2021-09-27 | New Roads Magazine

Sneaker School

There’s a vibrant scene around the collecting, reselling, and design of limited-edition sneakers. But these rare pairs don’t end with the shoes that big brands make — there’s also a cottage industry of people who make their own. To start, all you need is an idea.

The idea is not the hardest part. Anybody can dream. Even if you do not spend large chunks of your life obsessing over shoes, even if you do not consider yourself a sneakerhead, you can still imagine what your ideal pair might look like. What would you create if you had the opportunity to make a custom shoe entirely your own? You might hide a message in heat-activated ink that’s only visible at a certain temperature, you might mold a logo to look like a fiery projectile hurled by an anime character. You might refurbish a basketball sneaker with a set of leathers more exotic and plush than regular sportswear brand margins allow.


The dissection is not the hardest part. The careful incisions and spilled viscera of cherished designs may make some sneaker purists faint, but breaking something down is still easier than building it back up.

The hardest part of Sneaker School, a Los Angeles–based operation where students learn to design and make their own shoes, is making the match. Over several days of intensive courses, students take a pair of shoes apart, create patterns with the constituent pieces and new materials, and then make the shoe anew by affixing the upper to the original sole. The left and right must be mirror images. If not, you have a runt twin in the set, a slanted half upsetting the balance. 

 

“We try to teach students to make both at the same time rather than just one foot,” says Trey Franz, a student-turned-teacher. “I’d say the hardest thing is keeping it consistent, because you are making two.”

 

The school seeks to impart the skills of a trade that is supremely important — for most of the time that we’ve been bipedal, humans have needed footwear — but still somewhat obscure. The product goes beyond pure function, appealing to people who use sneakers to say something about their identity — and their culture. These are people who will spend long hours in line for Nike Air Max retro releases and can rattle off all the upcoming colors from Kanye West’s Yeezy line.

SPREADING THE KNOWLEDGE
Dominic Ciambrone has an open-source approach, preferring to proliferate the skills he has as far and wide as possible.

SPREADING THE KNOWLEDGE
Dominic Ciambrone has an open-source approach, preferring to proliferate the skills he has as far and wide as possible.

The Sneaker School isn’t exactly niche, either. The school has grown from a garage operation started five years back to a full-blown institution with 30 employees, sessions held all over the world, and ambitions to bring its curriculum to public schools. It is the creation of Dominic Ciambrone, a sneaker customizer known as The Shoe Surgeon, who built a name for himself in the past decade reimagining iconic sneakers to meet the desires of his increasingly high-profile clients.

While Ciambrone comes from the sneakerhead world — his entry point being the high school cachet his Air Jordan 1s gave him as a teenager in California — his school’s reach does not end there. He’s had a mother attend in order to figure out how to make a custom pair of shoes for her daughter with cerebral palsy, who had trouble using traditional laces. He’s seen families come and bond over sneakers together.

“You get a 13-year-old kid that wants to take the class, and then his dad wants to come take the class, so they take it together,” Ciambrone says. “You get someone that quit their job just to try something new. You get a person that sold their car or their shoe collection just to be a part of this class. And then you get the people that want to make it a business.”

From a selfish point of view, Ciambrone is essentially rearing his next generation of competition in teaching to that last cohort — those who want to start making their own shoes and profits. The big sneaker brands, the global corporations, would never give away their blueprints. But Ciambrone has a more open-source approach, preferring to proliferate the skills he has as far and wide as possible. It sees the sneaker industry as more of a community, a space where trade secrets should actually be traded between like minds, not kept proprietary. Like the best schools, it promotes the exchange of ideas.

 

“I want more people to do this kind of stuff,” Ciambrone says. “It won’t take away from me.”

 

If anything, it multiplies his contributions, sketching out a family tree of designers and product. Each branch, personal though it may be, can be traced in some way back to him. The custom creations that walk out of Sneaker School, functional art pieces on the feet of the wearers, are deeply idiosyncratic but remain a part of Ciambrone’s story. At an early class, someone likened him to Bruce Lee in this way. “What do you mean?” was his response. “I can karate chop people?”

 

What the observer saw was a similarity in approach to mentorship, and the importance of passing along a skill, if not their martial arts abilities. (Although each has made their mark with kicks.) 

Franz, who didn’t know anything about making footwear before attending his first session, is a testament to the paths Sneaker School makes available. His hometown of Boulder, Colorado, is not a hotbed for limited-edition footwear. It’s a place where people care more for Patagonia than the latest crossover between Nike and Virgil Abloh (founder of fashion label Off-White, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line, and famed Nike collaborator). Franz was into sneakers in high school, figuring out which Air Jordans he needed and how to get them despite his geography being remote in global sneaker terms. But he needed a wider aperture to achieve his visions, so he set out for Los Angeles to try out Sneaker School.

 

“I wasn’t in school, I was taking some time off,” Franz remembers now. “I didn’t have a whole lot of funds to be spending.”

