Phil Leyesa — better known by his Instagram tag @philllllthy — has blown up on social media, primarily for his sneaker customization skills. His signature involves turning recently-released Nike Air Jordan 1s into scuffed-up versions that look like they dropped in 1985. With vintage-looking sneakers trending and pop culture moments such as ESPN and Netflix’s The Last Dance putting retro Jordans at the forefront of sneakerheads’ minds, it seems Leyesa’s customs have come at the perfect time.
While his creations have garnered him a lot of attention on Instagram, they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Leyesa’s work. He currently works for Urban Outfitters as a display artist, a job which he says affords him creative freedom — something he highly values. “It’s just such a sick job for such a big brand like that,” he tells Highsnobiety. “No other retail stores have in-store artists that do their displays, they always have a third party brand coming in and doing the displays for them.”
Leyesa is in charge of creating in-store displays, which is a job that involves more than just an eye for detail and is often misunderstood. “When people ask me what I do for Urban, it’s so hard to explain. Even my mom doesn’t understand what I do for Urban Outfitters,” he laughs. “She’s like, ‘Do you talk to customers? Are you a manager yet?’ I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want to be a manager. I just want to be creative.’”
A lot of the displays are created from scratch by Leyesa, who counts carpentry as one of his many skills. “They show you a photo of what they want and then it’s your job to just interpret it the best you can and try to make it similar, but you can always add your own twist to it, which is cool,” he explains.
Leyesa considers himself to be self-taught, learning carpentry and other DIY-skills (which he needs both for his work and when customizing sneakers) from his grandfather and uncle, who were carpenters. Though they wore a lot of workwear, Leyesa only started wearing it when he started working at his current job. “People wear it for fashion, but I actually wear it for work. I also paint for Urban; I’d get paint splatters on my Carhartt pants and people would be like: ‘Yo, what designer is that? What brand is that?!’”
With a budding interest in fashion and gear (he’s done custom versions of the Stüssy x Nike sweatshirt, Carhartt pullovers, and other one-offs on his site), his blue-collar background is something he has in common with conceptual British designer Craig Green. When asked about it, Leyesa admits he’s been too focused on his own thing to do much outside research.
“See, this is the funny thing,” he says. “People tell me these names, and I love looking into it because I don’t know anything about them.”
Leyesa’s day job has equipped him with knowledge on how to authentically make retro Jordans look like they’re 30 years old. “A lot of people think it’s sandpaper and acetone, and I just laugh. When I work on my stuff, I’m not that basic,” he explains. “If you look at a lot of ’85s, you see a lot of scuffs and scratches. I took a serrated knife, and I used to make scuffs and scratches and peel away the raw leather behind it. Then I’d take the paint I used on the ’85 Royal or ’85 Chicago 1; I smudged it onto the raw leather underneath it. And it gives it that dirty scuffed look, which people haven’t figured out yet.”
The answer to why Leyesa turns brand new Jordans into vintage masterpieces is a simple one: “It’s so hard to find my size and drop the money for a pair that’s 35 years old. I own a pair of Chicago 1s from ’85 and they’re just so uncomfortable. I can’t wear them,” Leyesa says. “I have a ton of sneakers that are just sitting there. Having all these shoes around me, yeah, they look cool and everything, but I’d rather make them my own.”
It turns out he isn’t alone in that sentiment. So far, he’s been tapped by actor Michael Rapaport and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to turn their “NC to Chi” and Off-White™ Jordan 1s into well-worn artifacts. His work with different pairs of Jordan 1s has given him a firsthand perspective when it comes to rating the quality of retro Jordans — and he’s definitely a fan of Jordan Brand’s remastered series. “I just did a pair of the 2013s and I would say I’m not a fan of the materials used on that pair compared to the 2017 ones, only because the tongue is a neoprene material, which threw me off.”
That’s not to say that Leyesa will customize any retro Jordan. He explains he turned down the chance to work on a pair of Union Air Jordan 1s, telling us: “I know that’s not worth me distressing, because in 35 years, those are going to look so nice just by themselves.”
Beyond the 1s, Leyesa’s taken his talents to models like the Jordan 4 (which he made a UNION homage out of), and a pair of 1994 White/Cement Jordan 3s with a cracked sole, which he repaired reinterpreted through the lens of Japanese “kintsugi,” a wabi-sabi mending method that turns cracks and crevices into artisanal marks of beauty. He shot an exclusive video documenting the painstaking process.
In addition to his work on sneakers, Leyesa has been working on a budding apparel collection, as well as furniture for his home. “Most of the stuff in my apartment that’s in the living room, I made: the media console, the coffee table. There’s a center concrete island table that I made, just to save money,” he says. “If you try to buy something online, just a bag, it’ll cost thousands and thousands of dollars. I have tools and the talents to make it myself.”
Leyesa certainly belongs to the up-and-coming generation of customizers, though his approach stands out in that it comes from a place of genuine interest, rather than hype. His singular focus to developing his world rather than spending it in other aspects of sneaker and style culture adds a layer of naivety to his work that makes it (and himself) approachable and real.