What îs your first memory regarding shoes?
I was 6 years old and my mum and I went to the local shoe shop on the island of Föhr, where I was born, to buy my first pair of new Football shoes “adidas Uwe”. But in fact the very first memory was the pair before, witch was second hand, from a team mate 2 years my elder, nice Lico Sport Shoes, a brand I believe does no longer exist.
You have learned shoemaking from “the last member of his guild Hungarian shoemaker Julius Harai”. What was his influence on your later career?
It seamed to be a strange idea to become a shoemaker at the time, especially for some one who was educated for University. It was a long way to find some one, in the beginning of the 1980th, who knew some one, who could help to find a bespoke shoemaker in Germany. But I did not give in and so my way led my to Julius Harai in Neumünster, Schleswig- Holstein, northern Germany. He was not only the best known, but by far the best shoemaker in the whole of Germany. His clients reached from the Bundespresidents down to a lot of well known Industrial captain’s and well known public people.
I knew instantly that was the place to be. Harai was old school in many ways. Most important for me, was the training as a shoemaker and that was brilliant. He did like me because I was keen to learn. I accepted his ruling, which reminded me of times gone by. Some times I believed I was in the age of Charles Dickens novels. For example: the employees where not aloud to talk to one another during work. If somebody had something to ask or speak about, you had to speak to the boss, only. Every other mater had to be dealt with out side the workshop. He could be very rough and unjust. But still I was given a very subtle education. Everything was handmade from start to finish, very traditional from tip to toe, we even cooked our own pitch. I did there 3 years as an apprentice and one more as “Geselle”.
The break came suddenly and final. We could not agree, as always, on holiday arrangements. I was angry and so I booked the same day a flight to London, to make an appointment at John Lobb.
It was June 1985, second Wimbledon week. I spend all that week in London to find work and a place to live. It was an extremely exciting week, the entire world was following Boris Becker to become the youngest and the first German Wimbledon Champion.
Were you a little bit intimidated by John Lobb name?
Yes and no. I was more daring than intimidated. I felt I was very well trained and I was confident. I came from Julius Harai, I had experienced a work ethic and behaviour to wards employees that reminded more of the nineteenths century. Mr. White who was the first person I met and to whome I showed my work, was very respectful and kind, a Gentleman. I was not used to that, at the time. He asked me to come back later that day, when he would show my shoes to Mr. Eric Lobb and decide about a job. It was not the least intimidating. It was very exciting.
I knew I was well trained and absolutely willing to succeed. I had two kids and a lovely wife and I had to feed them for the years to come, so I needed to succeed. Mr. Eric Lobb did like what he saw and invited me to come and establish my own workshop in London. We shook hands on the deal and never made a formal contract. I was astonished and well pleased how easy it was. Six month later we moved to England and in January 1986 I set up my own business, as a freelanced maker.
But very quickly I found out that I had to learn even more and had to work even harder than I ever had in the past. Every thing was done by hand, no machines to help. Sewing the sole to the welt with 13 stitches per inch, I never did that before. Beveled waist, fiddle back and blind welt I never had heard of or made things like that before. Mr. Lobb was so kind to send me to one of his best makers to learn from. Jim Mc Cormack did look after me for a couple of days and introduced me into the world of British shoemaking. There was a lot of work around in London 1986. It was the period of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. New customers had to wait for two year to get their first pair of shoes. But than again I needed more work, to make a living, than Lobb was able to give to me. I was a newcomer and other makers had older rights and more customers.
For what other shoemakers have you worked over the years before founding your own business?
So I had to look for more than one employer. I went round the corner to Foster & Son in Jermyn Street to ask for work and Terry Moore was so kind to take me on. He became one of my most influential teachers. A lot of small hints and tips broad a significant progress to my work. And I contributed with the Storm welted shoes to their portfolio. It was a very fruitful relationship which continued for many years, even when I came back to Germany.
Than I tried my luck on the other side of the road in the Piccadilly Arcade. I asked New & Lingwood for work. John Canera and George Glasgow were the managers at the time. They also took me in and supplied me with further work. They established later Cleverley´s a very successful bespoke and ready to wear shoe company. Our relationship was sadly only for a short period. I worked for them just 3 years.
Last but not least on that day I asked at Alan Mc Afee in Bond Street. And there I hit the Jack Pot. Just hours before, they lost their last maker. They had no skilled shoemaker and an awful lot of work, which was mine from now on. That became a very successful and lucrative relationship for both of us. Ted Larsen was the chief clicker and closer at Mc Affee´s and he helped me later to supply Eduard Meier in Munich with handmade shoes.
