A few weeks back, renowned sneaker designer and customizer Dominic Ciambrone celebrated the opening of his new SRGN studio in LA with a big party that coincided with the artist’s 36th birthday. Much of the Uproxx team was in attendance and, to be frank, the new studio exceeds all expectations on what a sneaker customizer’s workshop should look like. The new SRGN studios is less a workshop for all things sneaker customization and more akin to a modern-day version of Andy Warhol’s Factory — a haven for artists of all stripes to come together to realize their creative projects (some of which include, of course, designing sneakers), play basketball, sip high-end whisky, and tackle whatever else Ciambrone and co decide they want to take on next.
That aforementioned whisky bar, in keeping with Ciambrone’s appreciation for all things luxury, comes fully stocked with Glenmorangie, part of a multifaceted year-long partnership between Ciambrone and the brand that will consist of limited-edition drops, studio concerts, design workshops, and more in the SRGN space.
Last week, we chopped it up with The Shoe Surgeon over Zoom, where he filled us in on how he got into the sneaker customization scene, where he wants to take his art and brand next, and the artists who inspire him to take things to the next level.
What can you tell us about the new LA studio? How does it differ from what you’ve done in the past?
The studio is a place for creators and I wanted to create a space to curate an experience for artists, and athletes, and create a unique vibe. I grew up watching [Rob Dyrdek’s] Fantasy Factory and I grew up playing soccer and I grew up going to clubs and bars. I grew up in the restaurant business, hospitality. So shoes just got me here and I wanted to curate a space to tie everything together, from sports, fashion, creating, making, and teaching.
So it’s creating a physical location of the brand.
How did you first link up with Glenmorangie whisky? How did the two brands reflect or resonate with one another?
I think we both hold the bar for luxury and class and elegance. I remember a long time ago flying a friend in from Minnesota, and him asking, “what’s your favorite alcohol? What’s your favorite food? What do you like to eat?” Because I’m very big in hospitality. I grew up just taking care of people with my family. He said “scotch whisky” and it happened to be Glenmorangie. So it started there, and that was years ago. I remember being at a bar and also seeing the logo, the signet, and the detail of how amazing it looked.
It’s just a classy beverage that ties into our brand where I started as a kid just throwing paint on shoes, and it progressed, and now I make the most luxury, highest-end products in the world. To tie in a brand like Glenmorangie of hospitality and creating a luxury bar is the perfect fit.
Would you ever give some thought to maybe customizing a bottle or designing a bottle?
We’re working on that. That’s the thing. So many people see the shoes and they think I’m a shoe guy. They think I’m a sneakerhead. And it’s like, I’m more than that. It’s not me. I have a whole team and we’re just a group of creators and makers and we can make anything. So a bottle has always been on my list of things to design and develop and even make. I’ve actually made some custom bottles, handmade some in the studio.
So you definitely see yourself as a designer above a sneaker customizer?
Yeah. I mean, there’s no label to call me other than I’m a human that likes to make or create things, and I have a vision. Some people would call me a sneaker customizer. You can call me a designer. But I wouldn’t stop at that. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a designer. I’m a maker. I’m a craftsman. I mean, I’m a man of many things, and at the end of the day, I’m just a creative artist that can execute things, and execute visions.
I have a taste level that I like things my way, and anything I look, at I’m like, “How can I change that?” It ties back into my life of constantly wanting to evolve and work on myself.
How did you first get into customizing sneakers?
I think at a very young age, I was always making and creating stuff from screen printing to painting, to building forts in the backyard, Legos at a very young age, just creating and building, not following the directions. And then middle school, sharpening my shoes and then got into fashion. Freshman year of high school, my cousin let me wear original ’85 Jordan 1s, which I didn’t really know what they were at the time. I wore those to school and it attracted people like, “Yo, those are sick.” So at that time, not knowing it like I do today, but to see that I created… It helped me create a voice without actually having to speak.
And after that, I would start getting shoes early and wearing those out, and people would flip. So I knew that if I had some cool shoes, it would attract people, and it was just a way to communicate, and it was a way to connect with people. And then that went away once everyone had the same shoes, and that’s when I airbrushed a pair in high school.
When I went to school, it was the same thing. It was like, “Yo, where’d you get those?” And it was like, “Oh, I made them,” and then it clicked that I can make it. The paint fell off right away. So it went from just creating to like, “Oh, shit. I need to make this thing last forever.”
I wanted to ask you, on a philosophical level, what is a custom sneaker to you? Do you see it as an expression of individuality, a mirror that reflects the wearer’s personality, or is it just purely about cool design?
