Dominic "the Shoe Surgeon" Ciambrone has never been afraid to step out on his own. Growing up in Santa Rosa, Ciambrone was always building things by hand in the backyard of his childhood home. Instead of following instructions when building forts and making things out of Legos, he created something new.
The 32-year-old Ciambrone's backyard is now in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood, and what he creates now are highly sought-after, one-of-a-kind sneakers. And those who surround him these days are famous athletes and musicians. But one thing remains the same from his early days in Sonoma County: he doesn't follow instructions; he follows whatever's in his head.
At one point, what was in Ciambrone's head deteriorated into a cacophony of tormented voices brought on by severe anxiety and drug abuse. The noise became so unbearable that it eventually sent Ciambrone leaping out of a second-story window and landing in a muddling haze of prescription drugs and psychiatric care seven years ago. He says that he felt the need to turn to drugs and alcohol to feel "normal and escape reality."
"After he jumped," says his mother, Kim Ciambrone, "I remember the doctors telling us that our son was delusional—that he thinks he makes shoes for Justin Bieber. My husband and I said, 'He does make shoes for Justin Bieber.'"
The doctors found it hard to believe, but truth is often times stranger than fiction. Ciambrone's big break came when he was introduced to Justin Bieber through a mutual friend while delivering a pair of custom-made sneakers for musician Will.I.Am to wear at an MTV Video Music Awards show. The Shoe Surgeon and the Biebs hit it off, and Ciambrone found himself fulfilling a few dozen orders of shoes for one of Bieber's upcoming tours. Then, after Law & Order: Special Victims Unit enlisted his services for a 2011 episode titled "Personal Fouls," Ciambrone's work catapulted into an exclusive sneaker-stratosphere.
But before he could continue to keep celebrities' sneaker games looking fresh, Ciambrone needed a fresh outlook himself. Kim recalls her son being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed a cocktail of mood stabilizers, anticonvulsants and antidepressants. "Dominic had one of those Monday-through-Sunday pill boxes, and some pills he had to take were just to offset the side effects of the other pills. It really put him in a fog," she says.
The lack of clarity was stifling his creativity and distorting his artistic vision. "He didn't want to continue taking the medication because of the damage it was doing to his body," she says. "He felt more like a zombie than a human." Ciambrone turned to a traditional Chinese medicine clinic in Petaluma, where he underwent a full-body cleanse. He started meditating, resumed exercise activities and phased out his prescriptions.
Ciambrone's interest in fashion began in middle school. "My older cousin let me wear her original 1985 Air Jordan 1's in high school. It was the first time that I felt like I was able to wear something without having to say anything to express myself," Ciambrone says.
The experience inspired the then-16-year-old to try his hand at sneaker design by airbrushing Jordan's with model paint and tinkering with the iconic Nike "swoosh" by removing it from the side of the shoe and gluing it to the top. Ciambrone's DIY-alterations caught the attention of his friends, who implored him to customize their kicks in the same fashion.
Taking liberties on an original design was nothing new for Ciambrone, as he told Hypebeast earlier this year. He was counterfeiting Chuck E. Cheese prize tickets with his brothers at the age of 12, and quite literally graduated from the ball pit with his next venture: hawking counterfeit high school graduation tickets for $15. It proved to be a lucrative racket, until his younger brother was caught and prohibited from participating in the ceremony.
When Ciambrone graduated from Santa Rosa's Elsie Allen High School, in 2004, he didn't ask for a new car or laptop as a graduation gift; he asked for a sewing machine. His grandmother gave him a Brother Pacesetter PS1000 13-stitch machine. Designed more for clothing than shoes, it was the perfect introductory tool for the young Ciambrone to realize his potential. In 2005, he enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College to study fashion design, but there was one problem.
"I just couldn't sit still," he says. Ciambrone's time as an SRJC Bear Cub was over before it started, and at the age of 19 he moved from Santa Rosa to Charlotte, N.C., to stay with his grandmother.
The move opened up his view on what fashion was and could be outside of his wine country stomping grounds. "You could go to a kiosk in a mall in Charlotte and people there were airbrushing shoes," Ciambrone says. "That just didn't exist back home in NorCal."