Franz, who didn’t know anything about making footwear before attending his first session, is a testament to the paths Sneaker School makes available. His hometown of Boulder, Colorado, is not a hotbed for limited-edition footwear. It’s a place where people care more for Patagonia than the latest crossover between Nike and Virgil Abloh (founder of fashion label Off-White, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line, and famed Nike collaborator). Franz was into sneakers in high school, figuring out which Air Jordans he needed and how to get them despite his geography being remote in global sneaker terms. But he needed a wider aperture to achieve his visions, so he set out for Los Angeles to try out Sneaker School.

 

“I wasn’t in school, I was taking some time off,” Franz remembers now. “I didn’t have a whole lot of funds to be spending.”

FROM A VISION TO A PRODUCT
The design process can lead you just about anywhere, with choices to be made about color blocking and materials. From there, it’s all about developing the skills to execute one’s vision. Remember: “measure twice, cut once” still applies to sneakers.

FROM A VISION TO A PRODUCT
The design process can lead you just about anywhere, with choices to be made about color blocking and materials. From there, it’s all about developing the skills to execute one’s vision. Remember: “measure twice, cut once” still applies to sneakers.

His parents were supportive of the dream, which Franz looked at as an investment in the bigger picture of his future. The picture, the shoes that he made in that first class, just didn’t look exactly like he’d expected.

 

“Right away, a lot of my ideas were not possible,” he says. “At first, it was kind of a bummer, but then you realize this is for the best.”

ONE OF THE MOST REWARDING PARTS IS TO SEE SOMETHING AS AN IDEA AND IT ACTUALLY COMES INTO PHYSICAL FORM.

— DOMINIC CIAMBRONE

Franz sees current students go through the same steps. The concepts can be lofty and sometimes need taming. Expectations have to be set — you may have the notion to create a sneaker the world has never seen before, but you may need to temper that with some humility and understanding that shoemaking skills take many, many hours to master. Everybody leaves their Sneaker School experience with a pair of shoes they design, but it takes much more than that to become an expert in the subtle art of sewing the pieces together, marrying an idea with realistic expectations, and creating something that is custom enough to be special but still tasteful enough to be wearable.

“You get so caught up in trying to create some concept or something that’s never been done before that you lose the basic knowledge you need to actually create the shoe,” Franz says. 

 

So yes, there are misfires. There are struggles and stitches that go awry. The clean lines of an Air Jordan 11, the classic, brilliant patent-leather sneaker Michael Jordan wore en route to his fourth championship, may be easier to manipulate than the busy, digital panels of the Air Jordan 4, a late 1980s dream of techy footwear.

ONE OF THE MOST REWARDING PARTS IS TO SEE SOMETHING AS AN IDEA AND IT ACTUALLY COMES INTO PHYSICAL FORM.

— DOMINIC CIAMBRONE

Franz sees current students go through the same steps. The concepts can be lofty and sometimes need taming. Expectations have to be set — you may have the notion to create a sneaker the world has never seen before, but you may need to temper that with some humility and understanding that shoemaking skills take many, many hours to master. Everybody leaves their Sneaker School experience with a pair of shoes they design, but it takes much more than that to become an expert in the subtle art of sewing the pieces together, marrying an idea with realistic expectations, and creating something that is custom enough to be special but still tasteful enough to be wearable.

“You get so caught up in trying to create some concept or something that’s never been done before that you lose the basic knowledge you need to actually create the shoe,” Franz says. 

 

So yes, there are misfires. There are struggles and stitches that go awry. The clean lines of an Air Jordan 11, the classic, brilliant patent-leather sneaker Michael Jordan wore en route to his fourth championship, may be easier to manipulate than the busy, digital panels of the Air Jordan 4, a late 1980s dream of techy footwear.

“When you teach someone that’s never done anything all of these things in a week, they still need to go back and refine and practice and practice and practice,” Ciambrone explains.


But when things go right and the hours pay off, there’s real magic at work. One cannot overstate how special it is to turn a picture from the mind’s eye into an object in three dimensions.

 

“One of the most rewarding parts is to see something as an idea, and it actually comes into physical form,” says Ciambrone.

 

The product is not the only prize. In his role at Sneaker School, Ciambrone believes he can change people’s lives. Though he’s traveling for workshops and engagements and is not teaching in the same capacity as when he started the business, Ciambrone is still leading some classes. He begins each with affirmations and guidance gleaned from his own experiences in the industry. He believes in the process as much as the product.

“They’re happy doing it, that’s the most important thing,” Ciambrone says of his students. “This creativity helps people mentally.”


The shoes get people in the room, but what they do with them takes them somewhere else. A step in a new direction, toward a next phase in life or maybe just a temporary, more peaceful place. In sneaker brand-marketing speak, to hear Spike Lee and Michael Jordan tell it, it’s gotta be the shoes. But Ciambrone doesn’t necessarily see it that way. 


“It’s bigger than just the shoes,” he says.


STORY: BRENDAN DUNNE / PHOTOGRAPHY: CHRIS STRALEY

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