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!