To Eduard Meier I got in touch in 1988. I knew that Harai had a significant order from Meier in Munich, but he was never able to full fill it. That was my chance to get into business in Germany. This was the first step back to our home country.
London offered great opportunities for you as a shoemaker. How did your family felt about this change?
My wife Magrit and I had spoken a lot about moving to England for a period of 3 to 5 years. Our aim was to live in a foreign country for a while, to gain new experiences and to deepen our knowledge in the bespoke trade. I wanted to learn every traditional technique and learn all the new styles. New? New to me. Lennert was 2 years and Vincent 2 month old when we moved to the UK. We never asked them, because we knew that home is where their parents are and that was the most important thing for all of us, to be together. We met very loveable people and enjoyed the time in England very much. We could have stayed on in UK for ever, things where going well, we where quiet happy there.
You opened the Benjamin Klemann Bespoke shoes doors in 1990. How were the times then and why did you felt it was the time for such a daring enterprise?
1989 started a period of fundamental change in Germany. We were still in UK and could only follow the political change in Europe on radio or TV. No one ever, especially from my generation, could belief that there will ever be a unified Germany and suddenly things went in an enormous tempo.
Though when we arrived back in Germany, we were not important and we were immigrants which came from the West not from the East. I wanted to set up a business in a very old traditional craft. A lot of people thought that it did no longer exist. There was no Bank willing to give money to me for setting up me business, even if I was asking for just a little.
Peter and Barbara Meier placed an order of 220 pairs handmade shoes with me. That made sure that one bank, at least, gave us a credit to get started. It took us 1 year to full fill that order. But my price calculation was done on English terms, in Germany my cost’s overall where far higher and in the end of the first year, I was quite happy to break even. Nothing won, but still nothing lost.
At the same time, I could proceed making bespoke shoes. We lived in a small Village near Hamburg on a Country Estate owned by Enno von Ruffin and his wife Vici Leandros, a famous German and Greek singer. They were very helpful to find solvent clients. Julius Harai was the only contender at the time and that meant the whole German market was wide open to us. That was our chance, which we believed in, before we moved back to Germany.
Benjamin Klemann is a classic family run business. What is the contribution of each family member to the firm’ s success?
My wife Magrit educated herself to become a master shoemaker. She is our chief clicker and closer and is responsible for the financial side of business. Lennert and his brother joined the trade after school (on their own accord, we never urged them to follow us). Both of them became the best apprentices in the year of their examination in Germany. (All together we trained 4 Bundessieger and 7 Landessieger)
Lennert moved to UK in 2006 and worked as a freelance in London. He mainly worked for Cleverley´s and did so for 5 years. Vincent stayed on in Hamburg and educated to become a master Shoemaker in 2008. He has a lot of interests on the artistic field. He is a trained drummer and musician and has great talent in painting and drawing. His specialty are bespoke Sneakers. Lennert is a man of technique and sports, he is a keen bicyclist and loves sport shoes and is one of the few in the world, who does bespoke Cycling shoes. Both are the backbone of the workshop and do train our apprentices and lead my makers.
What is the most extravagant shoe that a client has ever ordered for bespoke?
That was a Cowboy boot made from Russian Calf for a Chicago client.
What shoe style do you prefer the most?
I personally love a middle-brown Aniline calf, classically made Full-brogue combined with the sturdiness of a stormwetled and double sole bottom.
Where do you get the leathers and soles? Today there is a great complain about the leather quality…
Yes, I complain as well. Quality is going down, Prices going up. Bad combination. I am in business for 30 years and in the last 5 years things have changed to the worse. I work with very reliable, very often small Family run suppliers, but all of us have the same problem. On all levels skills are going lost. It starts very often with industrial butchers who do not know how to skin the animals the proper way and how to proceed with the hides. Small Tanneries with special skills are pushed out of the market, because of size and so on and so on…
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?
What turns you off?
People who think bespoke shoes can be made within a couple of days.
What is your favorite curse word?
There is none. Not my style. I asked my sons and employees and they said:”You never ever scream or shout”. There is no curse word as such.
What sound or noise do you love?
Waves kissing the beach and birds singing in the early hours.
What sound or noise do you hate?
People screaming at each other.
What profession would you not like to do?
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Being 110 and he says: “At last. Please, come in – you are welcome.”