DALLAS — Just months after leaving her job to support her business full-time, Akellia Stewart has collaborated with the largest sneaker retailer globally: Nike. The Air Max 90 in Picasso dropped on Nike’s website for sneakerheads and shoe lovers alike to purchase on Nov. 21.
“Someone reached out to me from a part of the team and asked if I was interested in an opportunity,” Stewart said of Nike. “So, of course, I said, ‘yes’ and I started creating. I created everything for it as far as my content, the design and how it looks to what it stands for.”
In the beginning, the Dallas native said she almost gave up. But, Stewart’s dream of having her design on a Nike sneaker kept her going. Although Stewart says the journey to creating the final product was “nervewracking,” it’s an experience she insists she’ll remember for a lifetime.
“I wanted to push myself,” she said. “So, I literally went in for two weeks of no sleep, late nights and just creating and creating and creating the look and how I liked it.”
After exhausting all of her ideas, Stewart’s inspiration for the Nike Air Max 90 came from a day out and about with her son. The process to create the theme of the shoe took about a month to complete.
“I was outside with my son playing and we ended sitting in the grass and it was these bugs that were around us that were driving us crazy,” she said. “I’d never seen them before. So, something told me to look up this bug, see what it’s about and so I looked it up and actually the name of my shoe is called Picasso and it’s based off of that bug.”
According to Stewart, after making her presentation to Nike, a weight was lifted off her shoulders, noting that her feedback on her concept for the Air Max 90 was “amazing.” The sneaker incorporates the colors – green, yellow, and red – of the insect native to parts of Africa.
“It was a great feeling,” she said. “It made me feel very accomplished. It was also a release and relief, because I was so nervous and I was literally making myself sick just thinking about it like making sure it was correct...making sure it was perfect. But, I knew that if I would just be my authentic self that everything would be okay.”
The shoe, sold at a retail price of $140, is sold out, per Nike’s website.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Stewart decided that, after seven years, she’d pursue her business, Customs By AK, full-time. But, after being unhappy in her former job, she knew it was time to make a change.
“I knew what made me happy was the art pieces I was doing on sneakers and so it just took that leap of faith,” she said. “It was the hardest decision of my life to leave a stable company and then decide to do my own business full-time, which was very scary. But, it was the best decision I’ve done.”
Before going full-time, Stewart admits she missed out on multiple gigs since they’d conflict with her work schedule.
“Literally the next week is when I got that call from the Dallas Mavericks to do a big event for them and it just kind of showed me that maybe this is your calling, you prayed for it, you asked for it, and now it’s coming to life and now just go on 100%,” she said. “So, I did and I went running and as soon as I went full-time, I was on it each and every day. I treated it like it was a big company and doors started opening. People wanted my art and my work represented within their company as well.”
And, for Stewart, the last year has been a whirlwind of opportunities that she hopes continues into the new year.
“The end of 2019 and 2020 was probably my biggest year as far as collaborating and creating content with my art pieces on different companies’ platforms and programs,” she said. “That really helped expand my business as well.”
As a young girl growing up, Stewart used art as a form of entertainment and expression.
“It was a way to get my feelings and thoughts out,” she said. “I guess I became stronger at it, because I worked on it each and every day.”
Being an only child forced her to tap into her creative genes, growing her love for all things art. Today, one can see Customs By AK on more than just a pair of sneakers. She has designed artwork for companies, and customers have requested her designs on leather goods, canvases, clothing, purses, and wallets. Plus, her design can be seen throughout the community at various events, including paint and sneaker parties.
“I don’t like to put myself in a box,” she said. “I try to create anything from anything. I like to take different materials and art pieces or things within your house and turn them into art pieces.”
Seven years ago, a friend and Dallas Cowboys player would challenge her to a bet, changing her life forever as a custom shoe designer.
“We saw something on TV and we were like ‘that’s kind of cool’ and it was someone’s customized sneakers,” Stewart said. “But, I always designed sneakers like just hand-drawing and he was like ‘I bet you can’t do that’ and I was like ‘I bet I can’ and he was like ‘if you can create a custom shoe and kill it, I’ll help you start off your business’.”
As one can imagine, Stewart didn’t back down from the challenge. Instead, she customized a sneaker, leaving others hoping she’d lend her customization skills to their shoe game next. Over the next seven years, she’d design mainly Nike sneakers for others, which she believes helped her land a chance to collaborate with the sneaker brand this year.
“With him being an athlete, word got around and things just took off for me,” she said. “I just continued to design different art pieces on people’s sneakers. It was getting to the point where I was getting asked to do events, travel around the world for certain things and projects and it just continued to grow and grow.”
As far as what’s next for the artist, Stewart plans to one day open a center geared towards giving youth a creative space to explore. With a mission of “changing soles one shoe at a time,” she wants to provide them with the chance to grow through art.
“My goal is to be able to start a program where children can come and it'd be a safe haven for them to come and express themselves and relax,” she said. “It’s kind of like a counselor in art form. It allows them to have a safe space where if they feel like they need it, they can come and just relax, speak their mind, create and be involved with other children.”
Knowing first hand the importance of creative expression as a child, Stewart hopes her artistic journey inspires the next generation to create beyond their wildest dreams.
“I just want people to understand that my art is bigger than me and it’s not just for me,” she said. “It’s for others, for children and for our youth. My goal is to inspire our youth in art form to be able to express themselves just like it was for me.”