After graduating from junior college in 2011, John Chung embarked on a solo backpacking trip across Southeast Asia to raise funds and help orphanages in the region.
When crossing the border between Thailand and Laos, he came across a huge wholesale market that sells second-hand shoes.
Albeit in “terrible condition”, the shoes looked great and it triggered John to sell them in Singapore.
He ended up buying a huge number of shoes and lugged them back here to sell.
“I had to learn how to clean and polish the shoes in order to fetch a higher sale price. While cleaning and polishing the shoes, I began to be fascinated by the fact that some of these leather shoes could really withstand the test of time,” said the 28-year-old.
“After polishing, the shoes looked as good as new. I started to fall deeply in love with the craft of polishing shoes, and started to nosedive into the industry, learning all I can about the trade.”
First Stint In The Shoe Industry
John went on to sell the shoes at local weekend flea markets.
On other days, he took on a shoe retail job, working at Takashimaya for Nine West as a sales assistant for several months.
At his flea booth, many customers would ask him on the best ways to clean and maintain leather shoes. The incessant queries led him to cleaning shoes for his customers on a regular basis.
“It then dawned on me that nobody else was providing such services in Singapore. People were actually looking for quality shoe shine and shoe repair services,” said John.
It quickly turned into a full-fledged business. Right after he completed his national service, the Victoria Junior College alumnus started up Mason and Smith as a one-man operation in 2013.
He had earned a place at Nanyang Technological University’s Art, Design and Media course, but chose to ditch his degree and start the business at the tender age of 21.
His parents were quite apprehensive in his career choice as they wanted him to pursue a degree instead, which is seen as a “safety net” and a building block to help pave the way for a corporate career.
“Many of my friends and relatives were reserved and had realistic concerns about how much I can make … (but) I’m glad that I chose this path instead as it forced me to ‘grow up’ faster than my peers,” shared John.
S’pore’s First Artisanal Shoe Shine And Repair Store
Mason and Smith is Singapore’s first and only artisanal shoe shine and shoe repair store. It provides premium shoe shine and repair services, and also retail welted imported footwear and shoe care accessories.
In contrast, many other stores are “mostly either a repair store or a shoe retail store,” said John.
He added that Mason and Smith undertakes many unique restorative projects for shoes, bags, belts, wallets and even furniture.
(We take) pains to repair and restore each and every item meticulously. This is something that is quite hard to find because many of the other cobblers do not possess the right knowledge and technicality to deal with antiques, vintages and special projects (such as) sneakers (and) boots.
As such, we are able to repair many other items that the normal stores may not be able to.– John Chung, founder of Mason and Smith
A full comprehensive shoe shine costs anywhere between S$65 and S$120, depending on the condition of the shoe, while shoe repair and recolouring starts from S$150.
Restorative works for furniture and larger items, on the other hand, starts from S$400.
Majority of the repairs are all done by hand, which takes two or three times longer to complete.
“I am reluctant to shorten the lead time for immediate collection because of the sheer amount of hours we have to dedicate in order to provide for a quality we are happy and satisfied with,” he explained.
Mason and Smith also works with many global shoemakers for bespoke commissions and client events.
They have worked with many renowned shoemakers such as Yohei Fukuda and TYE Shoemaker, as well as shoe brands like Joseph Cheaney in the past two years, according to John.
He added that before COVID-19 took place, the team makes regular trips to UK and Japan to visit shoe factories, shoemakers and shoe shine stores or any other shoe-related shop.
“Through these trips, we exchange, learn and apply what is relevant to us. We are also able to establish relationships with a larger network of shoemakers and brands from around the world, and use this to provide advice and connect these clients to the respective brands.”
He Is The World Shoe-Shining Champion In 2018
John said that he has been “lucky” enough to be able to have apprenticeships with several renowned shoemakers in Japan and around the region, who have imparted a tremendous amount of knowledge to him.
In 2017, he wanted to join the World Shoe-Shining Championship but he was unable to participate as he was stationed in Hong Kong for a shoe-making apprenticeship.
He promised himself to join a year later, and that’s exactly what he did.
The Championship is an annual event organised by the leading authorities on classic shoes for men, Shoegazing and The Shoe Snob. It was held at The London Super Trunk Show, where brands from all over the world gather to promote their craft.
“I wanted to see where I stand on an international level,” explained John.
“To ensure that I can achieve the best results for the competition, I practiced and worked hard as everything was self-funded such as the flights and accommodations to the UK.”
