In partnership with New Balance, Sneaker Freaker’s ‘One Step Ahead’ series explores the journeys of five creatives who have blazed their own trails within the sneaker industry.
The sneaker customising scene has come a long way from fat laces and airbrushed high-tops. At the forefront of the new movement is Dominic Chambrone – the Shoe Surgeon – a master craftsman with a refined mindset. Blurring the lines between street and high fashion, Dom creates beautiful works of art using luxury materials and traditional shoemaking techniques. We caught up in his studio as he juggled project deadlines while everyone else enjoyed the final days of summer. Discussing the early days of his career, we also delved into what he thinks is necessary for creatives to be successful in the digital age.
What did sneakers mean to you growing up?
One time when I was in high school, my cousin let me borrow her pair of high top basketball shoes and when I wore them out, all my older brother’s friends gave me props. I didn’t really understand why at first, but it was an early realisation for me that wearing nice sneakers could instantly get anyone noticed. Superficial or not, I felt like I was cool when I wore those sneakers.
Shortly after I became heavily obsessed with sneakers, getting hyped on collaborations and finessing early releases to show off at the local Foot Locker, but I started noticing that me and all my friends were always wearing the same damn shoes. We all looked the same! So one day I just picked up an airbrush and painted a camo pattern across an all-white pair of mid tops. When I wore them to school the next day everyone flipped! So I guess that was my first introduction into customisation and the moment when it all first clicked. I realised that this could be something I could build on.
Sounds like you’ve had a creative flair since a young age.
I was always a kid who was trying to find a way of expression. I was always making things, even as a very young kid – from Lego to forts in the backyard, to redecorating my room at a young age, to always worrying about my outfits. And this was all before high school. I was always compelled to make things and express my own unique style.
So how did you transition from airbrushing shoes to what you eventually do now?
When I was around 18, I moved from California to Charlotte, North Carolina, and that was where it all really changed for me. It was in NC that I came across a copy of Sneaker Freaker magazine for the first time. I think it was the book version with a few issues combined together. Anyway, there was a feature in there that showcased different sneaker customisers and that was the first time I was exposed to the wave of custom sneakers of the early 2000s. There were all of these different styles – crazy patterns, unique colour blocking, intricate detailing – all painted onto the shoes. That was the catalyst for me to really begin thinking about it differently. All of this custom-paint work is already being done, I thought. How can I take it to the next level?
Shortly after, I randomly stumbled into the Tandy Leather Factory where I discovered how leather was treated and used as a material. I was fascinated. Obviously I knew leather existed but all of this stuff was new to me – so I picked up some hides and began cutting them up to see what I could come up with. I took the leather cuttings into some shoe repair store and asked them if they could help me sew it onto a pair of sneakers. They agreed, and that’s when I starting visualising the opportunity to do something really new with sneaker customising.
How did you manage to learn the craft of traditional shoemaking? Did you have a mentor or were you self-taught?
It was really a lost craft at the time, and I guess it still is. When I moved back to Santa Rosa, I took up a bespoke brogue shoemaking class just to grasp the basics of traditional shoemaking. I also started to seek out more cobblers to learn more and to see how I could incorporate what I’d learned into sneakers. The first guy I spoke to essentially told me to fuck off, the second wasn’t all that interested either.
The third cobbler I approached was a guy named Daryl Fazio. He was open to listening to what I had to say and helped me find a machine to stitch shoes together. We built a relationship over time as I kept going back to watch him work behind the counter. Seeing my passion and my desire to learn he eventually let me work for him and start fixing shoes. He was the one person who really gave me the opportunity to get my foot in the door. It wasn’t a hand-out, I had to prove myself to him and work for free.
Then there’s last making, and that’s a whole other art form in itself. It’s such an integral part of the process that some people tend to overlook. I learned a lot about that craft from a boot maker in North California. Watching him, I was exposed to the ins-and-outs of custom cowboy boots; this guy would shape every single last to perfectly match a customer’s foot. At the time it was never really that inspiring to me because I was so infatuated with sneakers, but watching him really helped build the foundations of what I do now.
In terms of transitioning all of this knowledge into sneakers, it was uncharted territory and I had to figure that out on my own. Plenty of trial and error, screwing things up, deconstructing shoes and working out how to put them back together.
What was one of your first big breaks in terms of getting your work out to the world?I remember coming across Android Homme at some point, it was a boutique sneaker brand that really inspired me so I ended up reaching out to them on Facebook. The brand’s founder, Javier Laval, wrote back and that’s how our friendship began, from sharing ideas about our work and talking about sneaker design.
One day, Javier reached out to ask me to create a pair of sneakers for him to wear to the VMAs. I put them together and decided to hand-deliver them to him in LA six hours away from me. Javier introduced me to Justin Bieber’s stylist and that’s where my relationship with Justin started. He was still young at the time, maybe 15 or so, and he loved my stuff. Even though his stylists would change over the years, he would continue to request my sneakers and it really just snowballed from there.
Social media is such a powerful tool now, even if it’s as simple as created the opportunity to connect people like you did with Javier. How have you utilized social media as a tool? Instagram was a big contributor to the new wave of custom sneakers. Previously, customisers would communicate and keep in touch with each other through individual blogs and word-of-mouth. When Instagram came on the scene, it really gave us all a new platform to showcase our work to the world, and we all felt instantly connected. It’s integral to my operations now. The first time many people see my stuff is via Instagram. You can make the best product or the best art in the world, but if you can’t represent it online with great photography and connect with the rest of the world, it can only go so far.
One big thing that creatives struggle with is handling the business side. No one wants to balance the books and wrangle spreadsheets, but it is essential. Was that challenging for you as well?
Definitely, even to this day I feel like I’m not the best at business. I’ve just always wanted to be an artist and create stuff – I was never a numbers guy. But I’ve come this far and still managed to stay on top of it all, so I guess I need to give myself more credit. My advice for people struggling with that is to find the right person to help you. Steve Jobs always said he couldn’t do it without a team.
You’ve been running workshops to mentor and teach kids your craft, is it rewarding to see kids learn all these things for the first time?
The biggest thing I learned from Daryl the cobbler was his work ethic and his willingness to share his knowledge. He is one of the main reasons I started teaching and sharing what took me so long to learn on my own.
The people that attend are not necessarily kids, it varies from Silicon Valley billionaires in their 40s, to 17 year olds that want to learn my craft. And my goal is to show them the proper way to do it the first time around. Whether it’s creating competition for myself or not, I’d rather teach someone the right way to do it rather than have people mess things up and go through the process like I did. I remember how hard it was to learn all of this.
It’s an amazing feeling seeing people grow in the class. Usually on the first day everyone is kind of awkward, but by the end of it, we’re all one big family. And, if nothing else, people walk away with a respect for shoemaking because prior to that they didn’t really know what goes into every pair of shoes.
You’ve done this for a long time now, how has your view on sneakers and your creations changed over the years? I had a very similar conversation with someone recently. When I first started, I wanted to create something different for myself. I couldn’t care less about what I wear anymore, it’s more about creating something that someone could put on and make them feel good and give them confidence. That feeling I got when I wore something fresh to the local Foot Locker and I felt like I was the man, I want to be able to give that feeling to someone else.
Dominic wears the New Balance 574 Sport Athletic, available now from select stockists, as well as through New Balance’s online store.