This startup wants to democratize custom sneaker ownership

There’s nothing like having a pair of fresh, unique sneakers. Limited-release culture facilitates some of that, but The Custom Movement hopes to make originality and self-expression via sneakers more accessible to the masses.

The Custom Movement, a custom sneaker startup backed by Y Combinator, enables independent artists to sell their one-of-a-kind sneaker designs to those who want highly unique Nikes, Vans, Timberlands or any other brand of shoe. Customers can shop by shoe brand, style, artist or price.

You can think of it a bit like an Etsy for custom sneakers. Right now, there are about 40 artists featured on the site that offer more than 5,000 different shoes. The platform is entirely open, meaning any artist can sign up to sell their shoes.

That means the prices can vary, but the cheapest shoe you can buy right now costs $110 and the most expensive one costs upwards of $1,000. The Custom Movement processes the payments, but artists handle the shipping.

In exchange for the platform, The Custom Movement takes a 10% commission on the sales price of the shoe. Down the road, the startup wants to help artists more easily manage their inventory and shipping processes. And, in the event something goes wrong with the order, The Custom Movement fully protects buyers.

Growing up in the Philippines, The Custom Movement co-founder Akshar Bonu’s experience of sneaker culture was different from people who grew up in the United States, he told TechCrunch.

“I went to a high school where we had to wear uniforms, so the only real article of clothing we had control over was our shoes,” Bonu said. “It’s my form of self-expression that I had growing up. What was interesting in the Philippines and high school, there wasn’t this monoculture around what people should wear. I’ve always been interested in unique shoes that help me express myself.”

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Design by Nate Rivera, one of the artists of The Custom Movement

When Bonu came to the U.S. for college, he was introduced to limited-release culture and “shoes defined by what everyone else wanted,” he said. “That was a huge contrast to my experience with sneakers back in the Philippines. I found the sneaker culture and limited-release culture a bit problematic.”

That’s because, he said, it’s really hard to get the shoes, and then if you get them, there’s some incentive to resell them at a price that is hundreds of dollars higher than what you paid. There are even sites like StockX and GOAT that are entirely dedicated to reselling sneakers.

“The full experience led me to feel like there has to be a place where we can get super-original, creative shoes without breaking the bank,” he said. “I ended up finding them across Instagram with independent artists buying Air Force ones and customizing it. They were drawing on them or changing fabrics. It was amazing. This is where I found this new pool of creativity. Some of the artists resonated with me in a way that a big brand like Nike never could.”

That’s where the idea for The Custom Movement originated. Since joining Y Combinator, the startup has shifted from enabling people to describe what they were looking for to instead having artists put up the designs they were willing to make. All of the shoes are made to order, which enables more artists who don’t have the means to stockpile shoes upfront in order to participate.

“Our youngest artist is 15 years old,” Bonu said. “One thing that keeps us going is we get to enable this generation of sneakerheads who have previously just been spectating in the culture to now participate in it, as opposed to having it all come top-down from Nike. Everything we think about is how do we make it easier for more people to design sneakers and help them grow.”

Prior to Y Combinator, The Custom Movement raised a small amount of funding from Pear Ventures, which has backed startups like DoorDash, Gusto and Branch Metrics. In the near term, The Custom Movement is hoping to help its customers more easily find the designs that resonate with them.