Fashion 88 : Hand-Painted Sneakers Gain a Foothold

Times Staff Writer

Actress Whoopi Goldberg liked her painted sneakers--complete with wig-hair dreadlocks--enough to wear them to a black-tie awards extravaganza. And she ordered a second pair, a wild animal print, also featuring her trademark hair style.

Chef Wolfgang Puck was so pleased with his custom-painted Reeboks--with a dangling array of plastic food and cooking utensils--he placed them under glass and displayed them with his art collection.

“(Actor) Kirk Cameron went absolutely nuts when he got his,” says Kate Knudsen, the sneaker artist with a growing reputation for keeping celebrities supplied with the fastest shoes in town. “He’s known for wearing a real snake around his neck on the set of ‘Growing Pains’ and so I put snakes all over his shoes.”


Some observers believe that hand-painted sneakers are becoming the personal folk art of the late ‘80s--much as hand-embroidered/hand-painted Levi’s did in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Not one to miss a trend, Reebok pays Knudsen $500 a pair to create outrageous footwear and then the company gives the shoes to celebrities such as Goldberg, Puck and Cameron.

Others who have received or are scheduled to receive her work include: comic/hair nut Garry Shandling (whose shoes are equipped with a tiny toy blow dryer that actually works), “Late Night with David Letterman” bandleader Paul Shaffer (who’s getting a crazed music motif), comic Billy Crystal (whose lox-and-bagels routine got him a “sox and bagels” design with actual miniature bagels sealed in acrylic glaze) First Lady Nancy Reagan (who’s scheduled to receive a pair with a subdued, Southwestern motif complete with Indian beading and tiny plastic cactuses) and President Ronald Reagan (set for a pair featuring cowboy scenes, red bandannas and real spurs).

North Hollywood-based Knudsen also concocts whacked-out sneaks for a few private clients, but laments she hasn’t near enough time to keep up with the demand and has had to get an unlisted phone number.

But she is hardly the only artist who has taken to working on shoes. In the last year or so, painted athletic shoes have been increasingly available at craft fairs, swap meets, some boutiques and trend-conscious shoe stores, say the artists hired to create them.

Occasionally, the footwear even shows up at more traditional department stores. Long Beach artist Pam Jorgensen, who has painted shoes during promotions at several Southern California Nordstrom stores, is negotiating with another large retailer to carry her abstract-painted tennies, which typically retail for about $30.


At several of her Nordstrom appearances, Jorgensen recalls long lines for shoe-painting. “At every store I’ve gone to I’ve had to stay longer than they originally planned. At one store, I had to take home 40 pairs of shoes to paint. We couldn’t keep up.”

Ronna Roberts, president of C.U.P. (Contents Under Pressure), a Stockton firm, started painting sneakers about a year ago after she returned from a vacation in Miami.

“I saw a lot of colorful, flamboyant clothes and I was really impressed by them,” says Roberts, then a wine maker and chemist. “I spent a lot of time in some of the more Latin areas. I came back from Miami and wanted some colorful shoes to match some of the colorful clothing I’d bought but I didn’t want them to be expensive. I made up a pair for myself, started wearing them and they caught on.”

At present, her company turns out about 500 pairs of hand-painted shoes a week, priced to retail for less than $40 a pair. Several of Roberts’ designs are carried at The Shoe and Clothing Connections in Encino, where owner Harold Rubenstein also stocks hand-beaded tennis shoes at $69 a pair.

Some retailers have sought out local artists to create designs exclusively for their clientele. Orson Mozes, owner of Beverly Hills’di Fiori, says he recently saw the trend coming and commissioned three artists to create sneaker designs. Among his $50- to $70-a-pair offerings, are a Chanel-look tennis shoe (featuring gold insignia, crests, stars and a dangling numeral 5), leopard prints with glitter accents and nautical-themed deck shoes.

A Line for Tots

And several firms known for hand-painted baby clothes have expanded their lines to include hand-painted baby sneakers. Susan West of Los Angeles-based You Hue! Originals, whose goods are sold in infant and children’s boutiques in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, says demand for the company’s “water-colors look” shoe designs has steadily increased. The shoes are priced at about $22 and the firm recently opened a retail shop by the same name in Los Angeles.


Even a few big-name clothing designers have taken a brief stab at fashioning one-of-a-kind footwear. At a recent City of Hope benefit, hand-crafted Reeboks by such designers as Georges Marciano of Guess?, Carole Little, Ken Done and Leon Max were auctioned for as much as $1,500 a pair.

In the meantime, many artists are busy painting away in their homes and studios.

John Lucas, for instance, an office assistant at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, reports that hand-painted sneakers are not sold at the museum, but that he is frequently commissioned to turn them out in his spare time.

“One Christmas a couple of years ago I did a pair of sneakers for an aunt,” says Lucas, who paints shoes bearing such titles as “Tut Tut Tootsies” and “Kabuki Booties” for $90 to $180 per pair. “All of a sudden I realized I had a cottage industry and I’ve been doing them ever since.”