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Balmain and Ant Kai See A Real Life Unicorn Highsnobiety

Ant Kai is not just a footwear artist but a passionate designer who has successfully merged his love for sneakers with his artistic talent. From his beginnings in self-taught practice to his latest collaboration with Balmain where he customized their iconic Unicorn shoe, Ant Kai provides a glimpse into the craftsmanship, dedication, and innovation that define his work. We caught up with Ant from his studio in Seattle and got a close-up look as how he’s evolved as a custom sneaker artist, sharing insights into his unique creative process, the challenges of working with distinct shoe silhouettes, and the exciting intersection of luxury sneakers with the digital realm, particularly in the form of NFTs. The shoe is available now, and there are only 150 pairs up for grabs, so make sure to get yours quick or you might miss out.

Hi Ant, how’s it going?

It’s going well, just focused on finishing these projects to end the year.

Would you mind telling us a bit about who you are and your practice as an artist?

I’m Ant Kai, I’m a creative artist and I design and customize shoes out of Seattle, Washington.

How did you get into shoe customization?

I grew up collecting sneakers and was always into art and creating so it was only right that the two crossed paths. I started customizing for fun a few years ago and taught myself through trial and error. I fell in love with the process and the feeling of creating, so after a couple of successful drops I quit my job in 2020 to pursue it full time and it’s been taking off since.

Ant Kai and Balmain
Highsnobiety

Ant Kai and Balmain
Highsnobiety

Walk me through your process when customizing a shoe.

The process changes between each project. I might mockup the design before starting and other times I’ll just freestyle it along the way. Every pair goes through a combination of prepping, painting, dyeing, and/or stitching, and sometimes more. I’ll usually make enough changes to the point where it’ll look like a completely different shoe from what it started as.

How did you discover your unique style and how has it developed over the years?

Many aspects have changed since I started—I’ve improved my craftsmanship, I’ve formed more of my own style, I have a bigger clientele, but these all have correlated to what’s remained the same since the beginning, which is my love for doing this, desire to create, and putting all my time into this. I feel honored that it’s all led to bigger opportunities like this collaboration with Balmain.

How do you approach continuous improvement and learning in your custom sneaker work, and how has your craftsmanship evolved over the years?

My craftsmanship evolved from only knowing the basics to adding more to my bag like stitching, dyeing, stencil work, and just getting better overall at designing and painting. The last few years I’ve seen that the more time and effort I put into my craft the better I become at it. I’ve always wanted to be great at something and I’m always trying to improve, so I stay working and try to keep that same hunger from when I first started. Having that mindset of never wanting to be complacent and to just keep going can go a long way. 

Ant Kai and Balmain
Highsnobiety

The Unicorn has a very unique and distinct silhouette. How do you blend diverse inspirations into your designs, and what challenges or opportunities arise from working with shoes that have such distinct silhouettes or visual motifs?

I knew with all the different materials within this silhouette that it’d be a dope base for dyeing so I mixed that with one of my distinctive styles in painted clouds and I think it elevated the design even more. The range of materials within the shoe allows for more contrast between the blues since each panel responds to the dye differently.

Each pair of shoes you work on is customized by hand. How do you engage with the unique characteristics of each shoe? 

Every pair is hand dyed at the same temperature, using the same dye mixture and dye time, but even so each pair would react naturally in their own way with the dye. Some pairs might have more of a cloudy or marbled look on the heel panels while others would dye light blue and some remained white. 

Ant Kai and Balmain
Highsnobiety

Ant Kai and Balmain
Highsnobiety

What were some of the specific challenges you faced when working with the Unicorn? How did you approach working with such a special shoe shape?

The main challenge was, when I first started, I had an initial fear that the dye wouldn’t react with the shoe how I wanted it to. But I knew I just had to be confident with my experience and had to be precise with the mixture and every step. I knew my design would complement the futuristic shape so really just had to trust the process.

Do you ever get stressed when working with a pair of shoes as expensive as these ones? It seems like theres a pretty slim margin for error when luxury shoes are your canvas.

In general, I can get stressed on working on any project because I’m extremely critical and a perfectionist. Using an expensive shoe base can definitely add to that stress, but regardless of the canvas I want to put out the best work possible that I can with it.

Ant Kai and Balmain
Highsnobiety

How do you feel about your shoes shifting into the digital realm and becoming NFTs?

I think it’s dope. I’ve loved being a part of the process and giving some direction with Space Runners but ultimately just letting them cook and make something crazy has been exciting to see.

Why do you think there is such a strong crossover between the culture surrounding luxury sneakers and the world of digital collectibles and crypto? How do you think the connection between technology and sneaker culture will impact sneakers in the future, and what might the role of Al generative tools be in this future?

I think there’s a strong crossover between the culture of sneakers and NFTs because with these collabs you’re getting the best of both worlds; the physical pair to wear as well as the digital art to collect. 

Shop the drop now at balmain.com.

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