Dominic “The Shoe Surgeon” Ciambrone is a high-end shoe customizer. If you’ve not heard of that profession before, it’s likely because Dom largely created the genre, taking name brand gym shoes and skillfully customizing them.
His work can easily cost into the six figures; Drake, Lebron James, and Justin Bieber are repeat customers. He also runs an extremely popular Sneaker School—a four-day, $3,000 class that includes a pair of sneakers and the training and tools to customize them yourself. His business employs 30, a mix of craftspeople and office workers, in his 16,000-square-foot LA studio.
It would be easy to run through the resume on Dom’s success, perhaps as simply as noting his nearly one million Instagram followers. But as Dom talks me through the ins and outs of his studio space, it’s not where our conversation leads.
He doesn’t mention celebrities, and we never get around to talking much about shoes. He is, like most of the creative minds we celebrate, is endlessly curious, perhaps a touch toxically ambitious, and driven hard by his mistakes and opportunities for personal development. Success is a moving target.
Dom grew up in the Bay Area, a graduate of Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa. His parents owned a local deli; most of his siblings went on to be chefs. He was a creative kid with a lot of energy, not much for drawing or following instructions, but he loved building things with Legos. “I would build what was in my head and it would usually come out better than the directions.”
His childhood neighbor was in construction, and he would mimic what he saw him doing by building makeshift forts in his backyard with scrap wood and nails. As he got older he took his creativity and applied it to teenage hijinks like counterfeiting Chuck E. Cheese prize tickets and making his own prom suit—in camouflage.
He stuck with making his own clothes and decorating his sneakers with Sharpies. When he graduated his grandmother bought him a Brother Pacesetter sewing machine as a gift.
“Everyone else was going on trips or getting a new car. I got a home sewing machine.” After school he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to live with his grandma, and he got a job at the No Fear store in the mall, where he met the man in charge of customizing the Carolina Panthers’ football cleats. “I met him randomly in the mall out there. He was in a kiosk, painting shirts and shoes.” He realized creating custom shoes could be a profession.
Dom’s ambition caught fire. He started painting his own shoes, at first with flimsy airbrush paint that would barely stick. He became obsessed with improving the quality of what he was doing. He shopped the Tandy Leather store until he found an interesting swatch of leather, then found a shoe repair shop that could properly sew it on to his sneakers. They did, and he was amazed at how well it stuck—much better than his attempts at home.
He found a copy of Sneaker Freaker magazine and analyzed every image. He meticulously plotted out his future. “I had this notebook, and I wrote down all of the stuff I wanted. I wanted to be the best customizer in the world. I wanted to have this custom shop with a laser machine. I was very specific. I wanted an embroidery machine and special sewing machines, and all of these tools that would help me create better work.”
But almost immediately his ambition had a major setback. He was arrested. “I got in trouble for stealing. I was using a lot of my creativity in a negative way and went to jail. When I got out I moved back home with my parents.”
Dom was now back in his hometown living with his parents. He got a job at a local gym and met Michael Carnacchi, a custom boot-maker from Sebastopol. “It was crazy. I’m in a small town and meet this guy who makes the most elegant, amazing Western boots. He makes boots for George Lucas.”
Though Dom didn’t learn boot-making from Michael, he was inspired. “I got to see how passionate he was about the craft of boot-making. He would measure your foot, and everything was made from scratch. I realized that was what I wanted to do but for sneakers.”
The Cobbler’s Shoes
The next part of Dom’s story reminds me of scenes from the Kung Fu films where a young disciple, eager to be admitted to a Shaolin Temple for training, is repeatedly turned away. It’s only after waiting by the door for a full month that the monks open the gates and receive him, except in this version it’s California wine country and an Italian-American kid who wants to learn to repair shoes.
Dom started visiting shoe repair shops and asking if they would teach him the trade. “I just wanted to learn. The first guy I spoke with cursed me away; he literally said, ‘Get the hell out of my shop. You’re going to steal my business.’ I was young and I got angry. I didn’t understand why someone would talk to me that way.”
The same day he went to another shop in Windsor. “I met an older Italian gentleman, Daryl Fazio, and he really liked to talk. We just clicked. He told me about what machines he used but said I couldn’t learn from him because it would be a liability.”
Dom was disappointed but came back the next day. “I kept watching from the other side of the counter. I was persistent. He realized I really wanted to learn and he gave me an opportunity.” Dom started by fixing heels and boots, learning everything he could. He ended up working with Daryl for five years.
