Footwear for eternity by Klemann Shoes

A shoe called Carsten

The Klemann family makes footwear for life.
While the father of the family perfects Oxfords, the sons rather design sneakers and sports shoes. Either way, their goal is high quality – which costs 1000 Euros upwards.

Author

Nicoline Haas

Nicoline Haas is a freelance journalist who loves writing about sustainable projects and fine, traditional handcrafts.

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Photos: Roeler

The shop window at Poolstrasse 9 presents a display of carving and hammering, pinching and stitching. The narrow, worn workbench in the window is where Vincent Klemann always sits. His older brother Lennert is at work behind him. Occasionally, passers-by will stop. “I barely notice the prying eyes any more. It doesn't worry me to be on show,” says Vincent. He's 30 years old, mischievous smile, lines around the eyes. He's busy brushing the soles of a plain Oxford with black wax dye. The simple, closed lacing shoe is a gents' classic.

It already figured in the repertoire of his father, company founder Benjamin Klemann, who set up the business in 1986. He freelanced in London for George Cleverly and John Lobb, purveyor to the British Court, including designing quite fancy models with open wing-caps, curved decorative stitching and punched holes such as the “Budapest” and the “Westminster”. His wife Magrit also qualified as a master craftsman during that period; later on and long after their return to Germany, the two sons followed. And so the one-man craft manufactory became a small family business.

  • No matter if it's a sneaker or lace-up: “The quality of the materials is the same, and so is the work that goes into them: around 300 operations in 30-40 hours,” Lennert explains.

  • Vincent took a look round two shoe factories on Mallorca: “I wouldn’t be able to work there! It was noisy, packed, stuffy – and I'd rather not talk about the quality of the workmanship”.

  • The sons are ultimately responsible for the physical hard work of building the shoes.

  • Every member of this family business is a master of all the skills, but generally speaking there’s a division of labour on the shoes.

  • Every shoe is customised to the buyer's (and wearer's) feet.

  • The workshop keeps more than 1,300 pairs of lasts on room-high shelves, each pair labelled with a name.

  • “It's not as if we did trendy fashion shoes,” says Lennert with emphasis. “Only connoisseurs notice that they're bespoke footwear. Most of our customers – like us – go for understatement."

  • Companions for life: "If they're well looked after our shoes can live to a ripe old age, and can be repaired over and over again", says Vincent.

  • Vincent's and Lennert's father, company founder Benjamin Klemann, set up the business in 1986.

Fondness for sports shoes

The sons soon developed their own signature and a fresh breeze blew into the workshop with sporty designs. Vincent designed casual shoes with a white rubber cupsole and details such as side lacing, for example. Lennert has a fondness for retro sports shoes: one delicate, caramel-coloured pair of his making could be from the 1930s. He christened his latest model of sneaker “Carsten” after the first buyer, who had to plunk down almost as much for them as for a pair of calf leather classics: 1,800 euros. “The quality of the materials is the same, and so is the work that goes into them: around 300 operations in 30-40 hours,” Lennert explains. The left “Carsten” is clamped between his knees, in the wooden last that models the customer's foot. He is using a knife to trim the insole, the heart of the shoe to which the leather upper and the frame are attached. He’s decorated the upper with diagonal side stripes and an appliqué on the counter that's vaguely reminiscent of Adidas Originals' “Superstar”. He’s also made his own road shoes for wear on a racing bike in the past, with a carbon sole and “BOA” closure consisting of a rotary knob and steel wire. His leisure time is spent training for amateur races, while Vincent produces hip-hop discs and spins them in Hamburg clubs such as the “Hafenklang” or “Turmzimmer”.

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Companions for life

That's also a kind of craft, says Vincent, as is his second hobby: cooking. The shoemaker feeds his girlfriend on mixed vegetables at home. She eats Vegan, and that comes with a rejection of all leather goods – exceptions: shoes, bags etc. from the flea market. A source of constant arguments? Vincent grins. “Not any more. She does realise that our trade is very sustainable. If they're well looked after our shoes can live to a ripe old age, and can be repaired over and over again. Cheap, industrial mass goods are a problem – shoes that land in the bin after one, two years because they're no longer 'in', or are absolutely ruined”. Vincent took a look round two shoe factories on Mallorca: “I wouldn’t be able to work there! It was noisy, packed, stuffy – and I'd rather not talk about the quality of the workmanship”.

Every member of this family business is a master of all the skills, but generally speaking there’s a division of labour on the shoes: Father Klemann concentrates on building the lasts – the base for well-fitting footwear and all subsequent operations. He takes precise measurements of the clients' feet, then re-creates them in beechwood. By this time, the workshop keeps more than 1,300 pairs of lasts on room-high shelves, each pair labelled with a name. Mother Magrit stitches the uppers with a tailoress colleague, the sons are ultimately responsible for the physical hard work of building the shoes.

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Stimulating neighbours in Neustadt

With its workbenches and wooden models, the shop in Poolstrasse seems to come from a different era. But the Klemanns didn't move into Poolstrasse in central Hamburg until 2007. Before that, they lived and worked for 17 years in a half-timbered house on Gut Basthorst, a farming estate in Herzogtum-Lauenburg.

The scales were tipped in favour of the city because the location was so close to the port and the Alster and there was so much variety in the gastro scene – the “Felds” salad bar, for example, and the “Ahoi Marie Bootshaus” and “Le golden Igel” bistros. But what particularly inspires them is living in a neighbourhood with quite a number of other creatives and craftspeople: in Wexstrasse, for example, there's the “Freier Fall” fashion studio, at Pilatuspool there's Bergmann the goldsmith, and at Valentinskamp they’ve got Winterling, the violin maker. Their immediate neighbours follow a genuinely rustic trade: in the back yard of Poolstrasse 12, among the ruins of a synagogue that was destroyed in the war, there's a car repair shop (“Auto Stern”), and heavily muscled men at Lehmann's smithy hammer red-hot iron to make fences and gates.

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“A workshop of our own is out of the question for us. We would be competing with each other then!”

Vincent Klemann

Lennert now has a flat in the same street, Vincent lives in the Schanzenviertel. Mum and Dad Klemann lived in Poolstrasse until recently as well – they say Neustadt is “almost like a village in the city”. However, they missed being in natural surroundings. So they recently took the decision to go home to a real village after work: back to Basthorst. They're planning to install a double bunk bed in the office for when they spontaneously decide to stay overnight.

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Down-to-earth family

A question for the brothers: what is it actually like to work with your parents every day in a confined space? They both have to grin. Says Lennert: “In the first place, we've never known anything else. In the second place, we've all bonded really pretty closely – weird, isn’t it?” Vincent adds: “A workshop of our own is out of the question for us. We would be competing with each other then!” Maybe the family harmonises so well partly because all four of them are down-to-earth personalities. Well, craftsmen, with no arty affectations. Despite international fame and an affluent and prominent client base, the Klemanns have their feet firmly on the ground. “It's not as if we did trendy fashion shoes,” says Lennert with emphasis. “Only connoisseurs notice that they're bespoke footwear. Most of our customers – like us – go for understatement. They only want the best for their feet”.

More Places

Blacksmith Lehmann

Poolstraße 12
20355 Hamburg
http://www.dieter-lehmann.de/

Violin making Winterling

Valentinskamp 34
20355 Hamburg
http://www.geigenbau-winterling.de/

Car repair shop „Auto Stern“

Poolstraße 12
20355 Hamburg
http://auto-stern-hamburg.de/

Fashion studio "Freier Fall“

Wexstraße 35
20355 Hamburg
http://www.atelier-freierfall.de/