As long as there have been bored students sitting in class, kids have doodled on their sneakers. Those scribbles could take the form of young love (“J.T. + N.L.”) or youthful immaturity (“No Bozos!”). The canvas upper of the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star provided a blank, er, canvas for these early designs. In the 1980s, skaters used paint pens to cover their Air Jordan I’s, a concept that was celebrated in a recent Nike SB collaboration with Lance Mountain.
Somewhere along the way, these DIY sketches matured into professional-grade sneaker customizations. Talented artists focused their attention on creating patterns and colorways on sneakers that the manufacturers could not have imagined. These weren’t some tossed-off tags, they were full-blown works of art that showcased intricate levels of detail and commanded top dollar.
In 2004, Dan Gamache painted on a pair of Nike Air Max 90s. Out of that grew Mache Customs. Today, Mache has a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of sneaker customizers, creating shoes for everyone from Kanye West to LeBron James. We caught up with him to find out about his artistic process, that first pair of Air Max 90s, and the most expensive shoes he’s ever worked on.
Playboy: How did you get into sneaker customizing?
Mache: I was always into art. My grandmother was an art teacher so I was lucky enough to have that talent passed on to me. As for the shoes, I was always into them, and I saw another artist doing custom sneakers in a magazine and thought to myself “I can do that.” So I started in my mom’s basement with some paint.
Mache: A pair of beat up Nike Air Max 90s. I painted them like seven shades of purple a la Dipset Purple City Byrdgang. Ha. In hindsight, they were horrible. But like playing a sport, the more I practiced, the better I got.
Playboy: Do you deconstruct the shoes, or do you leave them in tact and paint on them?
Mache: I’m strictly a paint guy. I know my strengths. However, I do use different methods to achieve different textures and finishes. I know there’s demand for different deconstructions and materials, so I collaborate with my buddies who do that work. It’s always fun to make cool shit with your friends.
Playboy: How would you say your work has evolved over the years?
Mache: When I started the canvas of choice were Nike Dunks, Air Force 1s, and the occasional Adidas shell toe and Converse Chuck. It was almost sacrilegious to paint Jordans, mostly out of fear that our work would get confused with bootleg colorways you’d find at the swap meets. These days Jordans and performance basketball kicks like LeBrons are the most [popular]. It helps that the brands have opened up their palettes and patterns through custom channels like Nike ID. That still limits what a customer can pick in terms of colors and patterns. A custom by me opens up the options to a limitless variety.
Playboy: Do you provide guidance to a would-be buyer or do they simply give you an idea?
Mache: I compare the custom process to getting a tattoo. Generally the customer has an idea of what they have in mind and a price point. Based off that I can give suggestions of what shoe [the customer’s idea] will translate best to or if I should reel them in a little bit to make the design fit the shoe or price they have in mind. Once the consultation is complete we have a cool idea that we’re both happy with.
Playboy: Are there certain shoes that you enjoy working on more?
Mache: I always say the shoe I’m currently working on because I’m just a guy who is proud of my work and I do take it seriously, no matter how small the request. But in terms of the actual model, these days I prefer older model Jordans because there’s a lot of open flat panels so I can go in on the details easier.
Playboy: Are there any shoes that you would never customize?
Mache: Not really. There are shoes that are tougher to prep to hold paint which then don’t hold up as well for wear. But I won’t turn down an order based off the shoe unless it’s a design done by another artist. I won’t do that out of respect for the artist.
Playboy: What is your favorite sneaker that you’ve worked on?
Mache: My favorite has to have been the Ironman-themed shoes for LeBron James (above) last year. I was asked to make a 1 of 1 for him for All-Star Weekend. It was a crazy tight time crunch but I made it happen. That was not only a big shoe for me but for the custom sneaker culture as well.
Mache: The most expensive pair altogether including artwork, shoes and everything were the “Buzz Lightyear”-themed Nike Air Mags for my buddy Travie McCoy. The Air Mag was the shoe Marty McFly wore in Back to the Future, and it was re-released to the public via auction a few year back. Some of the pairs fetched tens of thousands of dollars for just the shoe, which was awesome because it raised money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. To customize those was pretty cool. I’ve worked on that shoe a few times now for different clients but that pair in particular stood out. That was like a $10,000 custom. Playboy: You’ve made shoes for Kanye West. What was it like working with him?
Mache: That was waayyy back in 2006, “Graduation” Kanye time. Haha. I had my buddy link me up with him and I did the album artwork on some AF1s and gifted them to him. Then a year later I linked up with one of my sewing buddies who goes by the name of Emmanuelabor to make an “808s & Heartbreak” pair for him. That pair was in my top 5 favorites I ever worked on.
Playboy: How many pairs of sneakers do you own personally?
Mache: I have no clue. Easily over 500 pairs though. I was at over 400 pairs when I counted years ago and pairs come and go over time. But I’ve for sure accumulated more than I’ve sold or given away. Ha.
Mache: I do wear them from time to time, mostly for events. But since I’m painting most of the time i usually wear “normal” kicks just in case I get paint on them.
Playboy: Has a sneaker company ever reached out to you to come work with them?
Mache: I’m happy to say many times! I’ve worked with Nike, Adidas, New Balance and the Chinese company Li-Ning to work on Dwayne Wade’s line of sneakers.
Mache: I’d love to collaborate and design colorways and work on materials, that’s my strength. I don’t know if I’d want to be employed by a brand just because I do love being my own boss and the freedom of my own artistic process. However working with the talented designers of these brands is always a fun way to get the best of both worlds from time to time. I will say that one of my goals is to have a “Mache” collaboration for the masses to consume, that would be tops for me.
To learn more about Mache, visit his website machecustoms.com