A darling of the international custom-sneaker world, Mark Ong sits at the desk of his Singaporean design studio. He’s designing in his head while taking care of logistics: packing, weighing, and sticking stamps on a box of shoes created for a customer in the U.S.
“We do everything—all this real stuff, not just the design work. It’s the punk, it’s the aesthetic, it’s the energy,” he grins. “It’s all part of what we do. I love it.”
Ong is definitely a hands-on kind of guy. He takes sneakers from the likes of Nike and DC and paints, chops, and studs them in his own unique way—to the delight of collectors from Mexico City to Milwaukee, from his friend Jeffrey Koh at the local food court to Kobe Bryant—at anything from $250–$800 a pop.
“It’s a bit weird, really. We can go anywhere in Singapore and not be recognized, but when we went to Mexico City for a DC launch there, the publicity people had done this massive Fly logo three stories high on the front of a warehouse for us, there were TV stations waiting to interview Mark, and we were driving around in a limo. It was crazy.” - Sue-Anne Lim, Ong’s wife
Crazy, maybe—but Ong admits he’s never really been one for the ordinary life. He started his love affair with shoes when he was just a kid, a renegade 9-year-old skateboarder back in the late 80s. Ong and his friends—many of whom he still hangs out and skates with—would hit the street, make their own ramps, learn tricks, run away from the cops when they were spotted some place they shouldn’t have been, and generally disappoint their parents.
“I was fascinated by the ’80s American culture,” Ong remembers. “I thought I was living in the U.S.!” Of course, he wasn’t. His family was in Singapore, in the days when it wasn’t yet a glossy city-state. “My dad was really keen for me to be a success. He wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor,” Ong says, “but I just wanted to do the things he didn’t want me to.”
He carried on with his skating, getting through shoes (Airwalks, Chuck Taylors) pretty fast on the boards. Unable to afford new pairs, he started patching them up with leather, rubber, bicycle tires, whatever he could get his hands on.
“What we were doing then was what we had to,” Ong explains. “Skating brought us a discipline, and we just fixed up what we didn’t have,” he explains.
This creativity, and his ability to craft style out of minimal resources, led Ong to study at nearby Temasek Polytechnic for a degree in visual communications. Like life with his father, it wasn’t all roses.
“We had one lecturer, Iskandar Jalil, a potter, a very hard man. If he didn’t like what you had done, he would just kick it to pieces,” Ong remembers. “That taught me not to take offense, but to look even more critically at what I’d done and be an optimist about the next time. That influence is still with me.”
But now Ong has come full circle, doing the influencing himself. Wannabe interns write and Facebook him from all over Asia, and as far away as New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S., begging to come and learn the art of sneakerpimping. International stars drop by too.
“In our last office on Haji Lane, we heard a knock on the door, and when we opened it, there were the guys from Linkin Park,” laughs Sue-Anne. “Mike Shinoda invited us to their concert. It was great.”
Kobe Bryant bought a pair of Nike Black Mamba customs from Ong; now Q-Tip, Don Johnson, and DJ Clark Kent proudly wear his sneakers—not bad for someone who used to dodge the cops in patched-up shoes.
After graduating from school, Ong continued skating, created a graffiti tag (Sabotage, or SBTG, which he now uses as his label) and worked in a sneaker shop. He developed into a real sneakerhead, buying at least two pairs a month.
“By the time I was 22 or so, I had 80 pairs,” he grins. Then, in 2003, he entered a competition to customize sneakers on Niketalk.com. He won, and his world changed overnight. The resulting publicity scored him an immediate order for 72 pairs from a Tokyo retailer. “It was, like — boom! I didn’t know what to do as I’d only done a few for friends before that, so I hired my friend Andy to help me,” he says.
After that it was up, up, and up for SBTG. Since that first bull’s-eye, he’s worked with Nike, DC, adFunture, DJ Unkle; exhibited worldwide in the Finish Line gallery show; and established the highly successful SBTG business selling sneakers and the Royalefam clothing line.
When it comes to packaging and plastering on stamps, there’s plenty of work for him and Sue-Anne. His wife says there’s more to come. “Mark has enough creative ideas to last a lifetime,” she says, smiling. “He doesn’t like doing the same thing twice.” The goal of her husband’s design is twofold, she says: to create something both organic and empowering.
Ong agrees: “Royalefam stands for empowerment; I want people to share that when they wear my shoes.”
Download The Red Bulletin iPad app now at http://www.redbulletin.com/ipad to read the full article.