The sneaker just might be culture’s most effective modern-day canvas. These days, names like Hatfield, Abloh, and Bembury hold just about as much cultural weight as Haring, Warhol, and Basquiat. If you’re a sneakerhead, I challenge you to give me the name of the artist who created the last painting that moved you. Having trouble? Now think about the last sneaker collaboration that had you frothing at the mouth. Was it by Aleali May, Sean Wotherspoon, or Kanye West? Did it make you want to dive deep into the designer’s inspirations and reference points? More importantly, did it make you check your bank account?
A fire pair of sneakers will get people lining up around the block. But even the most exclusive colorways can be bought on GOAT or StockX just days after launch for a markup. A true custom kick? A bespoke one-off? Those are wearable pieces of art that straight up can’t be replicated.
To help you find a sneaker customizer that fits your vibe, we’re breaking down eight big names at the top of their respective games. These creative minds are sure to get snatched up by big brands one day. In the meantime, let them help you turn heads and draw the eyes of the most stylish strangers on the street.
How big sneaker brands like Nike and Adidas haven’t scooped up Nicolle Knight aka Katty Customs yet is a mystery to us. So intricate they’re impossible not to fall in love with yet so seamless that they look factory-made, the work of Katty Customs is consistently top-notcht. It’s no wonder that Knight has attracted the eyes of celebrities like Allen Maldonado of Sneakerheads fame — for whom she made a truly wild pair of Jordan 1s, managing to capture the actor’s multi-faceted career while reflecting his restless spirit.
Whether she’s making shoes for Chris Brown, Saweetie, or Zion Williamson, Katty approaches each design with a level of craft and attention to detail that offers insight into the personality of whoever she is designing for without ever veering toward cheesy “writing on the shoe” maximalism. She understands that your sneakers are a statement and she ensures that each design she undertakes is dope enough to captivate onlookers while also holding secrets and easter eggs for the wearer. It’s a fine tightrope to balance and she aces it every time.
Whether she’s putting a luxurious spin on a high-top AJ1 or dressing a Jordan IV in bold tones that would make even UnionLA envious, Knight’s designs will help you grab eyeballs in a major way. And isn’t that the whole point, at the end of the day?
The Shoe Surgeon
Dominic Ciambrone’s moniker Shoe Surgeon is more than just a name. Ciambrone truly embodies that title, approaching his custom designs with a level of intense care and commitment to breaking sneakers down to the studs. Through his Los Angeles-based Surgeon Studios, Ciambrone and his team of fellow sneaker surgeons do everything from elegant dye work to swapping the sole of one shoe and putting it on another.
Yes, they’re on that Frankenstein shit.
Recently, Ciambrone has been sharing some of the work from fellow designers out of the Surgeon Creators Academy and it’s jaw-dropping to see all of the talent he’s collected under one roof. This is Kanye making My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-level stuff we’re talking about. With patchwork colorways and designs that rival pros like Tinker Hatfield and Virgil Abloh, Ciambrone and the work coming out of Surgeon Studios is always a thrill to behold.
If I showed you a collection of Danklef original sneakers you wouldn’t be able to differentiate them from Nike’s originals. The level of craft and care displayed in each individual pair of sneakers customized by Danklef is unreal, whether he’s swapping a midsole or repainting a colorway, his work is seamless, expertly integrating his designs into the silhouettes he uses as his canvas.
Danklef’s Instagram feed is full of post after post of sneaker colorways that would otherwise snag top spots in every publication’s best sneaker year-end lists.. if only they were official! The fact that they aren’t — well, that makes them all the cooler.
Donnell McFadden Brooks, aka Jigga produces beautiful saturated custom designs that display an intense level of detail. Whether he’s dropping a chaotic street art-inspired pair of AF-1s or a simple five-color remix on an Air Jordan, Brook’s designs have a lot of depth that helps make his designs jump out at you like a 3D painting. Brook’s consistently produces work that is a pleasure to get lost in, which is what you want on your Instagram feed.
Stomping Ground Customs
The work of Stomping Ground Customs (aka SGNY) has been featured on high-profile outlets like Complex, and High Snobiety thanks to the brand’s uniquely vibrant custom designs that look straight out of a stylish high production anime.
SGNY kicks vibrate with movement and energy and look more like something you’d see hanging in the halls of your museum than they do something you’d wear on your feet. This makes them feel all the more otherworldly when you actually do see someone rocking a pair!
Breanna Berry aka Colorado’s Queen Of Shoe Art is the go-to pick for professional sports players who want to step out onto the court or field with some custom drip. Her Instagram page is full of special sneakers she’s designed for players like Javonte Williams and Donta Williams and Berry has partnered with organizations like the MLB and the Boys & Girls Club to help bring her hand-painted custom designs to life.
If loud eye-catching graphic designs are your thing, Breanna Berry is the customizer for you.
If you’re looking for a sneaker customizer with a robust line of customized products that drop at a rate that rivals your favorite sneaker brands, look no further than Vandy. Armed with a retro website that recalls the days of Web 1.0, Vandy customizes sneakers and apparel in a way that makes each piece feel like a brand new brand.
Vandy isn’t a customizer to follow if you’re looking for designs that hold the source material in high regard, instead, Vandy takes a more punk rock approach, smashing classic designs together with his own unique aesthetic to create something entirely new.
Sneaker customizers can’t really be described as subtle. Even when customizers aren’t plastering loud cartoon graphics and wild fonts on their designs, they still tend to utilize super saturated paint and bright combinations intended to catch your eye. Vijz Bespokes (pronounced “Vice”) takes a different approach.
Based in the Netherlands, Sam Van IJzendoorn, aka Vijz will go to great lengths to elevate each of his designs beyond the boundaries of the surface material he’s working with, whether that means cutting up and re-arranging a sneaker’s mudguard, readjusting a silhouette’s shape, or treating each panel on a single sneaker as a brand new canvas to execute a different idea.
It sounds like a radical approach, but Vijz is able to make big changes while still presenting an end result that looks elegant and undisturbed. He’s truly a master cobbler in the SNX game.