In the baseball world today, cleats are far more than just a shoe you wear out on the field. They’re an accessory. With the power of a customized cleat, players are able to express themselves or even make a statement while out on the field. Although we may love drooling over custom cleats, it’s not often we hear about the artists and designers that make it all happen.
With that being said, I decided to reach out to some of the most talented artists and designers to ask them a few questions.
STADIUM CUSTOM KICKS
First I reached out to @stadiumcustomkicks on Instagram where I was able to chat with Alex Katz, a pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization and the founder of Stadium Custom Kicks. Katz played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic and wanted to customize a pair of cleats for himself, leading him to create a business of his own.
Q: I’m sure there are many pro’s that come with being a custom artist, what are some obstacles you’ve faced along the way?
Creating quality work, that’s durable enough to be worn throughout a season.
Q: Can you walk us through the process of customizing a cleat?
Prep work is most important. Ace toning, sanding, spraying with certain adhesives and taping off the shoes are crucial for putting out quality work. Sometimes it takes more time to prep the shoes than to paint them. We either paint with an airbrush or hand paint. For logos we create our own vinyl stencils, which allow us to paint clean/crisp lines. After each coat of paint, we use a heat gun to dry the paint. After painting, we seal our work and then lace the shoes.
Q: From Chunky Dunky’s to Off White University Blue’s, I mean you got it all! Out of all baseball cleats you’ve customized, which are you most proud of and why?
We have a team of 12 artists and my favorite projects are constantly changing. I’m a big fan of paint splatter and elephant print.
Q: What is your dream project?
My dream project is to create a pair of custom kicks for LeBron James.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone aspiring to become a custom artist like yourself?
Find some old shoes and play around with different designs. Keep practicing until you get the technique down.
JORDAN CUSTOM KICKS
Mike Jordan is from New Jersey and he customizes cleats and sneakers. Most of his clientele are professional athletes.
Q: Who or what inspired you to become a custom artist?
I’ve always been into art and drawing, and I am a huge sports fan, especially baseball and football. I’ve never had any formal art training. Before this, I hadn’t painted since elementary school. I started customizing cleats in the summer of 2017 after watching a YouTube video of Mache, who is a very well-known artist, making a pair of cleats for Derek Jeter. Once I saw the process, I thought it was something I could possibly do and I ordered all the materials. Then I practiced, a lot! That fall, I made cleats for my first NFL clients.
Q: What are some obstacles you’ve faced along the way?
There are a lot of challenges. For me, time is a big challenge because I have a full-time job and a family. People don’t realize how long the process takes to customize a pair of cleats. There is a lot more to it than just grabbing a pair and throwing some paint down. There is a lot of preparation and steps that have to be taken just to ensure the paint won’t crack or peel away. Not to mention the small surface area you are working on, so it’s meticulous work. Lastly, this is a very competitive market that is very heavily reliant on social media. There are thousands of artists trying to work with these athletes. You need to get lucky because no matter how good your work is, there’s no guarantee that anyone will even come across your work. So much of it depends on your social media following, so it can be really tough.
Q: Can you walk us through the process of customizing a cleat?
A lot of it depends on the material, but generally you need to scuff the surface with scuff pad or sandpaper to ensure paint adhesion. Then you use acetone soaked cotton balls (or people use Angelus deglazer) to remove the factory finish from the cleats. Basically, you just give them a good clean and make sure you acetone any area you plan to paint. Then, you move on to taping in order to mask off any area you don’t want to paint, such as the midsole and sole of the cleats. I typically spray the cleats with an adhesion promotor. From there you move on to preparing stencils, plotting out design details, and ultimately painting. Once you are finished painting you need to spray the cleats with some type of finisher to protect the paint. Then you can lace them up!
Q: Can you elaborate a bit about the first major league player you customized a cleat for and what that meant to you?
For baseball it was Derek Holland, who is an amazing guy and I still work with him. It was August 2018. At that time I had worked with CC Sabathia, but that was for a prize at his charity softball game so it wasn’t for game use. Derek gave me a shot to make his cleats for players weekend, and even invited me out to Citi Field to attend batting practice when the Giants were in New York. I was able to personally give him the cleats, which was incredible. As a lifelong baseball fan, to be standing on the field during BP and then personally giving the cleats to Derek was an unforgettable experience. I’m forever grateful to him and I hope to work with him for a long time. I actually wasn’t really happy with the way those cleats came out, so I promised him I’d make up for it the next time around and then last season we made all the headlines.
Q: You’re basically Tommy Pham’s cleat plug. Who is the master mind behind the concepts of the cleats?
Tommy is really easy to work with. He gives me the concept and the colors he wants, and I take it from there in terms of the full design. So if he says Kobe Bryant, Brown and Gold colors, I then find which pictures of Kobe I want to paint on the cleats. It helps me determine how I want the whole design to look and then I get started.
Q: Tommy Pham was able to honor Jackie Robinson on Opening Day, with your help of course. What was it like creating the cleats and what makes them special from the rest you’ve designed?
