How to Customize Your Shoes, According to the Designer Behind Some of Your Favorite Celebrity Kicks

While wearing a fresh pair of kicks is always one way to get noticed, customizing your shoes is a sure-fire way to differentiate them even more.

“There are so many people who buy the same things at the same time and that’s where it starts for me in my mind — if 500 people have this same pair of shoes, what can I do besides lacing to make mine stand out?” asked designer Alexander John, who has created custom gear for celebrities such as Dwyane Wade and Meek Mill. He’s also worked with brands including Puma and Reebok, the latter of which he helped conceive a makeup-inspired sneaker for model Jasmine Sanders, dubbed the Freestyle Hi Contour.

jasmine sanders, reebok classic, freestyle hi contour sneakers
Jasmine Sanders’ Reebok Freestyle Hi Contour.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Reebok

As noted by John, switching up the laces is an easy introduction into modifying footwear, but there are many other methods worth experimenting with. Below, the expert shoe customizer shares tips and tricks on decking out your sneakers (and other styles) for a look that captures your true individuality.

Difficulty: Easy

After lacing, one of the go-to ways to alter shoes is simply drawing on them with tools including sharpies, paint markers and even pens. John explains that it’s okay if you’re not Vincent van Gogh with your designs — in fact, what’s currently trending is the opposite.

“Scribble art is very hot right now,” John said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Painting, Spray-Painting and Dyeing
Difficulty: Moderate

Another common customization method is to take the art approach one step further and paint the shoes. Keep in mind that this route will require a bit more research to gauge the best supplies that can be used on certain materials (i.e. suede versus synthetic). This will help ensure a clean and professional-looking job.

If you’re painting:

“Most of the time when you want something to be flexible, you want to use a flexible medium in your paint to make sure the person gets maximum movement without cracking the color,” John said, recommending Angelus Direct, an e-commerce site stocked with several customization products, including a special paint made for adhering to leather.

If you’re spray-painting:

“Even though spray paint is a medium you could use, it’s not the choice medium for guys that do custom because we can use an airbrush machine if we wanted to spray anything,” explained John. “That’s not to say you can’t use Montana [spray paint] if you want to customize a sole and use a matter finish to cover it up. I’ve watched guys do that who are more graffiti-based. There’s a lot of taping you have to do to control the spray. Most guys I know do airbrush because it’s controlled and you can change the nozzle.”

If you’re dyeing:

“Dye goes back into Angelus’ paint family, [especially for] dress shoes and repairing,” John said. “The suede dye — I would say there are certain guys who use it a lot, but they will use a specific [shoe] model to do that type of customization. Not a lot of brands are using suede these days. Instead, you’re seeing a lot of synthetic materials and neoprene so now the dye of choice is Rit. People are using more of this hot-water bath [method of dyeing] to change the color, not just of the upper but of the sole as well.”

Difficulty: Advanced

Engraving your own personal trademark onto your footwear is a nifty and stylish way to show off your professional ventures.

“There are companies you can send the design to and they will laser-engrave your shoes,” John said. “There are also companies like myself where I can brand your shoes. If you want to have your company wear a shoe with your logo, I can take it and cut it in vinyl and impose it on the shoe and it has a professional look like it’s a real collab.”

Difficulty: Advanced

Arguably made more mainstream by way of Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collaboration with Nike, deconstruction and reconstruction is a growing movement in the world of personalized kicks. However, this technique of taking the shoes apart and putting them back together with different materials may require extra learning.

“I would say it’s something rookies can do through a three-day course,” he said. “You have the Shoe Surgeon and JBF [for example] who have done classes to teach people who are not that knowledgeable but want to learn. It may not be the best shape at first, but I’ve watched some of the guys come out of those courses and end up with the coolest shoes.”

The Last Step

“There are finishing coats and you can use varnishes as well to give it a patent leather feel. You definitely want to put a finisher, either matte or something with a gloss depending on what type of work it is,” John said. “I’d say matte for more rigid designs that offer less movement in the area you’ve painted (like with a hard rubber sole). On a more pliable sole, use something that offers more flex in the finish.”

What to Avoid

John’s final points covers any no-nos when it comes to the modification process and he has one simple answer: “Steer clear of being afraid because it’ll stop you from being great. I hear a lot of messages from people successful in life and they say ‘fail fast’ and ‘fail forward.’ It’s kind of that way with custom sneakers — imperfection is perfection now. For a person that has never done it before, don’t be fearful of the process.”

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