Christmas Eve was only a few days away, but Kyle Rudolph still had something on his shopping list. He wanted to splurge on something real nice for himself.
So he texted Dan Gamache, who was sitting at a bar in Connecticut when his mobile phone started buzzing. It was late notice, but the big Vikings tight end was hoping to get a pair of holiday-themed cleats featuring, of course, his red-nosed namesake.
“I asked him if he wanted to do something for Christmas,” Rudolph said this spring. “And [Gamache] said, ‘I was hoping you were going to reach out to me.’ ”
Three days later, and just in time for the Vikings to make the trip to Green Bay to play the Packers on Christmas Eve, an overnight shipment arrived at Winter Park.
Rudolph, not knowing exactly what Gamache was going to deliver to him, tore open the box to find a pair of white cleats with the iconic cartoon version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer carefully hand-painted on the outside of each Nike cleat.
“It was cool,” said Rudolph, one of several Vikings players who laced up cleats from Gamache in 2016. “I was incredibly happy with the pair that I got from him.”
Many professional athletes and celebrities know that feeling, as do lesser-known sneaker enthusiasts who flock to Gamache for his creative custom shoe designs, whether they are painted on football cleats, basketball sneakers or casual kicks.
Gamache, a New York native who happens to be a Vikings fan, became an overnight sensation a few years back thanks to the social-media boom and a shout-out from the most famous basketball player on the planet. His breakthrough was preceded by a short-lived athletic career, art school and a string of unsatisfying sales jobs.
Gamache played college baseball for four years at three different schools, including the College of Saint Rose in New York in 2000. But a torn labrum on his left, throwing shoulder shredded any hopes he had of possibly playing professionally.
So he focused on his art, finishing his master’s degree in garment design at the State University of New York at Oneonta, where he said he pitched for one season.
About a year later, in 2002, Gamache read an article about someone creating custom shoes “and my competitive nature kicked in,” he said in a recent phone interview. He grabbed a pair of sneakers from his closet and descended into his mother’s basement to paint them. They were “really, really bad,” he says now. But he got a kick out of doing it.
“It just happened that the shoes were the new medium to work on, instead of paper or canvas or whatever,” said Gamache, who founded Mache Custom Kicks in 2004.
He gained popularity among sneakerheads when his designs appeared in magazines. But the shoe business was not paying his bills. “I was living off the dollar menu,” he said, while he was selling mobile phones or working the overnight shift at a school for autistic kids. He continued to paint sneakers, but it was more of a side hustle.
About seven years ago, Gamache took a job at a sneaker store that allowed him to create custom shoes under their roof. “That brought me out of retirement,” he said. And then social media exploded, propelling his work into the mainstream.
In 2011, Gamache uploaded to Instagram, which he used as a photo-editing tool, a picture of a LeBron James model of Nike basketball shoes he had customized.
“I had no clue people were actually seeing it. I just thought it was a filter,” he said. “I posted pictures of my dog and stuff like that. Then I realized people were liking my pictures and I was getting followers. … It just kind of took off in popularity.”
With his design trending on social media, he auctioned off on eBay a dozen pairs of the custom LeBron shoes. The bids maxed out at $4,000 apiece, Gamache said.
Two years later, in 2013, James was asking Gamache to paint custom shoes for him. Pleased with the Ironman-themed pair Gamache designed for him, James thanked him by posting an Instagram pic. Gamache added about 17,000 followers overnight.
“That just kind of blew things open for me,” the 38-year-old designer said.
Gamache estimated that he sold between 500 and 600 pairs last year. They start at $300, and the cost increases based on the complexity of the design — similar, he says, to tattoo artists — and how much time Gamache has to deliver the goods. They give him a rough idea and a pair of white or black shoes and he takes it from there.
Gamache’s most high-profile customers include star athletes from the NFL, NBA and MLB, wrestlers from the WWE and famous rappers such as Kanye West and Wale.
“There are still times when I think, ‘This isn’t real life,’ ” he said. “I’ll go through my phone and see some of the names and I have to like pinch myself. It’s crazy.”
Among those names are several Vikings, after DJ Skee, the Minnesota-born musician and fellow Vikings fan, introduced Gamache to the team a few years back. Gamache inherited his love for the Vikings from his late father, David, a big Fran Tarkenton fan.
Before the first game at U.S. Bank Stadium last fall, receiver Jarius Wright commissioned Gamache to make a pair of purple commemorative cleats. A couple of weeks later, Jerick McKinnon wanted custom cleats, too. “It was a domino effect,” Gamache said. Soon, receiver Stefon Diggs, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Rudolph, among others, came calling.
The NFL permits players to wear custom cleats during games as long as they match their team’s color scheme and the content of the design gets approved on game day by league officials. If they don’t, players can only lace them up for pregame warmups.
Cleats for a cause
Last season, the NFL introduced its “My Cleats, My Cause” initiative, which gave players for one game the green light to wear cleats in any color and with bolder designs as long as the players submitted in advance their designs, which brought awareness to the charity of their choosing.
When Gamache, in town for a game, showed up at Winter Park last November to deliver cleats to Rhodes, he walked out with about a dozen pairs from other players who wanted designs done for the designated “My Cleats, My Cause” week.
“Last year, cleats almost became a pop culture thing throughout the NFL,” Rudolph said. “It was almost like every week someone had something cool on their cleats.”
Two pairs worn by Vikings players during pregame warmups went viral: Rudolph’s reindeer design and McKinnon’s cleats that were a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Harambe, the meme-inspiring gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo last year after a 3-year-old boy climbed into his enclosure.
“ ‘Mache’ had all these crazy ideas and I was like, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” McKinnon said.
While that Harambe idea was a little, well, random, Wright said most players are looking for designs that have personal meaning. For example, he got cleats made for last year’s season finale featuring images of many of his fellow Vikings receivers painted on them, knowing that some of them wouldn’t be back in Minnesota this season.
But, no matter the motivation behind the cleats, Wright said the players share the same sense of anticipation whenever one of Gamache’s packages arrive at Winter Park.
“It’s kind of like Christmas and you actually don’t know what you’re getting,” Wright said. “You know it’s going to be good work, but you can’t wait to see how they look.”