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17 May 2022

FEATURE: County Derry ‘Shoe Dr’ bringing footwear to life

The Maghera man has been making headlines worldwide.

FEATURE: County Derry ‘Shoe Dr’ bringing footwear to life

Shea Gribbon, aka The Shoe Dr, pictured in his workshop.

Over the last two and half years, Shea Gribbon, aka The Shoe Dr, has customised more than 600 pairs of shoes with professional cyclists, Olympic gold medalists and pop stars listed among his famous clientele.

Orla Mullan caught up with the Maghera man this week to find out more about his unique business which is making headlines around the world.

Hard work, sheer determination and talent has got Shea Gribbon to where he is today.

From his studio in the south Derry town of Maghera, the 26 year-old has hand painted and customised hundreds of pairs of cycling shoes, trainers and football boots which have been shipped all around the world.

His clients include sportsmen and women, music stars and multinational companies like Nike, New Balance and KFC.

If his first full year in business (2021) is anything to go by, it looks like there will be no stopping the former St Patrick's College Maghera student.

Following his graduation from Coventry University, where he obtained a Masters in Product Design, Shea secured employment with gym equipment specialists BLK BOX Fitness.

Having initially applied for a placement job, it wasn't long until Shea secured full-time employment with the Belfast firm.

It was while working full-time that Shea decided to take up the hobby of painting, purely out of boredom.

Despite always being into art at school, Shea admits that he had no desire to go down the art route – instead he had his heart set on being a designer.

“When I first went to uni, I kind of fell out of love with the art thing and I just wanted to focus on the design side of things,” he said.

“A couple of years prior to me working, I thought about customising shoes but never bothered. Then, about seven or eight months into me working in BLK BOX, I was talking to one of my friends about the idea and he said to me 'sure just buy the stuff and do it and see how it goes' and that's how it went.”

The cycling shoes which Shea customised for popular singer Dua Lipa.

The first project Shea took on was a pair of his own shoes which also inspired the name of his business.

“I had a pair of shoes sitting in the house, they were kind of battered up and weren't a pair I wanted to wear any more so I thought to myself 'I'll see if I can try and make these look good again', so that's where the name Shoe Dr came from because I had to fix the shoe before I actually customised it,” he said.

The second pair of shoes that Shea began to customise have never actually been finished – it was this design that helped launch his business and he hasn't looked back since.

“The second pair I customised, I never actually finished them,” explained Shea.

“I have one sitting behind me here. I only ever finished the one shoe and then when I put the picture of it up on Instagram, that was it and I haven't really stopped since then.”

In the early days of the business, Shea secured employment closer to home and after finishing his job with Specialist Joinery, he headed off to work in the Pizza Man in Maghera, often returning home and working right through the night to complete his own orders.

“There was nights where I worked right through the night. I would have come down the stairs in the morning, got a cup of coffee and then headed off to work again,” he said.

The late nights soon paid off and it wasn't long before Shea got his first famous customer in the form of professional cyclist Harry Tanfield.

An example of Shea Gribbon's unique designs

While cycling in Vuelta a España, Tanfield sustained a foot injury forcing him to change his footwear mid-race.

This particular incident received lots of airtime and catapulted Shea's design onto an even bigger stage.

For Shea, who enjoys competitive cycling with local club Carn Wheelers, this particular bit of publicity led to Tour de France cyclist Luka Mezgec requesting a pair of his custom-made shoes.

“Seeing Luka Mezgec wearing my designs was really good. It was always the goal to get a pair into the Tour de France,” continued Shea.

“Whenever the stars aligned and I got that opportunity, it was very good. I watched the Tour de France even before I was cycling so it was definitely a dream for me. Whenever I got that job I kinda felt that nothing else was too far from reach. You can very easily doubt yourself but it got a lot of publicity.”

The publicity from the Tour de France led to Shea teaming up with another big name – cycling champ Mark Cavendish.

“That was another very big one but it very nearly didn't happen because it was sent as a message which went into my message requests on social media,” said Shea.

“I seen this message and I looked at it and thought I'll get back to this message later in the week. I don't know what came on me but then I thought, I better just reply to this person.

The customised shoes for Luka Mezgec received plenty of airtime.

