The Shoe Surgeon
This is the sort of encouragement the Shoe Surgeon is well-equipped to provide. Chambrone’s carved out a unique space for himself in the current sneaker industry. He’s not a trained designer, putting in years at a place like Nike, Adidas, or Puma before doing his own designs. (Nor was he ever interested in becoming a designer at those institutions, he tells me). He’s not a retailer, either—but you can buy his shoes for $3,500. And while he works directly with brands like those on projects, he’s not a full-time collaborator, either. So what, exactly, is the Shoe Surgeon?
One answer: Chambrone is a value-adding middleman between brands and customers. And in, our current sneaker-crazy culture, that's a very profitable place to be. He built his career doing the unthinkable: taking the hottest new sneakers and ripping them apart piece by piece. Under Chambrone's direction, Nike swooshes glitched and multiplied, Yeezys turned serpentine, and Vans Sk8-His materialized in lush suede. Chambrone’s may seem an unorthodox rise to stardom in the one-to-stock, one-to-rock culture. The simplest explanation for his success, though, is that he can make shoes look unlike anyone else’s. That he turns to exotic leathers like python and metals like gold when remixing shoes suggests he knows exactly what kind of sneaker fan will buy them.
Chambrone’s career is a weird symptom of today’s sneaker culture. Even though the hot shoes aren’t available to everyone, anyone following along knows the hot shoe of the moment. One week it’s a Virgil Abloh Nike, the next a Yeezy. Cool is conferred because of scarcity, and hot sneakers are met less with what are those than how’d you get them? For a certain sort of client, that just won’t do. People who don’t want to have the same cool shoe as everyone else but who want the sneaker no one else can have. It’s why Chambrone is an asset to Nike and Adidas: when those brands need to make a very special shoe for a very special partner, they know who to call.
Chambrone found a following through his own Instagram and random projects. Justin Bieber asked him to make a couple dozen shoes a week before a tour. And then the big one: Law & Order: SVU reached out to ask Chambrone to make a pair of shoes for an episode titled “Personal Foul.” (In the episode, the killer owns a pair of shoes with custom soles—after committing a murder in them, he leaves behind one-of-one footprints in the victim’s blood.) There was an element of right place, right time to it all.
The business is working: there are people knocking down the door to get his custom sneakers, he works with sneaker brands as well as companies like Pizza Hut and Ruffles, sells things on his e-comm shop like “leather scrap mystery boxes” for $100—and makes his own sneakers. And then there are the classes, which he started teaching in 2016.
The Shoe Surgeon’s classes are spread out over four days, with each focusing on a well-known sneaker. The one in New York was dedicated to the Air Jordan 1, but he’s also hosted classes on the Yeezy and the Jordan 3. Each student comes into the workshop with the shoe waiting for them on their desk—what joy!—and then, after Chambrone introduces himself, are told to start disassembling it—what horror! After breaking the shoe down, students slowly choose their own materials and put the sneaker back together.
Chambrone does not work well with limits. That includes his own sky-high aspirations. The classes, he says, came about in part because he wasn’t a fan of traditional schooling and wants to impart the knowledge he’s built up so he can fastrack others into their creative zones. “If we can start changing the way we school the younger generation I think that's what we're going to have to do to change the world,” he says.
I think he’s talking about the world of sneakers, but it turns out that—no, he’s talking about the world, the same way the pie-eyed Silicon Valley CEOs do. “Everyone is searching to be happy and people are very unhappy with their normal job,” he explains. “[The classes are] giving people the opportunity to do something they can potentially love rather than going into a normal nine-to-five job.”