GOING SOLE TO SOLE: SNEAKER CUSTOMISERS IN LONDON

Nicola Davies: SNKR Customisation

27th May 2021

GOING SOLE TO SOLE: SNEAKER CUSTOMISERS IN LONDON

As much as I’ve always wanted to wear something no one else has, I am not a designer, a customiser or anything in between. The best I can do is find a second hand gem that narrows the chances of someone else wearing the same thing. But there are some creatives out there successfully fulfilling their DIY dreams by customising sneakers for a living. This is even more admirable given how tricky working with leather is, not to mention footwear sizes and shapes that mean customisers have to create bespoke designs every time.

But what customisation actually entails is very broad. It could be anything from reconstructing leather components, to painting, to using specialist sharpies, to embroidery or even stencilling. It’s the latest frontier in DIY culture that’s taken over Instagram feeds and sneakerhead dreams.

I’ve curated some of the most interesting and talented London-based customisers in the game, looking at how they continue to push the boundaries of sneaker culture in their own way.

 

NASH MONEY

Alex Nash aka Nash Money is a pioneer in this market, starting sneaker customisation in 2003, “While working at a sneaker store, I had an epiphany about how you could mix formal footwear with sneakers. You could make a shoe that felt like a sneaker and vice versa.” He was one of the few on the scene at the time, alongside customisers like Methamphibian and Sabotage AKA sbtg.

Nash is a specialist and pioneer in the deconstructed approach, unstitching the leather elements and putting them back together in his own vision. He describes his start as, “Seeing how the leather overlapped, reusing the perforations in the leather to restitch the shoe back together again, but forming a moccasin stitch. From there, trying to elevate my customising applications and integrating more different aspects of formal footwear. For example leather laces in and out of a deck shoe, or using eyelets from hiking boots and taking the juxtaposition from sneakers to hiking.” Even today this hybrid approach to customisation is rare and takes a high level of skill to complete successfully.

Ironically, Nash was arguably too early to leverage this craftsmanship, which is now accessible to anyone with the motivation to start, “A young kid now can pursue manufacturing something if they really wanted to, it’s quite easily accessible now with the internet, new machinery and technology. But back then I went to cobblers explaining to them what I wanted and just hearing ‘no’.” However, Nash is by no means unsupportive of the new wave of customisers. On the contrary, he is in full admiration of them, “What people do with sneakers now is incredible. A lot of these people went to train as a shoemaker, and they are applying professional skills with professional tools.”

Previously, Nash would have been deemed somewhat of an outcast by major brands who in the early 2000s would never have dreamed of resoling a sneaker from another model: “Big brands like Nike and adidas were set in very rigid rules in what they could do with their own brands. I’m sure there were designers within the company that wanted to mix an Air Max 1 with an Air Max 90…Whereas I was very liberated thinking outside ‘the Nike box’.” But now, not only do those and similar brands support customisations within and outside of their business, but Nash has worked with many such brands, such as Lacoste and adidas, and is even featured in the newly opened exhibition at The Design Museum of London, ‘Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street.’

 

HELEN KIRKUM

A more recent addition but with a rapid trajectory is Helen Kirkum. Having graduated from London’s Royal College of Art in 2016, she has already founded Helen Kirkum Studio, a company which “celebrates the processes of wearing and making in our products”. Using offcuts and recycled materials, they create bespoke sneakers for each owner to feel like it fully expresses them. Customers can either contribute old pairs of their own sneakers, or the studio’s sizable stock of sneaker components to create new pairs. It’s this focus on sustainability alongside beautiful one-of-a-kind creations that have undoubtedly caught the attention of global brands such as Reebok, Melissa and adidas.

 

AFRO KICKZ

Using a different medium of sneaker customisation and part of the newer school is Aida Kiraya aka Afro Kickz. Having only begun her journey in 2018, she has come a very long way in this short space of time. Her main inspiration is her Tanzanian heritage and channelling African imagery and visual codes into her designs. Her chosen medium of sneakers represents her London identity, wanting her African heritage to be celebrated rather than hidden. She mainly worked with Nike, Converse and Vans shoes, which means she is highly skilled in both leather and canvas designs.

Unlike Nash and Kirkum, Afro Kickz is less focused on deconstructing a shoe, as she is about using the silhouette as the foundation for her art. For instance, she will often unpick the swoosh on a Nike Air Force 1 and paint over it to put the brand second and the design first. But Aida explains that her preferred process is sewing fabric onto sneakers as “it gives the custom an almost ‘uncustomised’ look. They look like they could have been store bought, but also look too cool to be store bought at the same time.”

Unlike Nash and Kirkum, Afro Kickz is less focused on deconstructing a shoe, as she is about using the silhouette as the foundation for her art. For instance, she will often unpick the swoosh on a Nike Air Force 1 and paint over it to put the brand second and the design first. But Aida explains that her preferred process is sewing fabric onto sneakers as “it gives the custom an almost ‘uncustomised’ look. They look like they could have been store bought, but also look too cool to be store bought at the same time.”

As well as creating pieces on commission, she has worked with brands from Arsenal FC to LadBible, and is currently designing a capsule collection for Foot Locker under the Behind Her Label campaign. She is also an advocate for anyone to get into the customisation game, and has a free to download guide ‘Custom Sneaker Checklist’ for budding artists. Her belief is that the sneaker customisation scene is growing, and widening as it does so, “I think that more customisers will start moving onto creating their own shoes from scratch. The sneaker scene will definitely become more diverse.”

So next time you want to wear something no one else has, why not try your hand at customising a pair of kicks – or commissioning a pair from one of these talented professionals.

 

Don’t forget to follow Nicola!

Instagram: @nicola_jdavies

Twitter: @nicola_jdavies

Check out her website: nicolajdavies.com