With the sports shoe trend showing no signs of waning, men are looking for a style update – and customization is the new buzzword on the street
The small crowd gathered around the man is achingly cool. Sneakers, check. Caps, check. A smattering of fashion-forward sports labels on every item of their apparel, check.
The event is Sole DXB, Dubai’s street culture festival, and the man attracting this congregation – some of whom are filming his every word as he describes a pair of tailor-made red suede Air Force 1 Mid sneakers – is Dominic Ciambrone, aka The Shoe Surgeon, aka the global guru of sneaker customization. The Nike trainers he talks of have been cleverly enhanced with a meticulous red gloss python toe that draws gasps of amazement from grown men.
Fast-forward 14 months and Ciambrone, now with 579 000 Instagram followers and commanding upwards of US $3 000 to produce a custom pair of shoes, has become a household name to anyone who has an interest in street culture.
“This has been my best year yet,” Ciambrone says from his base in Los Angeles. “Our team has grown to nearly 30, with people focused on everything from design and production, to media, partnerships, and activations.” With his growing fame comes celebrity clients who are providing an even bigger platform for his creations. “I’ve worked with Pharrell, Justin Bieber, and Michael B Jordan, as well as basketball players PJ Tucker, Kyle Kozma, and LeBron James,” he says.
Another artist whose career has flourished due to his celebrity clientele is Salvador Amezcua, known to his fans, including 354 000 Instagram followers, as Kickstradomis. “I’ve worked with more than 40 NBA players, including James Harden, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell,” he shares. “The business has grown substantially within the last two years, thanks to a strong work ethic and my growth within the NBA.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
The Middle Eastern market is also on board with the hype. “The trend has exploded,” says Khaled Alfick, co-founder of Waxfeller sneaker customizing company. “Sneaker customization was relatively unknown when we started in 2014,” he continues. “Our clients were mostly die-hard sneaker addicts but around 2016, we saw another trend rising: people who were just starting to wear sneakers and wanted a cool, new product. We were almost doubling our sales every month.”
So where did it all start? “Customization dates back to the late 80s, when it was a hobby for people who loved sneakers,” explains Dubai-based sports brand consultant and long-time sneakerhead Sam Atherton. “People like Bobbito Garcia, one of the founding fathers of the sneaker community, used to paint swooshes on Air Force 1s to make his shoes, and those of his friends, stand out.” Atherton, who owns 20 pairs of customized trainers, still remembers his first flirtation with personalization. “It was the relaunch in 2005 of an Adidas adicolor pair, originally introduced around 1983. The launch drop included plain white Adidas trainers, acrylic pens, and colored laces to customize the shoe however you wished. It was such a cool concept.”
What started as simply changing colorways, adding artwork, and swapping laces has evolved into complex restoration, sole swapping, embellishments, paint splatters, and pigment-dyeing, as well as detailed illustrations and built-from-scratch models. “At Waxfeller, we can add leather or fabric, remove or modify some parts of the shoes, and make them fit bigger or smaller,” says Alfick. “We can also rebuild them with more luxurious materials such as crocodile or camel leather.”
“The way I think of sneakers is how a painter thinks of a canvas. Endless possibilities,” adds Ciambrone. “I like using unique materials. Something that hasn’t ever been used. Sustainability also plays an important role – using my scrap leathers helps with that.”
Alfick agrees that the element of social responsibility, as shoppers grow more eco-conscious, plays a role in the rise of personalization. “I think the way people consume has changed a lot in the last couple of years in terms of conscious shopping. When someone has an old pair of shoes that are just a bit worn out, they’ll bring them to us for refurbishment instead of throwing them away.”
Sustainability isn’t reason enough to explain such a meteoric rise in interest; it’s also the desire to tell a story through something different and unique, feels Amezcua.
“Customization has grown so rapidly because it has become a great way for people to voice their views or personalities to a broad audience.” Kris Balerite, a partner at Sole DXB, agrees. “I think it’s the story behind the design and the conversation you have that people gravitate towards,” he says.
What about men in the Middle East, in particular? “It’s that feeling of owning something that no one else will have, which always matters to those who can afford it,” says Balerite. “Men don’t have glamorous dresses, couture clothing, and designer bags to stand out in at special occasions; we only have sneakers to do that.”
At Waxfeller, this desire for something different is linked to a frustration with the sneaker industry, which is what spurred on Aflick to start the business. “We hated the fact that cool sneakers would automatically sell out, and then only be available at four or five times the price from resellers. The sneakers that were easily accessible were basic colorways, so eventually we would all end up wearing the exact same shoes. With customization, we have the freedom of being able to truly express ourselves. People want something different, they don’t recognize themselves in the strict frame that mass production creates.”
Maybe so, but the mass producers aren’t blind to this growing sub-trend. Adidas’s online customization service, MiAdidas, was cancelled in January, with the brand “working diligently to offer a new experience.” It also offers free customization on any pair of sneakers bought at the Adidas Originals store in The Dubai Mall. Nike’s similar service, Nike ID, was recently rebranded to the bigger, better Nike By You, while the brand also offers a full personalization counter at its Dubai Mall store. Level Shoes has also kept a steady eye on the trend, from facilitating Ciambrone’s appearance at Sole DXB to offering free customizations every weekend from the team at Waxfeller.
With the big hitters looking at new ways to own the trend, Level Shoes reporting 80 to 85 customizations a weekend, and costs for personalization starting from AED700 for experts like Waxfeller, the trend seems to show no signs of tiring. Ciambrone is so convinced of its longevity that he’s set up a “shoe school” – a platform for people interested in a career in sneaker customization, as well as for those who want to make their own one-off pair.
The chance to have something that no one else owns is wholly appropriate for the Middle Eastern market, where men accept nothing but the best. The art of customizing sneakers may well have found its spiritual home.