Shoes – sneakers, cleats, slip-ons – serve as a canvas for Raleigh artist Mike Phillips Jr.
You name it, and he can probably paint it on a pair of Vans or Huaraches: sports teams and symbols, superheroes, insects, cartoon characters and patterns like camouflage or zebra stripes in nearly every shade.
On one pair Phillips painted, Venom, a villain from Spider-Man, grins from the side surrounded by wispy white cobwebs. Inspired by Double Bubble bubble gum, one pair pops with bright tones of yellow, blue and pink. Galaxies are a popular design: swaths of purple, blue, red and black speckled with white dots representing stars wrap around the shoes. Angel wings and glitter are optional add-ons.
But Phillips’ masterpiece is his heat-sensitive design. Indoors, a pair of shoes is one color, but as soon as the wearer walks outdoors, the shoes immediately change colors. Heat is the catalyst causing the change. Douse the shoes in cold water and they return to their original shade.
“It’s magic,” Phillips said, winking.
The majority of his customers find Phillips through his company’s Instagram account, @SirCastleTeees, which has more than 140,000 followers. Customers choose a base shoe and then pick or describe a design for Phillips to replicate. Pairs start at $150 and go up from there, depending on the intricacy and time required for the design. Phillips, who has sold about 600 pairs of shoes this year alone, also buys, trades and restores shoes and paints and sells game controllers and hoverboards.
Kids get picked on and bullied if they don’t have cool kicks. Shoes are the new trading card.
Mike Phillips Jr., Raleigh shoe artist
“Having a big social media presence broadens your reach,” said Joshua Larrick, one of Phillips’ two employees. Fans often tag the Instagram account and post reviews of the shoes online for the sneakerhead community to peruse. “It’s global networking.”
On an average weekday, people begin lining up outside Phillips’ store, which also goes by the name Men at Work Kustom Kicks, on W. South Street in Raleigh before it opens. Inside the store, where Phillips designs and paints, the walls are lined with pairs of all sizes, colors and designs.
It is part of the Phillips family empire near downtown Raleigh: Mike’s father, Mike Phillips Sr., owns Men at Work Car Care Center and Barber Shop at the corner of South Saunders and W. South St.
Children and teenagers are some of Phillips’ most frequent customers.
“Kids get picked on and bullied if they don’t have cool kicks,” he said. “Shoes are the new trading card.”
For some families who can’t afford expensive shoes for their kids, Phillips donates his designs. Last year, he donated more than 100 pairs to the local Boys and Girls Club. He also rewards good grades. Kids with all A’s get a $30 discount, B’s get a $20 discount and perfect attendance gets a $10 discount.
His interest in shoe design started in high school. Everyone was wearing the same Nikes and Air Jordans, Phillips said, and he wanted something different. He started drawing on his shoes with markers before upgrading to paint from Walmart. Eventually, he started mixing his own paint, which takes several days to make.
It took about 100 pairs to perfect the heat-sensitive design, Phillips said. Now, it takes him about an hour to paint a design on one shoe. He can finish up to 10 pairs per day.
Phillips’ father inspired him to launch his own shoe business in 2013 and gave him the space to open a storefront the following year.
“My dad was the first person who believed in me,” Phillips said.
Phillips has sold customized pairs to celebrities and sports stars, including Montrezl Harrell of the Houston Rockets, Colombian singer J Balvin and hip-hop artist Kodak Black, and ships shoes internationally.
Eventually, Phillips hopes to open stores in Los Angeles and Atlanta, but for now he’s focusing on local outreach while continuing to dream up more designs. There’s a big sneakerhead community in Raleigh, he said.
“Shoes are a way of expressing yourself,” Phillips said. “I just have a vision for it.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler