For his graduation project last year at Tokyo University of the Arts, Noritaka Tatehana crafted a pair of shoes that looked like go-go boots for an alien, replete with 10-inch platform soles and a heel-less form that appeared to defy gravity. His professors were less than enthusiastic. “They didn’t see the value,” recalls Tatehana, 26. “The university is very conservative. They do not like the avant-garde, the cutting edge.”
Undeterred, he began e-mailing stylists and one of the few responses came from Nicola Formichetti, who asked him to create a pair for none other than Lady Gaga. Since then, the pop star has worn Tatehana’s outlandishly tall shoes on multiple occasions: in the video for her 2010 hit song “Alejandro” (a nude leather style), to a Taipei yoga studio, of all places, in July (black, adorned with gold thornlike spikes) and later that month at an appearance in Singapore (transparent vinyl). Tatehana gifted Gaga her first pair (plain black leather) and she subsequently ordered 14 more styles after that. The two then struck an exclusive deal that the cobbler would not work for any other musician.
Gaga is not Tatehana’s only coup. He also snagged a spot in Valerie Steele’s “Japan Fashion Now” exhibition at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, which wrapped its extended run this past spring, and then bagged another customer in the form of Steele’s close friend, Daphne Guinness. She has since bought six pairs of Tatehana’s shoes, one of which is covered in black Swarovski crystals. “It’s their defiant structure I love,” says Guinness, who would not reveal how much she paid. “They are a marvel of engineering and appeal to my sense of humor.”
Rei Kawakubo also took a liking to Tatehana’s designs, so much so that she devoted a case to them at her Comme des Garçons Trading Museum space in Tokyo, where they were on display from late March through early July. “Rei has been like a mentor to me since my school days so [the meeting] was very nerve-wracking,” said Tatehana, adding that Kawakubo peppered him with questions about his shoes—most notably how to wear them. “I said it is like wearing your high-heel shoes, but she said she doesn’t wear high-heel shoes, so she doesn’t know what that means.”
Tatehana’s extreme designs—inspired by “chopine” platform shoes, circa 16th-century Italy, as well as the high wooden clogs worn in Edo during the 18th century—are available through his Web site (boutique.noritakatatehana.com) with prices ranging from $4,100 for a pair in smooth leather to $15,000 for stunners bedecked in Swarovski Elements. The designer makes everything by hand, with the help of his two workshop assistants, so orders can take up five months to complete.
Impossible though Tatehana’s creations look, he maintains that his work can function as, well, shoes. He designed the footwear for the fall fashion show of Tokyo-based label Somarta and, he notes, “apparently the models could walk and run backstage.” That said, he hopes to eventually expand his business with a secondary collection of more wearable, everyday shoes, as well as apparel. Details have yet to be determined, but Tatehana confirms that distribution will remain on the exclusive side. Lady Gaga, are you listening?