In today's sneaker market, there are no rules. Big brands aren't the only ones who are able to control what type of design goes on the feet's of the masses. Sydney Kay, a painter based out of Cincinnati is quickly trailblazing a path, and anyone who isn't willing to accept the change in sneaker culture, will get burned. Her designs have gone viral, earning her attention from the likes of HYPEBEAST and Highsnobiety. Her relentless focus, humility, and vision are keeping her on track to have a major impact on how people buy, and wear sneakers in the future. In a full length interview, Runaway's LaSalle Smith sat down with Sydney to pick her brain, learn her story, and understand the person behind the product.
L: Im curious, how does one actually get into custom sneakers? Were you just experimenting one day and liked the vibe? Elaborate a bit.
SKC: I was actually introduced to custom sneakers in high school. My art teacher wanted me to participate in Vans Custom Culture, so I gave it a shot. We made it to the top 50 schools in the nation, but we never won. After graduating I didn't quit, I kept going with it and started experimenting with different sneakers. I found Angelus Direct and got serious, launching my own business.
L: Was there a single moment in which you just knew that you had to get serious with it? Or did you just kind of naturally make that transition?
SKC: It was more of a natural transition. I started customizing for myself as well as friends and family before turning it into my own brand. I knew I wanted a career in art and design, so the decision to get serious with it came naturally. As my work started to become more and more popular, I really tried to push myself as a creative and produce work that was more unconventional. That's when I really found a passion for what I was doing.
L: It's such a common theme to see successful individuals let their friends and family be the foundation for their confidence and growth. There is something very organic about that type of theme in my opinion. Home is where the heart is.
SKC: Absolutely. My friends and family are endlessly supportive and it has definitely been the foundation of my success thus far.
L: Given the current sneaker market, how does a skill such as yours allow for you to gain such a large following?
SKC: With all these big corporate brands influencing how we view the sneaker market, consumers are starting to search for something unique. It's been a trending theme for the past few years that people want what not everyone has. I'm constantly trying to go outside of the norm and design products that speak to people with similar vision. I'm not interested in your stereotypical custom sneaker — sports themes and galaxy prints don't interest me. I'm trying to change the way people view custom sneakers through original concepts and unconventional design. I think people are drawn to that.
L: I couldn't agree more, I often find with large corporations, although their designs are satisfying, the over saturation of people who want them often drives me away. It kind of takes away from the individualist aspect of wearing a particular outfit.
SKC: Exactly. The majority will continue to flock to whatever these brands decide to release. But I think enough people are breaking away from that mindset, that it allows me the perfect opportunity to hone my vision and creative skill set while making a marketable product.
L: In the long run, do you think custom sneakers will end up having an impact on these bigger brands that most consumers will actually react to?
SKC: I think bigger brands are already starting to react to the impact custom sneakers have had on their industry. You see Nike ID and Mi Adidas trying to compete with the idea of a product catered to the individual. Consumers are eating it up, but even still, that customization is restricted by what the brand allows you to use. Because of that, custom sneakers will always be relevant. Hopefully it only continues to grow.
L: What do you say to the people who think that the shoes aren't "authentic" or "valuable" because they are technically unauthorized? Is there something that could change their outlook on this particular craft?
SKC: What people aren't understanding, is that you're not buying a fake or unauthorized pair of sneakers. You're buying an artist's craft. You're buying an artist's vision on a what a sneaker could be. Too many people are brand snobs, refusing to wear anything other than a product straight from the corporate giants. I think those people are sheep. If I were to purchase a pair of hand painted, limited edition sneakers by an artist I admired, I would consider that more valuable than anything a factory could mass produce.
L: Truer words couldn't have been spoken. Walk me through the typical process of deconstructing, and then constructing a certain shoe.
SKC: I wouldn't know anything about that, right now my work is hand painted. I was a painter before I was a sneaker customizer, so that's my strong suit. Eventually, I'd like to learn that craft as well.
L: Interesting. So you aren't necessarily doing things like removing soles or certain panels, but more so using them as a canvas instead?
SKC: Yeah exactly. I have great admiration for artists like Jacob Ferrato who do that kind of work, but I think there's a lot to be done with painted sneakers, so I'll stick to that for now.
L: Who are some of the other people who influence you the most during your creative process?
SKC: Influential people I look up to in the sneaker industry are John Geiger, Dominic Chambrone, and Jacob Ferrato. All of which, ironically, don't work with painted shoes but rather reconstruction of original silhouettes. As far as fashion designers, I'm a big fan of Raf Simons, Virgil Abloh, and Jerry Lorenzo, just to name a few.
L: I love how the names of those guys are heard a lot, but they actually have motivated the hearts and minds of many. It speaks volumes on how high your personal goals are and you won't let anything stop you.
SKC: They are all really popular names, but they're influential for a reason. They've definitely helped me expand my mindset and gain a better understanding for fashion and design in general. My personal goals are extremely high, not a day goes by that I'm not working in the studio, researching other creatives, or just trying to better myself.
L: That's honestly the only way to nurture organic personal growth.
L: So tell me how you connected with Swizz Beats and Kehlani. What did coming into contact with them do for your confidence?
SKC: With Kehlani, I was commissioned by a mutual friend of ours to create a pair of Air Force 1's as a tribute to her "You Should Be Here" album. My friend gave them to her as a gift and as far as I've heard she really loves them. Swizz actually messaged me directly on Instagram the other day inquiring about the Supreme x Adidas "By Any Means Necessary" that I just dropped, as well as a 1 of 1 pair. I probably shouldn't say too much more about it. As far as how that all effected my confidence, it just reassured me that I was doing something right. As a creative and especially an entrepreneur, it seems that every day is a roller coaster of ups and downs. It's a lot more difficult than most people think. You'll get hit with this overwhelming doubt, but the next day get a message from someone like Swizz Beatz who admires your work, then all of a sudden you're on top of the world. It just helps level me out more than anything.
L: From creative to creative, anybody who isn't trying to do what we do, wouldn't understand how real the "roller coaster" dynamic is. It's actually overwhelming most of the time.
SKC: That's true, a large portion of it is overwhelming. I'd say I envy those people who don't deal with that every day, but it's so rewarding to be able to create all the time, wouldn't trade it for anything.
L: Given all the criticism you've been receiving lately, conversations like there are a good opportunity to silence the haters. A chance for them to see how much substance is behind your craft. It's more than just shoes.
SKC: Yeah definitely! It's funny you say that, just goes to show how much more visible hate is rather than support. While every comment was negative on HB (Hypebeast), I sold out that same night. Nobody can see that until after the fact.
L: Ideally, where would you like to end up with SydneyKayCustoms?
SKC: I don't have a solid end goal in mind. I think there are a lot of different routes I could take and a lot of different options to consider. I also think having an end goal gives you tunnel vision, in a sense. What I'm focused on now is improving as a designer and expanding my reach, possibly moving beyond sneakers. The rest, we'll see how it all plays out.
L: That's beautiful. You seem to be right where you need to be. What's a shoe you want to do, but haven't had the opportunity to get to?
SKC: I'm not sure, I'd probably do something really risky on a high-end pair of designer sneakers. You know, the kind of sneakers no one ever messes with. That would be fun.
L: High risk high reward right? *chuckles*