If you spend any time on Instagram these days, chances are you’ll come across a pair of custom sneakers very early on in your scrolling session. Whilst the idea of painting your sneakers has been around for a long while (the 90s in particular saw its fair share of designer-inspired designs) more recent custom creations have led to rebuilds and redyes seeing their fair share of the limelight, too.
Custom sneakers have long been a polarising subject within the sneaker world. On one hand, customisation provides the wearer with the opportunity to express their personality, something your pair of off-the-shelf kicks won’t do to the same extent, but on the other hand, custom creps have a bit of a reputation amongst sneakerheads for being “tacky.” For customisers and designers themselves, it can be a bit of a fine line. We spoke to four people within the industry to get their thoughts on the phenomenon, and to find out exactly why some sneakerheads have a snobby opinion towards customs.
Fuelling the Custom Boom
Searches for custom sneakers surged during lockdown, when many people dipped their toes into creative pursuits to pass the time. Alongside banana bread baking, candle making and the like, sneaker customisation boomed into a bigger industry, fuelled even more by Instagram and TikTok as we sat on our phones mindlessly scrolling for a way to pass the time. Even after, custom sneakers continue to be popular on the platform, as artists are able to utilise and manipulate the algorithms to show off their creativity, with some creators even being lucky enough to catch the eyes of celebrity and influencer clients.
But whilst social media has allowed for creators to express their personal style, it’s also led to huge groups of people largely looking the same. Findings by McKinsey and Deloitte have suggested that the social media savvy generation, Gen Z, are outwardly rejecting this notion by demanding more personalisation options from brands to help preserve their individual identities. Therefore, more people have turned to customs in order to express their creativity and style.
Keira Sandhu started her customisation business, Prettyie, in 2019 – a year before the world went into lockdown. She started the business through a love of sneakers and noticed a lack of originality within the digital space. “On social media, the people that do stand out are the people who are themselves – they don’t try and fit in. People don’t want to fit in with the norms of society, and the really successful influencers are the ones that have their unique style and embrace the fact that they’re not like everyone else.” Sandhu decided that to set Prettyie apart, not only would they offer unique designs, but they’d also collaborate with content creators for a unique perspective on their products, and she later enlisted the expertise of creator, Charlotte Whybrow, who is the brand’s new marketing manager.
It’s a sentiment that industry heads also agree with. Cesar Idrobo is a shoemaker who has designed for some of the best brands in the game. Idrobo says: “Some of us don’t want to be like the rest, so if you have the knowledge on how to alter your shoes and make them your own, I applaud that. It’s a good thing.”
The Impact of Social Media
Despite all the frustrations with social media, each customiser we spoke to mentioned that it had proved a huge part of building their business. Prettyie, at the time of writing, have 65k followers, which has come from their organic Instagram strategy and influencer collaborations. Latya Bennett, a footwear design student at Central St Martins, runs a customisation business on the side and saw 40 orders in a day when one of her TikToks went viral. But for Lorenzo Federici, social media led to much more.
“I started in April 2020, and it just started slowly. I was just doing it for my friends and wasn't posting much. In June, obviously everyone's on their phones all over the world. I posted one pair and it got reposted on a few pages, and then Drake’s manager hit me up," he continues, "Drake was buying four pairs and like five hoodies off me. And it was crazy because I literally couldn't get any traction on social, no one cared about my stuff, but I had Drake as a customer.”
The Concept of "Reworking"
There is also another app that’s making waves in the customisation scene. Thanks to platforms like Depop, buying customised footwear and clothing is easier than ever. Through this, designer reworks have grown in popularity. The world of reworks is a blurry one; much like a plain AF1, the item has started off as a legitimate branded item, be that a blanket, piece of jewellery, whatever. Essentially, the item is altered, changing the state from the original design into something new, and effectively rendering it as something the designer never intended it to be. Put blankly, an illegitimate design.
