Interview by Catarina Ramalho
Inspired by the recent addition of Virgil Abloh to Louis Vuitton, up-and-coming sneaker designer Ceeze teamed with Relevant Customs to drop a one-off collab. The “Off-Louis” Air Jordan blends of the old with the new, celebrating and encapsulating this moment in time for posterity.
In conversation, the young designer would discuss the power that good design needs to evoke in the consumer, and how aligning with the right mentor allowed him not only to fail better but also how to fail forwards.
When did you get the calling to start customizing sneakers?
It’s a funny story. I had a skiing accident when I was in junior year. I broke my arm, and that led to three different surgeries, a plate, and seven screws. I started to restore an old pair of sneakers while I was recovering, and this led to me wanting to paint on other shoes. I began selling my first customized pairs on eBay, which steadily grew into a business of its own. I was doing this while still at college, doing 50-60 hour weeks, two jobs and getting 19 credits. It was a fine line to walk.
Without losing your mind, definitely.
I think that was lost a long time ago, but I appreciate the compliment. After graduating, I enrolled fashion business management and performance footwear program at FIT, and that’s where I received formal training to become a sneaker designer.
What did you do after graduating? Did you try to get a job with a company or did you wanted to keep on doing it independently?
I finished my degree in 2017, and at the time I quitted my day job. Things progressed, I was in the city networking endlessly trying to find the right person to collab with and then in June of ’17 I did. A man by the name of Rich Franklin. He is the genius behind Relevant Customs. Since we connected, he has enabled me to scale my production, bringing out this re-constructed line of footwear and even mentor ideas.
Do you think that it is important to nurture a mentorship relationship during the first years of your career? How did that help you to get to this point?
I have made thousands of mistakes to get here, and I will keep on doing it. Having mentors in life is one of the biggest things that people don’t look to do. To have an idea and be able to discuss it with him, and to have him openly critique it. You don’t get that in a boardroom; you get that from family. Other than being a friend, and a mentor, Rich has been one of the strongest pillars supporting me as I go, enabling me and giving me the tools to succeed. From both personal and professional viewpoints.
Speaking of which, how did this collab between Ceeze and Relevant Customs come to fruition?
Rich is the mastermind behind it. The Off-Louis shoe came from a 7 AM phone call from Rich. He called me up and said: ‘Have you seen the headline? Virgil just became the creative director for LV. We need to do something about it.’
Virgil’s appointment was greeted with sizzling critics; it caught a lot of people by surprise. How do you envision it?
Virgil has managed to build something that people enjoy and want to be part of that is both exclusive and available. I love Off-White. Am wealthy enough to own a pair? No, I’m a frugal guy.
I think that we are now in a day and age where an individual has an attitude to run a brand. Not based on who he is, but based on the relevancy he, she or it has. That is truly unique.
Fashion is an exclusive industry, based on aesthetics, so by default, biases will always exist. Consumer identity is dictating what a brand does, and cultural relevancy is the greatest capital to have right now.
If you look where Gucci, Fendi, LV, Prada, YSL are they being placed and where the discussions about these brands being held… they are going towards a demographic that consumes hip-hop and street culture. Look at Balenciaga over the past couple of months. This ecosystem is changing, and this is opening a whole different wormhole of conversation topics that are relevant but still very finite.
What is the relevance of this particular design for you as a brand?
If this idea came across five months ago, people would have been like ‘Okay’, The fact that it happened, when it happened just helped to paint the picture even more. The more components you have behind the product that feed into relevant events of our overall collective filter, the more inclined people become to want to be part of it. I knew that this was something that could start a conversation, and It could give me the opportunity to do things that I have been thinking of doing over the past six months.
Why not Fifa Air Jordan soccer shoe? Wimbledon is coming, why not doing not doing a Wimbledon Ultra boost?
Is this something that you’re thinking of doing?
We are already planning for the next couple of months: putting renders together and sourcing out materials. Design is a very emotional business. Its never going not to be. If your models don’t make somebody go WTF, or I hate it, or I love it, you’re not doing your job correctly. I think that that story that you want to convey is the most important thing in this world, and no one will ever care unless there is an emotional tie to it. Even with technology and endless marketing budget, you have to show these people that you care. Its so weird how things work, but connectivity is the base of it all. It’s the genuineness of being a real human being. It pains me to say this, but I don’t think we see it enough. You have to care about the person that you’re talking to. If they can tell that you don’t give a fuck, why would they?
Have you ever thought that this collab would be received the way that it was? I saw that Takeshi Murakami re-grammed this week.
The Internet is a life-changing thing. If your name is hitting and pinging every month people are going to start noticing it. I had a Hypebeast feature a couple of months ago, a sneaker freak editorial for the first time in my life, a BBC article, activation with Champs. These are things that are starting to ping and help in the way that we are building. If you’re able to make sure that every drop it hits home, people begin to realize that. Where am I going to be in 12 months? I have no idea, but if your heart is pure and if your intent is valid you can do anything.