As a sneakerhead, I believe that footwear is what makes or breaks an outfit, and I think this also applies to the staple of every gentleman’s outfit—leather shoes. I learnt about W.H.Y & CO from a colleague, who has been wearing a pair of loafers made by them daily to the office. Every time I questioned him on whether he has other shoes, he has always insisted that his loafers were the most comfortable shoes he had. He had the means to purchase many more pairs of shoes as well, so I was curious—what was so special about these ordinary-looking leather shoes?
That was how I found myself at W.H.Y & CO in International Plaza. It was a small space that resembled a workshop more than a boutique. Boxes of shoes were stacked upwards in neat piles around the store, and there were tools scattered around the table.
There were only two people in the shop—Wei Han, one of the founding partners of W.H.Y & CO, and another staff member. They were focused on their tasks—Wei Han was painting a pair of burgundy Oxfords with surgical precision, and the staff member was fervently shining a pair of black shoes with Kiwi and a towel.
Naturally, they were dressed like dapper gentlemen as well, with a well-fitted shirt and pants, and of course, they were each wearing a pair of W.H.Y & CO leather shoes, shined to perfection.
Wei Han explained to me that W.H.Y & CO also specialises in shoe restoration and colour change—if a customer likes the particular design of a shoe but not its colour, he will go the extra mile to strip the leather to its base and repaint it to the requested colour by hand. This process will take around two weeks, and because of how time-consuming it is, he can only take in four orders at once.
Julian Wong: How did your interest in leather shoes come about?
Goh Wei Han: The interest stemmed from a very personal experience—it started way back in 2014 when I was shopping around for wedding shoes. Then, if you wanted a pair of leather shoes, you’ll probably only have departmental stores to go to or high-end boutiques which as a young working executive, you probably won’t have the cash.
I saw the gap and searched for a solution, which was how I came to know my mentor who’s also a Singaporean with his own leather business. From there, he introduced me to my second mentor, a master shoemaker and also the same person that produces my shoes.
J: Are you still working with your mentors?
W: Yes, I’m still working with my mentors. We’re a purely Singaporean brand—our production facility may not be in Singapore, but everything is owned or spearheaded by a Singaporean. The production facility is in Guangzhou, north of Hong Kong. The reason why my mentor chose that place to set up a factory is because of the access to raw materials.
J: What were you doing before setting up W.H.Y & CO?
W: I was actually in the maritime industry. Do you know the containers on the trailers that you see on the road? I used to be in that sector in the maritime industry. I was doing vessel operations. The vessel will go to every port, and then instead of disembarking passengers, it loads and unloads containers. What I did was manage the schedule and executing cost analysis.
J: Why did you give that up to set up W.H.Y & CO?
W: When I started, this business was a sideline—we were doing e-commerce and pop-up events on the weekends. It was a side business until 2018. The company I worked for then, underwent an M&A (merger and acquisition). It was during this time thatI felt like we were reaching a plateau with the shoe business. We were already trying to scale up the business, so I thought “Hey, instead of working for a new company in the same industry, why not try and grow this passion project of mine?”
J: That sounds like quite a jump.
W: Yes, the reason is that we do not believe retail is dead. Contrary to what a lot of people think, e-commerce is not the solution to every retail product. Some people want to try the shoes and experience the product for themselves. It’s like a size M in Polo Ralph Lauren may not be the same as another brand. I, for one, will never buy a shirt online. I will at least try it in the store before going online. It’s a personal experience, so what we are trying to sell is the experience and the service.
J: Any particular reason why the shop is called W.H.Y & CO?
W: WHY are the initials of the founding members. WH is my initials, and Y is the initials of another partner. Our name makes for a perfect conversation starter. We decided to use our initials because we wanted to put our stamp of assurance on every shoe that we put out because we are confident of the quality.
J: How do you tell good quality leather from poor quality ones?
W: Generally, good quality leather has a more refined finish. Some shoes have a very dull look to the leather, and some have a nicer glossier finish. Another thing is that many people think the leather will crease, but generally, for better quality leathers, the creasing will not be so severe.
High-quality leather shoes should last five to six years, but of course, you must take care of it. A good pair of shoes will also have its sole held together by blake stitching instead of glue. If the shoes you wear are not hand-stitched, it may crack.
It’s actually more about the shape of the shoe or the last of the shoe than the shine. That’s the reason why I said that our brand focuses on bringing the perfect silhouette to a man’s outfit. Even if the man has wide feet, he will not have to buy a shoe that is a size bigger which will spoil the entire look. We’ve developed our shoe lasts based on the market data we have collected over the last few years.
J: What is the difference between you and high-end boutiques?
W: Generally, for high-end brands like Hermes, leather suppliers will give them the best grade. We work on the belief that quality cannot be skimmed for profits, our materials are relatively close, our leather uppers are calfskin imported from France.
J: Have you considered expanding your product line to include belts, bags, or wallets?
W: It’s always nice to diversify, but we don’t want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. That’s why we are focusing more on the shoes—belts are very complementary, and it’s something that we are looking into. It’s just that every pair of shoe can take up to 72 hours to create. Imagine if we did a belt on top of that—the production time is going to be very long. That’s why we are leaving the belts out at the moment and are focusing on shoes. Belts will be faster to make, but when you are at your maximum point, anything else is at a diseconomy of scale. We have expanded to have a female line of shoes, however, they are still in the soft launch stages.
J: With younger customers preferring sneakers, where do you see the future of leather shoes?
As much as you love your sneakers, there will come a time when you have to dress up. I mean, I used to love sneakers and I still have sneakers but I wear it for different occasions. I know dressing at the corporate level is becoming more casual, but personally, even though some people like to wear a polo t-shirt and jeans, there are many others who want to look more professional. You can never look as sharp in a pair of Converse as compared to a pair of formal leather shoes.
Even for a guy more keen on the hypebeast style, there’ll be a time when he has to wear proper formal wear. But If you’re 35 and wearing only hypebeast clothes, something is wrong with you lah. If you go to work in hypebeast clothes with a jacket and an earring, no one is going to take you seriously.
Generally, fashion is all about trends. Hypebeast will die out, but gentlemen fashion will never die out. Gentlemen styling has been around way longer than any sneaker fashion. It will never go out of style.
J: People always chase for brands, and I believe this may be the case for leather as well. How would you convince people that brand is not everything?
W: Those people are not our target market. I would say our target market is more for men who are tired of wearing ill-fitting, uncomfortable, and ugly shoes. They see the value in spending a little bit more money for a pair of shoes that lasts them maybe twice or thrice longer than what you would have bought in any run of the mill shop.
My value proposition is in my shoes’ construction. I have some clients who can afford to buy one-thousand dollar shoes but still find my shoes more comfortable. We are offering something close in quality, at a much affordable rate and at a much affordable price point.
J: What does success look like to you?
W: The end goal for a business is that everybody wants to make money. But for us, we aim to be a one-stop place for men. We were saying that we want to focus on shoes, but eventually, we want to be able to grow the business to be a makeshift style armoury for men—a one-stop-shop where you can get your shoes, tailoring services, accessories, and haircuts.
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