Interview With a Customization Craftsman

2 06 2010

Chris Hui of C2 Customs

In the Customization page of this blog, I have outlined an instance of individuals acting as specialized craftsman within the sneaker subculture.  Fortunately, I was able to get an interview with an individual who is well known for his work with sneaker customization and is highly regarded as one of the best, if not the best.  Chris Hui has created over 300 pairs of hand-painted, custom made sneakers for clientele celebrities such as Lupe Fiasco, Carson Daly, Prince Fielder, and even Lebron James.  His work has been nationally recognized and displayed in exhibitions, magazines, and national television.  Further, his personal accomplishments include Sole Collector’s National Championship for Best Customs (2006) as well as being voted Sole Collector’s Customizer of the Year (2004 & 2005).

He has been working under the name “C2” Customs for the past 7 years and currently attends school at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.  All in all, he’s kind of a big deal and we’re lucky enough to get an opportunity to learn about his craft and thoughts on the sneaker phenomenon.  Here’s what he had to say:

Is there a specific time/moment when you realized you had a passion for sneakers?

CH: The turning point for me was in the sixth grade.  The kid who sat just in front of me just got the new Nike Shox BB4 (in the black/metallic silver colorway).  These were the first series of Nike Shox basketball shoes and I was 100% infatuated with them.  At this time, Nike was running an ad campaign for their Shox series which made it seem as if the cushioning columns at the heels of the shoes acted as springs – thus, allowing you to run faster and jump higher.  I guess I was just really intrigued about how and if they worked…I would have killed to have a pair of my own back then.  All class for probably the next month I would just stare at them and sketch drawings on my worksheets and notebooks.  From there on out, I was hooked.

To outsiders who don’t quite comprehend the idea, how would you explain the sneaker culture/phenomena?

CH: Sneaker culture began in the streets and is slowly becoming more mainstream each day.  It’s driven by a select few different factors, driven by the collector’s/sneaker head’s personal taste:

Some people are intrigued and obsessed with exclusivity.  The harder it is the find a sneaker, the more desirable it is.  This is sometimes the result of being an extremely old, out of production sneaker, such as an original Air Jordan.  However, a recent trend of the past few years to create exclusive, high demand sneakers is companies choosing to release a shoe in limited quantities from a few thousand to 1 of 1s.   These are the biggest spenders of the sneaker culture; I have seen some pairs on eBay end for tens of thousands of dollars based on this principle.

Another sector of the sneaker culture is people who are most interested in the physical appearance of a sneaker.  These people collect sneakers in large quantities not based on the hunt or prestige factor of the previous group, but rather simply because they like the way the shoe looks.

Lastly, there is a small group of dedicated sneaker heads who are most interested in the functionality of a sneaker.  They are most interested in the story behind the design, all the newly implemented technology, and how well it performs in its certain sport or activity.

Keep in mind; these groups are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, most people will overlap with at least two, if not all three with a slight bias towards one end of the spectrum of sneaker culture.

Can you take us through your design process when you set out to customize a pair?

CH: The first step is to have a concept.  This is often based or inspired by pop culture items such as movies, musicians, sports, artwork, etc.  From there, I often try to create a digital rendering in Adobe Photoshop to see if I can properly translate my concept to an actual sneaker design.  I am able to create a 2D digital image of a sneaker with my conceptual design added to it.  Next, I purchase the sneaker itself from places such as Footlocker, local boutiques, or eBay – wherever is cheapest and most convenient.  The next step is to prepare the shoe to be painted.  Using different chemicals and techniques the factory finish is removed to expose the raw material beneath.  This allows for proper adhesion between the paint and sneaker to ensure the end result is durable enough to be worn.  From there, the designs are hand painted with small, pointed detail brushes.  The paint used is acrylic based, but specially formulated for leather products.  This is the longest step of the process as painting takes anywhere from 5-50 hours per pair depending on the complexity of the design.  Lastly, a weather-proof finish is sprayed on to protect the paint job.  From there, the shoes are shipped to the customer and the process starts all over again.

How do you value your work (in terms of setting prices)?

CH: I aim to make about $20 an hour for my work.  A typical pair of sneakers runs about $300.00 a pair.  This price includes the shoes, paint job, and shipping.

Your customization work is made available to anyone through your website.  Also, you are well known for your collaborations and work for big names (i.e. – Lebron, Lupe, Prince, etc.).  When you initially set out customizing sneakers, was it for yourself or did you plan on having your craft reach a larger audience?  If the answer was for yourself, what was the motivation for customizing your sneakers?  I know you mentioned your artistic ability as a main driver, was differentiating yourself within the sneaker community a driving force?

CH: I never imagined I would be doing this not only for a profit, but also at the scale and success I have experienced.  My initial motivation was simply to have a pair of sneakers that were unique and stood out among the crowd.  At my school, a kid’s sneakers always came before clothes.  If you had a pair of sick kicks then you were the man.  Eventually that side of my tastes faded and I began to create shoes not to stand out, but to challenge myself and my artistic ability.  Each pair became a stepping stone to finding my true ability.  I would turn down doing popular, high-selling designs because I became so bored with them and craved the challenge.  After that, my new passion was seeing how well I could “wow” my audience, consumers, and competitors.  I am not really sure where I stand right now, but I am sure I will look back in a year or two and be able to label this time as a certain period in my career as well.

