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When we talk about passion for craftsmanship, shoe designer Jan Jansen is of course also meant. His craft techniques mixed with creativity make him the most famous Dutch shoe designer. He made shoes for Queen Máxima and teaches at the Fashion Academy in London and at the Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo. But who gave Jan his career lessons? Text: Mical Joseph
Image: Jan Jansen and Guillaume Ehrenfeldt

What was your very first job?

“I was born in a shoe box, so to speak, my father was sales manager of the Nimco Children's Shoe Factory and I always saw dozens of samples and dozens of shoes in the office. As a 6-year-old, I made my first communion as a Catholic-raised boy and received my first pair of white patent leather shoes for church. For dinner I was given black patent leather shoes. Those shoes were terribly hard and even then I said to my father: 'Can't you make those shoes a little nicer?'. As a teenager, I worked as a Saturday afternoon helper selling shoes in a shoe store Brothers de Mand in Nijmegen. I also did this during my military service.”

How did you end up in your current job?

“After my military service, I immediately started an internship at a women's shoe factory and later in Rome. I returned in 1963, settled in Amsterdam and registered with the Chamber of Commerce on October 1, 1963.”

Who was your wheelbarrow in that?

“When I designed clogs a few years later, in 1968, and showed them at the Sophie van Kleef show, no one wanted these clogs. A few years later, a hundred thousand pairs were suddenly sold and the Golden Klomp was awarded to me in the Bijenkorf. Due to its popularity, I came into contact with Frits Becht, director of Intomart and art collector. He saw the talent in me, advised me to go abroad and financed my collection for the French learning fair “Semaine du Cuir” in Paris. After this, I was featured in the New York Daily News as “the star of French leather scholarship.”

Frits introduced me to Pieter Brattinga, my second wheelbarrow. Pieter was Dick Bruna's manager and helped me make my name even bigger. This happened through fairs and major productions in the Netherlands. The start of my career.

A third wheelbarrow in my life was shoe manufacturer Jacques Bergmans, he is known for the Pinocchio shoes. Jacques made it possible to open my store in Amsterdam, but unfortunately the Dutch shoe industry was doing very badly in the 70s, and Bergmans had to close its factory. As a result, I no longer had production and had to move to Italy. I lost sight of Pieter and therefore also my business talent.”

What is your greatest passion in your profession?

“Designing the next shoe. Shoes are objects that you place on the cupboard, table or floor. It is an object in itself unlike clothing. It doesn't need a hanger.”

What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?

“You are skilled in your profession, so make sure you are technically skilled and don't think that you are a world star with the first success. It is also important to find a business leader. Someone who likes you and who understands you. Don't be afraid to share the profits: fifty percent of a good deal is better than one hundred percent of a bad deal or a deal that doesn't go through at all. Put a lot of time into that when you start. Don't do it like I did: just think about the product. Without management, the product is of no use, it will bleed to death, no matter how brilliant it may be.”

Have you been a wheelbarrow for someone?

“I have been a wheelbarrow for shoe designer Rem D. Koolhaas of United Nude. He is an architect and fellow student of my son Lok Jansen. Rem used to come over for drinks before going out with my son. During his visits he saw all the shoes and this inspired him enormously through the process of design and production. I helped him with the first lasts and assessed his first designs. That's how Rem ended up in the shoes.”

What has been the biggest learning moment in your career?

“I have one big learning moment and that is that I lost sight of Pieter and never kept that businesslike attitude again. My wife Tonny and I are both artistic, but not businesslike. A designer cannot do without management, a store or shop-in-shop. Because we did everything ourselves, things kept going smoothly. I was basically collecting shoes instead of building the business. My talent has made me a world-famous shoe designer, but I never built a world-renowned brand name as an entrepreneur.”

But Jan, something good has also come from certain decisions, right?

“Yes, because I have collected a shoe collection before a large shoe empire, I now have the largest shoe collection in the world kept by one person to my name. I am looking for a home for this unique collection. I still dream of a mecanas who will adopt it and then donate it to a Dutch museum.”