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‘Giant misstep’: Nike is increasingly cracking down on people customising its sneakers

By Malavika Pradeep

Aug 13, 2021

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At a time when three-ply masks necessarily hinder traditional mediums of self-expression, we’ve all been turning to its visual counterparts instead. Enter Do It Yourself (DIY) culture and its tremendous impact on social media platforms over the pandemic.

Now, if you are one of those 3 a.m. YouTube junkies like me, chances are that you must’ve crossed paths with a parallel universe of artsy ASMRs. Yes, those addictive customisation videos where YouTubers swipe an acrylic solution across a new pair of Air Force 1 before stenciling, painting and packing their orders with fancy zip tags. Well, guess what? Footwear giant Nike is increasingly threatening that livelihood, not just for art collectives like MSCHF with their controversial Satan Shoes, but for countless individual customisers.

A tale of trademarks and copyrights

In a lawsuit, filed last month in California, Nike accused Drip Creationz—one of the largest shoe customising companies in the world—of deconstructing Nike shoes, adding new material to them and reselling them for more than its retail price. “That violates trademark and copyright laws,” Nike lawyers said, as noted by CBS MoneyWatch.

“Our goal is to help ensure consumers are able to buy our products that are both authentic and authorised by us and there is no confusion for consumers,” Nike said in an email to CBS. “None of the items sold by Drip Creationz are authorised Nike Inc. products.”

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A post shared by Drip Creationz (@dripcreationz)

When it comes to those one-man operations we’ve been fond of on YouTube Shorts, the customisers make money by either designing and selling a shoe from scratch online or working with clients seeking a specific design. That’s where the problem lies for Nike. When someone customises one of its shoes, it is “materially altered in ways neither Nike nor our partners approved or authorised,” the company said. This may involve using trademarks and branding from other companies that Nike never agreed to collaborate with.

“The more unauthorised customisations get manufactured and sold, the harder it becomes for consumers to identify authorised collaborations and authentic products,” according to Nike. “Unchecked, post-sale customisation undermines our brand because we lose control of what the brand means and what our message is.”

For most of its part, Nike wouldn’t outright admit if it plans to legally challenge other customisers after the Drip Creationz case is resolved. But CBS MoneyWatch noted how the company has filed a second lawsuit alleging trademark infringement against former employee-turned-customiser Jeffrey Waskowiak and his company KickRich.

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A post shared by Custom Sneaker Artisan (@get.kickrich)

The sneakerhead community

Let’s be honest here, no one knows exactly when people started altering Nike shoes, but those involved in the industry stress that the practice is decades old. It’s also important to note that the practice is not exclusive to Nike shoes. Adidas and Vans are some of the other brands that have gained traction within the sneakerhead community.

One of the top-selling athletic shoes in the US, however, is the Nike Air Force 1. According to the market research firm NPD Group, AF1’s are the shoes that many customisers use—given its large blank canvas. CBS also outlined how most customisers are either experienced artists, fashion fanatics, savvy entrepreneurs or all three. “A majority of people are just one or two artists working out of their garage or basement doing one or two at a time just as a side hustle or hobby,” said Aron Solomon, a Montreal-based attorney and self-proclaimed sneakerhead to the media outlet.

The boom of sneaker customisations can essentially be linked back to social media. With dedicated communities on platforms like Reddit, customisers are often seen posting pictures of their designs, raking in orders and comparing notes with fellow artists on their techniques. According to CBS, new customisers rely on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter “to learn where to buy the right paint, when to layer colors, how to perfect their stenciling and other practical tips.”

“None of this is being done out of malice,” Solomon added in the interview. “If anything, it’s just encouraging people to buy more Nikes.”

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A post shared by Drip Creationz (@dripcreationz)

A giant brand misstep

The Nike lawsuit essentially sets boundaries as to how far consumers may go under the law to alter and resell its shoes as a commercial product. Given Nike’s stance, these boundaries are now hazier than ever before. “Does the line stop at painting faces or logos on a shoe, for example, or does it extend to replacing the sole, tongue or leather?” CBS wrote. Either way, Solomon believes that “Nike is making a giant brand mistake” in pursuing the case.

In the Drip Creationz suit, Solomon said Nike could have a tough time proving whether or not the company has suffered any monetary losses. Another customiser, Rasheen Dixon, believes Nike could hurt itself even more by winning in court. “Nike is going to lose a lot of US-based customers if they crack down on this because nobody wants to wear a Nike Air Force 1 that everyone else can have,” he said.

According to NPD Group, athletic shoe sales grew more than 35 per cent in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same frame in 2020. The very notion that the global athletic footwear market is expected to hit $66 billion by 2027 doesn’t help Nike’s case either. While the footwear giant is busy defining boundaries between artistic and commercial expressions, it won’t be long before customisers move on and find another pair of shoes to work with.