Shoe Surgeon Custom Sneaker School Teaches Students How to Make Shoes in NY

If you’re anything like me, your footwear rotation is influenced to some extent by the shoes you see on social media, and your next pickup often aligns with the Nike release calendar—and you’re definitely copping them from the SNKRS app StockX. Sure, you got them, but that giddy feeling you get from breaking out a fresh pair of sneakers quickly evaporates when you look at your friends’ feet and realize somehow everyone’s definition of “cool” has become the same. Maybe your next move after this realization is to do a funky lace swap, and perhaps that’s enough flare to bring back that feeling for a while, but what if you had the ability to make your own pair of shoes?

Not like a custom pair from Nike By You. I’m talking about making a sneaker entirely your own. Where you get to learn how to construct the entire shoe using hand-picked materials, colors, and textures, while sparing no detail, down to that last sidewall stitch that’s tucked under the insole. 

In December I attended the Shoe Surgeon Academy’s Air Jordan 1 Decon/Recon class to build my own custom pair. Dominic Ciambrone, better known as The Shoe Surgeon, and his team of creatives started the Surgeon Academy in 2017 from their decades of combined industry experience to teach people like you and me how to design, develop, deconstruct, and reconstruct a sneaker. The operation’s mantra is “never stop creating.” 

The environment and the energy that the Shoe Surgeon and his team are able to create is special. As soon as you enter their Downtown Manhattan location your attention is immediately captured by Ciambrone’s creations lining the brick walls. Ben & Jerry’s Air Jordan 1s, Grinch Nike Dunks, Air Jordan 1 Off-White Canary Yellow Lux, the list goes on and on. My mind couldn’t help but begin to race, running through colorways, concepts, and inspirations that I tried to pull from as I started to mentally sketch out my design.

This process becomes more tangible when you make your way to the second floor, dedicated fully to the Academy, where racks of high-end leathers, threads, and shoe laces surround your own personal workspace that’s outfitted with sewing machines and shoemaking tools. Learning a craft from someone who is seen as the top person in their field isn’t an opportunity that comes across often, but that is Ciambrone’s goal for his students at the Surgeon Academy. 

The whole experience, much like the end product, is highly customized and personal. The instructor to student ratio was nearly 1:1, allowing each student to smoothly navigate the highs and lows that come with learning something as complicated as shoemaking. Over the course of the four-day class, they taught us how to take the sole off an old Jordan, trace pieces for our new shoe, sew them together, last the shoe (the process of pulling the upper over a mold, called a last, where the shoe begins to take shape), and everything in between. All the technical skills were enjoyable and rewarding to learn, but my favorite aspect was using these techniques to create a shoe that told a story through its colorway, colorblocking, and name.

Dominic Ciambrone, better known as the Shoe Surgeon. Image via the Shoe Surgeon Academy

It really came to life on the last day when all the students removed their final creations from the last and shared the backstory and inspiration for their custom pair of Air Jordan 1s. The stories I heard were wildly creative and added a whole new dimension to what I thought being a sneakerhead meant. One student had just quit his job in finance and this class signified to him the start of the second chapter of his life where he vowed to pursue his creative interests and put himself first. My shoe didn’t have as deep of a meaning behind it, but it did take inspiration from one of my favorite desserts, Neapolitan ice cream. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry on the upper, with whip cream laces and a cherry on top, similar to the Stüssy x Nike SB Dunk Low. In the end, the ability to make something entirely your own and tell your own story is truly the ultimate flex.

Although this particular class was focused on deconstructing and reconstructing an Air Jordan 1, the Surgeon Academy offers both in-person and remote classes on the deconstruction and reconstruction of other staples like Dunks, Yeezy 700s, and Air Maxes. The school is also cooking up new customization workshops where you bring your own pair of shoes and choose from various paints, laces, and leathers to bring your wildest ideas to life with the help of the Surgeon team.

Custom Air Jordan 1
The custom Air Jordan 1 I made. Image via Shoe Surgeon Academy

 One of their most unique offerings is the design 101 course. This class truly is a peek behind the curtain of the sneaker industry that offers marketable skills for those looking to break into the fashion or sneaker industry. The class goes through the design process from inspiration to conceptualization and everything in between. While most of their footprint is in Los Angeles, their South Street Seaport location is the hub for the Shoe Surgeon on the East Coast.

My experience at the Surgeon Academy’s Decon/Recon class was eye-opening to say the least. I never gave much thought to what went into making a sneaker, but over the last few weeks I can’t help but stare a little longer when someone’s standing next to me with a nice pair of shoes, mentally picking apart the stitching and trying to figure out how it was constructed. Whether or not this becomes a more permanent hobby is up in the air, but I can say for sure my perspective on which sneakers are cool and what belongs in my rotation has totally changed.

About Dian Sastro

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