Custom sneakers have never been a bigger part of the conversation. The exclusivity of a one-of-one item is universally appealing, and in the context of sneakers, what was once a niche hobby is now a burgeoning market.
From kids doodling on their Chuck Taylors to skaters chopping up the upper half of their Vans Caballeros, DIY customs are as old as the sneakers they are based on. By the late ’90s and early ’00s, passionate sneakerheads began producing their own variations of beloved sneakers and listing them on the marketplace.
One of the first to do this was Bobbito Garcia. A cultural trailblazer of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Garcia painted different color swooshes on Bruce Kilgore’s iconic Air Force 1 and put them up for sale. Other pioneers included Methamphibian and SBTG who made names for themselves hand-painting Nike Dunks and re-selling them at a premium. Raif Adelberg chopped up Nike Air Force 1s and shipped his custom creations to Eddie Cruz to be sold at Union LA in the very early 2000s. Several years later, JBF customs popularized the use of luxury materials, while the Shoe Surgeon garnered a reputation for creating the most intricate customs on the market. Today, customs have permeated the marketplace in every way imaginable, as consumers desire more opportunities to differentiate themselves.
While there are quite a few custom sneakers that are unique in their own right, it’s thanks to the multitude of copy cats that these ideas become clichés. It’s the reason that JBF Customs refuses to produce any more python Air Jordan 1s, despite popularizing the trend in the first place. If something is well received, then it is just a proof of concept for others to knock it off. Rather than focusing on their contribution to sneaker culture, profit-oriented customizers try to cash out on the latest trend. “The custom footwear market has become heavily saturated, and I still believe there is a very large void for creativity and unique thinkers within the marketplace,” says Connor Seltz of Ceeze Studios. “There is a conflicting dialogue between creativity and commercialism.”
Of course, there are customs that still adhere to their roots in sneaker culture. Joshua Vides is known for his sharpie-outlined designs. The Guatemalan artist never considered himself a sneaker customizer, but someone who loved sneakers and realized he could use them as a canvas for his art. Following the virality of his creations, Vides now has an official Converse collaboration under his belt. Other customs such as Online Ceramics’ Tie-Dyed Off-White x Nike Air Presto for John Mayer or The Shoe Surgeon’s meticulously crafted Nike React Element 87 “Leather” (which was actually available for purchase) successfully elevate some of 2018’s most hyped releases with unique and personal concepts.
Helen Kirkum, another name who works in sneaker customisation, also impresses with her take on Reebok’s InstaPump Fury OG. Kirkum’s designs are especially distinctive as she has little relation to sneaker culture in general. What would seem like a hindrance to her design process is actually her greatest strength. By refusing to put the shoe on a pedestal, Kirkum has the freedom to experiment as she sees fit. It’s in this freedom that Kirkum is able to share her stance on sustainability through re-using materials. As she puts it, “If I give [the shoe] too much validity, I’m never going to be able to take a scalpel to them and slice them in half,” she says. “I can understand the importance of the sneakers, but I think, when it comes to my work, I have to allow myself to forget that and just go at it with a kind of naiveté and a spontaneity.”
The best custom sneakers, however, are the ones that tell a story and retain a personal significance. BespokeIND’s Nike SB Dunk Low “Lego” sample, for example, features a blend of baby calf suede, kangaroo, lamb and deer skin in pastel hues reminiscent of the brand and allow actual Lego pieces to be attached the tongue. According to Damian Sim, founder of BespokeIND:
“Each sneaker that we hand craft takes in excess of 100 hours on average to complete from digital render stage to a final product. We incorporate sneaker intellect to all our processes, bringing back OG shape, cut & tailor or patterning & making according to the clients brief & wants. This is the true difference between what [BespokeIND] does & what the masses are doing with deconstructing & cookie cutting factory sneakers & adding premium materials.”
Despite the incessant number of unoriginal customs introduced each day, custom sneakers remain one of the sneaker industry’s most important sub-categories. They inspire brands and individuals alike to continue innovating. Whether it be exceptional construction, a unique design process, or an attempt to communicate a compelling narrative, there is no doubt that outstanding custom designs will continue to flood the marketplace. Unfortunately, as the number of original custom sneakers increases, so will the slew of unoriginal copycat customs we know today.
As consumers we determine the fluxes of the marketplace. It is our responsibility to discern the good from the bad. It is our responsibility to maintain the integrity of our community. Sneaker culture was built on authenticity—let’s not forget that.