The world of sneakers is infinite, full of brands, models, designer collaborations, and limited editions that, as if they were works of art, become the object of desire of collectors around the world.
However, sometimes it’s not enough to have unlimited options. Sometimes, what you need is to create your own version. That’s why Daigo Kamimura customizes, under his brand nir (@nir_kamimura) popular sneaker models, transforming them by hand into what he wants them to be.
Chorareii: First, introduce yourself!
Daigo Kamimura: My name is Daigo Kamimura. I’m a self-taught shoemaker, I have a shoe brand called “nir” [niər], and I make custom sneakers.
I live in Yokohama but I was born in 1972 in Aomori prefecture. However, because of my father’s job I have lived in many places in Japan. I don’t really have a place I call home, but I was lucky enough to be exposed to different environments and cultures in different places.
As a student, I studied graphic design and contemporary art at university, but I was more interested in exploring avant-garde music than in my studies!
When and why did you start modifying shoes and sneakers?
It was probably in the early 2000s when Martin Margiela was still operating out of a converted house in Ebisu, and I saw a pair of custom sneakers that had been modified from German military running shoes. They were not the iconic Margiela’s German army sneakers that are still being sold now. They were another type of sneakers.
The customization of the trainers was very simple and required very few hands, but it was very effective. I think they were originally made for the army, as a training uniform, but they deviated from the uniform and turned into a strange design. The upper part of the trainer was wrapped around and covered with laces, which was awkward but strangely fascinating. The gap between the folded military design and the customization was very interesting.
I immediately wanted to own a pair, but I couldn’t afford them because they were so expensive, so I decided to copy them from memory.
That sounds like a very interesting way to start! However, it sounds difficult to copy Margiela’s sneakers. Were you able to do it?
I was able to buy the trainers from a military shop, but the laces were very special and difficult to find. The laces on these trainers were the wide acrylic “fat laces” often seen on the trainers worn by old schoolers in hip-hop. Because they were a fad item from a bygone era, they were hardly in circulation at the time. After a very difficult search, I found the laces and finished the trainers.
I liked them and wore them for a while, but then one day I suddenly got sick of them and threw them away. I think I wanted the real thing. This was the beginning of my custom trainers.
How were the first custom sneakers that you designed yourself?
I made my first custom sneakers around 2011. They were based on my experience of copying Margiela’s custom trainers. I took the techniques and ideas and updated them to make them my own.
I also wanted to use a lot of the wide shoelaces that I had bought when I made the copy because I had a lot of them leftover.
Every sneaker brand puts a name to each model. Do you have names for your customized sneakers?
I used to name all my custom trainers after parasites. I like sci-fi visions, so I wanted to add the image of an organic being hacking an inorganic object. I continued this series of parasite naming until a few years ago.
How do you choose which models of sneakers to customize and how do you find your inspiration?
The inspiration for my creations starts with researching the second-hand market. There’s a lot of useful inspiration buried in things that people have forgotten about. It’s like a treasure hunt.
I often use mass-market models as a base for my custom sneakers. The more people are aware of the original model, the easier it is to notice the changes after the customization.
What materials and tools do you use to modify your shoes and sneakers?
I mainly use leather. Leather is a very special material for me. It is both hard and soft and has the ability to hold its shape in three dimensions. I think it’s ideal for shapes that are meant to move, like shoes.
I mainly use materials for shoes, but I also use a lot of materials that you can find in home improvement stores. In one of my custom sneakers, I used a surveying material called “water thread” to sew the outer soles. That material needs a very time-consuming method of hand-sewing. It is not normally used in shoemaking, but I use it because I like its texture and color.
The most important tool for custom sneakers is the stove. The stove is used to dismantle the sneakers. Sneakers are made up of sewing and glue, which is melted by heat. I use the stove to melt the glue and remove the sole. The key is to heat the material just enough to prevent it from burning.
What is the process that you use to design and manufacture your sneakers?
Sometimes I put a piece of paper tape on a shoe mold and draw a line with a pencil to get an outline, but for custom sneakers, I have to complete the whole design in my head.
I always have a stock of things I want to do. There are always areas I haven’t thought of yet, and sometimes I have to make changes, but I usually have an idea of what I want to do before I start. I don’t do improvisation. In my case, I work according to a preliminary plan.
The choice of materials is also an important part of the design process. In Japan, shoemaking materials are only available in limited quantities, so I am always on the lookout for other options.
What is your favorite brand and model of shoes or sneakers?
I liked sneakers the most when I was in elementary school. At that time, I used to collect catalogs. Looking through the catalogs made me enjoy sneakers.
My favorite sneakers were the ASICS “Tarther” model. It had them with the body in white and red and silver and blue metallic lines.
There are many sneaker collectors around the world. Are you one of them?
I’m not interested in buying sneakers for the sake of collecting them. I’m not interested in premium sneakers, either.
I used to collect leather shoes when I was in middle school and high school. I collected American leather shoes from the 50s and 60s.
I enjoyed looking at the beautiful decorations, details, materials, and manufacturing methods. I would even buy junk shoes that were too broken to wear and display them in my cupboard.
Now, if I had enough money to buy a special pair of sneakers for myself, I would buy materials to customize sneakers instead.
Have you ever designed your own shoes or sneakers from scratch?
I was about 26 years old when I first wanted to make shoes. There was a pair of shoes I really wanted, but I couldn’t make them myself, so I decided to have them made at SA Shoes in Yotsuya, Tokyo, which specializes in custom-made shoes.
At that time I liked the late 60’s British fashion with a psychedelic vibe. I was wearing vintage clothes from that era but I couldn’t find shoes anywhere.
SA Shoes was a long-established bespoke shoe shop, whose customers included the musicians of the ‘Group sounds’, which started in Japan in the 60s under the influence of the British Beat.
I thought it would be a good idea to order shoes from the shop, so I collected a lot of photos of musicians from the 60s, made a document, and brought it to the shop to have them made exactly like the photos.
The first shoe I made myself was a narrow-shaped red side gore leather shoe with a high heel. I think I was about 30 years old.
Who wears your shoes? Who would you like to wear them on?
About 10 years after I started studying shoemaking, I decided to start selling shoes. But before I started to sell my shoes, I thought, why don’t I give them to the people I want to wear them to the most? I wanted to see the shoes come alive and become one with people.
I sent an email to Alex from the band Chicks On Speed, an artist I liked at the time who was based in Berlin, introducing myself and my message. I loved their work and their art. They had published a wonderful artbook that really inspired me.
After a while, Alex emailed me and said that he liked my work and invited me to exhibit my work. I then exhibited my shoes in an exhibition organized by Chicks On Speed at the Craft Victoria Museum in Melbourne, Australia.
Besides Chicks On Speed, fashion designer Bernhard Willhelm and others were also participating, and I remember I was happy because I loved his clothes.
I want to continue to see shoes come alive in everyday life. That is why I will continue.