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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

A fine line

November 22, 2010

Some hand-painted sneakers.

Chris Hui has hand-painted more than 300 pairs of custom sneakers since he first took up the craft as a young teen.

Photo: Nicole Holdorph

U student Chris Hui has gained fame hand-painting custom sneakers

By Rick Moore

There’s a picture of Chris Hui on his “C2 Customs” website carrying one of his hand-painted sneakers like a football in the classic Heisman Trophy pose. It’s not clear to whom or what he might be giving a figurative stiff-arm, because Hui seems more likely to embrace a new friend than keep someone at arm’s length.

Still, the picture seems appropriate. If a Heisman were to be awarded for creating amazing sneakers, Hui would be a top contender, and Goldy Gopher might be his biggest booster (see video). For the time being, Hui is content as a U student with a major in marketing and a minor in design. But his sneaker-painting resume is eye-catching, to say the least.

A moniker is born

Hui created his first pair of “hand-crafted” sneakers at the age of 13, when he and a neighbor each spray-painted their shoes a solid color. When the paint peeled off a short time later, Hui decided to some research into the art of custom sneakers, and discovered “there was a cool underground scene to it all.”

Soon he was buying sneakers on the cheap from Goodwill, creating his own designs, and making a profit reselling them.

As for his artistic alias, “C2,” the name is more accidental than intentional. When Hui began posting on a sneaker website forum, he was randomly assigned the user name “C2Hui.” Then when people began commenting, “C2, nice shoes!” the name stuck.

“It has a nice ring to it,” he says. "It’s short; it’s easy to paint. It actually ended up working quite well."

As the years have passed, C2 has gained a good share of fame, if not fortune. His clientele includes NBA superstar LeBron James, baseball stars Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, rapper Lupe Fiasco, and late-night TV host Carson Daly. His pieces have traveled the world in exhibitions, and he’s been featured in TIME and on Carson Daly.

A labor of love

Hui spends an average of about 10 hours per pair of sneakers, not counting design time, but some pairs have taken him considerably longer—up to 100 hours. Often, the time invested correlates with the celebrity involved.

“There are different situations that create a lot of stress,” Hui says, referring specifically to the pair of shoes he made for James, the Miami Heat megastar. “How do you create something unique for someone who has been given everything in life?”

Hui has yet to meet James, but he has fond memories of Fiasco. He made the performer’s sneakers before he had released a record, then asked to meet up with Fiasco before a show in Hui’s hometown of Milwaukee. Just as it seemed the two weren’t going to connect, Fiasco brought Hui backstage for a confab that lasted beyond when the show was supposed to start.

“It was a really humbling experience, because he was actually famous at this point,” Hui says. “And for him to remember the little guy was really cool and rewarding.”

‘C2’ … or just Chris

Let’s see … a backstage chat with Fiasco while thousands of fans stood waiting, features in TIME and on Carson Daly, and magazine photos of supermodels covering up with C2’s kicks. Heady stuff for a college student.

“It’s weird. Back home I originally was Chris Hui, and now they all call me C2 because I’m more known for my shoes,” he says. “Then I come to Minnesota and I’m Chris Hui again because I don’t really talk about it.”

For that matter, he’s had to scale down his creative output. “During school I’m lucky if I make a pair a month,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t have the time, it’s that I dedicate my time to just being a college student.”

He says he loves the U, and he appreciates the opportunities afforded him through the Carlson School. “They’ve been really supportive and almost overbearing in how much they prepare you for life after college,” Hui smiles.

His dream job would be to work for Nike. “That’s always been the dream, to work within a creative aspect of a business,” he says. “Not pure design, not a pure business position, but kind of a fusion of the two.”

And if a few more 15-minute hunks of fame come his way, so be it. C2 will still be Chris Hui at heart.

“It sounds kind of cliché, but it’s true—I really just go about my life, and this just happens to be part of it,” Hui says. “I try not to let it get to my head.”

Tags: Carlson School of Management

videoNew kicks for Goldy 

New kicks for Goldy

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Carlson School of Management

C2 Customs