As manager of San Francisco’s Hotel des Arts, Hero Nakatani took the meaning of “hotel art” to a new dimension, offering the rooms as blank canvases for artists to create modern, arresting visuals that made guests forget all about dull seaside landscapes and generic vistas. Nakatani then took on the footwear business, seeking to bridge the chasm between comfortable, urbane sneakers and sophisticated, but unforgiving oxfords. The result was Nakatani’s Hydrogen-1 shoes, a name that relates how these shoes are elemental, essential, and classically simple. Below, we talk with Hydrogen founder Hero Nakatani about his journey.
Wingtip: What is the menswear niche that Hydrogen-1 shoes seeks to fill?
Hero Nakatani: Understated style with comfort–for work or leisure.
WT: How did you set up your shoe manufacturing arrangement in Italy?
HN: We found a manufacturer with experience making our kind of high-end shoes. It was far from automatic that they would agree to work with a small, new company like Hydrogen-1. But they loved our designs, thought they were something really new and different, and it’s been a great relationship.
WT: What were the shoe production details that were at the top of your list while seeking that manufacturer?
HN: In comparing samples from different manufacturers, what really set them apart was the quality–across all the aspects. The leather, the soles, the cut, and the stitching. It was also really important to find someone who collaborated well, that is, translating a design into a finished shoe.
WT: Where are the shoes manufactured?
HN: They’re made in Italy’s Le Marche region, known for its shoe, and other artisanal, manufacturers.
WT: Was there a certain pair of shoes in your life that inspired you to get into the shoe business?
HN: I had these great looking Italian shoes that worked well with all my suits. The leather had this great patina, but they were so uncomfortable. Standing up all day, working at the hotel, I thought there had to be a better way!
WT: What was your experience like launching Hydrogen-1 on Kickstarter?
HN: It was a whirlwind, nail-biting, and ultimately very gratifying experience, just one month from launch to finish. Compared to other Kickstarters, we were raising a lot of money, $86,000, to buy the inventory for our first collection. The success rate for fashion businesses wasn’t all that promising, but if you can get around 25% of your goal raised in the first week or so, the odds look much better. And with the help of various friends in putting together an amazing launch party, we were able to do just that!
WT: How did your design or hospitality experiences from Hotel Des Arts inform the creation of Hydrogen-1?
HN: I’ve always been most inspired and motivated by the creative aspects of my job. The Hotel des Arts [pictured below] experience was a big milestone, doing that in the hotel trade. That, and other successes, gave me the confidence to believe that I could change professions altogether, and be successful.
WT: What is your favorite hotel in the world, besides Hotel Des Arts?
HN: Gosh, there are so many, but ultimately I like hotels that are small and intimate, like the Mercer in New York. It’s been around for so many years now, but has stood the test of time. Then there is also the tiny Gallery Hotel in Florence Italy. It’s very Italian.
WT: Any recommendations for lodging or restaurants for Wingtip readers visiting Italy?
HN: Gallery Hotel, right off of the famed Ponte Vecchio. If you take your wife, she will love you even more when you take her to the Salvatore Ferragamo museum (You will get special access if you stay at the hotel). Then go to dinner at Piazza Santo Spirito. There is a great local hangout “Osteria Santo Spirito.” I worked there when I was a student in Italy.
Hydrogen-1 Shoes’ spring collection is now available at Wingtip.