It’s no secret that the sneaker world is driven by exclusivity. Sneakerheads take to Twitter every weekend to openly discuss how they caught yet another “L” on the Nike SNKRS app, thanks to a limited release. But rather than building resentment, those complaints simply stir up an already frothing fanbase. Size exclusivity, bots, and exploitive resellers keep the energy around copping a fresh pair at a fever pitch.
If exclusivity is the wave you’re on, it’s tough to beat customs — completely unique kicks made using “blanks” from big brands. For sneaker lovers, it’s a chance to flex your style and individuality at once; for creatives, these hand-painted (and sometimes hand-stitched) sneaker remixes offer a great way to get your work into the ether and build an audience. Artists trade designs and techniques on sub-Reddits and via Instagram. Over on TikTok, there are currently more than 168 million views under the hashtag #sneakercustoms.
In the booming community of sneaker customizers, Nicolle Knight, aka Katty Customs, has to be recognized as one of the best in the game. Her designs are so intricate and seamless that they look factory-made. At the same time, they also tell a story, capturing and reflecting the personality of whomever she’s designing for. Look no further than the pair of Jordan 1s she designed for Sneakerheads star Allen Maldonado, wrapping the iconic silhouette in various animal prints to represent Maldonado’s multi-faceted talents as an actor, producer, writer, long-distance runner, and entrepreneur.
Or consider these Louis Vuitton hightops she did that conjure luxury in ways large and small.
To learn more about customs in general and Katty’s approach to designing bespoke kicks for everyone from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Chris Brown, I chopped it up with her this week. Check our full convo below.
Fill me in on your sneaker story. How did you get into sneakers and what made you want to start customizing them?
I got into sneakers back in 2009. I had run into this guy named Mike Norris. He owned a store on Melrose. When I walked into his store, I saw the shoe customizations that he was doing and I was blown away. At the time, I was designing clothes. I was making custom clothing like letterman jackets and cardigan sweaters and things like that. And I was showing him my stuff, and then I was asking him, “Do you need any help in the shop? Do you need any assistance? Because I really love what you do.”
He told me, “no.” Bu he gave me pointers on how to make my brand look better, just teaching me a few little things. So I kept going to his shop. Once a week I was always going there because I would always be out that way. And I just kept asking him, “You need to hire me. You need to hire me. You need to hire me.” Just joking around with him.
Finally, he was like, “You know what, forget it. You’re hired.”
From there, he literally taught me how to customize sneakers, what kind of paint to use, how to prep them. Just all the little fundamentals. That’s pretty much how I got my start, just working at his store back in those days. But back then, custom sneakers weren’t even popular like that. The only reason why we would customize shoes was if a big company like MTV or somebody needed custom shoes for the background dancers because they’re going to do a dance at an award show or something. It was never people coming in and randomly saying, like, “Okay, I want my shoes to be this colorway or that colorway.”
But nowadays, it’s like everybody is asking me for it on a normal basis because everybody wants to be different.
Why do you think celebrities and the average consumer loves custom shoes so much? Why are custom shoes hotter now than they’ve ever been?
I think custom shoes are hot now because everybody wants to be different. Everybody wants to stand out and everybody wants to be the one that only has that shoe. Especially when it comes to celebrities, and even just people like us, we want to be different. We want to walk into a place and for people to be like, “Where did you get those shoes? How did you get those shoes?”
If it’s just from a store, a few hundred people got those shoes too. But when you have a customizer who could do something really different — it’s amazing, and you stand out. Now it’s like, “Okay, how can I get those? Who made those?” Sometimes celebrities and people will keep you a secret. They keep the customizer a secret because they don’t want someone else to go and get the same thing. That has happened to me before.
What is the quintessential sneaker silhouette or the one you feel the most inspired by as a natural canvas? Because I imagine each pair kind of has its pros and cons based on the key design that is already in there.
The perfect canvas is a Jordan 1. If it’s not a Jordan 1, then an Air Force 1, for sure. A low top, Air Force 1 low, and Jordan 1 high. Those are the perfect canvases for shoes.
And what makes those ones work better than others?
For some reason, it gives me a lot of ideas on where I could put colors. I’m really into bright and bold colors. So looking at Air Force 1s or a Jordan 1, kind of makes it easier for me to come up with a concept on what to do. Even if I wanted to do some extensive art, I could do it on those shoes. It’s like my brain just gravitates to those. It’s a perfect canvas for me to just get all my ideas out onto the shoe.
Other shoes like Jordan 12s or something else, I may sit there and think for a little bit like, “Okay, well now, where would I put this and put that?” Now, granted, I do think before I customize any shoe, but the AJ1 and AF-1 are the easiest.
What pair are you most proud of? Do you have any favorites?
