Cut to two years ago, for instance. Rivero — who, as a custom shoe artist, goes by business moniker Soles by Sir — fielded Jackson’s first such request to get some “statement” cleats. “He wanted to raise awareness about the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ situation” over the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police, Rivero recounts. The Redskin wanted to wear something bold ahead of a New York Giants game, and he was willing to incur an NFL fine to have his sartorial say.
Rivero created a striking design: a black front that gave way to a multicolored snakeskin effect, with the words “I Can’t Breathe” fading at the end, like a last gasp:
View this post on Instagram
#Repost @solesbysir "I can't Breath(e)" sorry last night took a bad photo, but yes Breathe had an E. This pair was done as a symbolism for the recent events. @0ne0fone requested these , I just made his idea a Reality. Thanks again Desean. #SolesBySir #1of1 #IcantBreathe #customHuaraches #blessed -#Mikebrown #Trayvonmartin #TamirRice #EzellFord #OscarGrant & many Others STAND FOR SOMETHING OR FALL FOR ANYTHING #ICANTBREATHE !! I'm ROCCIN THESE THIS WEEK !!
In December of 2014, Rivero shared a sneak-peek of the cleats that Jackson would proudly wear, posted with the artist’s Instagram message: “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”
So flash-forward to late last month, when Jackson was primed to make another statement through his shoes.
” ‘Hey Marc, I want to do something to raise awareness,’ ” Rivero recalls Jackson saying. “I’m automatically thinking the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s like: ‘No, I actually want to stand up for everybody dying senselessly. … I’m not here to say, ‘Black lives don’t matter,’ or ‘Cop lives don’t matter.’ To me, what’s important is that the senseless murders stop — whether it be the Dallas policemen that got brutally gunned down, or all these innocent young African Americans that are just getting murdered.’ ” (Jackson told The Washington Post this week that he wants “to be part of a solution and start [a] dialogue about the senseless killings of both citizens and police.”)
So the shoe artist thought about how to represent all that on such a small canvas. He hit upon the idea of bright-yellow police tape blaring the word “caution.” Last Sunday, Jackson wore the Rivero-designed social statement.
This exposure is still a whirlwind for Rivero, who answers a reporter’s call after putting in a long day at the tire wholesale business he owns in Miami. He’s in high demand with his night job, working dusk till near-dawn as he creates hundreds of custom-painted, one-time-only cleats for hundreds of pro athletes — with some pairs going for more than $1,000.
A rare breed, Rivero is on the cutting edge of this form of cleat art. Athletes follow his latest styles on Instagram (he has nearly 50,000 followers), and Rivero says he now has at least one client on every NFL team. When the Redskins play the Ravens this weekend, he says his clients will include not only Jackson and teammate Vernon Davis, but also Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith (the latter, he says, is set to wear a purple “domestic-abuse awareness” cleat).
His clients now include some major leaguers, and his waiting list — now several-hundred deep — even sports an executive seeking a custom Chicago-themed pair for President Obama. “He’ll have to wait his turn,” says Rivero, who creates dozens of pairs a week, devoting several hours to each, never duplicating a design.
Up until about five years ago, Rivero had only ever admitted to middle-school art teachers that he could be rather handy with a brush. His friends had known him more as an athlete — he played defensive lineman and middle linebacker at Case Western Reserve University.
But then came Valentine’s Day, nearly four years ago. Rivero wanted to give his then-girlfriend a handcrafted gift, so he decided to paint her a custom pair of shoes. “How hard can it be?” he thought. Twenty hours later, he says, he had created “one of the best things I have ever painted.”
She loved the kicks so much, she posted pictures of them on Instagram. Soon, the requests from friends of friends poured in, till after he’d created nearly a dozen pairs, he received a request from then-Dolphins cornerback and University of Maryland alum Nolan Carroll to make custom cleats.
Rivero was resistant; he wasn’t sure how his work would hold up to the rigors of competitive contact. But Carroll (who’s now with the Philadelphia Eagles) implored the artist for seven days straight, until Rivero relented.
From there, the pipeline was opened, largely through the visibility of Instagram. Rivero, who also attended the University of Miami, created cleats for Miami Hurricanes and Dolphins players — and his client list grew when Adidas hired him after it became the official supplier of the Hurricanes. Nike initially tried to put the kibosh on the custom cleats among its endorsed athletes, stating as such in a pamphlet that included photos of Rivero’s shoes. The tactic backfired, becoming the best “free advertising” he could have received, Rivero says, and Nike took no action. “Athletes have this thing called ego,” he says — they wanted their own custom cleats and figured other shoe companies would sign them if Nike dropped them.
Rivero is well-aware of the firm hand that the NFL maintains on branding, as well as player behavior. He knows that the multibillion-dollar behemoth has a reputation as “the No Fun League” — especially compared with the degree of fashionable expression in such sports as basketball and soccer.
Yet Rivero says that he’s a big fan of the league, which he sees as loosening its grip a bit, as players like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick make political statements during the national anthem.
Rivero also touts the NFL’s plans, in Week 13 of this season, to allow and even encourage custom cleats that promote positive charities and awareness campaigns. “That week will be a rainbow of awareness,” Rivero says, “from lime-green to purple.”
Rivero isn’t quitting his tire business just yet, but he could certainly see that happening, if hundreds of athletes remain loyal to him as an artist. Unlike celebrities who are now getting into the cleat design business, like Kanye West, he strives to create a custom experience.
“These guys know they can call me anytime,” says Rivero, who now vacations with some of his clients, whom he calls friends. “And they always want to make sure that I’m the one painting the shoes and not someone else.”