In recent years, custom sneakers have grown from simple one-of-a-kind colorways to bespoke artistic expressions that infuse more than just style, but storytelling. The best-of-the-best know how to target trends, employ design, and attach a signature style that is carried throughout each sneaker.
With a lot of heart and over 10,000 hours of practice, Ant Kai knows exactly what it takes to make a good custom.
His career as a sneaker customizer started out small, with his first pair being BAPE-inspired Vans for his niece’s birthday gift. After falling in love with the process, Ant decided to keep creating to see what else he was capable of.
Four years after his very first custom, Ant hit it big when he was able to sell a Lakers-inspired Union x Air Jordan 1 for a pretty hefty price tag. This was the moment that Ant realized that he could do this full time if he just stuck to it and put in the work.
Despite that it was the middle of lockdown, Ant Kai decided he had enough of doing the ordinary and didn’t want to spend another day at his full-time job. He gave up everything he had and moved from Seattle to Houston to pursue his dream of becoming a full-time sneaker artist.
Ant’s move was time well spent as Virgil Abloh reposted his custom Off-White x Nike Dunk Low just a year later. Virgil’s co-sign allowed Ant Kai’s page to blow up overnight, with people gravitating towards his dreamy cloud print.
Since then, Ant has continued to create customs and is in the midst of living his dream as a full-time sneaker artist in Houston.
Get to know more about Ant Kai as Nice Kicks talks to him about his humble beginnings, his Filipino heritage, working with Dermot Kennedy, factories stealing his designs, and his Kobe-inspired work ethic.
Nice Kicks: How did you decide to pursue customizing as a living? What made you move to Houston?
Ant Kai: “In 2020 I was trying to balance 2 full time jobs at once. During the week I’d work 8-5pm with my day job and paint shoes after from like 7pm-2am. When the pandemic hit, Seattle went on lockdown so I started painting the whole weekend too. I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough and knew I had to make more sacrifices if I wanted to level up as an artist. I always looked up to Kobe and admired how devoted he was to his craft and wanted to apply that to my own. So I quit my job, left everything, moved across the country, and dedicated all my time and energy into pursuing art.”
How did you get introduced to art and design? Is anyone in your family an artist?
“I grew up loving to draw. I was introduced as a kid through watching anime. Me and my brother used to draw Dragonball Z characters and weird shit like animals wearing streetwear clothing [laughs]. Aside from that, my grandma Josie was an artist.”
What sparked your interest in sneakers?
“I’ve been into shoes for most of my life. I got into it through being a fan of the NBA/hip hop culture, and influence from my family.
As a kid, I was one of the younger cousins out of a big Filipino family that all collected sneakers, even my dad. I was 11 when I got a pair of Nike Prestos for my birthday, and I think that’s when I first started to really care about shoes.
In high school I used to save up all my lunch money to buy sneakers. I cared more about being fresh than being hungry [laughs]. My first job was at Champs Sports, I was selling shoes and using my paychecks to cop more. Anything I couldn’t buy from work I’d get from Niketalk or ISS forums. I used to be into buying rare NBA PEs. I had a pair of Gary Payton Jordan XIXs that he wore for the Celtics and I still have these Ray Allen white/purple Jordan XVs that he wore for the Bucks.”
When did you first start designing sneakers? What made you interested in designing and customizing sneakers?
“My first custom came in 2017, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until 2020. Back then, I started painting just to make some art for my apartment. I did a few Kanye album inspired canvas paintings then eventually thought it’d be cool to try painting some shoes. It made sense since I always collected them. I wanted to gift my niece something dope, so I painted her a pair of Bape camo Vans. I fell in love with the process and the rest is history.”
Are you self-taught or did someone teach you how to design?
“Self taught. Everything I’ve learned was through trial, error, and looking up answers online for what I couldn’t figure out myself. The internet’s full of free knowledge out there on YouTube, Reddit, or even IG. Anyone can learn if they just put in the effort.”
How does it feel to have your work so well-received?
“It’s a blessing to do what you love and have your work appreciated. It’s definitely the icing on the cake, even without the recognition I’d still love doing this, so everything else that comes with it is a bonus.”
How does it feel that factories are producing counterfeit replicas of your designs?
“It’s crazy. I’ve seen two different fakes being sold of my Off-White Lot 767 Dunks, and both are pretty bad. The clouds look wild on them. I ended up finding out about the them after people who’ve bought the replicas tagged me in their posts. It’s funny to me, I’m not mad about it.”
You recently made a custom LV Dunk for Dermot Kennedy. How did you get connected with him? Did you guys work collaboratively on the design?
“Dermot’s a talented and humble guy. After I did my custom Sacai Boro’s, Hypebeast did an article on them, which I think brought a lot more attention to my work. More celebrities started DM’ing me, but he was one of the first to reach out. I pitched him the LV Boro Dunk idea and he loved it. He gave me full creative freedom with the project.”
How does your craftsmanship add to the sneaker community?
“I’d hope my craftsmanship adds creative, fresh ideas to the sneaker community and pushes others to do the same. I want my designs to give people a good feeling like shoes have done for me throughout my life. Eventually I’d like to teach and help artists who want to get into it as well.”
How does the Seattle sneaker scene compare to the sneaker scene in Houston? How is the culture different? Has that influenced you any way?
