WORDS BY STEPHEN YU
Ask anyone who the king of custom sneaker design is and you’ll only hear one name mentioned – Dominic Ciambrone aka The Shoe Surgeon. The LA-based cobbler turned shoe creator is the man behind some of the world’s most sought after bespoke sneakers. Gold and diamond dipped Nike Lebron’s. Check. Glittery Fragment Designs x Air Jordan 1’s. Yup. Luxury Travis Scott spin-offs. Yes, that was him too. Whatever you can think of, the self-titled sneaker surgeon has made it.
But while most kings are happy to sit on the throne, Dominic isn’t. Not content with having a wildly successful shoe customisation business, self-taught Ciambrone is keen to share all the tricks of the trade he’s spent a lifetime learning with attendees of the Shoe Surgeon Shoe School workshops he regularly hosts across America. Since school is out indefinitely for the moment, we’ve joined forces with The Shoe Surgeon to bring you the next best thing. Introducing The Shoe Surgeon x Farfetch sneaker customisation tutorials.
Our exclusive video series will give you a comprehensive introduction to five core techniques as taught by expert sneaker customisers from The Shoe Surgeon team. The first episode will centre around the deconstruction of Nike’s iconic Air Force 1 silhouette, the exact shoe that kickstarted Dominic Ciambrone’s own personal journey from amateur shoe creator to the legend we now know as The Shoe Surgeon.
“The first pair of shoes I customised was an all white Air Force 1 mid into a camouflage print using “model” paint and an airbrush when I was in high school. After that, I was on my journey of quality to find a higher durability paint more specific to leather and fabrics. Air Jordan 4’s were my first shoe I sewed on top of and covered with snake fabric. The first shoes I took apart and reconstructed was a pair of all white Air Force 1 mids.” - Dominic Ciambrone, The Shoe Surgeon
As Dominic discovered, for those dabbling in shoe customisation for the first time, teaching yourself the ability to design your own shoes can be rewarding on so many levels. The idea of owning a 1/1 custom that nobody else on the planet has is something so intrinsic to sneaker culture, that we’ll pay any price to gain entry into that exclusive club that only rarest sneakers can grant you membership to. Weighed up against never ending lineups, entering hopeless raffle after raffle, and paying well over retail prices; a couple hours of dedication, a steady hand and a small amount of creativity seems like a small price to pay in comparison. Not only this, shoe customisation allows sneakerheads to escape the drop calendar, to bypass the limitations of Nike iD, and avoid the disappointment of bad collaborations by giving you the tools to create something you truly want, when you want. If the Swoosh won’t rerelease the ‘Banned’ colourway, paint your own. Always wanted a Louis Vuitton x Converse sneaker? Make your own. But for Dominic, the act of shoe customisation meant something much more.
“For me, customising shoes was a way of expression. I was shy and quiet and shoes were my voice that helped start a conversation... I use sneakers as my canvas… It's a 3D physical object that needs to be built just like architecture or a house. It started with reverse engineering. New and unique, one of a kind is what always sets me apart. I started customizing sneakers in high school as a way to differentiate myself and express my creativity.”
Rather than just a simple display of one-upmanship, Dominic sees sneaker customisation as a vessel one can use to tap into their own creativity, an exercise The Shoe Surgeon himself is representative of. Rather than just recreating OG colourways or imagining your dream collaborations, designing your own shoes can be a way for people to plug into sneaker culture in an altogether more creative way. As you begin your journey of self-actualisation through the art of shoe design, the upcoming Shoe Surgeon x Farfetch video series is just one set of resources available to you, with thousands more just a couple of clicks or one Google away. But for a young Dominic, this was far from the case. Armed with a few paints, an airbrush and no sneaker customisation information on the internet, he could only get so far. Dominic had to learn the tricks of the trade the old-school way, by standing on the shoulders of giants – cobblers.
“I didn’t have a resource to teach me the full process of handmade sneakers. So I worked alongside Michael Anthony “the apple cobbler” who makes the most bespoke high quality Western boots. His passion for the craft inspired me to want to do the same with sneakers. Daryl Fazio “the cobbler” helped me learn the art of shoe repair, fixing Louboutins, purses and resoling Redwing and Wesco boots. I learned traditional shoe making from “Bill Shanor” (Bonney and Wills Shoemaking School).”
Prior to the advent of the knitted sneaker, the basic template for the sneaker had remained largely unchanged for decades, and for regular shoes, centuries longer, meaning that the traditions and methods passed down through each generation of cobbler could be applied to almost every sneaker in existence. Which is exactly what Dominic did. But while the artisanal techniques and general anatomy of shoemaking are centuries-old, the Shoe Surgeon is not someone who believes this art form has to stay in the past.
“We’re always testing and developing new materials to incorporate into our projects. I love pushing the boundaries and coming up with techniques that have never been done before. Recently we developed a “leather” made out of leaf down in Brazil. Also the future is technology and it’s about sustainable yet effective ways to create something. FUNCTION OVER DESIGN.”
As the fashion industry comes under scrutiny for its impact on the planet, could sneaker customisation be a way to break the cycle of environmental harm? Either way, it’s clear that Dominic’s wish with his Shoe Surgeon Shoe School, and indeed this video series, is not just to inspire the next generation of Tinker Hatfields or Steven Smiths, nor is it to help bring the next Air Jordan 1 into existence, but to just simply give everyone the tools to be creative and shape their identity in the same way he did. And that’s worth much more than any sneaker will ever be.
“My biggest goal is to inspire people to create and better themselves mentally. Be a better you and it helped me to find shoemaking to do this. Whether it’s sneaker customisation or another craft they are passionate about, taking something you love and using your hands to make it your own brings so much gratification.”
Dominic Ciambrone aka The Shoe Surgeon’s Tips for Beginner Shoe Customisers
Ahead of the first installment of our video series, we got some words of wisdom from The Shoe Surgeon himself with some back-to-school advice on how to get the most out of our upcoming classes.
On where to find inspiration:
“I get inspired from my experiences - things I see, touch, hear, taste and smell that appeal to my senses.”
On essential tools & techniques:
“Every technique is different, depending on what type of customisation you are doing. The last and sole are two essential tools in the shoemaking process. The last gives the shoe it’s shape, and the sole gives you the foundation.”
On the best shoes to customise for beginners:
“Air Force 1’s and Stan Smiths are a good shoe to start with because they have less panels and components than more complex designs. Air Jordan 1’s are great too because they have a lot of areas to work on technique.“
On the easiest customisation technique for first timers to attempt:
“There are many aspects of the shoemaking or deconstruction/reconstruction process, each plays a significant role. The ‘easiest’ would be to just do. Don't overthink it. Have fun!”
On the best materials to work with as a beginner:
“Smooth leathers are less challenging to work with compared to more complex or delicate materials.”
On the most common mistake he sees beginners make during his workshops:
“Not understanding how much goes into the craft or how many steps there are to build a shoe can be challenging at first. Patience and trusting the process is key. The more you create, the easier it becomes. Focus on the process and tackle one style at a time.”
On the easiest way to personalise a pair of sneakers you already own:
“Painting is a good way to get started. Experiment with dyes, glues, etc.”
Some do’s and don’ts of shoe customisation:
“Do push yourself to try new techniques.
Don’t focus too much on making every detail perfect.
Do let yourself be creative and have fun with it.”
Advice for those looking to customise regular shoes rather than sneakers:
“Find the right last!”
While these general tips will get you pointed in the right direction, don’t miss out on our upcoming six-part video series with The Shoe Surgeon where each episode focuses on one specific shoe customisation technique as taught by the Surgeon Studios team.