There isn’t a single fashion accessory quite like a fresh pair of kicks. The right pair of sneakers telegraphs to the world who you are and what you’re all about. But in a buying market full of bots and greedy re-sellers, it’s never been harder to stand out. Nothing burns like rolling up to the function in a dope pair of limited edition hard-to-cop Jordans only to see a room full of people who also paid a hefty re-sale price for that same exclusive drop.
This is why as streetwear continues to evolve and the most stylish amongst us find new avenues for self-expression, custom sneakers feel like the next big streetwear trend and an art form that is pushing the whole industry forward. The art of independent creatives, now poised for the mainstream.
If you’re a hardcore brand loyalist or a collaboration-obsessed sneakerhead, the words “custom sneakers” might send shivers down your spine. But we’re not talking about sneakers sporting portraits of Goku or colorways that resemble something straight out of a Marvel movie (though if that’s your thing, do you!). Those are fine, but there are a handful of sneaker artists out there that are elevating the form and creating bespoke designs that rival the shoes coming straight out of Nike or Supreme.
People like Dominic Ciambrone, aka The Shoe Surgeon, and Nicolle Knight, aka Katty Customs, the co-host of Uproxx’s Fresh Pair, create the sort of designs that can make even the snobbiest sneakerheads froth at the mouth and turn green with envy. Ciambrone and Knight aren’t simply repainting materials, they’re completely deconstructing sneakers, swapping out soles, messing with fabrics, making leathers, and doing complicated embroidery work and detailing that transform sneakers from simple fashion to straight-up wearable art.
“Creating customs and owning a one-of-a-kind bespoke sneaker is more than just a product,” says Ciambrone, “It’s an experience and an art form to own. People are looking for pieces that are of quality and exclusive to them, and I think we’ll continue to see it grow as more creators and artists emerge.”
Ciambrone is one of the most visible customizers currently operating in streetwear, his skills are so widely respected that he even runs a workshop called the SRGN Academy that provides hopeful creators in Los Angeles and New York with the skills, tools, and know-how to create their own bespoke kicks. His attention to detail and craft has caught the eye of everyone from Drake to Justin Bieber, Michael B. Jordan, DJ Khaled, Odell Beckham Jr., and many more.
“I feel people are always finding new ways to express themselves,” he says. “I’ve always believed that fashion is an extension of yourself, a way you can communicate and connect with others without saying anything. That’s how I started and how The Shoe Surgeon was born.”
The steadily growing popularity of custom sneakers amongst fashion trendsetters and celebrities plays on the always-trendy pursuit of “exclusivity” and elevates it to a whole new level. A custom sneaker that was designed for you and in some cases, conceived from your own imagination, is a form of self-expression that even the dopest brand collaboration can’t recreate.
“Customization is the ultimate form of streetwear self-expression to me because it’s about being different,” says Knight, who has also designed sneakers for the stars, including Saweetie, Jadakiss, will.i.am, El-P, and many more. “Being able to rock a sneaker that no one else has is gold! When you’re at an outing and someone says ‘I like your shoes, where’d you get them from?’ And knowing they can’t just go into a store and buy the same exact shoes is dope… Self-expression is so valuable when it comes to one’s personal fashion because you’re able to be you, rocking your own style the way you want to. It is self-knowledge and self-confidence expressed through what you choose to wear — a life-affirming expression of who you are.”
It’s clear that the big brands are recognizing the sort of work artists like Ciambrone and Knight are doing, and you can see traces of the customizer’s spirit in designs by artists like Sean Wotherspoon, creator of 2018’s legendary Nike Air Max 1/97, and in Nike and Adidas current customization tools, which are limited, but show that the hunger for customization is strong.
Before making a name for himself as a sneaker designer, Wotherspoon was the founder of a Virginia-based sneaker store called Round Two (Round Two now has stores in New York and Los Angeles, two streetwear meccas) and was invited by Nike in 2017 along with 11 other creatives to create new original iterations of the Air Max silhouette. The designs would eventually be presented to the public and Nike fans voted on which got an official release during 2018’s Air Max Day.
Wotherspoon won that contest by combining the upper of a Nike Air Max 97 with the midsole and outsole of an Air Max 1 and giving it an eye-catching rainbow corduroy upper. That’s the sort of extensive deconstructionist work that serves as Ciambrone and Knight’s bread and butter. Wotherspoon has since gone on to collaborate with Guess, Adidas, ASICS, and produce even more shoes with Nike, solidifying himself as one of the most innovative modern designers in the sneaker space.
For Knight, recognition from the big brands is something she hopes other sneaker artists will get to experience as the customization movement continues to grow.
“Big Brands know that sneaker customization and the desire to be different is a new wave in fashion,” she says. “I definitely feel like the big brands should acknowledge and support customizers more. We’re taking their sneakers and making it into wearable art that can’t be bought in stores. The ultimate form of appreciation for me would be to see the brands collaborate with more sneaker artists, giving us a chance to showcase our talents for the world to see.”
It’s too soon to truly know how the rise of sneaker customization will change streetwear, but we’re excited to see it happen and even more psyched for the ways the big brands like Nike and Adidas respond. When you’re creating the sort of radical transformations of famous silhouettes that Ciambrone and Knight routinely churn out, it pushes the big brands to go further than they have before. The days of simple and safe retro colorway refreshes are over — bring out the bespoke designs!
Hopefully, brands like Nike and Adidas can expand their current customization options — which need a lot more design options if they hope to compare with what Ciambrone and Knight are doing — to allow people to better express themselves in their fashion choices.
“The thing I love most about customizing sneakers for other people is the ability to bring their vision to life,” says Knight. “Everyone is not an artist like myself, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a vision or style. Being able to give them something they can’t create for themselves while bringing a great smile to their faces warms my heart.”