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Plainview teen gets a kick out of turning sneakers into wearable art

As a sneakerhead, Thomas Vella, shown on Dec. 29, 2014, has a thriving business stripping the factory paint from sneakers and airbrushing on his own designs. He works out of a basement studio and charges $200 a pair. (Credit: Heather Walsh)

Thomas Vella knows that dressing well means being fashionable from head to toe.

As a student at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, Vella became something of a sneakerhead who was always on the lookout for unusual athletic shoes that would match the rest of his clothes. Finding customized sneakers to match his limited wallet, however, was the real challenge.

So Vella took the do-it-yourself route, learning how to customize sneakers from watching YouTube videos, including one by Nick Mangia of Hauppauge. Vella contacted Mangia, who began customizing sneakers four years ago, after seeing the video and the two have become good friends. They often attend sneaker shows together, and Vella also asks Mangia for advice on his designs.

In the basement of his parents' house in Plainview, Vella had the tools he needed -- airbrush, special paint and a passion for "sneakerhead" culture -- to turn his 20 pairs of sneakers into one-of-a-kind fashion statements that reflect both his creativity and his sense of style. Now, he's turned his talent for customizing sneakers into a business.

"I want to be recognized as an artist and known for giving a quality custom shoe, something one-of-a-kind to enjoy and wear, rather than a generic shoe that anyone can get," said Vella, 19, a graphic design major at Briarcliff College in Bethpage.

"He keeps getting better and more comfortable with his work," Mangia said. "He did a pair with a Statue of Liberty theme that's my favorite."

To make his fancy footwear, Vella has to strip the sneakers' factory paint with acetone, then apply new paint with an airbrush. Vella typically spends 10 to 30 hours on a pair, depending on the complexity of the job.

Vella had been charging $100 a pair to customize store-bought sneakers, but he recently raised his rates to $200. At $100, "I lose money on the time I spend customizing a shoe," he said.

Vella began customizing sneakers during his junior year of high school. Since then, his one-man enterprise, Big T Customs, has attracted thousands of followers on social media, and word of his footwear wizardry is spreading. Among those Vella has met through social media is Brad Torf, a health care worker from Chicago who customizes shoes as a sideline.

"Because he's a younger guy, I've helped with some tips and tricks. From what I've seen online, he does really good work," Torf said. "I felt good helping him out -- he's not just some random kid out to make a buck. He's really serious about what he does."

Vella gets most of his business from his Instagram account. His most challenging project to date was his first job -- creating a pair of shoes in homage to the Call of Duty video game. The sneakers, which were covered with depictions of laser beams, took about six months to complete.

Vella caters largely to a male demographic -- teens and 20-somethings -- that takes sneakers very seriously. One of his customers, Jordan Goldsher, 17, of Patchogue appreciates Vella's attention to detail.

Another customizer had worked on a pair of Goldsher's Air Jordans, but he was disappointed with the results and approached Vella to salvage the shoes. Vella stripped and repainted them in the rapper Drake's signature black-and-gold color scheme, and even stenciled on Drake's trademark owl symbol.

"What the kid does with shoes is just awesome," Goldsher said of Vella. "I'm very happy with what he did. It just looks amazing."

Vella's parents -- Camille, 53, and Frank, 50 -- also have benefited from having an artisan in the house. He has customized wallets for his mom, a bookkeeper. For his father, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority employee and loyal Yankees fan, Vella commemorated Derek Jeter's retirement with a pair of Nike Air Force 1s in Yankee blue, complete with the interlocking "NY" and the "RE2PECT" logo from the shortstop's 2013 season.

"He started crying," Vella said. "He loved Derek Jeter, and he was so astonished that I can make a one-of-a-kind shoe."

Finding customers

The advent of social media in the mid-2000s has been instrumental in putting customizers in touch with customers. Instagram, in particular, in which customizers can post photos of their shoes, has been a huge platform for business.

"Once it got opened up to everyone who had a smartphone, it got big," said Dan Gamache, a full-time customizer from Danbury, Connecticut, whose clients have included pro athletes Mariano Rivera, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Vella also finds customers by attending sneaker shows, and was among the thousands who thronged the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center last month for Sneaker Con New York City. The event featured a meet-and-greet with NBA superstar Penny Hardaway and an authentication station where sneakerheads could learn to distinguish knock-offs from the real things.

Last Sunday, Vella attended the Long Island Sneaker Show in Rockville Centre, where he was hired by an attendee to customize a pair of Nike Eminem Air Max 90 running shoes.

Vella now has a backlog of seven customization jobs. He only works on two pairs at a time and uses the money he earns to help pay for his auto insurance, he said.

Celebrity specified

Sneaker culture took off in the 1980s, with the soaring popularity of rap music and the high visibility of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Customizing soon followed, said Torf.

"There are so many people doing it of all different backgrounds -- there's kids, there's adults, there's artists, there's sneakerheads," said Torf, whose company Astrotorf Retros and Customs has had such high-profile clients as Shane Victorino of the Boston Red Sox. "In the last three or four years, it's just boomed."

Customized sneakers now adorn the feet of top athletes and celebrities, including rap mogul Jay Z, who wore a pair of Brooklyn Zoos by PMK Customs to the Nets' first home game at the Barclays Center in 2012. PMK (Perfectly Made Kicks) said its bespoke version of the original Air Jordan was made of nine kinds of animal skin, including alligator, stingray and elephant. A pair sold on eBay for more than $20,000.

On at least one occasion, the sneaker industry has objected to custom paint jobs. In November, TMZ published a memo from Nike warning pro football players that customizing their cleats may void their endorsement deals — especially if the trademark swoosh isn't clearly visible on TV.

"It's like a tattoo on a shoe," said Mangia.

"Having a custom shoe allows you to really stand out from the crowd," Torf said. "Or it's a way to express yourself. . . . It's wearable art. Sometimes people are uber-specific about what they want -- 'I want this color here,' or they'll say 'I want this theme -- "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" ' or the New York Knicks or whatever. Some say, 'Do whatever you want.' "

Vella, meanwhile, continues to develop his brand, building his Instagram following, networking with people in the sneaker customization world and striving for perfection with each shoe he paints.

"One customization can get your name out so far that it can get to a celebrity --  record producers, rappers, sports players, pretty much everyone," he said. "You never know who might be watching on Instagram."


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