Where do you see the future of C2 Customs going?  You mentioned before that sneakers were a canvas to your artistic ability, have you thought of the possibility of creating your own canvas (designing your own sneakers) and possibly starting a small footwear company?

CH: To answer your question, yes, but no…haha. I guess having been around and deeply following sneaker culture for the past 7-8 years of my life, I know and understand that it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to compete as a new sneaker company.  Even as I am writing this I am trying to think of any that have sprouted up during my time as a sneaker head that have actually experience much success and can’t really pinpoint any.  So where does that leave my company?  What I usually tell people is that it started as a hobby that I just happened to make money with, and it’s at that point that I am most happy with it.  When it goes beyond that, I tend to lose the intrinsic value and joy of my work, and then I don’t really see the point.  I’ve always just pictured myself and dreamed that I could one day be a designer at Nike…

Just for kicks, who do you see taking the World Cup back to their home country?

CH: Spain. I have played soccer my whole life, and although I don’t really watch all the much soccer, I feel the Spanish squad has what it takes.

Shout out to Chris Hui for his insight and taking the time to interview.  Much love and appreciation!


Sneaker Mirror

30 05 2010

I came across this sneaker inspired project and had to share with you all.  As I have displayed before, the passion for sneakers by individuals is transparent in contemporary art work.

Shoe Makers and Consumers

26 05 2010

In the Sneaky Numbers post I pointed out some staggering numbers regarding the making and consuming of shoes globally.  Here is a more comprehensive chart of data about the countries that make and consume shoes.

There are a few interesting implications behind the numbers.  One thing that really sticks out to me is the fact that the U.S. is the second largest consumers of shoes, yet they are nowhere to be found as a top producing country.  With outsourcing becoming such a prevalent business decision for U.S. firms, I can’t help but think how these findings in shoe production, along with other large industries, affect the local economy.

Sneakerology 101

23 05 2010

Students Attending Sneakerology 101 Course

The sneaker subculture has become so prevalent in today’s urban culture and footwear industry it is now being discussed in the classroom.  Students at Carnegie Mellon University have the opportunity to earn college credit by taking “Sneakerology 101”.  The course was designed and delivered by Curtis and senior classmate Jesse Chong as part of the Student College initiative, an organization of classes taught by students.  The class focuses on exploring the impact of sneakers on identity and culture.  By doing so, it encompasses the worlds of hip hop, fashion, and basketball.

Here is an article published in the Carnegie Mellon student newspaper that highlights some of the activities of the course:  Students Kick It Up In The ‘Burgh.  Many students of the course were interviewed and provided great feedback about their learning experiences.  One student described the course as an “entrepreneurial experience” that gave her a wealth of knowledge and a new creative outlet.

I know for many the discussion of sneakers as a highly touted object may seem silly.  But if one were to closely examine the topic they would discover a complex network of activities.  I know I would love to take this course and learn more of the topic that I am immersed in.  Moreover, the details of this post are the bases of why I wanted to take an in depth look at the subculture in itself.

Sneakonomics: Supplement

19 05 2010

To put my previous post in perspective I will provide two different examples of how sneakers are valued, and a breakdown of the investment, in today’s market.  My hope is to provide an insight on the monetary cost/benefit analysis that go into valuing a pair of sought after sneakers.

A few years back, Nike released a pair of Lebron Vs that were limited editions featuring a New York Yankees theme.  There was a marketing buzz created by local media surrounding the sneaker because of Lebron’s ties to New York although he is an Ohio native.  Further, Nike perpetuated the buzz by releasing the sneaker in certain stores and bundling the first 50 pairs with free tickets to a basketball game.  So there was high level of hype and a low supply; all elements that would have the sneaker at a high resell value.  The sneakers released and retailed for $200.00.  The initial resell value was in the thousands.  However, it only sustained the high resell value for a limited time and changed dramatically over time.  This effect is similar to “short selling”, when an investor buys low and sells high in a fixed period of time to avoid depreciation.  Understanding this phenomenon that occurs in the subculture could help consumers make an informed decision on valuing and buying sneakers in the secondary market.  Further, it shows why enthusiasts wait in line for hours to buy limited edition sneakers and pay high retail prices (compared to industry standards) to avoid higher resell inflation prices.

Highly Anticipated Lebron V Sneakers

In the other example, I examine the popular Air Jordan XI sneaker released in 1996.  Although there have been retro’s of these sneakers, I am discussing a dead stock, original pair that retailed for $124.99.  Remember, there is value added to these sneakers because of their condition leading to a secondary market value reaching $500.00 max.  With both the initial price and resell price we can set up a hypothetical equation to detail how much value has accrued over the past 14 years for an individual that possesses such grails.  First, we subtract the initial retail price from the appreciated value.  Take that value and divide by the number of years (14).  The equation gives us about $26.79.  This signals that the initial investment to buy the sneakers in 1996 yields an increase of value at the rate of about $27 per year.  These implications simply highlight the hard fact about investing in anything.  Of course, this example fails to acknowledge the fact that there are arbitrary spikes in value for sneakers.  There could be high initial resell value or it could take years before a sneaker sees a significant increase in value.  Also, the value could reach a peak and plateau regardless of the time that has passed.

