend a little bit more for it."
Park's relationship with shoemakers allowed him to develop custom shoes for Leather Soul, born of his collector's mentality.
He said there are a lot of similarities between collecting kicks and high-end footwear. "As a collector, you always want to get the newest things, the limited editions. It's exciting and makes you feel like a little kid in a candy store."
To celebrate LSDT's opening, he's offering 24 pairs of $725 limited-edition Alden Cigar Jumper Boots for Leather Soul in Cigar Shell Cordovan leather, generating such buzz that one California client promised to fly his assistant here to pick up a pair.
His limited editions have been such a success that they have been copied by much larger retailers, but Park remains a step ahead, going as far as to design his own lasts — forms in the shape of a human foot from which footwear is made. That way, no one else will be able to imitate the Leather Soul fit.
Park said he never paid much attention to the rest of his wardrobe, but following friends' examples led him to take more of an interest in his overall look, and he's selectively added accessories and clothing collaborations to his merchandise mix.
He continues to work only with companies that can offer the quality he demands. Some examples include Reyn Spooner for Leather Soul, Taylor Stitch for Leather Soul shirts cut to fit Asian men who have trouble finding slimmer cuts and shorter sleeve lengths, and 3Sixteen for Leather Soul slim-cut jeans made in the U.S. from Japanese selvage denim.
"Nordstrom started out as a shoe store, so I think it's a natural progression, but we'll always be a shoe store first," Park said.
When starting, he often found himself being asked about his five-year plan. Having met all his goals thus far, Park said his ambition is "to have every important decision affecting Hawaii to be made in this store.
"I want this to be the place big deals happen, where people can come in on their coffee break, sit down and just talk story. I don't care if they don't shop here. We're not in a position where we need to sell, sell, sell. I just like the idea of having people take their time and having conversations.
"It's part of a new concept we're introducing, having asked ourselves, ‘Who is the LS Man?' We want to know what he likes, what he believes in."
Leather Soul Downtown, 119 Merchant St., is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and Saturdays by appointment. Call 523-7700.