This process has complicated roots in another fashion faux-pas – bootlegging. Over the years there have been a number of cases where creatives have been sued by big brands for their takes on their clothing. A recent example was between Fendi and Dapper Dan. The designer owned a Harlem Boutique where he would kit out local gangsters, gamblers, sports stars and musicians in custom pieces adorned with monograms and patterns taken from luxury fashion houses. The approach was hailed as one of the first examples of luxury streetwear, but the houses weren’t ready for that conversation. In the 1980s, the boutique was regularly raided by the police, and then a 1992 Trademark Infringement win for Fendi shut the store down for good.
Dapper Dan’s luck changed in 2017, when Gucci sent a suspiciously familiar looking jacket down the runway. After a huge (and valid) social media fuss, Gucci admitted that the garment was “inspired” by Dan’s work, and eventually invited him to work on a capsule collaboration with them in 2018.
Now, there’s an obvious difference between creating a product that appears to belong to a brand by way of their logo or through use of their design language, and simple customisation, but according to The Sole Supplier data, the most commonly searched for custom sneaker is the “Dior Air Force 1.” This is obviously a sneaker that never existed, with only a Dior Jordan 1 having surfaced and gone to market. Bennett notes that whilst painted Dior customs were amongst her top sellers, she’s actively moving away from doing them as she feels that they’ll tarnish her as a designer.
Similarly, custom Louis Vuitton AF1s have also proven popular. These were later brought to life by the late Virgil Abloh, and a single pair fetched over $350k at auction in February 2022. It goes without saying that this price tag is hugely out of reach for most people, and in a way, customs allow for one-off or limited pieces to be much more accessible to the average consumer. Sandhu and Whybrow even credit Abloh for the growth of the custom scene – not only because of his DIY approach to design, and his rule of only changing something by 3%, but because his collections and collaborations inspired consumers to want to buy things that you didn’t see every day. Interestingly, a lot of the critical discourse around Abloh’s work, particularly when it came to the 3% rule, was centred on a lack of originality.
The World of High-End Customs
However, the snobby attitudes to sneaker customs have a certain irony about them. Whilst painting AF1s is looked down on, celebrities will pay huge amounts for custom-made sneakers. LA-based Dominic Ciambrone, known better as “The Shoe Surgeon” is one of the designers paving the way in luxury customs. Admittedly, there’s a difference. Surgeon Studios can make bespoke projects entirely from scratch – a full build of the sneaker, if you will, which arguably puts him closer to designer and shoemaker territory. That being said, a lot of The Shoe Surgeons projects are based off existing Nike designs, especially Jordans, where clients supply the shoes that they want to have recrafted. If you want a Shoe Surgeon custom, a recrafted bespoke sneaker will set you back at least $5000.
Designers believe that these have a right to be seen separately, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the other should be looked down on.
“In customisation you are adding to something that is already finished, so I wouldn’t call it creation, I’d call it more like artistic expression. In creation, you’re not replicating. In creating, you’re making it but reimagined and you have to find ways to make it work. It’s a different level of designing and creating new styles, as opposed to painting on an Air Force 1,” says Idrobo.
“There’s still value in painting shoes,” he continues, “You have to know about how materials take certain colours, how they behave. There is a bit of rocket science behind it. Sometimes a lot of great things come out of those exercises of painting. I paint a lot of shoes as well. It’s part of the scope of work in terms of there being a vision, and I have to make that vision as I see it. That entails painting.”
Federici considers himself a colour designer first and foremost. Having previously interned at Nike, he began dying sneakers back in 2020, under the name Lorenz.og. His work quickly attracted the attention of some of the biggest names in the game, and for Federici, preserving his brand is key.
“Obviously I am technically customising shoes. I'm changing them. So people assume that I work like a customiser, but I just want to make the shoe look better. I try and work more like a colour designer because I want this project, Lorenz.og to have all of these samples. And one day brands can pick and choose which ones we mass produce, like a collaboration.”
For Federici, the Shoe Surgeon is an aspirational figure, and he notes that there are different levels to customisation. He does point out however, that whatever your levels, customs are never going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
“To be honest, I don't think many sneaker purists would be after a Shoe Surgeon shoe, but it's definitely got its customer and that's what matters. But then again, in a weird and twisted way, in sneakers especially, people almost like paying a high premium, psychologically it makes them feel like they’ve really found something special.”