Most Sought After Air Jordans

One thing I should note is that not all sneakers experience this phenomenon of an increase in value.  For the most part, the sneakers that are sought after by enthusiasts in the sneaker subculture do gain value.  Or else they would not likely be a sneaker held with a high esteem within the community. It is the desire to obtain these sneakers that create its value.  I find it paradoxical that the desire of a sneaker perpetuates its value and vice versa.  Like I have mentioned before, sneakers are simply just sneakers at the end of the day.


16 05 2010

Economics Behind Sneakers

Over the course of the development of the sneaker subculture, the value of a pair of sneakers has changed dramatically; everything from the increased price tags on shelves to sneaker’s perceived worth.  Although the value of sneakers is something of importance (especially in economic hard times) for consumers, it is often overlooked by those who par take in the subculture.  I will attempt to provide a better understanding of the monetary value that composes prices of sneakers in hopes of allowing us to make informed decisions when buying shoes.  Note that when I talk about the value of sneakers it is the value in the secondary market.

One thing that may be peculiar to people outside the sneaker subculture is the term dead stock.  The meaning behind it is to simply leave your sneakers in the box and not wear them.  In a sense, they are preserving the sneaker and keeping them in their original condition.  There are varies reasons why people do this and it has become an interesting question among the community as to individual’s motives.  On one hand, you have people that do this to make a profit on sneakers that are popular and in high demand.  On the other hand, there are those people that have an emotional connection to a pair of sneakers and want to be able to wear the same pair a few years down the line.  Nonetheless, the importance regarding dead stock is that doing so could potentially, and often times do, add value to the sneakers.

Thus, sneakers can accrue or lose value depending on several features such as popularity, attainability, and level of hype (excitement) surrounding a particular pair.  All of these factors working together create the true value of a pair of sneakers, different from the retail value of the sneakers.  Similarly, this runs parallels to stocks.  Further, there is a stock market of sneakers known as the sneaker exchange network, the constant buying and selling of sneakers.  Enthusiasts participate in the network in order to obtain sneakers that they might have missed out on in previous years or were unable to get their hands on when released.  Just to give an idea of how high some of these resell values can get the Air Jordan I in original condition goes for about $3,000.00 on eBay.

The key principals to understanding the sneaker exchange market follow the simple economics of supply and demand.  This, along with the features mentioned earlier, affect the consumer’s willingness to pay in the secondary market.  Also, this addresses why there is a greater emphasis placed among limited edition sneakers as opposed to retail sneakers.  The perceived value of limited edition sneakers is much higher due to its characteristics than retail sneakers.  Conversely, there are factors such as fakes (black market) and the economy that negatively affect the value of a pair of sneakers.  Over saturation of fake sneakers that resemble a popular sneaker can devalue them since the fake ones are prevalent and easily accessible.

Again, there are definite parallels to sneakers and stocks.  So it is easy to see how sneaker enthusiasts regard their sneakers as grails and value them as an investment.  However, we as consumers must be cognoscente of the value of our initial investment when purchasing a pair of sneakers (especially in the secondary market).  Also, we must keep in mind that sneakers are simply just sneakers.  I believe that an individual should not buy sneakers as an “investment” and manipulate the sneaker exchange market just to make a quick buck.  This cheapens the sneaker subculture but more importantly, the individual is better off with the expected rate of return offered in the forms of CDs or mutual funds.  I do think, however, sneakers are an investment in yourself if you are a true enthusiast.  The love for the hobby and common bond among peers are far more valued than the increase of prices in a pair of sneakers.

Dave White Art

12 05 2010

As I promised earlier, I want to showcase more of sneakers and contemporary art.  In this post I will display some art work from a very well known artist of Pop Art, Dave White.  White has become known worldwide through his corporate collaborations and even more so in the sneaker community for his sneaker inspired art.  His art work explores modern culture and objects in society.  Much of his work is found exhibited worldwide on displays, such as “Sneaker Pimps”.  He has also recently launched his own clothing brand that includes apparel and accessories featuring his sneaker related paintings.

I have explored sneakers as a vehicle for my paintings as I find them incredible objects to look at.  Whether it’s the line, the silhouette, colour, shape, form or texture, I believe sneakers are some of the most beautiful things ever designed.

Here are a few examples of his work:

The Court's A Battlefield

Air Force 1 By Dave White

These paintings come from a series created especially for the 25th anniversary of the Nike Air Force 1 sneaker.  The work explores military imagery to celebrate and symbolize the fierce competition that has always existed on the basketball court.

Air Jordan V Painting

Air Jordan IV Painting

Nike Air Max 90 Painting

Dave White is best known for his trademark sneaker paintings.

“The intent of my work has always been about capturing the character and essence of my subjects.  I would say what I do is somewhere between Pop and Expressionism.”