It was special for sure. A lot of the athletes I work with ask for portraits of iconic people or family members, and I think that’s what my reputation is in terms of what I’m good at and what I like to do. I enjoy doing things that are special and not just some recreation of a sneaker design or anything like that. Any time you are painting such an iconic figure, like Jackie Robinson, you really have to pay attention to details and make sure 100% that you are capturing him correctly. Especially at this time, Jackie’s legacy is as important as ever, so I took a lot of responsibility in helping Tommy pay tribute and supported the message he stood for.
Q: Out of all baseball cleats you’ve customized, which one is your favorite and why?
That’s tough. I can give you top 3.
1. I made a Game of Thrones pair for Mike Tauchman last season and hand delivered them during BP at Yankee Stadium. I’m a diehard Yankees fan, so that was special.
2. Derek Holland’s: The Office cleats, which were posted by ESPN. The Cubs broadcasters even said my name and talked about my work during the game.
3. Tommy Pham will pay tribute to Kobe Bryant this season by sporting his pair. Losing Kobe has hit all of us hard, so it was special to do those for Tommy and also therapeutic for me to paint them.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone aspiring to become a custom artist?
Ask questions and reach out to other artists. Be prepared for trial and error. It takes time to master the process. You will ruin shoes. Practice on old pairs before you accept the responsibility of working on a new pair that someone paid for. Don’t sweat negative comments on social media. If your work is put out there, there is always going to be someone who has something negative to say no matter how good your work is. Putting your art on sneakers or cleats should be fun, otherwise why do it? It shouldn’t be stressful. Don’t do it for the “fame” or money. Do it because you love it. You should enjoy doing every single pair. Create the art that you enjoy instead of following the trends. If you love what you do, everything after that is icing on the cake.
Q: What is your dream project?
My dream project right now would be to customize the Yankees cleats for their 9/11 game against the Mets next season. Being from North Jersey, 9/11 hits so close to home for me. So I’d love the opportunity to do something special for that game and auction off the cleats afterwards or something similar to that, with the proceeds going to the 9/11 Victims Fund.
THE DIAMOND DUCHESS
Leah Miller AKA The Diamond Duchess, is a mom of 4, as well as an artist/designer and business owner who specializes in customizing clothing, accessories, and anything else you can imagine. However, her best friend seems to be Swarovski Crystals. The Diamond Duchess earned her BA in Studio Arts from the University of Pittsburgh. She states she would have never imagined that her art degree would lead her to her current business. In fact, Leah started designing her own clothes when her husband played in the NFL.
“Because two decades ago there wasn’t anything on the market for women to wear to games, I had to make them myself to wear. Once my friends started seeing them they would ask me to make theirs. Then their friends would see their gear and they would want some as well. When their husband would go to a new team, of course, they would need all new team gear! Then their new team friends saw it and… my business was born.”
In 2006, after years of working on her own in a spare closet in her home in Michigan and having her second child, Leah had to hire her first artist to help. Today she states she is blessed with a state-of-the-art 6000 sq. ft. studio and boutique with 15-20 employees.
Q: What are some challenges you have faced?
I would say a couple drawbacks to being a custom designer is having to send the creations to the client when they are done. When you have designed a one-of-a-kind creation, put your heart and soul into it then you have to ship it out to the client, its hard to give them up. Also, when a client has a distinct vision they want to create but you know it’s a bad design and you have to make it anyway.
Q: How did the concept of the custom Phillie Phanatic cleats come about?
I’ve created for Bryce and Kayla in the past on both surprise birthday gifts for each of them and their birth announcement jackets. Bryce’s team reached out to me at his request to help bring this year’s cleats into fruition.
When I heard that they had to revolve around the Phanatic I immediately thought the green fur had to be incorporated into the design. I sent them several sketches/ideas. They tweaked it a bit and then the ball was rolling. We sewed fur on them, hand painted the design and then nearly 10,000 Swarovski crystals were hand applied one at a time. The final step was to take the cleats to the hair salon for a quick trim.
Q: What is your dream project?
It’s hard to think of just one dream job. I may have to give you a few. One would be studding a large globe in many colors for the countries. I think that would be so cool! Studding a car would also be amazing. I have a vision of studding famous works of art for back splashes for kitchens. I will do that one day! I would love to be commissioned to create large art in crystal on walls or even framed art for walls. OH, and I want to design a line of fun, hand painted, Swarovski studded furniture. I have many plans, obviously haha.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone trying to pursue a career as a custom artist/designer?
