The Shoe Surgeon Takes Customized Athletic Shoes to a New Level

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Dominic Ciambrone, known as The Shoe Surgeon, stands inside his exclusive client experience room lined with leather couches and walls of customized shoes, and looks up at a piece of machinery that launched his empire nearly two decades ago.

On the top shelf, towering over a size 17 pair of gold-leather athletic shoes made for Los Angeles Laker Anthony Davis, is a Brother Pacesetter PS1000-13 sewing machine.

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When Ciambrone’s fellow classmates were getting envelopes of cash or trips to Mexico for their high school graduation gifts, Ciambrone’s grandmother gave him that sewing machine, helping to launch his career.

He is now one of the top customization experts in the country, known for tearing apart athletic shoes, reconstructing them and adding special paints, studs, crystals, swooshes or leather features to set them apart.

Ciambrone’s client list reads like a who’s who in the musical and athletic worlds. There is Justin Bieber, will.i.am, Drake, Michael B. Jordan, P.J. Tucker, Odell Beckham Jr. and many more.

As his work with musical celebrities and famous athletes has advanced, the crystals have turned into diamonds and 14k gold touches are not uncommon. “I love creating experiences,” said the 36-year-old creator.

Since occupying his 16,000-foot outpost two years ago south of downtown Los Angeles, he has set up workshops and classes for anyone who wants to learn how to put their unique touch on a scuff. There is also a full-size basketball/soccer court, full bar, ping pong table, lounge area and retail store.

And he’s not done yet. He just inaugurated The SRGN Studios where creativity will extend to other products beyond shoes.  “This is all about creating community and something where people can join in,” Ciambrone said. “There is not much like this out there. This is something trying to be inclusive when we live in a world of exclusivity.”

This has all been done with his business partner, Dallas Remo Imbimbo, the cofounder of KushCo Holdings, a cannabis packaging company, and the cofounder of BigRentz for online heavy equipment rental.

The studios are becoming a shoe-creation center and a hang-out spot.  In the evenings, local teams come by to play soccer or basketball. For sneakerheads, there are weekly classes and evening workshops for anyone that wants to learn to put an artistic touch on a shoe.

“There is no average workshop user here,” said Josh Campolattara, the manager of the workshops and the four-day shoe customization classes. “We see everyone from 3-year-olds to 70-year-olds.”

On the business side, The SRGN Studios house Ciambrone’s customization shoe factory with 17 workers, 10 sewing machines and various spaces for deconstructing shoes. The typical cost for a pair of customized shoes is at least $7,500, and there is a three-month wait. “Right now, we are making a shoe for [boxer] Devin Haney who has a fight in a few weeks,” Ciambrone said.

The Shoe Surgeon outpost at 3855 S. Hill Street is in an industrial section filled with squat cinderblock buildings that in years past housed apparel manufacturers and distribution businesses.

From the outside, the building, which used to house a clothing factory, looks like a fortress with no windows. To enter, you go around to the side where a heavy metal gate remains closed until you push the doorbell.

Walk through the parking lot to enter the building, and you find a magical oasis.

This 0,000 shoe was made for basketball player P.J. Tucker. Photo courtesy: The Shoe Surgeon
This 0,000 shoe was made for basketball player P.J. Tucker. Photo courtesy: The Shoe Surgeon

Workshops and classes bring in some of the company’s revenue, but the biggest money maker are the customized shoes for celebrities.

Last year, Ciambrone, with the help of Beverly Hills jeweler Jason Arasheben, created a $250,000 shoe for Milwaukee Bucks basketball player P.J. Tucker. It has 2,020 white diamonds on the swoosh of the Air Jordan 1 and crocodile leather. Tucker wore the shoe into the arena before the Buck’s Game Six win over the Phoenix Suns, which secured them the NBA title.

For football player Odell Beckham Jr., The Shoe Surgeon, again with Arasheben, designed a $200,000 athletic shoe with 25 carats of diamond-studded cleats that the L.A. Rams player wore during warm-up practice for last February’s Super Bowl competition. The Rams won.

One shoe at a time

Ciambrone’s path to becoming The Shoe Surgeon started in Santa Rosa, California, where his parents, Kim and Lou, run an Italian deli called Canevari’s. When Dominic was in eighth grade, his older cousin let him wear her original 1985 Air Jordan 1s.  “I didn’t know what to expect, but everyone gave me props,” the celebrity shoemaker said. “I learned you can wear cool shoes and be accepted.”

Upon graduating from Elsie Allen High School in 2004, Ciambrone moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to live with relatives. There, he worked and hung out in shopping malls looking at sneakers and watching people airbrush shoes.

With airbrushing on his mind, he moved back to Santa Rosa and searched for repair shops where he could learn about shoes and work on his customization ideas. “The first guy cursed me away saying I was going to steal his business. The second guy was too busy,” Ciambrone recalled. “The third guy was Daryl Fazio, who had a shoe repair shop. I told him what I wanted to do, and this is what I want to learn.”

The budding shoe customizer offered to help Fazio with repairs if he could use the shoe repair machine. Fazio remembers Ciambrone as a young guy who came into his shop. “To tell you the truth, I kicked him out. I was busy and didn’t have the time to help him. But he persisted on coming in,” Fazio said.

The two worked together off and on for four or five years. “And then he got some big-name clients like Justin Bieber,” Fazio remembered. “He would come in all nervous with these projects for celebrities like will.i.am. He always had a vision on the uppers, and I taught him to put the soles on the shoes. He had a talent for making shoes.”

Ciambrone’s big break came when he called Javier Laval about making shoes for Laval’s Los Angeles luxury sneaker company called Android Homme. “What I saw in him was a young, ambitious and visionary creative who simply needed to get the right exposure,” Laval said. “I connected him to Justin Bieber and will.i.am and other celebrities. That is when he got his first crack at doing some custom work for some A-list celebrities.”

Ciambrone remembers working on those Bieber shoes while in his bedroom and garage. Laval encouraged him to move to Los Angeles. “It was scary,” Ciambrone said of relocating.

He moved to a Los Angeles suburb to live with his cousin and had a 300-square-foot workspace in downtown L.A. Then he moved to a 900-square-foot location, later a 1,600-square-foot workshop and then two years ago, to what is now The SRGN Studios.

With every move, his reputation grew. “I have known Dominic since before he was famous,” said Miguel Rodriguez, head of footwear and accessories development at Shoemakers of LA. “What he is doing is setting a new platform for people who want to go into customization of shoes and shoe making, especially in Los Angeles and opening doors to different people.”

Ciambrone’s next step is to expand into other categories, such as clothing, and develop his 1,500-square-foot New York location in Seaport to a much larger studio.

Later this year, he expects to have a 26,000-square-foot center in Brooklyn’s trendy Dumbo area equipped with many of the same amenities found in Los Angeles. “Shoes are a way to connect with other people,” the shoe customizer said. “It creates a community.”

FOR MORE FROM WWD.COM ON SNEAKERS, SEE: 

Shoes vs. Sneakers: Resale Sites See Men Are Buying More Shoes

Nike x Off-White Air Jordan 1 Sneakers Fetch 16,120 Euros

Pro-Keds Partners With Franchise on Archival Sneaker

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