Students create wearable art with shoe design business

Media Credit: Courtesy of Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner, a sophomore majoring in fine arts, started a company called Pancakes Apparel to revitalize worn-out sneakers with new designs.

A student’s new shoe company takes worn-out sneakers and revitalizes them with paint.

Sam Gardner, a sophomore majoring in fine arts, started Pancakes Apparel in February and has been selling sneakers from his residence hall room ever since. The artist uses his painting skills to polish up worn-out sneakers given to him by customers and also produces products from brand new kicks.

Gardner said his passion for painting started in fourth grade and before launching his company, he painted on clothing, backpacks and surfboards – along with more traditional art surfaces. He said he was slower to call himself a shoe fanatic, but he saw the accessory as an artistic medium when he bought leather paint just off campus at Blick’s Art Materials, located at 1250 I St. NW., earlier this year.

Once he was able to customize his sneakers – he was converted, though not to the extreme of paying nearly $500 for shoes like some would, he said.

“I’m not a full blown sneakerhead,” Gardner said.

With the help of Creative Director Dylan Conlin, a junior majoring in American studies and his friend of 11 years, Gardner said he hopes to extend their brand outside of friends and students.

Conlin said he first thought Gardner could have a business opportunity when he considered that NFL players are paid for wearing custom cleats. Aside from options like NikeID, Conlin said there aren’t many businesses that allow people to express themselves through their shoes, which created a business opportunity for the two students.

“It’s a very niche market, but it made us think, ‘Wow, there really aren’t many shoe companies that allow for self expression,'” Conlin said.

Handing off your own pair of shoes for Gardner to paint will cost about $80, and Gardner collaborates with customers on creating a design specifically for them. He also offers the option to do the purchasing and painting process himself, but to offset costs these shoes go for a steeper price ranging from $170 to $190.

To start his art project, Gardner cleans and buffs shoes using a deglazer, which cleans the leather to create a fresh canvas for painting. After drawing graphics and filling them in with bright colors, he finishes the shoe by coating it with a matte finish to seal the design.

“They don’t have to be white clean like fresh out of a box,” he said. “You can buy them and bring them to me, they can be dirty – they can be gross and disgusting looking.”

Gardner said he is open to working on any style shoe – as long as it contains blank white spaces for Gardner to jazz up with exuberant color. His art medium of choice is white Adidas sneakers, but he said he has ventured to other shoes, including a pair of $1,600 Yves Saint Laurent heels.

Over the summer, back at his home in New Jersey, Gardner will continue developing a repertoire of hand-painted footwear to sell online through his website, he said.

While Conlin said buyers are often surprised that they can wear the shoes outside without ruining them, he said they’ve worked to make the design waterproof and tested the shoe through inclement conditions.

“The shoe itself is meant to last, the paint’s not going to just chip off in the rain,” he said.

Some of Gardner’s most frequent designs include his emblem, a pancake symbol that he has put on shoe patches, and creatures that Gardner said are drawn to look “strange and deranged.” He also designed a shoe for his friend based on the movie “Nacho Libre,” featuring colors that match the character’s cape lining and depicting actor Jack Black’s face in a mask.

“It’s hilariously well done,” Conlin said.

As Gardner has been getting his art venture off the ground, he has found help from family and friends. The first pair of shoes he designed was an old pair of Nike Air Force Ones from his cousin that were gifted as “test shoes” for how the paints will look on sneaker fabric.

“Once I completely fill up the pair of shoes with random colors that I’ve been testing, I’m going to give them back to her,” Gardner said.

While his family back home has supported his venture, Gardner’s company namesake, Pancakes Apparel, also comes from a nickname he got at 12 years old while running during Little League baseball.

“Since I was chubby, my cheeks would jiggle like pancakes and I got the nickname Sammy Pancakes,” he said.

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