There are shoe fetishes of the Carrie Bradshaw ilk, and then there’s whatever 24-year-olds Keith “Hokum” Kunis and Ira “Steep” LaFontaine are afflicted with. Every inch of closet space in the longtime friends’ two-bedroom duplex is tied up in shoes—about 500 pairs, in fact. Some might call such a collection excessive. Kunis and LaFontaine simply call it research.
The 2002 Cleveland High School graduates are elite customizers in the “sneakerhead” movement, a sneaker-collecting trend born in the late 1980s, when athletic shoes became as much about form as function. Under the moniker Above the Clouds, the duo alters colors, designs and fabrics to create one-of-a-kind takes on classic models. And they do it well: Customers pay up to $400 for their artisanship.
Above the Clouds has been profiled on ESPN’s It’s the Shoes and in the sneakerhead magazine Sole Collector. In February the pair launched their website, the closest thing they expect to have to a storefront sneaker boutique.
Historically, sneaker boutiques—shops that sell high-end kicks—haven’t fared well in Portland: Three have tried, but only one, Compound, in Old Town, remains. That’s due in part to our city’s preponderance of discounted shoes. “Everybody knows somebody at Adidas or Nike,” says LaFontaine, “so the value of the shoe is skewed.” Because Portlanders are used to paying $60 for shoes (instead of the standard $120 retail price), they don’t fall under the spell of rare releases the way others do, and that’s bad news for local sneaker boutiques’ bottom lines.
But the tempered local shoegazer scene doesn’t bother Kunis and LaFontaine, whose customers come from all over the country. In fact, the two have transformed more than 160 pairs since they started customizing in 2003. Which should earn them enough for a tricked-out closet system to house that 500-pair collection in style.