To each person, it’s different. So I was on this journey of creating this perfect pair of shoes, which I found as a never-ending journey. So recently I came back to the point of just having fun with it again, just grabbing a pair of shoes and just having fun, not being so hard on myself that it needs to be this perfect way. I mean, what is a custom pair of shoes? Art is subjective to who’s looking at it and I can tell you how I see it, but if someone else creates art or a custom pair of shoes, I can say, “I don’t like it. It’s not for me, but good job that you’re doing something for yourself or for others.” I think that’s the way I look at it.
It’s just a canvas and I think it’s an expression of who you are or what you want to create.
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You’ve designed for lots of people from Odell Beckham to Drake to LeBron. Is there anybody that’s on your bucket list who you haven’t designed a sneaker for that you would like to, that you already have ideas for, maybe?
I’m looking out the window. I’m looking at my business partner. And the way we met was he brought a pair of shoes to me, the original Air Mags, and we never finished them. We ended up making a bunch of other shoes and then we became business partners. So there’s the first pair of shoes. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. I made shoes for Pharrell Williams, who was a dream. He was the guy that I really looked up to, and I want to make a song with him. So to make shoes for someone, I mean, it would be… Who owns Louis Vuitton? It would be an owner of something that’s created something so big that can also just see my craft and my passion into a product or whatever it may be.
It’s not about a celebrity. I remember first making shoes for will.i.am and Justin Bieber. At that time I was just like, “Cool, whatever. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s not who I am.” I just like creating. And if people respect my art now, then that’s what I enjoy most about it.
You mentioned music and you mentioned that you like to create. Is there a medium you haven’t dipped your toes in yet that you really want to, or that you really have your eyes set on, a creative endeavor?
I’m sure there is that I can’t think of right now, but I think it’s taking these things and taking them all further. So we built out of the space. We designed the space. So I want to be designing hotels. I want to be designing a house. I want to be designing restaurants. I’m going to be. It’s just taking it further. So I’ve been in the space of music. Now I want to actually make an album. Now I’m going to continue to push things further.
How involved were you with the architecture and stuff, or at least the interior design of the new studio? Pretty heavily?
Heavily. Yeah. There’s a lot of things going on over here and there’s a lot of things moving quickly. At the end, there are some things that I’m actually physically doing less and more so as the creative direction. I’m helping empower the team to make decisions that are on brand and also making sure that we’re continuing to push things forward and get things done.
I’m really excited about creating this bar with Glenmorangie and really elevating the feel and look because I come from a middle-class family. We weren’t poor. We weren’t rich. And we were huge in hospitality, and we took care of a lot of people, feeding them. We had a restaurant growing up, so we would feed people for free. We would cover that. And I like nice things. My youngest brother is a very high-end chef. I continue to like more classy things. So when I go to a bar, I want it to feel a certain way.
It’s about the aesthetic and the vibe more so than the product. That’s where I’m at with my brand. It’s not just about the shoe. That’s what we’re doing with this bar too.
What’s your favorite sneaker to work from a design standpoint? What silhouette captures your imagination and feels like a canvas you can iterate on forever?
I mean, I really haven’t made it yet. It’s the next one that I’m working on. It’s the original design that I’m working on. But if you were to answer your question directly, it’d be the OG Jordan 1 just because that was the first really cool pair of shoes that I wore that got me into it. And with Michael Jordan and Nike, that was just the most amazing collaboration. They needed each other to help each other, and it was just an amazing thing to see.
So that silhouette’s going to be forever, I think, in my heart.
I would say that’s the sneaker that created sneaker culture the way that it is today, at least.
Just to close out, I wanted to ask, who are some of your favorite sneaker designers right now? And actually, let’s pull that out because just as you mentioned, you’re influenced by so many things, and I know you name-checked Pharrell. What creators really inspire you and how do they inspire you?
To see Drake’s persistence and creativity and how he’s put a team, and empowered a team together is really amazing to see. I mean, Kanye West is a genius and he pushed through so much to create his vision to life. Of course, Pharrell Williams from… I remember being 16 or something and my older brother showing me one of the first albums of N.E.R.D and he was just like, “Yo, what is this? It’s a cool sound.”
He had a swag to him, a fashion sense. And he turned music and fashion and skate together and created this thing, which was really dope to see. I don’t really follow too many actual sneaker designers. I just enjoy watching creatives that can harness their energy and turn it into something impactful for not only themselves. It’s for other people to enjoy.