For anyone interested in creating a business centered around customization, my advice would be to not overextend yourself and take it slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t currently see yourself/business where you thought you would be. God will send you the work when you are ready. He will send you the knowledge when you are ready. As you work day in and day out, you’ll build precept upon precept, knowledge upon knowledge and experience upon experience. Then one day, before you know it, you are the expert in your field of expertise and people will be knocking down your door looking for your talent, wisdom, and experience. If God sent me all the work I have now 20 years ago, I would have collapsed under the pressure, failed from inexperience and my business would have never gotten off the ground. Be patient. Be prepared to work hard. Having your own business isn’t a 9am-5pm. It’s more like a 5am-9pm or when you open your eyes in the morning until you close them at night, whenever that may be. Be trustworthy and put Christ first in all things. If you do all of those things, especially the last one, you will succeed in all that you do.
Hrusovsky’s Custom Kicks
Jonathan Hrusovsky is an artist from Cleveland, OH and owner of Hrusovsky’s Custom Kicks. Jonathan enjoys painting fun and unique designs on a variety of products, whether it’s for an everyday customer or professional athletes.
Q: Who or what inspired you to become a custom artist?
I’ve always been interested in art and design! My very first design/drawing was at the age 5 when my mom got me my first sketchbook and a box of colored pencils. (The drawing was of Scooby Doo). All of my work has been self-taught because art and design was a hobby.
Q: How did Hrusovsky’s Custom Kicks begin?
I started HCK back in 2015 when I designed on my very first pair of sneakers. This pair was for my brother, Jefferson Hrusovsky, who was going off to bootcamp. The sneaker of choice was a pair of Vans and the theme/design was all about the Marines. To this day my brother keeps them on the shelf in his barracks because he’s worried about getting them dirty. I would say I’m a custom artist today because of that exact shoe.
Q: What is it like being able to create custom footwear for athletes? What are some obstacles you’ve faced along the way?
It’s great being able to create for the pros and I feel blessed everyday I get that opportunity. But yes, like any other job there can be many obstacles. At first my problem was finding the right brand of paint to use. I was using generic craft store acrylic at first but the thing that saved me with that was seeing an ad pop-up for Angelus paint product. From that day forward, I began using that brand. As I progressed with custom orders, having Angelus worked great because all I did was paint by hand. I knew if I wanted to progress to athletic wear I was going to have to get my hands on an airbrush. Since I didn’t know what kind was best and I really didn’t know how to work one, I had to really read up on that and so that’s why I consider YouTube the greatest thing ever! I ultimately settled on Iwata airbrushes and to this day I continue to use that. I then heard of Jacquard and they had acrylic paint that was already Rhône’s out and ready for airbrushing, so I tried that out and to this day I say it’s the best paint around. These may seem like minor difficulties but in the sneaker game it’s big, in my opinion. If you are not comfortable with those things, you’re not going to be confident going forward.
Q: Who was the very first major league player you worked with?
My very first athlete was Cleveland Indians pitcher, Carlos Carrasco in 2017. The reason I was able to get with him was because of a simple DM on Instagram! I stated to him who I was, what I was doing, and that I wanted to work on creating custom cleats with a local athlete, if possible. I thought I had a 50/50 chance and so that evening he got back to me and said sure. That spring training I was able to get him a clean look using the team colors and the Cookie Monster with his nickname “Cookie”. From that day forward I got others to see them in the dugout and one of those was Mike Clevinger. Once Mike saw them, he was all about the customs and we’ve been doing things every year since! I’ve done customs for Jason Kipnis, Josh Tomlin, Danny Salazar, Yan Gomes, Trent Grisham, Matt Strahm and Eric Lauer! The reason I got Trent and Eric was because of Matt and I got Matt because I knew his agents. Matt is associated with Aces and so are Alex and Mike. So for me it’s been all about knowing the agents. Eric and Trent happened to see the work I’ve done for Matt, so that’s why they reached out!
Q: I remember last season Eric Lauer paid tribute to his father who passed away and you were actually the one who customized the cleats. How did it feel to be part of such a special tribute?
Last season when Lauer reached out about his cleats dedicated to his dad, it hit me big. See — my brother and I lost our father back in 2010 from a heart attack and he was always that dad that would coach and be there every game. So after talking with Eric and hearing what his dad was like, it was an honor to work on those because I could feel his pain. Eric’s cleat is right at the top for one of the greatest I’ve worked on.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring custom artists?
I would say for aspiring artists looking to become a custom artist, be yourself and have fun! Let your work speak for itself. Don’t ever second guess your work because everyone’s art is different. Take time and really put your touch on things regardless of the project. I don’t really like being that cookie cutter customizer and making things look all the same but sometimes you have to and it’s ok but try putting a twist to it instead and you’ll be happy with the final results.
Q: Lastly, what is your dream project?
That’s a really good question! Ultimately my dream project would be to have a player branded design that we collaborate on and allowing the public the opportunity to purchase!
With the shortened and weird 2020 season upon us, I’m glad to see that players are allowed to show their unique styles with these custom cleats. None of this would be possible without these amazing creators working hard behind the scenes. It was very fun and insightful to learn some different perspectives from them. A big thank you to Alex Katz, Mike Jordan, Leah Miller, and Jonathan Hrusovsky for working with me and allowing a glance into their business!