As a junior in high school, Jacob Ferrato already had a toehold in the rarefied world of bespoke sneakers. Working at the Nike factory store outside of Akron, Ohio, Ferrato used his employee discount to scoop up Nike Dunks, which he proceeded to embellish. “I was a bored teenager. So I just started painting and gluing on fabric. People saw them on me and [on] the online shoe forums, and they started selling almost right away,” recalls Ferrato, now 25.
As orders increased, Ferrato came to two realizations: that the demand for unique sneakers is almost insatiable, and that he wanted to do more than just scratch (or paint) the surface. By the time Ferrato started college at the University of Dayton, he was already deconstructing shoes and putting them back together in new, interesting ways.
Like other early bloomers, Ferrato used his dorm room as a place to incubate his business. After graduating in 2013 with a degree in entrepreneurship, Ferrato cobbled together his own post-graduate program – watching YouTube videos, taking classes, and “making stuff with people I considered better than me,” such as Oregon shoemaker William Shanor, Brandi Devers in Chicago, and Yuji Okura at the Brooklyn Shoe Space.
Today, Ferrato is a proper shoemaker (or cordwainer), and proprietor of JBFcustoms in downtown Cleveland. Working at a standing desk in his warehouse loft, Ferrato is surrounded by tools, sewing machines, and rolls of skins from animals both domestic (cow, goat, lamb) and exotic (crocodile, shark, ostrich, lizard, python, anaconda, alligator), many in colors not found in nature. While some of Ferrato’s orders are for original designs made entirely from scratch, he also customizes sneakers provided by the client, which he strips down to the footbed and rebuilds, preserving the profile and brand identity. For example, a pair of Air Jordan 1 Retro High OGs was reimagined entirely in snowdrift white python, and Ferrato used the camo pink fabric of an old Bape jacket to transform a pair of Nike AF1s.
Whether the shoes are mash-ups or made-to-measure, all have a story to tell. A client seeking a “great white shark” theme got back Nikes remixed in gray sharkskin with blue suede and metallic silver accents, a water-inspired design on the heel and toe, and red stitching to suggest the trails of blood that sharks can smell in the water. When another customer requested original shoes that would reflect his penchant for pot, Ferrato responded with smoky swirls of fabric in various shades of gray – a poetic interpretation that avoided a “tacky, obvious approach” to the stoner theme.
“The common thread among my clients, whether they’re athletes or musicians or Wall Street traders, is that they really love shoes and appreciate craftsmanship,” says Ferrato, who takes at least 30 hours to sketch, cut, file, piece, glue, and stitch a pair from start to finish (prices start at $1,000). A recent Instagram post (Ferrato has about 125,000 followers) shows him modeling a pair made from leftover crocodile scraps in assorted colors and grains, a tutti-frutti mosaic he dubbed “Antiflage,” as in the opposite of camouflage. Not that a pair of Ferratos is likely to fade into the background – as most are one-of-a-kind, you’re unlikely to mistake them in the yoga studio dressing room.
Eventually, Ferrato would like to do even more original designs, which are more creatively gratifying. “But at the end of the day, the custom shoes are my bread and butter,” he says. “And that’s gratifying, too,” he adds, with a laugh. “You know, being a responsible adult, and, like, being able to pay your bills.”
Watch an 8-minute video of Ferrato's shoemaking process.