Meet Dark Phil Knight: The Designer Behind LeBron James' Favourite Custom Kicks
'My name means "the king has come home",' Adewale Quadri, better known as @darkphilknight, tells Sneaker Freaker. It's a serendipitous parallel to LeBron James – often referred to as King James – an avowed fan of Quadri's wool-wrapped Air Force 1s.
The very first time Quadri made a pair of his hand-stitched Air Force 1s, they went viral. 'I had dudes like Lil Yachty hitting me up for pairs, and I'd only been making custom shoes for three weeks at that point!' he says with an incredulous laugh. In the two years since then, the exaggerated proportions, shaggy material and crisp linework of Quadri's custom Air Force 1s, Blazers and Air Max 1s have made frequent appearances on influential Instagram pages and, besides King James, can be seen on celebrities ranging from Chris Paul to Justin Bieber.
However, there's not much out there on the man behind the kicks – so we sat down with him to find out everything from his background to his influences and creative practice, plus what he's looking to do next.
How did you get into sneakers in the first place?
I'm from the north side of Chicago, and sneakers are huge there. Everybody grows up wanting to be the freshest kid on the block. My uncle bought me my first pair of 'good' sneakers, all-white Air Force 1s, when I was 12 or so, and I was hooked immediately. Shortly after that, I got a pair of the Air Force 1 'Urban Jungle Gym,' which are made of nubuck, and that got me interested in the different materials, patterns and prints that could be applied to a pair of shoes. That interest in materials has always stuck with me. I didn't wear many plain leather sneakers after that, and would always try to find kicks made of unique materials like shaggy suede.
How did you start making your own sneakers? Was it a continuation of your interest in materials?
Definitely, though I came to it in a pretty roundabout way. After high school, I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and was actually doing a lot of modelling. That wasn't what I intended to get into, but I got a gig modelling for Apple two weeks after I moved and just leaned into it. After that, I modelled for Stussy, UNDEFEATED, Union and a bunch of other places. I was learning a lot about style and fashion, contrasting what I knew from Chicago with what I was learning in LA.
Then, a lot of people started telling me I should move to New York and sign with an agency so I could continue modelling. I was ready for a change of pace, so I packed up my stuff and moved out to New York by myself. I got some modelling gigs in New York, but it wasn't really going how I wanted it to – and then the pandemic hit. I was at home, chilling with my girlfriend and my dog and looking for something to do, so I bought a copy of Shoe Dog and got really inspired by Phil Knight's journey ...
So that's where the nickname comes from!
Was it Shoe Dog that inspired you to start making your own shoes too?
In part, yeah. Customising shoes was another hobby that I picked up during quarantine. I started off by taking my girlfriend's pair of Cortez apart, flipping them inside-out and trying to put them back together. I found out about this hand-crank cobbling machine, bought one and used it to reassemble the shoe. That's when a lightbulb went off for me, and I realized just how much I could do with the machine.
I was trying to think of other projects to work on, and I was really heavy into vintage Nike ACG baklava fleeces then. Those cost a grip, so I wasn't going to mess with them, but I was like 'how can I work with something similar?' I started experimenting with wool and upcycling other fleece garments that I owned, putting the material on top of shoes and seeing how it looked.
What made you want to work with wool specifically?
The unique texture, and the feedback I'd always get on my wool pieces. The first time I wore a pair of shoes I'd made, I was getting off the train and the train conductor stopped me! If you live in New York, you know train conductors never say anything to anyone, but he was like 'I've never seen those before. What are they?' I told him I made them, and he was like 'dude, you're going to be someone.' At the time I didn't really think much of it, I was more just like 'yeah, I made something nice.'
Sounds like the train conductor called it. How long after that did people start taking notice of what you were doing?
I posted the very first pair I made on Instagram, and, to my surprise, it blew up. All the repost pages like @hidden.ny, @modernnotority and @liljupiterr picked it up, and I had dudes like Lil Yachty hitting me up about pairs.
Was that amount of attention overwhelming?
Absolutely. I was literally three weeks into my craft at the time and still learning how to do it properly. At the same time, I was really appreciative of the fact that people liked my idea.
Did you have to figure everything out on the fly?
One hundred per cent! Thankfully I learn the best by doing. If you scroll through my Instagram, you can definitely see the progress between my first pair and now. Even the Air Max 1s I did for Mav Carter recently were a learning experience. They were the first Air Max 1 I've ever done, and the stitching was a really enjoyable challenge.
How did you settle on the Air Force 1 as your preferred canvas, and how do you choose what colours to use?
The Air Force 1 is super versatile, and there's a lot of surface area so you have plenty of room to work with. You can put multiple materials on it, dye certain parts, whatever you want. That, plus the fact that it was the shoe I grew up with, made it a no-brainer to pick.
As far as colours go, I try to balance what I like with what trends I'm seeing and the feedback my customers give me. I like to go out into New York City to see what people are wearing and how they wear it – I always get a lot of inspiration from street style.
Quick side note since you're from Chicago and live in New York now, do you still call Forces G-Fazos or did you switch to calling them Uptowns?
[Laughs] It's funny that you know that! Yeah, we called them G-Fazos in Chicago, so that's still what I prefer.
You mentioned Mav Carter earlier – how did you get looped in with him and LeBron James?
When I posted that first Air Force 1 on Instagram, one of LeBron and Mav's homies reached out to me and was like 'yo, we love your work.' Funny enough, when I lived in LA I briefly worked as a barista at a business that Mav owned, so I was like 'yo, it's me! I used to make coffee for ya'll a few years back!' Mav was tripping when that message got passed on to him [laughs]. He was like 'Yo, you're making sneakers now?! We need pairs.' I made a pair for LeBron and sent it over, and it's been insanity since that point. LeBron has worn my shoes for his pre-game tunnel walks several times, and Mav has worn one of my pairs on The Shop. It's always wild to see.
What's been the craziest moment for you so far?
It's between seeing my shoes on LeBron and getting hit up by Penny Hardaway for a custom pair. LeBron is LeBron – he's one of the greatest players of all time – and I grew up loving Foamposites, so to have Penny wanting to buy something I made is pretty surreal as well.
Does it get crazier every time you see LeBron rocking a pair of your shoes, or is it regular to you now?
[laughs] Man! It definitely gets crazier every time. I try to stay humble and stay excited about the process. I'm not like 'I've done it before and I can do it again,' I make sure to really savour everything that goes into my craft and be thankful that I'm able to do it for a living.
How would you like to evolve your practice in the future?
Shoes will always be a centrepiece of what I do, but I want to experiment with some other things too. I want to make clothes, make art, even use wool on furniture. I'm aiming to expand my practice, and want to touch everything possible on some Virgil Abloh sh*t. I get a lot of inspiration from his 'destroy to rebuild' ethos.