Jeremy Recoon’s life in Charlotte could have been described as nondescript. For years, it was.
He’s a young guy in his late 20s who followed his fiancée here for a job, working in sales at CommScope as he chips away at his MBA. Tryon Street is filled with Charlotteans who match that description.
But at night when most everyone else has checked out of their jobs and gets settled for bed, Recoon goes into the spare room of his apartment, dons a painter’s mask, arms himself with an arsenal of brushes and tells stories on feet. Recoon, known as @charlotte_customkicks on Instagram, designs and hand-paints custom sneakers for some of the biggest athletes and sports media personalities in the country.
“If I’m watching ESPN, especially during football season or something, I’m most likely going to see one of those people every day, which is just crazy,” Recoon, a 2016 Elon graduate, said.
Years of sales experience and a sports management degree don’t scream “artist to the stars,” and Recoon readily admitted that he has no artistic background whatsoever. Instead, his side hustle was born of the same things everybody felt at some point over the last year.
There was a pandemic, and the world was in lockdown — he was bored and needed money.
“Anyone that works in ticket sales in any sport during the pandemic probably got hit and lost lots of money,” said Recoon, who used to work for the AHL Charlotte Checkers. “Since much of your salary is commission-based, you’re losing a big chunk of it.”
To alleviate their boredom, Recoon and his fiancée, Amy Livingston — both lifelong sports fans — watched the entirety of “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary detailing the 1998 Chicago Bulls’ NBA championship run. Watching stars like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen — along with the fashion they sported and the music playing throughout the documentary — gave Recoon a simple, nostalgic desire: To pull out all the shoes he used to wear as a teenager.
“I’ve always loved sneakers,” Recoon said. “So I just went into my closet, found all the pairs of Jordans I had and was like, ‘You know what? How can I take better care of these?’ So I started refurbishing them.”
Looking for ways to restore his shoes led him to YouTube, where he also saw instructional videos on various ways to paint and customize sneakers. After doing some refurbishing, he thought, “Why not try selling new, painted shoes to make some money?’
Without any artistic experience or know-how, Recoon dove headfirst into YouTube, watching every video he could on the subject — the best paints and brushes, how to do intricate details, how to remove factory finish, everything. To experiment and practice, he bought the cheapest white shoes Nike sold and painted over them over and over again.
Once he had the confidence, one of the first pairs he painted were seafoam green Nike Air Force 1s for his beloved fiancée. They looked great, he said, but the paint kept chipping off.
“Now, when I pull them out to wear them, he’s like, ‘No, wait, let me touch them up first!’ ” Livingston said. “But I’m not a perfectionist, I still love wearing them no matter what they look like.”
Gradually, as he kept painting, experimenting and showing pairs to friends and family, people started to get interested — interested enough that he started his Instagram page to market them, which has more than 1,000 followers.
But Recoon, who describes himself as a “hustler,” knew he could grow his enterprise, and reached out to any famous sports personality he could, seeing if they wanted their own — discounted — pair of Charlotte custom kicks.
“It’s a fun, therapeutic hobby that keeps me sane, and a small side hustle to make some extra money,” Recoon said. “Just making all these connections, though, I think that’s the main thing.”
One of those first connections was with Gary Striewski, who hosts ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on Snapchat. Striewski calls himself the “Kimchi Papi” because of his Korean heritage, so Recoon designed a pair of white Air Force 1s to suit the name.
“I painted the back stitching and put his little slogan on the midsole,” Recoon said, “And then I just tried to draw, like, a frickin’ jar of kimchi.
“I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ ”
Whether he knew what he was doing didn’t seem to matter to Striewski, who loved the kicks so much, he shared them on his Snapchat story, calling them the Kimchi Force 1s. And that’s when things kicked off.
Soon, Recoon was creating custom designs for personalities across the sports media world. Whether it’s football sideline reporters or daytime talk show hosts, ESPN personalities like Field Yates, Laura Rutledge, Molly McGrath and more have received a pair of Charlotte custom kicks, each of which they had a hand in designing personally.
One of those personalities was Cealey Godwin of the New England Sports Network. Godwin, who knew Striewski from his time at NESN, followed Recoon’s account after seeing the Kimchi Force 1s. Soon, Recoon reached out to her, asking if she’d like her own pair. Godwin, a longtime “sneaker admirer,” wanted to design her own Air Force 1s for Pride Month.
“He sent me a couple of ideas and we came up with the concept we ended up picking, which was the rainbow drip,” Godwin said. “I was really pleased with how it came out, and I actually don’t wear them often because I want to make sure they’re not getting scuffed up.”
Recoon even got a pair to Wil Myers of the San Diego Padres through a work connection he had.
Though Recoon has been able to find a market for his shoes — he has designed 72 pairs — and said he won’t stop painting them anytime soon, he also understands that a lot of people don’t get why sneakers and sneaker culture — vintage tees, basketball kicks and other rare, collectible items — are so popular and pricey.
Even he had lost touch with the culture before he started this hustle.
“I had some vintage stuff before college, but could never really pull it off,” said Recoon, wearing high-top Hyper Royal Air Jordan 1s and a vintage Chicago Bulls three-peat shirt. “Elon was more of a really preppy school, so boat shorts, Vineyard Vines and boat shoes.”
Now, with his side job fully booming, it’s safe to say that Recoon has re-embraced the culture and shared it with those around him. Even his fiancée, who admitted she knew nothing about sneakers, has become fascinated with them, and she can scarcely remember a time before Recoon’s love of the culture.
“He’ll pick out his outfits now and figure out how it’s going to match his shoes,” Livingston said. “And it’s so funny to me, but I also love it. And he has a story behind every pair, which is my favorite part. There’s a story behind every pair that you really can’t figure out by just looking at them.”
Soon, though, there will be some pairs that she’ll immediately know the story behind.
For the couple’s upcoming wedding in July, Recoon and Livingston will be wearing sneakers at the reception. But the pièce de résistance? Recoon will be custom-painting pairs of Air Force 1s to match the lavender dresses of all eight of Livingston’s bridesmaids — a true labor of love.
“It’s going to be really cool,” Livingston said. “Hopefully, we get some cool pictures of me and the eight of them with their Jeremy custom lavender swoosh Nikes.”
From the bridesmaids, to the athletes to his own two feet, each pair Recoon paints tells a different story. Whether it’s a celebrity getting some kicks to put on social media or a daughter ordering sneakers with custom college designs for her dad’s alma mater, being the artist behind the process allows him to tell those stories.
“It’s this little gig that’s turned into so much more than just a hobby,” Livingston said. “That’s what makes me happy, is that his job is not his whole life, grad school is not his whole life. He has this whole other part of him that’s just as important as the other parts.”