LONDON, United Kingdom — Offering everything from Nike Air Force 1s in custom paint jobs to Adidas Yeezy 750 Boosts with soles hand-transplanted from Nike Air Jordan 1s, a cottage industry of sneaker modification “artists” with names like “The Shoe Surgeon” are targeting a small but growing slice of a sneaker re-sale market worth $1 billion, according to StockX, and attracting high profile clients like Justin Bieber, LeBron James and Jay-Z.
“Sneaker customisation has always existed. However, I don’t think it’s been capatalised upon like it is now,” says Jian DeLeon, senior menswear editor at WGSN. “What purses are for women, sneakers are for men. They’re signifiers of status, lifestyle and what you identify with. Having a unique pair of sneakers is a currency of street credibility that is often determined by its rarity,” he adds.
Indeed, a pair of trainers remixed with rare materials, colourways or construction is something of a holy grail for sneaker enthusiasts, who prize limited-edition products and have been willing to pay anywhere from $200 for a Nike check swap to $350 for a custom sole to $10,000 for a pair of one-of-a-kind sneakers.
According to Bain & Company, less than 10 percent of consumers own customised products, yet 25 to 30 percent say they would be interested in influencing the product design process. “Most people don’t get to make anything anymore and I think people miss it. We get you involved, even if you don’t get your hands dirty, you’re still thinking about the leathers, colour and details and got to be listened to,” says Jacob Ferrato, founder of JBF Customs, who turned his hobby of reconstructing Nikes by hand into a small but profitable business, attracting 122,000 followers on Instagram, an important marketing tool for many sneaker customisation artists. Ferrato, whose custom sneakers start at $1,000, declined to disclose specific financial data, but says over 50 percent of his customers return to purchase a second pair.
What purses are for women, sneakers are for men. They’re signifiers of status, life, style and what you identify with.
The market for custom sneakers is driven, in part, by the rise of millennial shoppers, who are more eager to buy individual, social media-friendly products than previous generations. “Part of this sneaker customisation trend is driven by the ability to tell a story,” says Matt Powell, sports industry analyst at the NPD Group. “Millennials gravitate towards products that make them stand out. Customisation allows them to express their uniqueness and it tells their story.”
Some sneaker artists have waiting lists of hundreds of eager customers. And sportswear giants like Nike also see opportunity in the space. In 2015, the brand reintroduced its bespoke programme NikeLAB iD and opened a second customisation studio in London, in addition to its studio in New York, where customers can work one-on-one with Nike designers to customise select footwear styles for just under $1,000.
Scaling high-end sneaker customisation services like these is challenging, due to the time- and labour-intensive nature of the work and the expensive price tags, which only die-hard sneakerheads can justify. But some sneaker artists are aiming to adapt their services to appeal to a wider audience. “In the long run, people aren’t going to keep on buying expensive one-off shoes. It’s going to be more about making them affordable because it’s only going to be so long until we run out of people that can afford a $1,000 to $5,000 shoe,” says Dominic Chambrone, founder of The Shoe Surgeon, whose profile first rose after he collaborated with luxury footwear label Android Homme on a custom pair of sneakers for will.i.am’s MTV VMA Award performance back in 2010.
“The sneaker community is obviously massive, but it’s about growing beyond the sneaker community,” says Mache Custom Kicks founder Dan Gamache. “Us sneakerheads think we’re such a big population, but we’re simply a small fish in a huge pond.”