While Dom wanted to set up his own shop, that required a special $3,500 sewing machine. His dad agreed to purchase it for him if he wrote up a business plan. So Dom fired up Google and asked, “What is a business plan?” He ended up putting one together, albeit without any financials. “Daryl and my dad, they were always trying to get me to think of this as a business rather than just art, but for me, even today, it’s always been about the art.”
“I had this notebook, and I wrote down all of the stuff I wanted. I wanted to be the best customizer in the world.”
His dad bought the machine and Dom, now in his early 20s, moved into a two-story house with four friends. He took over the garage and started making and posting his shoes for sale online. Orders came in. “It was cool, but I was also partying a lot. My friends would throw parties at the clubs and I was the guy who was making shoes. I was honing my craft during this time, but I was also very social, and I was using drugs and drinking every weekend.”
The orders kept coming in, including a special order from will.i.am and then Justin Bieber. Dom took every one he could and continued to party. Then he got a special request. “Justin Bieber’s stylist called me and was like, ‘Yo, we need 20 pairs of shoes in a week.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’ Mentally I thought I could do anything.”
Dom was under the stress of a massive deadline, abusing drugs, and barely coping with severe anxiety. “I was not taking care of my health. I went into a psychotic episode, a mental breakdown, and ended up in a mental hospital. I was misdiagnosed as bipolar, I never told my doctors about the drugs I was using.”
He was prescribed a handful of prescription drugs, mood stabilizers, and antidepressants. “My mom told me the doctor said I needed to be on these pills the rest of my life, and it made me so depressed. I had never even heard of being bipolar, and the pills didn’t make me feel like myself. They made me feel numb.”
Dom stopped taking his medicine and found himself back in the mental hospital. It was around then that he met his wife. “I got off the pills again and started taking better care of my health. I started playing soccer competitively. I love soccer. I started eating healthier. I really was taking care of myself and it put me in a much better mental state.”
Dom’s business continued to grow and his wife, now pregnant, was helping him keep up with orders. “I knew I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. I needed to build a team.” He relocated to a small studio in LA to figure it out. “There was no formula for me to follow.”
His talent was clear, as his business continued to grow, with celebrities, athletes, and brand partnerships pouring in. A repeat client, entrepreneur Dallas Imbimbo, started giving him business advice and eventually became his business partner. “I had my second kid coming, and the business was growing really fast. It was just a lot for me to handle. It took a little while to figure out, but Dallas became a partner.”
Today Dom refers to his studio as an experiential place, “like Willy Wonka meets Alice in Wonderland for creatives.” He’s eager to finish his build-out, he’s building a full gym and a half basketball court. He wants to create a full kitchen so he can cook for his team. “I grew up in the kitchen, and the family meal is important. It’s a good way to connect.”
Like he did as a kid working in the mall, Dom is building an ambitious vision for the next phase of his life. “I live multiple lives in a sense. You’re playing a part on social media, you’re playing a part at home, and you’re playing a part as a business owner, but it’s important to come back to you. What are you? Are you good to yourself? It’s so important, because if you’re not doing well how are you going to be good for others?”
Dom’s exploring the idea of self, with professional help, partly because he’s going through a divorce. “That’s been challenging. I don’t have a partner to go to, so I recently started seeing a therapist. It’s been extremely helpful. Life’s too short to constantly be in a place where everything is your fault. We are all human. We’re going to make mistakes.”
Dealing with success can be just as difficult as dealing with failure, too. “I’m not creating as much as I’d like to, but I’m starting to explore new things like welding and indigo dye. But also how to be a better person and really communicate, not just letting the work be my lifestyle. I missed a lot of my son growing up at a young age because I was so focused on the business being successful. I wanted to provide for my kids, but it’s also important to be as present as possible.”
Dom aims to continue to develop his Sneaker School and create free classes for children in need. He’s also become more vocal about mental health issues. His ambition though, is always present. “I want to continue to build the Shoe Surgeon as a brand and branch off as an artist and designer, developing my own clothing collection,” he tells me, which seems completely logical, an organic extension of his career. But then he adds, “My real goal is to be on the cover of Men’s Health and speak on how physical health is connected to mental health. I’m also learning improv and acting. I’m starting to write shows. My dream is evolving.”
You can see Dom’s mind racing, connecting the dots on how to make it all happen. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunities I’ve had,” he says. “My parents gave me so much love, and a lot of people in this world don’t have that. I want to figure out how to touch people and help build them up.”
A version of this article originally appeared in Sixtysix Issue 05 with the headline “Deadlines, Drugs, & Depression: The Remaking of the Shoe Surgeon.” Subscribe today.