He spent many hours honing the craft of shoe-shining and perfecting the technique of achieving the best shine.
As the saying goes, hard work and practice pays off. He emerged as the world champion, beating two other finalists.
I actually did not expect to win the championship back in the day. Shoe shining was hardly recognised in Singapore and I had no one else to consult.
Those who also entered the competition were already professional shoe- shiners in their home countries and I thought they were way more experienced than I was. I was really glad to win the competition as it shows that my hard work really paid off.– John Chung, founder of Mason and Smith
Starting Up With S$700
Recounting his business journey, John lamented that the first few years of running Mason and Smith was a “struggle”.
Selling at flea markets was simply a means to clear his inventory of second-hand shoes and earn some cash.
At the flea markets, I wasn’t making much and had to get my ex-girlfriend to buy me lunch sometimes. If I didn’t sell any shoes, I wouldn’t have any money to spend.
I barely went out because I’ve emptied my bank account on the shoes. On many occasions, (my) bank (account) was left with less than a dollar in it.– John Chung, founder of Mason and Smith
Moreover, he was a “lowly-paid conscript” back in National Service, so he didn’t have much savings to fall back on.
He started the company buying and selling second shoes with only S$700 without any external funding.
“I had to plough my profits back into the business for many years before we were able to open our own physical space in 2018. (Before that), we were only a shop-in-shop concept,” said John.
Having to grow the business organically was one of the biggest struggles because he had to be resourceful and be really careful with every single penny spent.
“There wasn’t a big marketing budget to blow on advertisements to generate leads — word of mouth was the only thing we relied on, so I worked hard to make sure every single customer was satisfied.”
With a tight cash flow, he wasn’t able to hire a big team to get things done so he had to leverage on technology and streamline all the process online so that he could handle the operations seamlessly.
He couldn’t hire a graphic or web designer to help build an e-commerce store — “that was way out of the budget,” said John.
He also couldn’t hire a photographer to take pictures, or afford to pay someone to do search engine optimisation.
As a result, I had to learn to do all of these things myself. I started building my own WordPress and tested it endlessly. I started to learn more about photography and videos, and learnt to do editing myself.
I (also) learnt to do a little bit of graphic design and template designing, scouring through all the Adobe programmes and YouTube tutorials, learning day by day and getting by with what we have. If I couldn’t pay someone to do it, I had to learn it myself.– John Chung, founder of Mason and Smith
Moreover, there wasn’t a “benchmark” or “standard” in Singapore that he could follow because shoe-shining was a fresh and new concept.
“There weren’t any other stores here providing similar services and products that I could reference to. As such, I had to chart a path that’s completely new with trial and error, which took a lot of time.”
When he first started, he also made it a point to change the perception and stereotype about old cobblers and the shoe industry.
“Many people think that cobblers are old … and lowly-paid unskilled workers. It took a look time to slowly remove this preconceived notion and earn the respect of clients who believe and trust in our work.”
Accelerating The Ambition Of A New-Age Cobbler
When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his business, he revealed that they were unable to generate any kind of sale during the circuit breaker.
But as the circuit breaker ended, business started picking up again as they received many queries and orders.
Since the inception of the brand in 2013, they have achieved at least 20 per cent growth year on year and are projected to continue doing so in the next few years.
We have managed to explore many different aspects of the industry since the inception, from buying and selling second hand shoes, to a shoe shine stand at Marina By Sands, to shoe repair and now retailing fine dress shoes.
The idea is to tie the entire ecosystem together in a cohesive manner. We have plans to enter into the distribution business of shoe care products or shoes in the near future.– John Chung, founder of Mason and Smith
The next immediate plan is to continue to build their presence within Singapore and hopefully be able to further digitalise the entire shoe repair and shoe shine experience seamlessly with the introduction of a mobile app, on-demand contactless delivery and pick up, and even YouTube video tutorials.
John shared that they have already started delivery and pick up services for quite some time now so people can get their shoes polished or repaired at the comforts of their own home with the click of a button.
Additionally, they have started making some progress with mockup of the apps but have yet to develop them to a point where it’s released for commercial use.
“We also want to provide a place where people can come together and learn more about shoe making, shoe shining and shoe repair. This may mean for an academy of sorts where people can learn the right skills and knowledge for trade, whether physically or digitally,” said John.
“In efforts to educate more people about shoe shine, we have already begun to release shoe shine tutorials on YouTube for free so they can also practice the habit of shining their own shoes at the comforts of their home and help to grow and preserve this art.”
Featured Image Credit: Mason and Smith