Anthony DeLucia's studio was a kitchen table. His paints were stored in a cabinet nearby. And his creations — intricately designed sneakers and cleats that he painted for friends — were slowly getting traction and earning him a little bit of cash as he pursued his finance degree.
A few things haven't changed too much in the three and a half years since he started this gig. It's still mostly a one-man show, he still paints at home, and friends still wear his sneakers. Except now, local baseball superstars like Aaron Judge and Pete Alonso wear them, too. And former Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden. And, one day last year, every single one of the New York Mets.
That was a big day for DeLucia, 23, and now owner of the Nassau-based Lucia Footwear Co., which has blossomed into a full-time job and a small business with a whole lot of visibility. The cleats all the Mets wore were for the anniversary of Sept. 11, in tribute to first responders. They were, too, an act of subterfuge against Major League Baseball, which heavily regulates what players wear in games, and had long banned the Mets from wearing first responder caps in-game on the anniversary. Alonso, the team's first baseman, had DeLucia create the cleats despite the possibility of incurring a fine for not adhering to baseball's uniform regulations. (MLB allowed the team to wear the caps this year, for the first time since 2007.)
Because Alonso had publicly fought baseball to pay tribute to first responders, DeLucia's cleats showed up on Twitter, and Instagram, and the photos were plastered all over newspapers' sports sections.
"It was completely surreal, especially for me," said DeLucia, who scrambled to complete the cleats in four or five days, and included a painting of the iconic moment firefighters lifted the flag onto the 9/11 pile. "You know, I grew up a Mets fan. I’ve rooted for them my whole life and to see the team I’ve grown up watching and rooting for wearing those cleats was absolutely surreal."
DeLucia first painted cleats for his friend, who was in minor-league baseball, and though he wasn't formally trained, his skills grew quickly and his designs quickly caught people's attention. The minor leagues were a helpful breeding ground, thanks to constant player movement, and finally, one of those players, a Yankees minor leaguer named Rob Refsnyder, made it to the major-league stage. Refsnyder had seen DeLucia’s work on Instagram and decided he wanted a pair, but figured his friend would like one, too.
"He asked if it was cool if he sent a couple pairs of cleats for himself and a pair for his buddy, Aaron," said DeLucia, who was working at a bakery at the time to help pay for college.
"His buddy was Aaron Judge."
And so DeLucia found himself painting mammoth size 17 cleats for the 6-foot-7 Yankees outfielder, one of the most recognizable players on the planet. His favorite project was painting the cleats former Mets captain David Wright wore for his final game, he said, though he also paints regularly for Gooden, along with current Mets Robinson Cano and Amed Rosario. He’s painted over 1,000 pairs of cleats and sneakers, he estimated, and his Instagram following has grown to over 14,000. DeLucia has also tapped into the booming sneaker market — one that's valued at $75 billion globally, according to Statista. Meanwhile, popular sneaker culture, where shoes are viewed as collectibles as much as they are clothing, is centered around rare and unique shoes.
Painted shoes and cleats can cost a few hundred dollars, and can be ordered through DeLucia's website, LuciaFootwearCo.com, but if customers provide the canvas, designs begin at about $175. Generally, he works by himself, but for the big 9/11 order, he enlisted a friend to help put on the base coatings of about 10 pairs, and had his mother help prep the shoes. During the pandemic, he also began offering one-on-one virtual painting tutorials, ranging from $40 to $45 dollars, and has gained a few students a month.
"Anthony was very gracious to design the cleats for my last game at Citi," said Wright, now a special adviser to the Mets front office. "They’re now displayed in the Hall of Fame and will always be a special source of great memories for my family and myself."
Since DeLucia's business grew so quickly, there's been little room for error for the young entrepreneur.
"It was just kind of being thrown into the fire," he said. "Doing them for major league baseball players and athletes across all professional sports, I really didn’t have a chance to screw up or to make a bad design, because it was going to be on TV or other athletes were going to see it."