Mr. Sabotage makes custom-made history
Born & raised in Singapore, designer Mark Ong is a sneaker lover since forever. As a kid, customizing was a way to have fun with his kicks: he would play with different laces & doodle all over his pairs to create something new.
As he got older, he realized that subconsciously, he was already picking favorites & studying sneakers shapes – what paved the way for him to create, in the early 2000’s, the customization studio SBTG Surplus and take on the pseudonym Mr. Sabotage. Being ahead of sneakerheads evolution even without trying, he understood back then what most sneaker fanatics are grasping only now: it’s not about quantity, it’s about curatorship – a.k.a. rock ‘em, don’t stock ‘em. That’s why Mr. Sabotage focuses on innovating one pair at a time: so each one of them are worthy of a snearkerhead’s collection.
With that in mind, Ong drifted from the characteristic overconsumption of the industry and concentrated on another important aspect: nostalgia & appreciation for history. For him, customizing sneakers would up their value, making people appreciate the story behind ‘em above everything else. And his biggest allies on that journey are leather & suede: long-lasting, adaptable materials that have beautiful inconsistencies, adding extra uniqueness to every craftsmanship. Working with these natural elements for so long also taught Ong to make the most out of them: for design sake, but also for making the animal’s life count.
He’s made countless memorable projects that mix the quality & versatility of leather + suede with the nostalgic feel of sneaker culture. Like the Mamba Fury Blazer 77, that add fresh new colors & patterns to the relaunched Nike’s Blazer Mid ‘77 — a classic worn by NBA earliest stars with upper built of white leather, overlaid with sail suede mudguards and eyestays plus a toe cap on the Mid. Also, there’s the Nike x sacai, an iconic pair custom-made with deviant laces & ghost camo to compliment the sneakers natural features, like monochromatic nylon uppers accented by matching leather & suede panels for a maxi-minimal design. But it doesn’t stop there, Ong also put his hands on the famous Daybreak trainers from the collab UNDERCOVER x Nike — that revive the model 1979’s silhouette and yet employs suede detailing on the mudguard & lacing regions — working on its different colors with different elements: like zippers, contrasting patterns & asymmetrical stitching. Other brands — like New Balance & Asics (with the show-stopper Limited EDT x SBTG X ASICS GEL-LYTE III Monsoon Patrol pair that featured suede uppers) — had the pleasure of having their sneakers customized by Mr. Sabotage, as well. But the project that got every sneakerhead going crazy was the Nike’s Air Jordan 1 “Rehab S.O.S”.
A special custom-made pair that pays tribute to basketball history: the year was 1985, and Nike crafted a special sneaker with ankle reinforcement all made in leather for Michael Jordan to hit the court post-injury. Wondering how could the SBTG studio replicate such historic momentum? Bear with us. They secured a leather ankle brace to a pair of original AJ1 Chicago’s with buckled straps that loop thru a hole at the ankle. Crazy cool, huh?
This & other memorable projects — like the Charlie Tote Bag, a custom-made piece with water-resistant horsehide used in A-1 Leather Flight Jacket — were crafted in collab with Secondnatvre, a studio by artisan Tze Ling: leatherwork expert & responsible for most of Mr. Sabotage craftsmanship with the material. The dynamic duo works together in an inspiring way, always connected by leather & its endless possibilities: upcycling, repurposing, crafting details or entire pieces, experimenting techniques & new tools + always finding a way to create (or revive) inventive pieces of art to wear on your feet.
We’re ready to rock ‘em, not stock ‘em.
Want a bigger piece of Mark Ong’s dope perspective on sneaker culture?
Put on your most fire kicks & strut down our exclusive interview.
First off, what attracted you most to the sneaker culture and to using kicks as a blank canvas to express your artistic inspirations?
As long as as can remember, i've always been into sneakers. As a kid, i would always swap laces and doodle on them. What i was subconsciously doing was actually study them and eventually form an opinion on how they should look and have preferences to the shapes and hardware etc.
So in the early 2000s, as i was able to afford a collection i found myself having this thirst that i couldnt quench. Realising that it wasnt quantity that i wanted but to actually actualise my opinions on them. So i started painting on them and the rest is history.
In what way does being a part of such a diverse creative scene – like the Singaporean one – influence the military aesthetics + punk-rock references + functional looks that are so characteristic of your work?
The diversity of creativity from my city influenced my work subconsciously, as i was born and raised in Singapore i didnt sought out to make any comparisons. I am still oblivious about any scene.
However, Skateboarding and Punk Rock really ingrained an Independent spirit in the way i approach life and my craft which turned into a business. The military was tough as i was battling between duty and a sense of freedom but i definitely took from it aesthetically.
I find it very hard conforming and obeying orders etc but always sought out ways to express my creativity as a human being.
