Customizing sneakers helps pay the bills for Duquesne University student
Brennan Bizon said he began attracting attention shortly after arriving on Duquesne University's campus last fall.
People in Duquesne's mail room wondered why the freshman showed up there seemingly every day to pick up a new box that someone delivered to him — usually from out of state.
“I think they were a little concerned at first,” said Bizon, 18, a business marketing major from Boardman, Ohio.
Duquesne officials learned that the shipments were related to Bizon's custom shoe-painting business, Bizon Customs, which is getting attention from sneakerheads and shoe customizers across the country.
Those who paint, buy and love seeing the latest customized shoes represent a growing subculture within the larger culture of sneaker collectors. While customizers shared their work on message boards in relative anonymity through the early 2000s, social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram are providing them with a bigger platform — and greater opportunities to make money. That, in turn, is drawing more people to the craft.
Bizon started hand-painting images and designs on shoes for fun three years ago as a student at Youngstown's Cardinal Mooney High School. He quickly turned the hobby into a business. Bizon's Instagram account , filled with photos of his work, has more than 20,000 followers.
Business has taken off in the past year. He won the Ace of Customs competition at Sneaker Con Cleveland last spring. In February, he landed a sponsorship deal with a California company that promotes his work and gives him all the paint he needs.
“He's definitely an artist,” said Brandon Laskowski, 31, of Kansas City, Mo., whose blog, Paint Or Thread, focuses on the latest styles and trends in custom footwear.
Fellow custom shoe-painter Billy Hobbs, 42, of Lexington, Ky., calls Bizon “one of the most underrated artists in our little circle. He might not have the big name yet, but everything he does is top notch.”
More than 100 people have commissioned Bizon to customize their shoes. His fee starts at $100 a pair and runs to about $300 based on the complexity of the work. Bizon said he uses the money to help pay for some of his college expenses.
Bizon has been busy lately customizing pairs of the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 by Kanye West. The popular sneaker retailed for $220 before selling out almost immediately and now has an average resale value of $548 to $1,482, according to the website Sole Collector .
“I try to keep my prices as reasonable as possible without being too outrageous,” Bizon said, noting it takes him about a week on average to prep, paint and finish each pair of shoes during the school year. Production could ramp up over the summer without a full class schedule.
While at Duquesne, Bizon worked at a small desk in the corner of his dorm room in Assumption Hall. He called it his “shoe-dio.”
Bizon's customers have ranged from friends to Grammy-nominated rapper Kehlani. Bizon has a deal in the works to start painting sneakers and potentially cleats for several Pittsburgh Steelers players. He has also custom-painted boots, hats and high heels for women in a wedding party.
“Not only is he gifted in the creation of his painted shoes, he is an amazing marketer. As an entrepreneur at a young age, he has the mind of a business person well-established in his career,” said Audrey Guskey, an associate marketing professor at Duquesne.
While customizers such as Hobbs make a livelihood out of the craft, Bizon said “school comes first” for him. He's not sure whether he'll pursue customizing as a full-time job, but he said, “I want it to always be part of my life.”
Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847, email@example.com or via Twitter at @FontainePGH.