Frustrations With the Industry
For most of the designers we spoke to, creating customs has been a way for them to address issues they’ve spotted within the industry. For the Prettyie team, customs have allowed them to push back against generic women’s-exclusive sneaker offerings, which have historically been known for being gendered. At the time, Sandhu noted that the male-centric attitude had also seeped into the custom scene. “If I wanted to get custom shoes, I wouldn’t have known where to go as there was no-one really catering for the female audience. Although the designs were pretty gender neutral the marketing seemed male-targeted – they used male influencers to sell the product, so that’s where we came in and were different to everyone else.”
“When Sally (sallyssneakers) created her pair, I think most people expected them to be pink. But for the majority of influencers that we work with, most of them don’t want a pink shoe. Brands bring out pink pairs thinking girls are going to love them, but really everyone just wants the same shoe on a full-size run.” Sandhu is quick to point out that with customs, whatever design you’re after can be made in any size you like.
Federici expressed a similar concern, explaining that Lorenz.og was born out of the frustration he had about brands colour palettes - that they often felt like an afterthought and came at the cost of preserving business efficiencies. Through working on his own projects, he aims to later partner with brands to help them use colour more creatively on their own silhouettes.
How Custom Sneakers are Percieved
In the world of sneakers, customs aren’t seen to have the best reputation. “Tacky” was a word that came up repeatedly, although each designer agreed that this didn’t have to be the case.
For designers like Idrobo, customs have a necessary place within the industry. When asked about whether customs infringed at all on a designer’s vision, he said, “I wouldn’t call it infringement, I’d call it evolution. You have to be okay with whatever you create having the capacity to evolve. I think that’s a sign of good design – if it can exist in other realms, I think it’s successful. That’s a blessing and a curse when it comes to iconic design. When you take an Air Force 1 or a Stan Smith, that’s what they’re going to look like for the rest of time. So I love it when shoes evolve. From different aspects of colour, but also shapes and purposes. I would see customisation as an evolution or artistic interpretation and humans having creative freedom with colour and a shape they love.”
For Idrobo, seeing his silhouettes get customised isn’t a bad thing at all. “By all means, it’s your choice. I also love the encouragement and how people don’t hold these objects up to being things that you can’t touch or modify or disturb. I love doing it myself too, and I don’t mind wearing my shoes to the ground. I don’t want to hold shoes to this position where they have to be clean and perfect and the way that they are.”
Although he prefers to not be called a customiser, Federici agrees. “There's different types of customers and they all like different things. So even if one sneakerhead doesn't like customs, there's so many people who like shoes and they would love customs so it doesn't really matter. Not everyone's going to love your work. So many people hate what I do, but as long as there's some people who love it, then it's fine."
In a way, brands are starting to wake up to the fact that their consumers are demanding much more choice. Take Nike’s recent runs of Dunks or Jordans for example – the extraordinary selection of colour options allow for consumers to choose between colourways that best suit their personal tastes and styles. Furthermore, customisation options like Nike ID have been rolled out to more models, such as the Dunk Low, and this allows the customers to have more input into creating a sneaker that they love and a more personalised approach to design. Whybrow does note here that recently certain material options have been removed, making this more limited, although it isn’t clear if this is intentional on Nike’s part or due to supply chain issues.
Even so, the demand for third-party custom sneakers remains. The Sole Supplier data shows that the general sentiment towards custom kicks is generally (64%) very positive, and it’s likely that as custom sneakers become more and more creative and professional looking that this will continue to grow.
As long as we continue to use social media (and let’s face it, it’s not going away anytime soon), consumers will continue searching for ways to further express their individuality both on and offline, and customisers are likely to get more and more creative as they compete for attention. Furthermore, the act of creating customs is likely to be part of what inspires the next wave of designers, which, paired with Gen Z’s entrepreneurial spirit is a force to be reckoned with. As Idrobo notes: “It’s part of the craft. When I was learning shoe making, after you’re done there’s a next level where you take things further, and that’s polishing the shoe. In a way, customisation is like putting makeup on somebody – you can highlight things and have fun with it. There’s an aspect of creative expression, which I appreciate and encourage and value. It’s a craft and there is a demographic for it. It’s like a painter, just the canvas happens to be a shoe.”