The Art of Becoming a Sneaker Customiser

Sneaker customisation seems more prevalent than ever as a way to make bog-standard sneakers stand out and be truly personalised. Even the most artistically challenged sneakerhead can turn a GR into a Grail with the right strokes and skills, but some individuals and organisations have successfully turned their artisanal pursuit into fully-fledged business empires.

We’ve extracted some pearls of wisdom from some of the biggest sneaker customisers over the years. This isn’t a step-by-step guide of how to customise sneakers. Rather, this is some overarching advice on how to focus your creativity with sneakers as the medium.

Have A Concept

You can’t just pick up a random sneaker, start doing stuff to it, and end up with a wearable piece of art. The outcome of a custom sneaker will be much better if it’s planned out. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to rebuild classic sneakers in the utmost best materials available? Do you want to make box-fresh pairs look like they’ve spent 30 years in storage? Or are you interested in upcycling old beaters into something new and useful?

Alex Hackett, aka miniswoosh, has explored the latter concept via her brand ALCH. What began as playful remixes of cultural items like IKEA bags turned into partnerships with Nike and an Air Miniswoosh that almost came to fruition.

‘I’m also really interested in the concept of extending the lifespan of products that would have originally just been thrown out. The concept of reconstruction, deconstruction and non-traditional material experimentation has always been the main focus of my studio practice and main brand, ALCH.’

In short, have a clear concept and it will help you focus on what you want to do with the customisation.


Art and Craft

Sneaker customising has evolved greatly since the days of brushing Angelus paints onto white Nike Air Force 1s. Some skilled customisers have effectively reverse engineered classic models like AF-1s, Air Jordan 1s and Dunks, by recreating the upper patterns using premium materials and attaching them to the original soles. These sorts of skills are akin to those of old-school cobblers, who in essence are the OG sneaker customisers.

The Shoe Surgeon (government name Dominic Ciambrone) learnt the trade from a local cobbler before venturing off on his own to become one of the biggest sneaker customisers in the world.

‘[Traditional shoemaking] 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.’

‘[There was] plenty of trial and error, screwing things up, deconstructing shoes and working out how to put them back together.’

In short, whether you’re a hobbyist or want to become the next big customiser, you’ve got to put in the 10,000 hours.

‘[There was] plenty of trial and error, screwing things up, deconstructing shoes and working out how to put them back together.’

Material Matters

Because many customisers are effectively starting a design from scratch, there’s the opportunity to use whatever materials they can get their hands on.

Damien Sim of Melbourne-based atelier BespokeIND says, ‘Sneakerheads are always trying to one-up each other. It’s basic human desire. Stunting exotic leathers like sharkskin, stingray and python gets you noticed.’

‘Sneakerheads are always trying to one-up each other. It’s basic human desire. Stunting exotic leathers like sharkskin, stingray and python gets you noticed.’

Of course, material exploration isn’t necessarily an exercise in opulence. It also looks into how using alternative materials at a grassroots level can possibly influence the big brands into making more conscious choices.

‘We have even started to embrace vegan options like ‘Piñatex’, which is a leather derived from pineapple husk that has a grain similar to sharkskin. I’m really passionate about learning every aspect of what we do – I want to know how the materials are manufactured, what we’re actually putting our money into, and what our customers are paying for.’

Sole Providers

Sole Swapping was once a bit of a dark art, reserved only for ballsy DIYers ready to risk wasting both a crumbled pair of OG Jordans and a retro donor sole in a bid to make the decades-old examples wearable.

Raudel Arteaga of GOVRN is a master of the craft, venturing beyond the simple OEM pairings and going for proper Franken-sneaks. It might seem like just putting an upper and sole together, but there’s a lot of planning that goes into ensuring compatibility.

‘The only way we can assess if an idea works is by taking apart loads of sneakers to see how they are put together. Once the uppers and soles are apart, we can tell how low a sneaker will sit inside the new sole unit, how wide the sole is, how narrow the uppers are, as well as figure out the thickness of the materials and how that plays with sizing. Every new hybrid project is a puzzle which helps me to learn a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.’

In more traditional forms of shoemaking, brands such as Vibram and Dainite are common options for replacing worn out soles. More advanced customisers like RECOUTURE combine old-school skills with new concepts, by adding Vibram soles to sneaker uppers.

I’m Not a Businessman; I’m a Business, Man!

If you’re planning to take your side hustle into a gainful form of employment, prepare that paperwork! And keep an eye on the numbers, as the pursuit of art doesn’t necessarily keep the lights on in the short-term. But this isn’t Business Freaker, so consult a local accountant for the best advice.

‘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… 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,’ says Ciambrone.

Now it’s your turn to get started!

Need some more custom inspiration? Check out April’s best custom sneakers here, or suss some of the coolest Union-inspired kicks here.

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