Art Academy student Sydney Kay has always had steady hand. So when the 19-year-old graphic design major started hand-painting sneakers, she quickly gained a following—more than 22,000 on Instagram—eager to request custom kicks. Though she’s only been running Sydney Kay Customs as a business for a year, she’s created designs for rapper Future’s son, the sneaker culture gurus at Kicks on Fire, and earned a sponsorship from leather paint company Angelus Direct. I asked Sydney about how she got started, her design process, and her plans for upcoming projects.
How did you get started making custom sneakers? My first experience painting shoes was when I was a junior in high school. Boone County High School participated in Van’s Custom Culture, a nationwide shoe customizing competition using blank Vans shoes to execute specific themes. My high school teacher entered me and three other students into the competition in 2013, and we made it to the Top 50 schools in the nation.
Your designs look like they require a lot of planning and precision. What’s your process? Honestly my process has been a lot of trial and error, experimenting with techniques and figuring out what works best for me. I started in 2013 but I’ve only been doing this as a business for a year now, so I’m still fairly new to everything. Essentially the process begins with de-glazing the leather and taping off the areas you don’t want to paint. After that comes the actual painting process—many thin layers of paint and lots of time spent perfecting the details. When the paint is dry and set, I complete the custom with a few thin layers of acrylic finisher. A steady hand comes naturally to me, as I’ve always been an artist outside of painting shoes. My personal work involves a lot of graphite drawing and oil painting, so I spend a lot of time learning how to improve my skills and develop as an artist.
You have a few signature designs: the wavy swoosh, the oil spill colorway, the prismburst. Which is your favorite? My most popular shoe to date is the Nike Roshe One “Wavy.” After posting the first finished photo, my Instagram page went crazy. I got an overwhelming amount of attention for that specific custom, and although it remains everyone’s favorite, I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite—I’d probably have to go with the “Oil Spill” Air Force 1s. I favor these because they’re the most unique and when I was designing them I had the most fun with it. I really tried to push the boundaries and create something that’s never been done. The custom sneaker community seems to be heavily saturated with generic sports themes and hyped-up color ways, but when I design sneakers I try to incorporate my artistic style and bring something different to the table.
You have a pretty impressive following on Instagram. How did that come about? There really wasn’t a specific way I amassed the amount of followers I have, it just happened. It started with friends and family, and I guess it grew by word of mouth and within the Instagram community. Larger pages started reposting my photos and spreading the word about my work, and within a year I had 20,000 supporters and a sponsorship from Angelus Direct. I really appreciate my followers and the continuous support I get from them every day, I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.
What’s next? Up next for me is a collaboration I’m very excited about. I am working with Anthony Racaniello, the Director of Operations at Kicks On Fire and a good friend of mine. I can’t say too much about it until it’s finished, but it’s going to be one of the best sneakers I’ve ever done. To top it off we’re also working with the guys at Footcanvas, a high quality custom insole company, to make this collaboration even better. They’re all great guys and I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to be working with them.