Being a true sneakerhead, you share the nostalgia & historic appreciation that this culture carries. Tell us a little bit more about the Foxtrot Uniform Project and how important it is for you to stay true to the essence of OG sneakers.
I have never really identified myself as part of the sneakerhead scene nor am i a supporter of over consuming. Im not saying that im trying to save the world but i think that customising sneakers would give them higher value so people would appreciate them more for the story, thought and craft that goes into each pair instead of buying the next available colorway for whatever reason and forgetting about them in a week.
Foxtrot started out as a project to get away from Sabotage and has now become a host for my love for Vintage sneakers from the 80s. I was treating it more like a hobby and realise that it is making some good connections to its audience. As I go along, i realised that Foxtrot's role could be part of the solution as we romanticise, restore and upcycle these vintage pieces for people to wear "again". I was also able to connect with a niche group of people and make friends.
Speaking of which... you brought back a lot of feelings for sneaker fanatics when you reinvented REHAB SOS. What connections between basketball & sneaker culture inspired you to revive that design?
Ultimately, having customising sneakers for the past 17 years, I really thought i would pay homage to history. I felt that the Rehab was one of the first ever customisations on sneakers that played a vital role for sneaker culture today.
I mean its a given that Jordan has a huge part in it but what if the Rehab wasn't made to protect his foot? What if Jordan ended his career after that game without that extra support? Can you imagine what alternate reality would we be in now?
Anyway, that project was on the backburner for the last 15 years and am blessed to be made possible with the help of my colleague, Ling ( Secondnatvre ).
One element that helps immortalize remarkable kicks is the material. In what way is the durable aspect of leather an ally for custom-makers like yourself in keeping the history of sneaker culture alive?
Take a look at the 1985 Air Jordans, a lot of them are still wearable till this day! They remind me of how Redwing market their boots where you can resale them after they are worn out. There is a whole community of restorers who are helping to do this for Vintage lovers out there! It also makes a great case study where we compare the different factories using different materials for different parts, and we can make adjustments along the way to keep improving!
Now, designing sneakers is a long journey. How does working with leather influence the different steps of that journey – given the infinite possibilities it provides to conception & the precise quality it adds to crafting?
You don't say. Ha! Leather is natural. Its from an animal, it has characteristics and inconsistencies. There is always so many variables to compare them, to know what type to use to make certain product.
We also learn to make the most out of each hide, remembering that its from a living thing so we make it count.
Its a journey, not a destination.
Out of all the steps in customization – from choosing the “canvas”, locating all necessary hardware, studying the model, to actually building the shoe – which one is most affected by leatherwork?
I think leatherwork is very laborious, having the right tools could make a project a pleasure as opposed to being tedious.
The leatherwork is Secondnatvre's forte and Im in charge of the vision and design, I just make sure that she is fully equipped with all the right machines and tools as we believe that the customer cant see but can feel our mood when they hold the product.
Since we’re talking about processes. We’ve learned that, in quarantine, you've pulled back on production and even had to split it into 3 homes. What lessons will you take with you when the SBTG team gets back together?
This pandemic is a real test for us to be a constant learner, to keep with the times. There is a part of us that want to stay comfortable and just do things the old skool way and we see it clearly now that it might not be the best approach.
I guess many are questioning the existence of an office and working from there. During these times, I realized that our company is still fully functional and perhaps even more efficient. Minus the commute to the studio, I find myself having more time to think and digest info, connect with my customers online, drive better sales, cook, exercise and spend time with my cat. We are still gonna have to have a studio because we love it but im gonna work from home much more.
From your point-of-view, how can the footwear industry make a difference in these COVID times & think collectively to give back to the world in some way?
I love it that New Balance has used their production capabilities to make Masks. I think thats cool. I guess it be good if companies used their networks to spread positive messages and educate people worldwide. Their voice could really make a great impact.
Which playlist have you been rocking to while working (and social distancing) that could be the soundtrack of your brand right now?
I wake up and ask Siri to play some Jazz while i make my juice. Then it goes into new wave radio. I would say the soundtrack would be a song by The Cure or Depeche Mode.
I have also been enjoy Ghost B.C a lot.
Focusing on your collabs with SecondNatvre, how do your distinct creative processes & styles of craftsmanship come together in your projects?
On projects with Secondnatvre, we have a clear Designer and Maker relationship, its fun as we design, source, discover and finally create and sell the things we make.
Finally, we have to ask: what do you think the most memorable project you’ve delivered as a duo is? Tell us a little bit about the construction of that number 1.
The first project we did that blew our mids was the Charlie tote bag where we sourced 70s US army tents, WW2 13 Star buttons as well as a beautiful horse hide we found in Japan.
Everything was done by hand with no machines back then.
I feel that has to be the most memorable one then of course the rehab AJ1 came next and we took it to another level.
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