"The woman who messaged me worked for Nike and she represented sponsored athletes in the UK. She had said they were for somebody pretty big deal and I was just like 'right'.

"I was just so busy doing other stuff that week and in the coming weeks I knew I was going to be so busy so I was a bit reluctant to take anything on but then she told me who it was for so I couldn't really turn it down. I also got to meet Mark, which was great.”

Since going full-time back in late 2020, Shea has also customised footwear for three Olympic gold medalists – Tom Daley, Matty Lee and James Guy – and comedian Colin Geddis.

KFC are returning customers, as is New Balance, who have collaborated with Shea to design footwear for Arsenal footballers Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka.

Such is the demand for Shea's designs, he had to employ another designer recently.

By taking on Max, also a graduate of Coventry University, it 'takes the pressure off' and allows Shea to 'churn out more designs'.

Just recently, Australian-based Velokicks reached out to Shea and asked him to customise a pair of cycling shoes for British singer and songwriter Dua Lipa.

“It took a wee while to sink in after being asked to do that job,” said Shea.

Hard at work painting a design on shoes for KFC.

“I work with Velokicks in Australia so any messages I get from them is always late at night. I have been working with them for about two years now.

"It's a shoe company and you can go on their website and buy a pair of shoes and you also have the option of getting them customised.

"If you pick the option of getting them customised, they come to me or a few other artists around the world as well.

“I'm one of the main ones and I got a message late at night from the co-founder Nick. He wrote in capital letters 'Do you want to do shoes for Dua Lipa?'

"I wasn't sure if he was being really serious and I actually left it to the morning to reply. I said 'aye, why not?',” laughed Shea.

“When it's somebody of interest the deadline is usually sooner than you think so I got a couple of ideas down quickly and sent them over to Max and he got a few ideas down as well and we got a few designs together and sent them over to Nick and he sent them onto the Dua Lipa people.

"We settled on a design and got cracking. It was a bit mad. You never know what kind of reaction or what way things is going to go down when they get to the other side but we got some good pictures of the shoes.

"Unfortunately we didn't get any pictures of her (Dua Lipa) with them but it was still great to say we did a pair for Dua Lipa. It generated quite a bit of publicity as well.”

With demand for Shea's customised shoes increasing, his work life is pretty hectic at the minute, however he wouldn't have it any other way.

He admits that some designs can be more complicated than others and he can spend up to 20 hours on a pair of shoes.

“Some designs can be a wee bit more complicated and can take longer,” he said.

“The longest I've probably spent designing a pair of shoes is about 18 to 20 hours. It was a very complex pattern from an 1800s plant pot someone had.

"They wanted that design on their shoes because they really liked this plant pot. A few weeks ago, I had another pretty complicated one – it was painting people on a pair of shoes.

"I used to paint people but I hadn't painted people in a long time. I had quite a bit of anxiety before it but when I did it I was thinking to myself 'why was I even worrying about it?'”

Shea says the satisfaction he gets when seeing people's reactions to his designs is 'amazing'.

“That's the best thing,” he said.

“I was never in it for the money. I obviously wanted to make enough money to get by but I just really enjoy painting and making stuff.

"One of my favourite things to do, although it doesn't pay as well, is repairing the shoes. I love taking a pair of shoes that someone was going to throw in the bin and being able to bring them back to life and seeing their reaction to what I've done.”

For Shea, quitting his job and going out on his own full-time almost two years ago, was the 'best decision' he's ever made.

“I have no regrets at all about leaving my job – it's class,” he said.

“I talked about doing it for so long. My parents were very supportive but they also didn't want to see anything go wrong and then it got to the point where it was do or die - I can crack on and try and get a career in design or give going out on my own a stab. It was obviously the best decision.

“My main aim when I decided to go full time was basically to prove that I could live off doing something that I loved doing and as soon as I proved that, I was pretty happy.

“Next thing I wanted to do was give other people a chance and try and show other people that you don't have to go down the nine to five route and you don't have to sit in an office and do something you don't want to, you can do something you love.”

For now, Shea is happy to let his business 'grow organically' and he has high hopes of working with many more big names in the near future.

“I would just like to keep the speed up and keep the orders coming in,” he added.

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