BY MARGIE JACINTO | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEAH FRIEL
Leather Soul’s Tom Park may have his feet on the ground, but his reach goes well beyond footwear.
“ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO DO A STORY ON ME?” Tom Park questions. The 34-year-old owner of Leather Soul is indeed as humble as he is well-dressed. Casually clad in dark denim, oxford shirt with sleeves rolled up and sporting a tie, Park’s style is tastefully understated … until you get to his shoes. “These are by Edward Green, a British label,” he says. “The front is hand-stitched using pig’s bristle as a needle …”
Clearly, the man knows his shoes. Park’s affinity for footwear started during childhood, when Air Jordans was the pair to covet; ever since then, Park was always known for having the latest, topof-the-line shoes in his ever-growing collection. Turning that passion into a flourishing business seemed only natural-though Park didn’t delve into it straight away. The ‘Iolani alum and University of Hawai’i grad had stints as a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley and worked for Lexus before Leather Soul truly came into focus. The dream of owning a shoe store may have been something Park always had, but it took a few years of dabbling in other fields before it was realized.
It took less than $100,000 (and a whole lot of faith) to breathe life into Leather Soul. Today, thanks to Park’s ingenuity, it thrives as a small company that rakes in big bucks (Leather Soul in Waikiki alone pulled in $5.1 million in 2011 and is expected to bring in $7 million this year). And when one entrepreneur can afford to rent a space under the same roof with likes of Salvatore Ferragamo, Cartier and Hermès, that in itself is a worthy feat.
The boutique’s prime location in Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Center wasn’t its original space. In 2004, Park’s brainchild launched in downtown Honolulu, with the goal of providing upscale footwear for local businessmen. A busy man himself, he figured the average executive wouldn’t want to go out of his way to purchase shoes. The location seemed ideal.
However, his first real customer was nary a Honolulu lawyer nor banker, but a Japanese tourist who spent $900 (plus cab fare to and from Waikiki). This “eye-opener” forced Park to look into the Japanese market. Just a year later, he opened a second location in Waikiki-a 200-square-foot store on the second floor of an office building on Lewers Street. Park ran both locations himself for around a year and acquired additional help as his business grew. But when sales at his tiny Waikiki branch overtook his downtown location, Park knew he needed a bolstered retail space in tourist-heavy Waikiki. The Leather Soul “flagship” opened in 2008-during the peak of the recession, when uttering the word “luxury” was practically a sin, let alone flaunting it. Yet, the store bourgeoned, so much so that in 2010 he was able to open a branch in Beverly Hills. Most recently, Park expanded his Royal Hawaiian Center boutique, complete with a full scotch bar to complement his finely curated selection of shoes and other goods.
Park’s two top-selling brands are Alden shoes hailing from New England, followed by Britain’s top-tier label, John Lobb. Leather Soul is also the exclusive carrier of George Cleverly’s made-to-measure footwear in the United States. A Cleverly custom shoe takes at least one year to make, though the process is rather simple: feet are measured, and clients choose from various designs and leather swatches. The outline of the shoe is created from the client’s measurements, constructed in London, and sent to the U.S. for an initial fitting. Following final adjustments, back it goes to England to be finished before making its way back to the client.
Bespoke is the main draw in Park’s Beverly Hills store, and high-profile clients are anything but few and far between. In fact, Will Smith recently picked up a few pairs from the Beverly Hills branch. Momentum may be on Park’s side, but he reveals that he doesn’t necessarily want Leather Soul to receive the whole, “as-seen-on (insert celebrity name)” attention.
“I want those who truly appreciate footwear to be my clients,” he says, “not just because [the shoe] is celebrity-driven.”
Coming full circle, Park has plans to open a Leather Soul in downtown Honolulu once more. A passion project, the downtown branch will serve not only as a retail store, but ideally, as a place where people with shared interests (if you’re anything like Park, that would include good shoes, fast cars, cigars, scotch and tennis) can linger and chat.
At the fast pace that Park’s success is moving at, the next evolution is just around the corner. Those who question the store’s name, Leather Soul (as opposed to “Sole”), will soon understand that name opens itself to unlimited opportunities, as Park’s plans may delve beyond fancy footwear. Taking his appreciation for refined men’s accessories and more, Park wants his stores to gradually become a men’s select shop-offering choice pieces of luggage, ties and other distinguished accoutrements.
If all goes to plan, by this time next year, the Waikiki store will be considerably different, including a line of dress shirts with San Francisco’s Taylor Stitch; a collaboration with Reyn’s to create a “Reyn’s for Leather Soul” collection; bringing in ties and pocket squares from The Hill-Side; and creating Leather Soul’s own line of shoes (made in England).
“[We’re doing] all sorts of things,” Park says. “I want to be known as a brand, not just a shoe store. I want to be known for having the best of the best.”