It all started when Jan Jansen, then still a six-year old boy, asked his father who was a shoe representative at Nimco: Daddy, these shoes are kind of stiff; can't you change that? His father replied cheekily: Children's’ feet are nothing to tamper with, son.
Jan Jansen was seventeen years old when he met his Tonny and decided to pursue a life in shoe design. He made his first pair named ‘Me’, all by hand in 1961. He learned how to make patterns in 1962 during his internship at Neerlandia.
After work he studied at the School for Industrial Design in Eindhoven. Whenever he had free time, he'd design shoes that he sold for 25 guilders each to Charles Portocarrero, CEO of Dutch shoe factory Empress. Jansen told Portocarrero that he wished to go to Rome to do an internship. Recognizing Jansen's talent, Portocarrero offered him a fulltime job with great benefits. It made a young Jan Jansen reconsider pursuing his dreams so he decided that he would first talk to Tonny about it. Without hesitation, she immediately said: Don't do it. Don't accept it. Go to Rome!
Until this day, Jansen is grateful to Tonny that she let him go.
After an intense period in Italy where Jansen focused on all facets of making shoes by hand,
he returned to Amsterdam to apply his new skills to his own designs. He opened his very own studio under the name of ‘Jeannot’, where shoes were made to order. This was the start of decades of hard work and literally thousands of designs. Jansen created all of his unique lasts all by hand, which was an incredibly time-consuming task.
In 1964, Jan Jansen married Tonny Polman. As tradition dictates, the groom could not see the bride's dress before the wedding. Jansen applied the same principle to the shoes he made for his wife-to-be: he made the shoes by hand, from the same fabric as the dress. On the day of their marriage, he brought them to the wedding where Tonny was to see the shoes she would marry in for the first time.
One of the remarkable early highlights in his career was an invitation from powerhouse Dior to submit his drawings at the tender age of 2. These designs were later executed by the luxury fashion brand. Discussing details of fees and formalities, Jansen was simply told that he would have to live with ‘the honour of having been commissioned by Christian Dior’.
In 1968, the first official Jan Jansen store opened in the Runstraat in Amsterdam. The first big commercial success followed in 1969, when Jan released the ‘Woody’. Ultimately, more than 100,000 pairs were sold, making front-page news
in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool in 2005. The shoe signaled Jansen's international breakthrough. His manufacturers, Arthé, were so happy that they awarded Jansen a solid gold version of the ‘Woody’. Jan would go on to make many more clogs over the span of his later career.
Jansen’s success continued. In 1973, he designed the now-famous bamboo shoe, which was actually made of rattan. He presented the model during the ‘Semaine Internationale du Cuir’ in Paris. His claim-to-fame reached New York, where the New York Daily News called him ‘the Star of the French Leather Fair’. Needless to say, Jansen was paving
the way for himself nicely.
Surpassing sales of 100,000 pairs, which Jansen had reached with the ‘Woody’, might seem like an incredible task to any bystander – however, he managed to sell a tenfold of that when he designed and presented the ‘High Heeled Sneaker’ in 1977. After he had sold over a million pairs of this famous shoe,the Italian shoe magazine Photo Shoe published an edition featuring the ‘High Heeled Sneaker’ under the headline Bestselling shoe of
the New York Shoe Show.
Jansen was light years ahead of modern day concepts when he designed and released gender-neutral shoes in 1981 and the ‘Bruno’ was born. First editions of any shoe were always made either for his wife and muse Tonny or himself.
The shoe was quickly interpreted as revolutionary - every shoe always consisted of three colours or three different materials. Jansen’s colour- and material combinations were unseen up until then. Most shoes made by other brands consisted of one material and would normally have only one colour. Jansen had the idea of starting something that he hoped would grow to be a classic, such as the traditional English brogues.
Many creative designs followed on from these successes.. One example is the ‘Floating Wedge’ designed in 1989 which is still a favourite among customers today. Jansen has kept it in his collection ever since. This heel-less, seemingly floating shoe was an innovation in shoe design. In the 1990s, Jan released his ‘Linea Erotica’: high heels with the distinctive red hearts on golden soles.
In 2005, Jansen was honoured with an appointment as visiting professor at the Bunka Fashion Academy in Tokyo. Alongside this he was made a teacher at the Royal College of Art in London.
His fascinating designs have been awarded with nine different design prizes. Exhibitions of his work have been staged in leading museums the world over - from Germany, Italy and Russia to the USA. He has also had six solo exhibitions in Japan, all of which have drawn over 50,000 visitors each. In 1966 Jansen was also the first industrial designer to be exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam . This led to other major exhibitions in the Netherlands, such as the Museum het Valkhof show staged in collaboration with Swip Stolk in 2009 and the solo exhibition at the Gemeentemusuem in The Hague in 2002.
Jansen's shoes have been sold at auction by Christie's Amsterdam and offered by the VandenEnde Foundation in 2007. When Jan celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his brand in 2013, it was done so in style at the Rijksmuseum – the then-director Wim Pijbes offered Jan the museum as a venue for the celebration if, in exchange, he could get his hands on a pair of the coveted bamboo shoes.
The year 2017 marks the year in which Jan Jansen, still highly relevant to this day, made the cover of the Workman Shoe Calendar and designed shoes for the Dutch designer Ronald van der Kemp which were produced by United Nude and shown on Parisian catwalks. Jansen has also shown a particular interest in new technologies. This has resulted
in 3D-printed shoes - another collaboration with United Nude. The design is based on a platform that Jansen came up with at the end of the seventies. The mix of revamped design and new technology has been titled the ‘XRAY’ and is set to launch in early 2018.
Jan Jansen is a world-class shoe designer, seventy- six years of age but still working tirelessly on his new creations with his beloved muse Tonny constantly on his side.
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