To spur them on to hit the books, folks of a former generation would warn their kids that academic failure would only lead to one profession: road sweeper. Edwin Neo, founder of Singapore men's shoe brand Ed Et Al, however, willingly swept the floors of his shoemaking master as part of his tasks as a lowly apprentice.
"You swept the floors, did whatever the master asked of you, and in turn you gained knowledge and skills," recalls Mr Neo, who underwent an apprenticeship in Budapest, Hungary.
"I remember fondly that the best compliment I got was a 'not bad'. The real compliment came when I was preparing to return to Singapore, when my master asked if I would like to remain and work for him. I would have if I was not already planning to get married."
Mr Neo recently feted the fifth anniversary of his company with a revamped flagship boutique at Millenia Walk, executed to resemble a "gentleman's living room", complete with bottles of premium Auchentoshan Single Malt Whisky laid out on a leather bound coffee table. And to think that he was a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces in a previous life, conducting training on weapon systems and developing instruction manuals.
"I already had a very strong interest in shoes and menswear in general, but I wouldn't say that it felt like a calling back then," says Mr Neo.
"When I came out from the army, I ventured into the footwear industry because my brother-in-law needed manpower at his shoe repair stores. Initially, it was supposed to be for a short stint, but it eventually became years and my interest in shoes, especially in making them, was piqued."
After teaching himself the art of shoemaking and spending what was a meagre salary on buying tools, books and materials, Mr Neo took two months' unpaid leave and overdrew his credit accounts to study with a master in Budapest. And floor-sweeping was just one of the many challenges he faced as a trainee.
"The art of shoemaking is an old tradition, and because of that, some of the text that you read while learning is arcane to say the least," says Mr Neo, who started his business with just S$14,000 and suffered from insomnia due to stress.
"From the use of barleycorns as measurement units and never-heard-before acronyms like SPI (stitches per inch), arbitrary measurements that are added to certain portions of the shoes without explanation, these were the hardest to wrap your head around. I would be lying if I said I didn't feel like giving up at times."
While cynical types (most probably closet Yuccies) may be taking the mickey out of individuals who have made the creation of letterpress stationery or gourmet popsicles a career, adopting a serious craft as a profession doesn't come easy for the likes of Mr Neo.
"When I went to study shoemaking, not everyone around me was supportive. There was no foreseeable future in it, and we were up against 100-year-old companies with size and heritage," reveals the 34-year-old. "But shoemaking is magical like this: hunched over a bench, you forget all those everyday worries."
This article was first published on June 27, 2015.
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