Sophia Wilson has never been an “ordinary” teenager. The photographer and creative behind Air Force Funs, an Instagram-born brand dedicated to Nike Air Force Ones that have been hand-customized with Swarovski Crystals, started at age 14 taking photos for the likes of Nylon. Now 19, she’s balancing her budding shoe business with studying photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, shooting editorial spreads for major publications, including The Cut and Vogue Italia, and campaigns for brands like Vans and Converse.
Sophia’s early career focus can be attributed to confidence in her potential, something she credits to growing up with a single mom, a surgeon with the “coolest style,” who showed her that “you really can do anything as a woman and as a woman of color.” Sophia was the artistic one in her family, with a passion for painting in preschool that quickly developed into a love for photography. She joined Instagram at 11, and used her camera phone to experiment with social media, taking photos of flowers and her friends. At age 12, when she shot her first self-portrait, she realized that photography could be more than “just a hobby.” She got her first professional camera at 13, a birthday gift from her grandparents.
That’s when all the fun began. She started styling her friends in her clothing and photographing them around New York City. Later she started cold-emailing brands she thought were cool. “I just randomly decided to email a bunch of brands that I really admired in magazines saying, ‘Hey, I'd love to shoot for you. I'm, like, a professional fashion photographer.’ And I really wasn’t,” Sophia tells Teen Vogue. “I knew my worth and what I was capable of in terms of producing interesting, unique, and high-quality content, but people needed to see it first.”
From this came her first opportunity to shoot at an event for a fashion designer, Francki Michels (now named Ex Mermaids), in collaboration with Nylon. Then age 14, Sophia admits she had “no clue” what she was doing, so she watched YouTube videos for tips on lighting. But the photos were well-received. Sophia started to create more content with emerging designers, such as Emily Marte and James Phlemuns, and continued to develop her own shoots after school with friends, ultimately landing a gig as a social and photography intern at VFILES from 2016 until last year.
While her other classmates were focused on exams, Sophia was rearranging her high school schedule to make it to VFILES in the afternoon, where she shot portraits for their online interviews and social media channels.
It was during her time there that Sophia came up with the idea for Air Force Funs, a sneaker project in which Sophia customizes Air Force One’s with Swarovski crystals. She recalls sitting on her floor, during her school midterms, when the idea sparked. With a new pair of white Nike Air Force Ones lying on her bedroom floor, she decided that as soon as midterms were over she would figure out a way to encrust crystals onto them and create what she imagined would be “just a cool piece of art.”
And that’s exactly what she did. “I sat down for a good seven hours, gluing one by one with a toothpick, until something worked,” she says. She wore them to VFILES the next day and they got posted on the brand’s Instagram account, and the next day on Hypebae’s account.
After receiving numerous DM’s from people wanting to buy the sneakers, she realized that there was enough interest for this to become a full-fledged business. Something, she says, her mom was supportive of her pursuing when making the initial Air Force One purchases.
Fast-forward to over a year later: Sophia has since left VFILES and decided to focus on her blossoming freelance photography career, shooting for brands like Free People and Opening Ceremony, as well as her thriving online business. She chose the name "Air Force Funs" after the caption she used on her very first post of the shoes. Her followers have reached over 2,000 and the level of interest has skyrocketed; she has received requests and shares from celebrities and influencers, including Goldlink, Gigi Hadid, and Kim Petras. Her designs have grown increasingly experimental, including flames and cherries, and always draw influence from current trends in the fashion world.
The designs aren’t made in an official capacity with Nike, but she views the brand as a supporter of hers after working on a custom design for Nike Air Max Day last year, in collaboration with Hypebae. Nike has always been her favorite shoe brand, and Air Force One’s her favorite shoes. “I’m very particular about my footwear and the shoes that I wear need to have a chunky sole, but not too chunky because I need something that's grounding when I walk,” she says. She sees Air Force One’s as the perfect blank canvas for her craft because the flat shape makes it easier for her to encrust the crystals onto the shoes.
After she figured out an ordering system through DM requests, the made-to-order designs can be purchased over Instagram, following a discussion about what design the customer would like. The cost per pair ranges from $350 to $1,000, with expenses including roughly $200 worth of materials for the new Nike Air Force Ones and Swarovski crystals. The full process usually takes around five to seven weeks, with each pair taking an hour to six hours to complete, depending on the complexity of the design. In high school, Sophia used to work on a few pairs at a time, on weekends and after school, but now that she’s in college and has a more flexible schedule, she works on them in between classes. The demand is now so high that her friend Kelsey is helping her with orders. “It gets a little too busy,” Sophia explains. “But people understand that the shoes take a while because they are personal to them. I think people love the idea of them being close to them.”
These days Sophia is “loving every minute” of figuring out the process, but will always consider herself an artist first and foremost. The very first Air Force Funs, after all, were intended to be an art piece. “Honestly, I'd love it if someone would buy a pair and just hang it on their wall on a plaque or something,” Sophia says. “But I do think that people should just wear them however they enjoy. Like you can run through a pile of mud in them, if you want, but you have to understand that the gems are going to get dirty.”
Sophia often feels discouraged and frustrated by the increasing instances of copycats on Instagram, but chooses to focus on furthering her craft rather than approaching them directly, as she recognizes that this can be the nature of social media.
Driven by the pure passion of creating, Sophia’s bright future includes plans to “keep creating really cool art, photos, and editorials that people haven’t seen before and of people that haven’t been represented before.” Moving forward, Sophia wants to be “a little bit less of a designer and more of an artist.” She’s interested in mixing fashion with more traditional art forms, and hopes to create an art gallery pop-up soon with exaggerated Air Force Funs designs that can be appreciated for their original intention: something that should be put on display.
Trusting the same gut instinct that launched her career at age 14, Sophia hopes to encourage other young creatives and entrepreneurs to not let self-doubt get in the way of a good idea. “As long as you have your own idea that you know has never been done before," she says, "and as long as you can trust that it's a really good idea or it's a really interesting piece of art, you can put it on the Internet and things will fall into place.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue