Gabriel Gonzalez on footwear upcycling
The founder & designer of CHPTR-3, Gabriel Gonzalez, claims the freedom that only an indie artist can relish.
Accepting his role in the footwear industry, Gonzalez presents a new & provocative perspective on sneakers, playing with design boundaries to invent innovative takes on the collab concept.
He describes his pieces as social experiments, mostly because of his uncontrollable will to merge different kinds of leather, juxtaposing inspirations & rival brands. When we put it like that, you’d think this equation would produce a design like Dr. Frankenstein's monster. And you would be right -- if it weren’t for his impeccable craft, dynamic use of leather & precise aesthetics.
Gonzalez's background in basketball culture + his nostalgic relationship with classic sneakers unravel a sort of sentimental connection with footwear. That’s why even when he subverts principles from the sneaker culture, he still keeps it classy -- showing a lot of respect for the industry's past and a profound desire to be a part of its future. (Well played, @gonzogabe, well played. 🖖)
In this exclusive interview, he tells us everything we need to know about his BG, his projects with celebs like Justin Bieber & Bronny + where he wants to go with CHPTR-3.
Scroll down to discover a little bit more about the rising of Gabriel Gonzalez.
You work in a very original way mixing upcycling + sneaker culture + killer aesthetics. How did your interest in this kind of design & craftsmanship start off?
Before starting CHPTR-3, I worked as lead designer at The Shoe Surgeon for a couple of years. That's when I got to experiment a lot with the craft of shoe-making. The mixing of silhouettes started as a personal challenge to create something new out of sneakers I'd rarely worn. Instead of getting rid of them, I wanted to see if I could consolidate my closet and at the same time create something new and fresh that I would be excited to wear. But it quickly became sort of a social experiment when I realized the tension I felt by mixing rival brands; pieces of the puzzle that aren't supposed to fit together. I wanted to challenge the viewer on their perspective on "brand loyalty" and explore the idea of co-creation and collaboration; working together to create something that could not exist otherwise.
You have a background in basketball, don't you? For you, where does the basketball culture meet the sneaker culture?
Yeah, I did play two seasons of college ball, but I think the movie Like Mike paints it perfectly. As kids we feel like if we can put on a pair of Jordan's, Kobe's, Lebron's, Iverson's, we might be able to play like them. As we grow older, sneakers become our point of connection to nostalgic & iconic moments in our history in basketball -- both in our own personal life as players and NBA fans. There's emotional strength in nostalgia and sneakers carry a whole lot of that.
Sneakers, in general, have been under the spotlight lately, mostly because of indie artists like you that are showing the world a new outlook on this kind of shoes. In what way do you think your line of work provokes the industry to keep on innovating?
There has been a shift in the industry in the sense of innovation and it allows customers to create and customize products of their own. Obviously, Nike ID has been around for a while at this point, but even organizing workshops or highlighting the community of sneaker artists promotes DIY creativity, which is great for the industry as a whole. Brands are beginning to open their doors and open their resources to give these creatives a platform to share their work.
On that note, while we see a lot of innovation coming from young artists & brands, it’s also clear how some giants from the industry keep playing it safe. Looking at that spectrum of behavior, to where do you see sneaker culture evolving?
I don't necessarily think these giants you're referring to are playing it safe. I think the responsibility of the giants in the industry is to continue to serve the masses while using their extensive resources to push the envelope in performance, material development, technology, and sustainability. They have to be on beat with what's happening in culture, neither too far ahead nor too far behind the curve. What a lot of us as consumers don't see is the development and research they do as they innovate to serve culture years into the future.
As independent artists & smaller brands, our responsibility is to propose a new perspective or idea -- to have a voice through our work. I think that's why the artists' work feels more innovative. Authenticity of ideas will attract those who align with your mission which can eventually lead to some sort of cultural shift. So, I can't say exactly where I see sneaker culture going, but I do think those of us who participate will get to steer the ship.
You serve custom-made in a fresh new way. Could you tell us why you have decided to create uniquely in the form of sneakers?
I've always been connected to sneakers through basketball, the same way I also had an affinity for art growing up. The first shoes I'd ever drawn were Jordan 20s for a still life assignment in my 6th grade art class. I wish I still had that drawing, my teacher hung it up in class and I never got it back, haha. The 20s made me realize for the first time that you could tell stories through a pair of sneakers. It's still amazing to me that sneakers can simultaneously live in the world of science, design, sport, fashion, and art. Luckily, I was able to turn my passion for art and basketball into a career designing and reimagining sneakers.
And how did you turn this custom-made art into products with CHPTR-3, a practice that already has loyal clients and everything?
Faith, perseverance, and a lot of consistent hard work. There's a level of uncertainty and fearfulness that comes with deciding to bet on yourself, and it prevents a lot of people from ever starting. I found a passionate, driven business partner in Mike Gee and together we tackle all the challenges that come with building a business. When you're passionate about what you do and you put it in the work, opportunities find a way of presenting themselves.
Now, we gotta ask you about the designs for Justin Bieber & Bronny. How did each of their personalities inspire your creations? Share with us a little bit about your creative process & how you express your clients' individuality in the making of your sneakers.
I'm hoping to do a more personal pair for Bronny in the near future, but this first one was a pair that we'd released in the past that he was vibing with, so we were able to make him a personalized pair. However, the Bieber project was intended to capture the history of bboy & hip hop dance culture in a pair of shoes. I collaborated with the Kinjaz dance team, who performed in Justin's Take it Out On Me music video. The Adidas Gazelle was one of the iconic sneakers in the early days of break dancing and today a lot of choreographers are rocking with the Nike Cortez. In collaboration with the Kinjaz, we used this project as an opportunity to explore a case study on dance culture. What I think is dope about this particular project is that collaboration is a common thread throughout every aspect -- Justin collaborates with the dance community on a visual album to give back to the dance community, Kinjaz and CHPTR-3 collaborate to tell that story through sneakers that unify two competing brands.
In this upcycling way of craft, you work with a lot of leather too. Is there a reason for that? What does this material add to your designs?
Leather is the material I learned how to make sneakers with. It's such a versatile material and adds a premium feel to the piece. Genuine leather ages nicely, which changes the feel of sneakers as they're worn and gives them character. There are also so many types of leathers with different finishes and textures to play with, making the designing phase a lot of fun.
Sustainability is also a big factor in your pieces, isn't it? Out of all the sustainable ways you could work in, why did you choose upcycling?
I'm always looking for better ways to practice sustainability in my work. Honestly, it is hard to justify rebuilt custom sneakers as sustainable, but I try to utilize uppers and material from past projects to minimize waste. I love the mashups because I'm able to recycle old material and old projects to create new work.
Now a light one, thinking of the custom-made sneakers you've created, which is your fave pair?
When it comes to the shoes themselves, I don't think I have a favorite pair. But there are a few projects and moments that stand out as favorites. First, a pinnacle project in my career was my very first design competition in 2017. Those were original sneakers I designed for the World Sneaker Championship that Pensole Academy puts on annually. It was my first opportunity to tell a story through an original design, and the first chance I had to actually see what other aspiring designers in the world were creating. I see it as the first domino to fall in my sneaker design career. The Justin Bieber project was an important one for me because I am very familiar with the Kinjaz and the dance community they come from. It was cool to have experienced the video shoot and to see my work immortalized in a Justin Bieber music video. And going back to my old college, to speak and host a design workshop for the students felt really good. Both were dope moments of self-reflection and appreciation of the journey so far. And that's what CHPTR-3 is all about, the unwritten journey.
What else does Gabriel Gonzalez's journey have in store for him? We’ll have to wait and see.
If u want more [metcha originals], be our guest.