|Handmade shoemaker Ko Kee-hwang smiles during an interview with The Korea Times at Italy Shoes, his shoe shop located on the corner of Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street in Seoul, Feb. 14. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
By Lee Min-young
The handmade shoe stores near Yeomcheon Bridge in Seoul have a history dating back almost a century. This block represents Korea's first-ever community of shoe merchants. The shoemakers in the area have passed down their knowledge and skills over the generations, making it a unique example of Korean craftsmanship.
Korea Times video by Kim Kang-min, Lee Ka-jin
This road is also a testament to the resilience and dedication of the country's shoe merchants, who have overcome countless obstacles to remain operating for nearly a century.
Competition from overseas suppliers of cheaper goods and large retail stores caused a decrease in profit margins for the street's small businesses, making it harder for them to stay in business.
|Hand-made shoe shops line Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street, Feb. 14. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
There are, however, still around 130 shops operating on Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street, according to its website.
The unique experience they offer has allowed them to stand out in the crowded market and attract customers who are looking for more than just a pair of shoes. By focusing on quality and customer service, they have been able to maintain the loyalty of their customers, despite the competition.
|Shoemaker Ko Kee-hwang shapes a cast that has been made by plaster poured on top of the paraffin wax mold, Feb. 14. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
The Korea Times visited traditional handmade shoemaker Ko Kee-hwang at his shoe shop Italy Shoes, located on the corner of Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street, just west of Yeomcheon Bridge to the north of Seoul Station. His shop has stood in the same spot for the last half-century.
"We used to take combat boots discarded by the U.S. military to make shoes in those early years. That's how this community began," Ko said recalling the old days.
Ko makes handmade shoes out of high-quality materials that are known for their comfort and durability.
|Shoemaker Ko Kee-hwang places a piece of leather on a shoe to make custom-fitting shoes, Feb. 14. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
The customers he gets are usually those who find standard-fitting shoes uncomfortable or those with disabilities as well as people who are looking for a very specific and unique design.
"When customers walk in, I have them take off their shoes so I can inspect their feet by hand. I would ask if they have any specific needs or if there's anything that's making their feet uncomfortable so I can customize a shoe that's right for them," Ko said.
By physically inspecting their feet, Ko can get a better idea of the customer's needs and be sure to find a shoe that fits them perfectly and provides the support they need.
The customer then puts on wool socks that he has on hand and dips their feet in paraffin wax. The socks are taken off and plaster is poured on top to make a cast.
He then uses a sponge-like mold to measure the feet more precisely.
|A customer's feet are measured with a sponge-like mold at Italy Shoes in Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street, Feb. 14. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
"The foot is measured by being pressed against it. You can see that it leaves behind a footprint, and I've put a checkmark on the spot where the customers said their feet hurt," he explained while measuring the feet of a customer. By placing a mark on the spot, he can successfully chart the customer's exact area of discomfort, as he has a visual reference for the exact dimensions of their feet.
What he does includes providing customers with a more customized solution for their foot pain. "This customer has benign tumors on both sides and a shallow arch here. So, I've put a checkmark here to add arch support," Ko explained.
|Shoemaker Ko Kee-hwang marks the spots where a customer says their feet hurt, Feb. 14. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
He said arch support will help distribute the weight on the customer's feet more evenly and reduce the pressure on the areas with tumors. This will help reduce pain and protect the customer's feet from further injury.
The next step is to pour the plaster, which creates a cast when taken off the mold.
"This is what we use to make insoles and we can create a perfect replica of the shape of your feet," Ko said. "This customer here has benign tumors here called Morton's neuroma. We'll leave the cushion strength of the insole as is, but just cut out the part where the tumor is rubbing against the shoe and fill it with latex. Eventually, the gentle massaging will soften the tumor and make it invisible in the long run."
When the cast comes out, he covers it with a piece of leather to make custom-fitted shoes.
|Custom-made shoes by Ko Kee-hwang at Italy Shoes in Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street, Feb. 14 / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
"They call me an artisan in this craft," Ko said proudly with a custom shoe in one hand. The attention to detail and the care he takes in crafting each pair of shoes is what has earned him such a prestigious title, he believes.
However, the uncertainty about his future is what troubles him these days.
|Shoemaker Ko Kee-hwang wants to make sure that his knowledge and skills are preserved for generations to come. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
"I'm getting old, so I'm hoping there are people out there who are willing to carry the torch. In Korea and around the world, there are still so many people out there who are in pain because their feet aren't made to wear standard-fitting shoes," he said.
He is hoping that younger generations will continue to create and advocate for custom-made traditional footwear options for people with different foot shapes, sizes and needs.
"I wanted to help people with the knowledge I have, and that's why I never applied for a patent," he said. "I wish someone would come into my workshop asking me to teach them what I know. But no one has stepped through that door."
He believes that his knowledge should be shared with the world and not kept to himself, and he is looking for someone with the same passion to pass on his knowledge to. He is worried, however, that it may be too late as he is getting older and time is running out.
|Yeomcheongyo Shoe Street has been designated as Seoul Future Heritage. / Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Despite being aware of the ticking of the clock, he is determined to persevere and see his efforts through. It's clear to him that providing quality and custom-made shoes for people who have difficulty finding comfortable and well-fitting shoes will have a significant impact on their lives. Whenever customers express their appreciation, it serves as a powerful reminder of the meaningful work that he does.
"I used to have clients who had never worn such comfortable and perfectly fitting shoes in their entire lives before they came to my shop. They would walk a few hundred meters and come all the way back just to thank me again," he said. "These are the moments that encourage me to keep doing what I'm doing."