Maghera man creates one-of-a-kind footwear
Shea Gribbon has put his foot to the floor after launching his custom shoe designing business.
He launched Shoe Dr in October 2020 and has built a reputation customising cycling shoes and trainers for global brands including Nike, for whom he created custom Air Force trainers to celebrate Mark Cavendish’s record-equalling Tour de France stage win tally.
Shea got support from the Go For It programme in association with Mid Ulster District Council.
“Art was always my main strongpoint, all the way through primary and secondary school. It was the only thing I was ever good at,” says Shea.
Shea graduated from Coventry University with a degree in Product Design – after an unconditional offer – but his university years could have taken a different direction.
“I was supposed to do automotive design. That was my dream, to be a car designer,” he admits.
“I applied for both, and they said in the interview if you’re going to do automotive design, you’re going to be drawing cars for four years. If you do a product design degree, you can draw cars, but you can also do whatever else you want. I said, I think I’ll get less bored drawing cars if I’m doing product design.
“I kind of fell out of love with art towards the end of sixth form. Over that summer, before I went to uni, I put art to the wayside.
“When I went to halls on my own, I was a bit bored and didn’t know many people at the start, so I started painting again.”
After returning to Northern Ireland and taking up a role in Belfast, Shea found himself with evenings to fill.
“Me and my friend tried to start a little business, making T-shirt designs and trying to sell them. It didn’t work out but I kind of secretly enjoyed it.
“In between all of it, I’d joked about painting shoes, customising shoes and never did it. After that little venture ended, my friend said, ‘Why don’t you give the shoe thing a go?’ There was no intention of it being a business. It was just a laugh, something to do in my spare time. I bought the paints and got cracking.”
His business specialises in personalising footwear with handpainted art reflected in bold designs and illustrations.
“I painted one pair of shoes to see how they looked, and they turned out pretty well,” he explains. “I had to repair them a wee bit first before I did anything — that’s why I ended up going with the Shoe Dr name, as I was repairing first.
“It just snowballed; I put that picture on Facebook and people were asking me could I do theirs. I did half of one shoe and made an Instagram page, put it up and that was it, I just kept getting more and more people asking. That half a shoe is still sitting in the studio, I still haven’t finished it.”
While his business was increasing, Shea was continuing to work in Belfast and for a few hours each evening in a local pizza shop. Something was going to have to give.
“I was travelling to Belfast, going straight in the pizza shop, working for four or five hours and then literally spending all night working on the shoes.
“I just kind of got to the point where I had to make a decision, it was getting that busy. I thought I couldn’t quit my job to paint shoes… who does that? But no one was telling me not to do it.”
He began a new job more locally but after two months was furloughed as the first lockdown hit.
“That was the start of self-employment,” Shea says. “People always ask me what do you think about Covid and there was nothing bad that came out of it for me, I was in my own little bubble, I just worked.”
“I went back to work for a month and handed my notice in,” he continues, from then on focusing full-time on the Shoe Dr business.
It’s not just Nike that’s been wowed by his artistry. His shoes created a buzz in cycling circles at the 2021 Tour de France — Slovenian rider Luka Mezgec sported a team focused design. And the 2012 champion of the world’s most famous race, Bradley Wiggins, was also spotted wearing The Shoe Dr’s designed apparel.
“It’s one of those subconscious things: what I do, works. I paint shoes, I put pictures up and that kind of does the talking,” he says modestly.
“I don’t think about it too often,” he says of well-known fans. “I’m lucky; I’m pretty chill with people as well. There’s no real airs or graces with me. I’m not one of those fanboys either, who want to take a picture with someone famous. I really just talk to people the way they are. If people ask who I do shoes for, I say it and they say that’s pretty cool.
“I’ve never approached anyone either which I pride myself on. There are plenty of businesses built on pushing other people or paying people to promote it and stuff will arrive. I haven’t even spent a penny on marketing; everything has literally just come off the back of my work and word of mouth.”
Shea also works with Australian company Velokicks that manufacture cycling shoes, developing a good working relationship.
While he says his business efforts are through him ‘winging it’, he acknowledges the efforts that have gone into this ‘work-in-progress’.
“As things have got busier, it has got harder because I am the content creator, the marketing, accounts. When it comes to that side of the business, that is slowly starting to work and I’m trying to delegate a bit. That’s where I see it moving forward in making the business grow.
“I have someone in England now who went to the same university. He’s given me a bit of a hand with designs.
“It took a lot of stress and pressure off me because I was coming in at night and I wasn’t seeing the actual design work as work, I was only seeing the painting as work. I was coming in seven, eight at night and trying to come up with designs with a completely tired mind.”
Shea has received a lot of help on the business side of things thanks to the Go For It programme.
“I had a big thing about saying yes to everything, it would then come to a point where I would stress, Go For It definitely helped me with that.
“I want to grow the business, but I also want to give other people who may be in my situation the chance.
“The 9-5 office job, I’m not against it but it was never for me. I like my own freedom, doing what I want.
“I didn’t want to let anybody down; I need to be doing something with my degree.
“But essentially, I am. It’s hard taking that leap so I want to give more opportunities if I can.”
For info on The Shoe Dr, see www.theshoedr.co.uk. If you have a business idea or are thinking about starting a business, contact the Go For It team on 0800 027 0639 or visit www.goforitni.com