“i want everything to be 100%” — dom carmeno, carmeno customsBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
The first sneakers Dominic Carmeno ever loved were a pair of Hi-Tec light up trainers. He was six, and they were green.
“Green. Luminous green,” he says. “Honestly, in terms of brand, they’re the worst shoes ever.”
The second sneakers Dominic Carmeno ever loved were a pair of Reeboks from the American basketball player Shaquille O’Neal’s signature line. These shoes, like many second loves, were an outward upgrade from his first. They were striped black and white. When he wore them, he felt untouchable.
The partnership between brands like Reebok and Nike with American basketball players like O’Neal and Michael Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s was immensely successful. Wearing a pair of ‘Shaqs’ or Air Jordans had a magic kind of cool factor, like they’d been taken straight off MJ’s feet from the glossy court of the United Center in Chicago. If you could afford them, and be seen in them, your feet felt lighter than air.
Basketball shoes like Dom’s and the rise of hip hop music were responsible for the first generation of a new kind of shoe lover: sneakerheads.
Today, sitting on a leather sofa in Forum bar in Sheffield, on a hot afternoon in August, Dom is drinking a cider (passionfruit) and wearing a pair of Adidas Ultra Boosts (in pink).
Before they were pink, Dom’s Ultra Boosts were a “triple white.” He thinks they’re one of the best pairs of shoes to come out in years. The comfort level, he tells us, is “ridiculous.”
But when Dom first saw the Ultra Boosts, he didn’t see a finished product. Before he’d even bought them, he knew what he could improve.
“I never look at a trainer and think: that’s a finished project,” says Dom.
“I thought, real men wear pink. As soon as I got them, I took them straight from the shop to the studio and painted them. That same day they were on my feet.”
Dom is a wearable sneaker artist, otherwise known as a custom artist, who works under the name Carmeno Customs. As sneakerhead culture has grown, and collectors seek out rare or one-of-a-kind trainers, so has the proliferation of custom artists like Dom, who can hand-paint, modify and restore shoes.
“People have different definitions of what a sneakerhead is,” says Dom.
“In the eyes of social media, a sneakerhead might have three hundred trainers in their collection.
“I just think it’s someone who loves trainers; someone who is passionate about the culture itself.”
Sneakerheads, Dom tells us, might have a room just for their trainers. Their favourite ones might be rare finds, kept on display like art. A sneakerhead might pay upwards of £1,000 for just one pair. On ‘drop days’ — release dates for a new style — fans will line up for hours and camp outside the shop. This has led to a controversial reseller market, with some of the most exclusive trainers getting resold for inflated prices online, or even in-line after a drop date.
“It’s fifty-fifty,” says Dom, after we ask what he thinks of resellers. “You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em.
“You hate ‘em because these guys are queuing up, or they’ve got people online with bots that can get trainers before they’re even on sale. Resellers don’t have an interest in wearing that shoe; they’re just doing it to sell it and make money.
“For me, I don’t hate anyone at all. It’s just part of it.”
Dom was born in Sheffield. His dad, an old school b-boy, was known in the UK’s break-dancing scene with his crew and helped run a pirate radio station. Dom credits his father with his early involvement in hip hop culture. He describes himself as a “hip hop baby”, growing up to the sounds of New York artists like Big Daddy Cane and Run DMC.
“We were brought up around that,” says Dom. “For me, sneaker culture is one of the main elements of hip hop. All the way back to the Run DMC days, with the classic Shell Toe Adidas.”
Like many kids his age, Dom loved trainers. But trainers were best when they were right out of the box, and made to be worn, not collected.
“When I look back on it, and at the value of trainers now, I think: wow. I had those trainers. I had two, three pairs of them. I might have got a little scuff from playing in them and bought another pair. I didn’t think it was cool to save your trainers once you wrecked them.
“But you know, you don’t know where you’re going to be in five or ten years time. You don’t know what your interests are going to be.”
As a teenager, Dom loved trainers, but they were more of an accessory for his other interests, like break dancing — which he’d learned from his dad — and graffiti.
“Professionally, I began customising two-and-a-half years ago,” says Dom. “Realistically, it started seven years ago. It all came from my dad.”
Dom’s dad created his own costumes for his stage performances at festivals. He had bought a pair of Fila High Tops — “old school, all white” — and had asked Dom to paint them for a show.
“I was like yeah, cool. Got the paints out, the spray paint and the markers, and did his trainers,” says Dom.
