Hip-hop culture elevated the sneaker from casual footwear to street-art form.
Chris Hui is one of its prodigies.
Hui, a marketing junior at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, has a leg up on most of his fellow students when it comes to entrepreneurial studies. He's been designing custom kicks, including several pairs for some high-profile customers, since he was a 14-year-old kid growing up in Milwaukee.
The beginning: "Me and my buddy were bored so we spray-painted our shoes. The paint flaked off, so I researched and experimented on how to do it better until my parents refused to buy me any more shoes to wreck. I started getting shoes at Goodwill, painting them green for the Packers or purple for the Vikings, and selling them on eBay for $20 a pair. I thought, 'This is a way better way to make money than doing chores'."
Unusual teenage request: "Begging my dad to take me to JoAnn Fabrics [for supplies]."
Cost: $300, including the shoes.
Favorite brands: Nike is most popular, also Vans.
Average work hours per pair: 10.
Awards: Named best custom designer (2006) and two-time customizer of the year (2004 and 2005) by Sole Collector magazine.
Favorite customer interaction: Backstage with rapper Lupe Fiasco. "I made him a pair of shoes when he was up and coming, two years before going to his Milwaukee concert after he got famous. He called me backstage before the show while 50,000 people were waiting to hear him. He was cool. I made his shoes black with a pink-camouflage stripe, because he used to dress kind of punk rock for a rapper."
Other celeb customers: Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers, LeBron James ("his were green and gold, to honor his legendary high school career with St. Vincent-St. Mary, and 'The Chosen One,' written on the back to match his tattoo,") and Carson Daly ("his were kind of generic, with his talk show's logo").
Design philosophy: Mash-up. "I like interpreting the design of one shoe, and putting it onto another, sort of like musicians making Beatles songs into hip-hop."
What's ahead: "I have done a couple of projects with Nike, and I hope to work with them more."
Imelda Marcos tendency: Owns 300 pairs of sneakers. "I was a shoe addict even before I started painting them."
Spinoff: Hui's girlfriend and graphic-design major Clare Jensen, inspired by his work, crafted a couple of slightly more feminine custom pairs for her design class.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046