This Helsinki, Finland-based boutique shoemaker is looking to bring together the best of two worlds: the comfort of bespoke shoes and the flair of street footwear.
Janne Lax found his professional calling quite literally at his feet.
The 43-year-old cobbler says he had a desire to design and create objects for everyday use throughout his previous career in music and cultural management, having grown up in a family where his parents and grandparents worked with their hands – one as a blacksmith, another as a leather worker.
“Shoes just somehow jumped at me,” he tells. “Then I found a bespoke shoe shop in Helsinki – and that was it. It’s a great way to combine creativity and working with your hands.”
Lax developed his craft there under the tutelage of two experienced cobblers before launching his own shoe brand, Saint Vacant, in 2005. The idea, he says, was to incorporate the comfort and quality of bespoke shoes into small-batch manufacturing and create a new kind of crossover between classic aesthetics and street fashion.
The same idea is represented in the name of the company.
“The word ‘saint’ is a nod to tradition, especially to the fine shoemaking tradition in Great Britain. Whereas the word ‘vacant’ is a nod to the feeling you have when wearing the shoes: no matter how long a walk or work meeting you’ve had, you’ll feel like you’re on a vacation. That’s our goal,” explains Lax.
Saint Vacant began as a relatively ordinary fashion brand, growing its product catalogue regularly, launching several collections a year and pursuing growth in sales through online channels. But something about it did not sit well with Lax.
“I noticed that we were working a lot, producing waste, making shoe moulds and prototypes, and sending materials back and forth,” he tells. “But did it make any sense?”
He decided to focus on what he excelled in – men’s shoes with both classic and playful elements – and pare down his product line dramatically, ending up with five models that all cater to a specific purpose and target group.
“I launched a major makeover, restarted the brand at the end of 2016. I went through the entire operation and, at least personally, I have been pleased that the amount of waste the business creates has decreased. I also looked very carefully at what materials we’re using for what, and if anything can be reused.”
Comfort and sustainability
Lax currently designs the lasts, moulds and blueprints in Kruununhaka, Helsinki. The Goodyear-welted shoes are produced at small factories in Portugal, with the materials being sourced from all around Europe – mainly from Italy, Portugal and the UK, as well as from France and Germany.
But, how exactly does one make what are ultimately factory-produced shoes feel special?
Innovative design, replies Lax. The lasts, he tells, are slightly more well formed over the instep and under the sole than what consumers have come to expect from regular factory-produced shoes, thus offering more comfort.
“What I also brought over from bespoke shoes is the asymmetrical shape of the opening: the outer opening has been carved deeper where the malleolus is, while the inner opening has been raised to offer more support,” he adds. “They’re kind of small things, but they make a big difference in practice.”
Sustainability is another factor that is taken into consideration throughout the design and manufacturing process.
Lax states that while his first priority is to ensure the shoes fit well and are comfortable to use, he also pays careful attention to details such the materials, stitching and outsole to ensure the shoes can be repaired if they happen to break.
“We want to make sure you don’t ever have to throw them away and buy a new pair,” he says. “Of course we also instruct our customers how to take care of their shoes. It’s ultimately the end user who decides how much the shoes will wear out in use.”
No compromises for growth
Saint Vacant has recently launched an effort to increase its headcount and expand to international markets, supported by early-stage funding from Business Finland.
“It’s a big project for us,” admits Lax. “Our focus in the first stage will be on on Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Norway, Sweden and maybe also Denmark will be in our plans in the second stage.”
He assures, however, that he is not intent on building a shoe empire, but rather on pursuing smart growth by continuing to put quality first. “Our biggest challenge is to get people to try on our shoes, because often it’s easy to tell that they can feel the difference on their feet – as it shows on their face,” states Lax.