Yes, absolutely. I’ve done a pair for Chris Brown that I absolutely love, I did two pairs, well, I actually did five pairs for him, but two of the pairs I really love. And then there is this other pair that I’ve done for an art exhibit, Sneakertopia. It was a Jordan 1 and what I did was I put all of the retro Jordans that I love onto one shoe. So it was a Jordan 1 shoe, but then I drew a Jordan 11 on there, a Jordan 12, a Jordan 13. I drew all of the Jordans on that Jordan 1. And I called it the “What the Jordan 1?”
Is there anybody who you’ve collaborated with or made a pair for that you felt starstruck by?
Yes, the collaboration with Allen Maldonado. I was surprised when I started working with him because it was just amazing that he had a show called Sneakerheads on Netflix. And I told him, I hit him up like “Look, you need to come out with your own exclusive shoe. You need to. You need to just go ahead and drop that.” And he agreed to it and it worked well for us. So I think that was truly amazing. That was really one of my favorite partnerships.
Are there any sneaker designers or other customizers out there you take inspiration from?
Mike Norris, that’s the guy who mentored me. When I saw his art — he’s also an artist, so it wasn’t just always on sneakers, he did art for everything, including murals — he’s an amazing artist. His attention to detail is magnificent, which is why I have so much attention to detail in my work. It’s like it has to be perfect, and he taught me that. Also, there is this guy called Quonito. I love his color choices. I always tell him that we have the same type of vision when it comes to sneakers.
I’m absolutely in love with his custom work and it’s super clean. He hand-paints them, too.
What would you say are the biggest challenges of customizing sneakers?
Making it look perfect, making it look like it’s store-bought and not hand-painted. Because when painting shoes you could sometimes see the brush strokes inside the paint when it dries. My goal is to make the shoes look factory and not hand-painted. I’m really big on precision. I really need the shoes to be perfect before it gets to the customer. And then on top of that, making sure the shoes don’t crack or peel. It’s really, really, really important to know how to prep the shoes before customizing because if you don’t do it right they won’t come out right.
Then when the customer is wearing it, it’s going to crack and peel. And now it feels like the customer may have wasted their money on a pair of customs because they can’t wear them because the shoes keep cracking and peeling off.
Where do you want to take Katty Customs going into the future? Would you like to expand into a full apparel brand? Do you want to focus on shoes? Do you want to maybe step into designing your own?
My idea for my brand is to come out with my own signature sneaker. Also, I definitely, still work on my clothing brand. But most of all, I want to be able to teach classes all over the world. I want people to know that you too could take your talent and the things that you love to do for fun and make it lucrative for you. This is something that I’ve done for fun. And then it just ended up being lucrative for me. I ended up getting paid for something that I love to do. I was working in the dental field at first. And I saw that I was making more money customizing shoes than I was doing in the dental field. So I ended up quitting my job and was like, “I’m out of here.” And really just put my focus on my craft.
And when I quit, I didn’t know everything about customizing shoes. I just knew how to do it. But when I put my focus into it, I started to learn more things about customizing shoes. Doing more research. And it was just like, “Wow, this is where I need to be because this is my passion.”
Art is my passion. Drawing is my passion. Painting is my passion. That’s something that I’ve been doing since I was five. So I definitely want to teach classes all over the world. Just to show people that they too could become the person they never thought they could be. Just by doing the talent that God has given them.
Is there any shoe you won’t touch?
Crocs. I won’t touch Crocs. It won’t hold the paint well. Granted, you could dye the shoes, but I want to throw some art on it. I want to do something crazy. So that material, Crocs, I would not touch. But anything else I can work with.
Because of the pandemic, a lot of industries have had a chance to self-reflect and kind of reset. Is there anything that you would like to see in the sneaker world or just fashion in general, going forward?
In the sneaker world, I would like to see more women out there in the corporate world. I also want to see people at Nike or Adidas give customizers like us a chance to actually design shoes for them, people who really know how to put colors together and really help bring our ideas to life, instead of taking our ideas. Because there have been a few shoes that I’ve done in the past, and then I have seen it be released two, three years later.
I don’t mind, but at the same time, it’s like, “Okay, I see you guys have scouts going out to look at customizers’ pages or something,” because customizing has been coming up big lately. Because for my Instagram, as soon as I get on and I go on a search feed, it’s nothing but sneakers, and it’s all custom sneakers. And maybe a few non-custom sneakers, but it’s all custom.
So I’m sure they have scouts out there that just go out and see what’s cool and what’s not cool, what people gravitate towards and not. So I just want to see more people like myself, the actual customizers, be involved with really big companies to create shoes.
It would be cool if they’d pay more attention to us on that.
And pay you guys!
And pay us. Yeah, for sure. I would like to see more collaborations instead of with celebrities, but with real sneaker artists. I think that’d be pretty dope.