Dominic Ciambrone is truly sui generis. Known as The Shoe Surgeon, Ciambrone may be solely responsible for pioneering the practice of shoe-customization for sneakers. He’s known for deconstructing shoes, taking them apart, and rebuilding them with premium materials. With celebrity clients including Justin Bieber, Will.I.Am, Drake, and LeBron James, Ciambrone now operates the Shoe Surgeon Studios in L.A. for bespoke shoe customization, and The Shoe Surgeon School, where he teaches shoe customization to the next generation carrying on his legacy.
We spoke with Ciambrone about his methods, inspirations, and challenges of shoe customization. In addition, Ciambrone gave us an inside look at his construction process, photographed by the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 5G. The photos show him choosing fabrics and deconstructing sneakers on his drafting table.
Things for Ciambrone weren’t always rosy, however. During his humble beginnings in Santa Rosa, he often worked for free and considered himself lucky if he sold something for $100. Friends and family helped support him to keep his business afloat. “I had to do odd jobs to pay rent many times,” he says. Yet he stuck to it, and now The Shoe Surgeon is a household name among celebrity clients and sneakerheads.
His love of fashion dates back to high school, where he learned to command attention through fashion — wearing his older cousin’s 1985 Air Jordan 1s, or donning an all-camo tux to prom. As a quiet and introverted kid, fashion was a way of asserting his personality on his own terms. “I was able to speak without actually saying a word,” he says.
His first shoe customization was in high school: reconstructing a pair of all-white Air Force 1 Mids to camouflage. It was a simple job with a single sewing machine, yet he was tapping into something that at the time was nowhere to be found. He moved from a quiet virtuoso with a passion project into a full blown business.
Today, his customizations for celebrity clients are equally coveted and notorious. One of his most famous and mind-boggling luxurious creations happened when Nike approached him to customize a pair of Nike Lebron 15s as a gift to LeBron James for his 30k point milestone. “We wanted to create something using the rarest, most luxurious materials fit for The King,” he says. The result was a $100k shoe decked out in 24-karat gold.
Take me through the process of customizing shoes for celebrities. Let’s say Drake comes in the room, and says, “Hey, I’m looking for some customized shoes.” What happens next?
Each client is different. I made a blue pair of Jordan 12 for Drake and he loved them but also wanted them in black. Some want specific meaning incorporated, others don’t. I like to get to know clients more personally. From the foods and wines they like, scents, colors, nature, different ways they are inspired. Some clients know exactly what they want. And most give me their trust and freedom to do what we do. I just like working with passionate people that respect the art.
What happens when you get a client with bad taste? Are you sometimes placed in the role of an educator of good design?
Everyone’s taste is different — I respect that and try not to judge people’s preferences. Shoemaking is a complicated process that sometimes requires educating the client on what is possible, so I try to be as transparent as possible. At the end of the day, I want to make something that is meaningful and brings happiness to my clients.
You’re pretty open about your struggles with mental health and drug abuse. You’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and once landed in a mental hospital during quarantine after a bad experience with Adderall. Especially during the pandemic, how do you approach self-care?
Meditation, exercise, and being present are important aspects of my daily routine. Also, look at food as fuel for our bodies. What you put in will help give you the energy you need. Whatever your self-care method is, it’s important to make it non-negotiable and a priority. It may vary from time to time or person to person, but finding a way to nurture yourself and maintain balance in your life is essential. Remember to learn to be healthy-selfish. Where you take care of your needs because you are the most important person you can take care of. Just like when you’re on an airplane and they tell you to put the oxygen on yourself before others.
What’s your favorite trend in sneaker design from the past five years? Alternatively, what’s one that you absolutely hated?
One of my favorite collabs ever was Puma and Filling Pieces. To see two footwear brands collaborate was cool. I don’t hate anything. There is a room and a place for everything. I dislike when people wear those cheap adidas shoes that are like lower-tier Stan smiths. It’s a pet peeve. I’ve also learned to not care and not critique everything. I’m not god. My view isn’t the only view. I have “to each their own” tattooed on me, and I truly believe it. For the sake of the question, I don’t like trends for me, personally. I’m anti-trend, which sometimes turns into a trend.
What are some exciting upcoming projects you have in the next year or so?
The new studio experiential space, new collections, clothing, bags, leather goods. Bringing our classes online to make education more accessible and really being an advocate for mental health. Working on bettering my skills and learning new things that will unlock new doors.
You used the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 5G to shoot for us — how did it boost your creativity?
I’m always on the go and work always comes with me. I’m an extremely visual person and details are everything when it comes to my creative process. Snapping inspiration wherever I go and being able to see designs and on a large screen lets me make connections that can be easily missed.
You can buy the Samsung Galaxy Fold2 5G here.