The audience was impressed with the performance; afterwards, they kept asking about the shoes.
“He’s walking around, like, my son did it,” says Dom, laughing.
His dad encouraged him to make more, but Dom had other ideas. Customising wasn’t a career; at least not one he’d heard about. He had dreams of being an entrepreneur, and making money.
“I went to Sheffield Hallam and did international business and marketing,” says Dom. “I genuinely really enjoyed it. But as I got to the end of uni, I didn’t really see myself working in an office environment.
“All my life I’ve been a practical person, hands on. I enjoy life. I enjoy living. And trainers were just shouting at me.”
Dom has over 32,000 followers on Instagram. Most of his photos have upwards of 500 likes, with fans and clients tagging friends, inquiring into prices or asking for tips for their own customisations. His photos are all shoes, never himself. Sometimes you’ll catch an arm, holding a pair of trainers outwards in front of him, or his legs. You can’t be sure they’re his, anyway; often Dom has his friends from the sneakerhead community model for him.
Dom has the confidence of someone with his head in the stars and feet firmly on the ground. He says he came into the game to be the UK’s number one custom artist. “In my opinion,” he adds, “I am that.” He talks about wanting to live in London and the absence of streetwear companies in Sheffield. He’s sent shoes around the world; recently to a sheik in Dubai. He loves New York because of Friends, gangster movies, sneaker shops; he calls it a mecca (“like, the birth of hip hop, the birth of breakdancing”). Often, he talks about his daughter, and his “missus”,who isn’t too into trainers.
Most of the time his followers don’t know what Dominic Carmeno looks like; they might meet him at a convention or an event. Dom is camera-shy. He talks a lot. When the camera comes out at our interview, he begins to talk more.
“I’ve never been a social media person,” he says. “I’ve never put my life on social media.”
In 2014, a friend introduced Dom to Instagram. He wasn’t convinced, but he signed up anyway.
“I searched ‘trainers’ and I started finding artists,” he said. “I was like, oh my God, this is absolutely fantastic. I can’t believe people are still doing this, and how far it’s progressed from when I was messing about with markers and paints. It’s a proper professional art form.”
Dom watched custom artists on YouTube, and continued to follow them on Instagram. He practiced. The first Jordans he customised were a pair of Air Jordan Infrared 6, that retail at £150. His friends thought he should pick a pair of cheaper ones to try, so if it all went wrong it wouldn’t have been a waste.
“I thought if I chose a really expensive shoe I really liked it would make my brain focus,” says Dom. “I wanted to teach myself to not make errors and perfect it from the beginning.
“I’m a perfectionist. I want everything to be 100%.”
Dom showed his friends the shoes, and they were impressed. Soon, people started asking to buy them.
“People are like, how much do you want for them? I’m like, I don’t know. I paid 150 quid, and then I thought about the hours I’d put into them.”
Dom asked for £300 and made his first sale. “It was that moment I was like, Jesus Christ, I think I could make a living off this.
“That’s when I made my mind up not to go into the office route, and the world of marketing. I wanted to focus on working for myself and, more importantly, doing something I enjoy. Twenty-four-seven I’m thinking about sneakers and I love art, so what better career than to work for myself as a custom artist.”
Dom now has his own studio, which he shares with a friend in Sheffield. He sends his custom and restored shoes around the world and is becoming well-recognised in the online sneakerhead community. Last year, he designed a skin that looks like sneaker boxes for game consoles; it was featured by HypeBeast, Highsnobiety, Kicks on Fire and Complex. He recently customised a pair of sneakers for a wedding. It’s not really about the money, he says. It’s a labour of love.
“It’s irrelevant to me how much a trainer is worth,” he says. “Whether it’s a shell-toe Adidas or a Yeezy that comes out at the resale market for upwards of a thousand pounds; it makes no difference to me. I would put paint to trainer as soon as I had that trainer in my hand.
“My job is to break the boundaries, it’s to do the what-ifs. So when a trainer comes out and I make small adjustments it’s like, why didn’t Nike do that? Why didn’t Adidas offer that? It would be so much cooler if they’d have done that. I suppose it’s the need for myself and many others, that the trainers continue to improve, the technology gets better, the designs get better. The interest is constantly growing because there are more people getting immersed in the scene.
“Every time I see something, I think, it would have been good if they had just done that or this. But then I think: I can do that.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion