This week’s Custom Fridays feature is on the very talented Van Taylor Monroe. The Cleveland native has been blessing the canvases of several sneakers with his impeccable artwork. For Monroe, customizing a sneaker is a way of storytelling and putting a meaning behind his designs.
Monroe is an OG of customizing and produced several sneakers for the likes of President Barack Obama, Spike Lee, Diddy, Hugh Jackman and more. He looks to continue the success he has had thus far by eventually transitioning into creative designing for recording artists.
We chopped it up with the custom veteran to get his take on the current state of sneaker customization, how he ended up making a pair for Obama and his future work. Check out the interview below.
What made you want to start customizing sneakers?
I believe one of my gifts is the ability to tell stories through my art. I found a uniquely suitable canvas in sneakers. Also, when I started 11 years ago, shoe companies did not provide much variety for the consumer. Typically the customer was subjected to whatever style or colorway was released, and that was it. I found an opportunity to challenge the status quo and really push to expand the definition of a sneaker.
What was the first sneaker you customized and at what age?
It was 2003 in my college dorm room. I customized a pair of Air Force 1 Mids, and I was 21 at that time.
How long does it usually take you to make a sneaker?
It usually takes me about 12-16 hours.
What pair of sneakers took you the longest to customize?
I did a pair commissioned by Nike to celebrate the 30 years of the Jordan Brand. It took me 75 hours.
Do you feel like customizing sneakers has become over-saturated?
I want to choose my words carefully here. I love that there are many people exploring sneaker customization. My only wish is that more artists would take the initiative to be unique. There are too many clones and too many blogs, websites, etc., rewarding clones. When you celebrate the artist for not being original, two things happen. One, the artist will not have any incentive to be creative, and two, it doesn’t raise the bar high enough for the next artist. This cycle is toxic for the artist and dangerous for the lively hood of the culture. It reminds me of when the radio stations stopped playing the music of real hip-hop artists. It opened the door for the less talented and less creative acts to flood the airways. The audience may have bought into the songs, but they didn’t buy into the artist. That’s why a lot of the people you heard on the radio years ago are no longer relevant today. Same thing holds for the customizing industry. One more nugget for the young artist, these large sneaker companies are making it easier for the consumer to order “customized” shoes directly from their websites. If you do not carve out your niche and discover what makes you special then soon you will be obsolete. Said with love from an O.G.
What celebrities have you customized sneakers for?
I have been blessed to make sneakers for a very diverse group of people: President Obama, Spike Lee, P. Diddy, T.I., Hugh Jackman, Will I Am, Tiesto, Gayle King, Hill Harper, Jaleel White, Charles Barkley, Nicki Minaj, Queen Latifah, Danny Avila, Laz Alonso, Fabolous, Keke Palmer, John Leguizamo, Josh Hutcherson, Ellen, Fat Joe, Adam Sandler, Ray Romano, Brandon LaFell, Carmelo Anthony’s son Kiyan, Bridget Moynahan, Wanda Sykes, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Dj Toomp…to humbly name a few.
A lot of customizers are known for a signature style or material they use. What do you think you’re mostly known for?
I would say my storytelling and portrait work would be my signature style.
What’s the price range for your work?
My prices range from $200 to $2K.
Favorite shoe of all time?
My favorite shoe is the Air Jordan 11. In my opinion, the G.O.A.T.
Out of all the sneakers you have customized, which one has been your favorite?
It’s difficult to pick one because they are all like my children, so I have two. I would say my “Michael Jackson Thriller Air Force 1″ because they were featured in the Michael Jackson music video “This Is It.” That was a blessing. My second is the “Obama 08″ shoe because of what it represented in my life during the time I made it. I left my corporate job in 2007 to pursue art full time. Long story short, I went broke and was facing eviction while chasing my dream of becoming a successful artist. Just as Senator Obama had the audacity to believe that he would become president. I also believed against all odds that I would make it as an artist, so I primarily made the shoe to remind myself that the dream is possible. Months after I received the eviction notice on my door, The Smithsonian Museum requested the “Obama 08″ shoe for their collection. The first customized sneaker in the whole museum! Later that year, I was honored to send President Obama his very own custom pair of the “Obama 08.” I say all that not to boast but to remind everyone it’s always too soon to quit on your purpose. None of this would have been possible if I didn’t follow my heart and fight through the adversity.
What shoe was the first to get you recognized in the sneaker community?
I would say my “Obama 08″ shoe would be the one that brought me the most recognition. Not only from the sneaker community but from the general public.
Are you working on any sneakers now for a major celebrity?
Yes, I’m working on another special pair for Mr. Spike Lee and the good people at 40 Acres And A Mule.
Since we are XXL, give me three of your favorite rappers of all time.
Nas, Biggie and Tupac. Rappers who paint pictures with words.
Corporation you would love to collab with for a major sneaker?
My wish would be to work with a musician to promote their album with my art.
Sneaker you hate working on?
I have yet to find one I hate. They all present unique challenges and opportunities to tell stories.