“I’d say they’re pretty similar, both feel tight knit, but they do get some better opportunities for sneaker releases in Houston. Since Travis Scott’s from Houston, last year they had a week long schedule for Astroworld with sneaker related events/drops. I still haven’t hit on a raffle here though, so I have been missing Likelihood, my favorite boutique/sneaker store in Seattle.”
How has your work developed over time?
“I’ve definitely put in the 10,000 hours that’s said is needed to master your craft, but even with that I’m still learning and getting better. I’ve always been a perfectionist, so I’m still taking way too long on projects, but I have gotten more skilled at painting, sewing, and the overall process. I used to have to tape up certain parts of the shoe before painting but now I’m comfortable to do it without. I think lately my work has formed into a more distinctive style as well.”
How would you describe your style?
“I’d describe my style as making art pieces on sneakers. Whether it’s painting clouds or hand stitching boro on shoes, I want you to look at the final product as artwork that you can wear. I’ve always been into Japanese art/aesthetic, so you’ll see that a lot in my recent releases and upcoming projects.”
What inspires your creative process? Is your creative process structured or do you find yourself more of a free-form artist?
“A little bit of both. Sometimes I’ll know right away what I’ll want to do with a shoe and other times I’ll have to make mock-ups. I make changes throughout and new ideas come to me in the middle of projects all the time. I try to create new ideas and add aspects to the design that no one else is doing. So many of my projects I won’t feel confident in until the very last moment when I lace them up.
My creative process gets inspired by many different things. Whenever I see something dope, I think of ways to incorporate it on to a sneaker. I like connecting my projects to memories, or anything meaningful, so it makes you feel something. I think the best shoes, whether custom or not, will give you that good feeling.
You also just got to live, make memories, do fun shit, and draw inspiration from that. When I was feeling stuck last year, me and my cousin Cristian went to two of Kanye’s Donda listening parties in Chicago and Atlanta. We’d call them life changing/inspiration trips to justify buying the flights last minute lol. I made some of my best work after I came back home inspired from them.”
What products do you recommend for people to get started?
“Shoes to test on, paint brush set, acetone for prep work, and leather paint. You don’t need to get fancy tools, all my paint brushes are the cheapest sets from Amazon.”
What brand makes the best silhouettes? Do you have any loyalty to a certain brand?
“As far as new silhouettes, Kanye’s the GOAT to me. I love how innovate his designs are while still being aesthetically pleasing, but I’ll also be a lifelong Nike head for their nostalgic factor.”
What’s your favorite pair of shoes that you made?
“My favorite pair I’ve made is between my Off-White Lot 767 Dunks or my LV Boro Dunks.
The Lot 767 pair was my first submission for #offwhitedunkedit which Virgil started after he released the 50 colorways of Off-White Dunks. I remember people being so mad about all the colorways being so similar, but he did that with the intent for people to customize them. I might’ve been the first to dye the entire shoe from that collection, but I could be wrong. I saw others before me dye the canvas panels only, but not a full dye. I painted clouds inspired by Virgil’s previous design that he did for Drake’s Boeing 767 plane, hence the nickname, and the Louis Vuitton collection/runway show that he did which also featured cloud designs. He ended up posting them on his story and Off-White’s IG and it brought a lot of visibility to my work.
The LV Boro Dunks are my other favorite pair because I just love the overall aesthetic. Even though it took the most hours I’ve spent on one pair, I still enjoyed the process. I kept making changes with the design, and started to doubt them midway, but when I finally put it all together, I knew they were the one. That feeling of envisioning something dope and making it come to life is incomparable. “
What’s your favorite pair of shoes that you own?
“Either my 1985 Chicago Jordan 1s or my Air Yeezy Net Tan 1s. I bought both 10+ years ago before their prices went crazy.”
What’s the greatest challenge for you as an artist?
“My greatest challenge would be finding the right work/life balance. I can get so consumed with my work to the point where I won’t leave or do anything else for weeks.”
What moment are you most proud of in your customs career?
“I have a couple. One of my them is when Virgil commented on/reposted my second Off-White custom, the Chain Dunks. He was definitely a big influence to me so for him to do that felt surreal. At the time, I was a half a year into my move to Houston, and was still questioning myself as an artist and what I could accomplish. Even as big as he was, he didn’t hold back on showing love to other creators big or small. He was special, I try to pay homage to him through my work as much as possible.”
My other proudest moment was early on, when I made the Lakers Union AJ1s and was able to sell them for a pretty expensive price tag. It wasn’t about the money, but it was the moment I knew I could do this full time. That feeling was everything.”
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives that are trying to get started?
“My advice to aspiring creatives would be to just make what you think is dope, be consistent, and trust the process. There’ll be many failures, but don’t let it stop you. If you’re doing what you love, you’re already winning. Focus on the creative process, put in the work, and let everything else come naturally.”
What are you hoping to achieve with your work? Where do you see Ant Kai in 5 years?
“I hope my work inspires other creatives to pursue their passion too. 5 years ago I dreamed of doing what I’m doing now, I didn’t think it was possible, but I made it happen. 5 years from now, I see myself still making art, doing bigger projects, and giving back game to the younger generation. I just want to be the best version of myself as an artist and keep this dream alive.”
Be sure to follow @Ant.Kai on Instagram to stay up to date with all his latest customs.
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