Crystal heelless shoes designed by Noritaka Tatehana sparkled on the runway of Iris van Herpen’s 2015 A/W collection. The shoes were created using the technology of 3D prints. Fashion Headline interviewed Tatehana to understand the stories behind the marvelous designs.

Fashion Headline (FH): Were the 3D-printed futuristic shoes you designed in collaboration with Iris van Herpen’s 2015 A/W collection made in Japan?

Tatehana: Everything except the 3D prints was created in Japan. The prints were designed by 3D Systems in California. In my opinion, the overall design of the shoes could’ve only been made in Japan. 3D prints are still in the experimentation phase, but with the addition of Japanese craftsmanship, something truly exceptional is created.

FH: What are your thoughts on the 3D printing process?

Tatehana: Up until the collaboration with Iris, I had always worked with the same 3D printing team. Before starting, I imagined the 3D printing process to be very simple. I thought that once the 3D images were created, the design process was nearly complete. But once I actually got involved in the process, I realized that there are many small obstacles that need to be cleared to complete the modeling and printing. Since the 3D printing’s performance is still not too great, the lamination lines come out in the design, and the artisans have to spend a lot of time and skill to remove those lines. 3D prints appear to be very convenient, but there’s a lot of work involved to create the final product.

FH: Why do you continue to introduce 3D prints even though it involves a lot of effort?

Tatehana: The 3D printing process is costly, but there are industrial benefits such as reducing the amount of time spent to create the design or creating new forms of design, that were not possible before. It seems contradictory to use industrialized pieces as an expression of art, but I realized that having a 3D printer doesn’t complete the process. The modeling process and work performed with computers by craftsman are needed. This is the same as the process of using brushes to paint lacquer.

FH: So that’s why it’s meaningful to design the products in Japan?

Tatehana: Yes. The fact that there are many Japanese technicians across various fields is what makes Japan the best place to design 3D printed products. In the past, feudal lords became patrons of the arts, and that’s how the culture of craftsmanship grew in Japan. Japan is a country that can create many many things by hand. Formerly, the tools were brushes etc. but now the tools have become computers and its software. By combining the handwork of Japanese artisans, we were able to create the 3D printed shoes. I think it’d be difficult to perform the same process elsewhere.

FH: It’s interesting how implementing a new technology can bring together new techniques like modeling and the old like, brushing techniques. What is the large stainless panel with patterns for?

Tatehana: That’s for creating embossed designs. The patterns on the panel were created using laser-cutting techniques, which were performed by an atelier in Toyama. Takaoka city of Toyama is known for its industry of casting metals. We store such materials in our studio because we take care of the design process ourselves, instead of outsourcing. The atelier processes the sheet metal for us, and we handle the embossing of the patterns onto leather. We often ask the atelier to create molds unique to our brand.

FH: So your products are a fusion of the casting of metals performed in Takaoka city, your team’s creativity and laser-cutting techniques?

Tatehana: I’ve been involved in many creative processes, and what I enjoy the most is that the final touch is always done by hand. For example, when designing shoes, I handle the finish, and for products made out of metal, an artisan makes the final polishes. These finishes cannot be quantified, which is why they can only be done by hand and not with machines. That’s why I can’t ever imagine handwork becoming redundant.

FH: We visit many places in Japan to carry out interviews and see that there aren’t many young craftsmen. What is the future of Japanese culture and techniques seen through your eyes?

Tatehana: Artisans are technicians and are different from us designers in that they do not communicate to the public. There was a time when artisans were creating parts of a product without knowing the brand behind the final product. In the past, trade brokers (tonya in Japanese) were involved in bringing together the artisans with the companies. Recently, many artisans are becoming aware of the fact that if they continue to only be technicians, they can only work when work is provided to them. That’s why I’m involved in communicating about the roles of the artisans as part of my creative team. I want my customers to know how many people are involved in the design process and the types of jobs related to the entire process and where they are being carried out and why. For example, Toyama, known for its industry of casting metal, has a rich and clean water source from the snow of the Northern Alps. As with Toyama, I want to present the reasons and stories behind the Japanese techniques supporting the design process.

FH: Do you think that Japanese artisans are good at making the most of the natural environment?

Tatehana: Yes, I think that Japanese craftsmen are skilled in creating products that make the most of the land they live on. I’m a little worried about the future though. The artisan that helps me with my creations is already over 70 years of age, and he has no successor. I sometimes think that if he wasn’t around, I wouldn’t be able to make certain designs.

Find out more in part 2, “I used to be Self-Centered, but Now I Want to Help Preserve Japanese Cultures”.