Originally published in KICKS 16

by John Brilliant / @CounterKicks

images 1-3 courtesy of JBF Customs / images 4-8 courtesy of MacheCustoms.com

It was a cold February day when sneaker customizer Dan “Mache” Gamache got a call from LeBron James’ inner circle. James, they said, wanted a custom Iron Man-themed shoe, and he wanted Mache to be the one to design it.

No problem, thought the New York-based Mache. OK, well maybe one. It was Tuesday, and LeBron wanted to have the shoes on foot that weekend for All-Star festivities.

But we’ll get to that.

Sneaker customizing has come a long way from the days of kids doodling on their Chuck Taylors in the middle of algebra class with markers and Sharpies to separate their identity from the pack. Now it’s a business.

The earliest of the high-profile, Internet-based footwear painters began to emerge in the early to mid-2000s. Customizers by the trade names of Methamphibian, SBTG, Jor One and C2 Customs all honed and crafted their own signature artistic style with a sneaker clientele base that spanned the globe.

They embellished store-bought kicks with their own textiles, stripped down the original factory finish shoe paint with a rub of acetone and built the products back up with alternate colors and patterns in mind—often removing the corporate logo and replacing it with their own.

C2 Customs, now known professionally by his birth name, Chris Hui, got his start at age 13. In ’05, Nike commissioned select students, including C2, to customize that season’s new Zoom LeBron II shoe as part of a high school art contest for its LeBron James “Chamber of Fear” tour across the country at what were then known as NikeTowns.

During a tour stop in the Bay Area, LeBron was photographed picking up C2’s St. Vincent-St. Mary-inspired shoe, mouth agape in silent praise.

Later that same year, C2’s work was prominently featured in the back of KICKS 8. Now 23, Hui works within the industry as an assistant merchandise manager for adidas Originals. Chris is quick to say that he may have never made it to adidas, especially as quickly as he did, if it wasn’t for his work as C2 Customs. The experience “opened up everything,” he says. It’s how employees at the Three Stripes discovered him.

Also in his early 20s and representing a new wave of customizers is Jake Ferrato, operator of JBFCustoms.com. JBF, the initials in his name, counts among his customers Wale, Wilson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Darrelle Revis. The unique thing is, he doesn’t even paint. JBF is all about material choices.

Known for deconstructing shoes and putting the pieces back together using exotic materials, JBF has been in high demand lately for his python leather Air Jordan reconstructions that can fetch anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per order.

With the customizing scene commanding ever greater attention the last few years, Brandon Laskowski—a customizer at Evolved-Footwear.com—decided in ’09 to launch the first site dedicated to the art form, PaintOrThread.com. The biggest reason for the recent explosion of interest in customs, Laskowski says, is sneaker blogs and social networks. Where you might have attracted a few dozen like-minded people by posting on shoe message boards in the past, large social platforms like Instagram have made it easier than ever to rack up, and keep reaching, a sizeable following in little time.

Which helps in part to explain the phenomenon known as Mache Customs.

Hours before the ASG was to be played in Houston, Mache met LeBron. The Iron Man-decorated case carried in tow was pulled open, leaving LeBron to inspect his new size-15, one-of-one shoes. “I’m ’bout to rock those,” the King said with a smile. A couple weeks later, Bron posted the Mache Customs creation to his IG account. The sneaker shout out resulted in over 17,000 new followers for @mache275 by day’s end.

Business is so good for Mache that there’s currently a six-month wait for any new orders.

Among an endless list of celebrity clients, two NBA players actually wore Mache shoes in-game this past year: Dwyane Wade and Nate Robinson.

LeBron kept his promise, too. In a practice session before Game 1 of this past spring’s NBA Finals, the Champion did indeed rock his “Iron Mans” on court.

Where ventures like NIKEiD and miadidas now give consumers an enormous array of options, sneaker customizers are filling the rest of the void with one-off shoes that can’t or won’t be replicated by machine, infusing a craftsman’s touch you can’t get from a paint-by-numbers, corporate-shipped product.