Skip to content

Customized sneakers are gaining traction

C:\Documents and Settings\John\Desktop\CustomKicks\001_Wendle_Customkicks.jpg

Two shoppers at Michael K.'s shoe store in New York's SoHo district check out pairs of hand painted shoes designed by Glenn Pellone, a godfather of the craft. (John Wendle/CNS)

C:\Documents and Settings\John\Desktop\CustomKicks\002_Wendle_Customkicks.jpg

"You used to have just leather and suede. Now they're using everything. It's like multimedia even though it's just shoes," said Glenn Pellone, the airbrushing artist at Michael K.'s shoe store on Broadway in New York's SoHo shopping district. (John Wendle/CNS)

C:\Documents and Settings\John\Desktop\CustomKicks\003_Wendle_Customkicks.jpg

Yianni Charalambous of London comes to New York to shop. "Everyone told me this guy was the best," he said of Glenn Pellone, the Michael K. shoe store's shoe customizer. Y14NNY is the license plate number of Charalambous' Ferrari 430 Spyder. (John Wendle/CNS)

C:\Documents and Settings\John\Desktop\CustomKicks\004_Wendle_Customkicks.jpg

Reggie Devonn, 16, checks out a pair of shoes displaying the bright colors and patterns that are hallmarks of the new urban style based on the designs of shoe customizers nationwide. (John Wendle/CNS)

C:\Documents and Settings\John\Desktop\CustomKicks\005_Wendle_Customkicks.jpg

Glenn Pellone, a shoe customizer who has been in the business for almost 30 years, designs hats and shoes with a New York theme. (John Wendle/CNS)

C:\Documents and Settings\John\Desktop\CustomKicks\006_Wendle_Customkicks.jpg

Glenn Pellone, a shoe customizer who has been in the business for almost 30 years, designs hats and shoes with a New York theme. (John Wendle/CNS)

Gregory Guichard once sweated over a hot glue gun for four days to set 3,000 Swarovski crystals onto a pair of sneakers. Now he professionally produces customized shoes worth hundreds of dollars.

Ben Hoffman experimented for a year to get the right group of artists to feed the growing demand for customized sneakers. Now he sells shoes to clients as far away as Japan and Bulgaria.

Glenn Pellone spent an exhausting night spray painting a huge naked Betty Boop on the wall of his high school in Brooklyn. Now he is one of the founding fathers of customized gear shoes in New York City.

“When you go out on the streets, it’s gotten so wild with these kids, it looks like Halloween every day,” Pellone said.

For generations, young people wanted the shoes everyone else had, but there has been a sea change in the culture over the last few years. These days, the goal is customized shoes, the type of sneakers no one else has.

“I’m a trend setter. I had to have something one of a kind,” said Kevin Parker, a college student who was proudly displaying the $800 customized pink and blue Nike sneakers he bought on a recent trip to Paris.

The trend that Guichard, Hoffman and Pellone are cashing in on started in the hip-hop subculture. But since 2001, by Pellone’s estimate, it has surged in popularity and can been seen in most youth subcultures like skateboarding, punk and pop.

“It has a lot to do with the generation we live in,” said Mike Daurio, promoter of the International Sneaker Battle. “Part of the culture is to be different, the stranger the better. They want to set themselves apart from the crowd.”

Daurio, 23, uses his competition to publicize the explosion in customized shoes. The Sneaker Battle is featured in rap legend Funkmaster Flex’s Custom Car and Bike Show Tour.

“Everyone is into it, from the hood to the suburbs,” he said.

But customized shoes as a specific trend did not materialize out of thin air; it grew out of the urban graffiti culture that began in the '70s and '80s.

Pellone, a graffiti artist whose tag name is Razel, starting painting graffiti more than three decades ago.

“I was 13 when I got into the airbrush,” he said. “I saw it and I just thought it was awesome.”

Pellone began customizing vans and cars with stylized graffiti. Soon he was being asked to customize the jeans, jackets and T-shirts that people were wearing in the cars. At the height of Michael Jackson’s popularity, people began to bring in shoes to be airbrushed.

“I’ve airbrushed everything from toenails to tow trucks,” Pellone said.

Hoffman, the owner of Your Kicks in Hollywood, Calif., sells hundreds of sneakers a month, at $250 to $275 a pair.

His biggest sellers are shoes with a skull and crossbones motif. Your Kicks uses acrylic paint on canvas deck shoes. Themes include Japanese koi fish on plaid and “squids in space.”

“What caught me off guard is that it’s not the skaters buying my shoes, but the fashionistas,” Hoffman said. “They want anything that makes them individual, that makes them stand out.”

Guichard, a lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., agrees.

“They all want something that no one else has,” he said. “It’s what you get if you want to be exclusive.”

Guichard has been customizing shoes for five years. By his estimation, he has customized 300 to 400 shoes.

In 2006 he won the first International Sneaker Battle with a white Nike Air Force One painted to resemble the trademarked orange Nike shoe box.

The win was indicative of what is popular now. Bold colors combined with clever and witty patterns have far surpassed the standards set by Pellone, whose style came directly off the walls of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

“No graffiti, no caricatures, no portraits,” Guichard said.

Nike, Reebok, Adidas and other giants of the shoe industry have reacted to these changes, in some cases mimicing the designs of leaders in this garage industry.

On the Nike iD Web site, it’s now possible for a customer to choose from dozens of colors for the 10 different parts of a shoe, from the trademark swoosh to the sole to the shoelaces and the stitching.

And the industry drives the market as much as the individual designers drive the industry.

From his perspective as organizer of the International Sneaker Battle, Daurio said: “Themes are in. It’s all about the subtleties. It's like if you use colors that represent a certain movie or make a sneaker that looks like the Filipino flag. As long as there is a back story to the colors, it’s going to be hot.”

E-mail: jcw2136@columbia.edu