Sneaker artist creates customized footwear

Beef N Broccoli is more often found in Chinese food take-out cartons than in mail-order shoe boxes.

But “gourmet” sneaker artist Brian Spar, better known as the “Chef” of GourmetKickz, who makes “Food for the Sole,” is trying to change that.

Bryan Spar, or “Chef,” sits down to a hearty “meal” of his custom sneakers. Spar’s company, GourmetKickz, incorporates culinary puns into the names of their footwear.
Ani Katz
Bryan Spar, or “Chef,” sits down to a hearty “meal” of his custom sneakers. Spar’s company, GourmetKickz, incorporates culinary puns into the names of their footwear.

“Beef N Broccoli,” his first pair of custom-painted Nike Dunks delivered in a Chinese-food-menu-adorned shoe box, sold on eBay in 2002 for nearly $300.

Spar said he quit his job as a mortgage broker soon after his debut design. Since then, he has created and sold hundreds of pairs out of his New Haven apartment through eBay and his own Web site. He said he decided to change careers after discovering his passion for exclusive and elusive sneakers. His personal collection of over 400 different sneakers includes nearly 300 pairs of Nike Air Force Ones alone, he said.

“I don’t want what just anybody else could get,” Spar said. “I try to wear all of my shoes, but I’ve got a few favorites.”

Spar and other avid sneaker fans said the attraction to footwear lies in the way sneakers can differentiate individuals.

“You know how a nice pair or a new pair of shoes can really brighten your mood,” self-proclaimed shoe enthusiast and customized-sneaker designer Isaiah Bond said.

Bond, the store manager of Broadway shoe store Thom Brown, said shoes allow him to express himself as an individual, something that Spar said his creations aim at as well.

“For my customers, the sneakers reflect some special part of them,” Spar said. “Hopefully [the design] really speaks to them. I hope [the shoes] can instill that sense of pride, so they can feel like they’re that much more special.”

Spar said that because of his love of sneakers he slowly developed contacts and working relationships with Nike dealers and overseas boutiques, leading him into the sneaker resale venture before he expanded and began his own designs for Air Force Ones.

Soon thereafter, GourmetKickz was literally launched out of Spar’s oven in 2002. Trying to create a branded image for his growing resale business, Spar said he took some promotional photographs of shoes placed inside of his oven, intending to christen his enterprise HotKickz.

“Then, it just came to me — GourmetKickz — it was perfect,” Spar said. “You know, with men, the fastest way to our hearts is through our stomachs. And we love sneakers.”

Since its inception in 2002, GourmetKickz has expanded into a full-scale enterprise with a Web site — launched in 2005 — that allows Spar to receive and fill orders from his home, he said. Spar said he has catered customized kicks to the likes of hip-hop and rap stars Chris Brown, Rick Ro$$ and Swizz Beatz, who have sported his shoes in performances and award shows.

Spar said his eclectic designs attract a clientele ranging from 12-year-olds who save up their money to invest in some “cool” kicks for the schoolyard to a woman who bought a pair of Frank Sinatra-themed sneakers for her 65-year-old husband.

One 27-year-old regular customer named Dimitrius, who did not give his last name, said he appreciates how the shoes are personalized but also look as if they could have been made in a factory. He said he has bought four pairs sneakers since 2004 — one designed for his motorcycle club and another to match his fitted Yankees baseball hats.

“I buy kicks from Chef because of the quality and how clean his work is,” he wrote in an e-mail. “You can tell he has a lot of love for the culture, so it’s nice to get work from him because you can feel it in the shoe when you get all close up on the sneaker and still can’t see a single flaw.”

With a dozen or more orders for shoes each month, Spar said he continually adapts his designs to appeal to people from “all walks of life.”

Within hours of an interview with the News last week, during which he was asked about how he might appeal to the Yale community, Spar unveiled his newest project — a line of kicks just for Elis. Because the new sneaker design is intended for students on shoestring budgets, Spar said he will aim to make it more affordable than some of his other gourmet creations.

Students’ reactions to Spar’s project to “Pimp Your Stride” are mixed.

Of about 50 students who responded to an informal e-mail survey on the shoe’s design, around half said they would consider buying the shoe and might be willing to pay up to $100 for them. Others said they eschew the Yale brand on principle or that sneakers are just not their style.

Erica Irving ‘11 said that although she would not buy the shoes herself, she found the design appealing.

“The combination of elements is clever,” she said in an e-mail. “I think it would be awesome to see Yale sports teams wearing them.”

Other students said they would prefer the sneakers if they had residential college logos, rather than just the logos of the professional schools as options.

For his gourmet creations, Spar goes beyond painting, often disassembling and reconstructing the entire shoe — even removing and inverting the trademark Nike swoosh. Dressed in an apron appropriate to his trade name “Chef,” Spar works out of his bedroom workshop.

“I do a lot of research into things like methods and materials,” he said. “I like to do things right the first time.”

Spar works with materials ranging from basic acrylic paints to various fabrics and glue. His “Native Ground” shoes, commissioned by a member of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, features an authentic dream catcher hand-woven onto the toe box, with a feather dangling on the side.

For “Dead Serious,” which sports painted foot bones on a black shoe, an allusion to the image on a popular sweatshirt, Spar studied the skeletal structure of the human foot so the image would be “anatomically correct, and it aligns perfectly with your foot when you wear it.”

“Sneakerheads” like Spar and his clients are not the only ones who recognize the potential of shoes to make or break an outfit.

Paul Cuticello, owner of the New Haven shoe store Paul Richard’s, said shoes are “the foundation of the whole outfit.” Cuticello, who said his store is known for its more conservative men’s dress shoes, said shoes are too often an afterthought.

“Girls buy their dresses and then come in to get shoes that match the dress,” Cuticello said. “I think it really should be the other way around. The shoes make the outfit.”

While many people make footwear the centerpiece of their outfit, for some collectors, kicks are more art displays than wardrobe items. Bond, who has dabbled in painting sneakers, said his work “is more artwork than something that people would wear.”

Bond sells sets of his hand-painted Vans shoes and corresponding canvas paintings on eBay, just as Spar did when he started out. He said eventually he hopes to open a sneaker boutique.

Spar said he prizes his shoes so much that he sports them as rarely as possible to prevent wear and tear. After months of trial and error, Spar said, he perfected a patent-pending device, the DeCreaseR, to prevent the toes of sneakers from developing wrinkles, in 2006.

The 32-year-old Spar, an honor student in high school who studied at Brown University, said surviving bone cancer in high school made him realize the importance of following his passions. He said he does not regret his decision to leave college before graduating.

“I’d feel like, God, I’d better use my $100,000 degree and do something with it,” Spar said. “I don’t think I would be as happy.”

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