Originally published in Raleigh Magazine. Words in italics are not part of the original article, but a bit of personal aside to you, one of the ten faithful T&S readers (hi, Gran!). Also: Yes, I saw an opportunity to start with art history, and I took it. Those chances are rare around these parts.
It’s long been a basic human impulse to beautify and personalize commonplace things, from ancient cave drawings and pottery to modern-day mugs and jewelry. Here in Raleigh, Mike Phillips and his business, Sir Castle Teees, carries on that tradition by customizing items most of us wear every day: shoes.
Starting with a base of top-shelf sneakers, Phillips and his team paint a broad spectrum of designs, art covering everything from simple, Pollock-esque abstracts, to custom drawings, to his true masterpiece: designs that change color almost instantly when exposed to sunlight, water, or heat.
The business, planted in the middle of Raleigh on South Street, is just three doors down from the barber shop Phillips’ father has owned and operated for years. Inside, shelves are lined with shoes marching in different directions, broken up by a flat-screen TV used for display, background noise, video games, or whatever the moment calls for. Across from the door is a blackboard wall, with constantly changing chalk murals—one week a shark, the next, a dinosaur. In front of the mural sits a desk, scattered with ongoing work.
Comfortably seated behind the desk is Ed Peebles, sealing a shoe’s pristine white structure with masking tape to keep the paint in place. He works deftly at a task he explains is at once crucial and tedious, pressing the tape down with paint-caked nails.
Along with operations manager Ulysses Watkins, fluorescent post-it notes and invoice sheets help keep track of upcoming orders. Customers can order shoes online or in person, have them customized in their preferred style, size and exact design, and get them shipped within two weeks.
Phillips has a fashionably-clad foot in both the artistic and business sides of Sir Castle Teees, easily bouncing from design to marketing strategy to neighborhood concerns and back again in the same minute. In 2013, he started painting shoes as a way to express his individuality. Tired of seeing an unoriginal, unofficial uniform at school, he came to a conclusion: “I cannot continue to be spending my hard-earned money just to look like everyone else.”
He also patiently explained what a hype beast was, and cracked up when I mentioned my most expensive pair of shoes being $50. What can I say, I prefer to spend cash on experiences! Fortunately, he was happy to educate a shoe-ignorant gal.
Left to right: Watkins, Phillips, Peebles. This was a very affirming bunch - we were swapping Instagram handles (as you do these days), and I got a hoot-and-holler enthusiastic review about a recent image of a turtle. It made my artistic soul very happy.
Using an Instagram handle he picked out of the air after thinking for about five seconds, Phillips started posting photos of his work. The customers came in droves. By 2014, he had saved enough money to open the store, and hired Peebles and Watkins to help with the work. These days, they’ll customize anything customers bring in—coolers, luggage, even toothbrushes—but the majority of the orders are shoes.
Footwear trends guide what kinds of shoes the team selects to customize. Currently, the bulk of the work is composed of Adidas, Nikes, and Vans. Being savvy enough to ride the waves of public taste has brought the business success, and Phillips credits the constant one-upmanship of the online space with pushing him to his more innovative creations, such as using paint that changes color.
The left is before heat, the right is after.
In addition to customizing, the team meets fans’ needs by offering unaltered and gently used shoes. Their painting methods have evolved as they’ve racked up more customers; a few years back, Peebles and Phillips reluctantly gave up their hand-painting process in order to master airbrushing, a more efficient and cleaner technique.
Phillips has big ambitions, with plans to open another store in Miami, as well as potential locations out west. But, at 24, he can already look back and be proud. With more than 200,000 followers on Instagram, his business is bigger and stronger than anyone could have imagined starting out.
“I’m very proud of everyone here,” Phillips says, making a circular motion with his finger towards Peebles and Watkins, a trio that interacts like siblings, with inside jokes as a shorthand between them, the results of years spent working together each day. “Everyone plays their part to help the ship move.”
After years of working together, the trio interact with the shorthand of brothers. An afternoon consisted of a thousand inside jokes, gentle prodding, funny accents, and a familiarity that means you can leave certain sentences half-finished and still be understood.
The bespattered backroom where the magic happens.
That sense of belonging doesn’t end with the team and the shoes. It touches every person who visits the shop, goes out the door, and extends to the city at large. Phillips is quick to give back, keeping a supply of shoes on hand for those in need, and visiting schools to speak about business, materialism and money management. Being a meaningful part of the community has been a priority for Phillips since day one, and he’s dedicated to the symbiotic relationship with the city that gave him the space for his craft.