Student Spotlight: Student-owned business Catlett Customs brings creative shoes to UI campus

University of Iowa freshmen Stanley Liu and Johnny Diaz created Catlett Customs, a personalized shoe company, to help students artistically express themselves through their sneakers.



Tatiana Plowman, Arts Reporter

As a first-year student on the pre-pharmacy track, Stanley Liu searched for a way to engage his creative side at the University of Iowa. Since high school, he’d had an interest in shoes and graphic design, partially due to a high school friend who showed him pictures of designed shoes. He said he loved the idea of personalized sneakers and decided to bring that idea to life through a student-owned business, Catlett Customs.

Liu met his partner Johnny Diaz, a fellow first-year student also on the pre-pharmacy track, during his first few weeks on campus in the fall. The pair quickly realized that, with their aligned interests, a shoe design company could be possible.

The name Catlett Customs stems from two sources of inspiration. Liu lives in Catlett Residence Hall, the newest housing addition to the UI campus. He also found inspiration from UI alum Elizabeth Catlett, world-renowned sculptor and printmaker, for whom the residence hall was named.

“The name came naturally. Catlett’s contributions to the art world are remarkable and living in the building surrounded by her art serves as a huge inspiration for us,” Liu said. “Plus, the sound of the name just sounded right.”

The duo initially struggled with the logistics of operating a business. Neither had previous experience with anything business-related. They hired other team members to assist with shoe painting, communications, and photography.

RELATED: Student Spotlight: University of Iowa men’s gymnast creates video series depicting team’s final season

“There were so many little components that we didn’t initially prepare for,” Diaz said. “As business beginners, we did a lot of guessing and hoping that we would get the right outcome.”

Catlett Customs aims to “revolutionize the sneaker industry through artistic expression,” as stated on the business’ website. People interested in custom shoes can either select a pre-set design or work with an artist on developing a design that fits their interests best.

Some of the pre-set designs that students can order for their shoes include blue butterflies, a Chicago Cubs-themed shoe, and — to show school spirit — a Hawkeye-themed shoe. While the designs are shown on a Nike Air Force One sneaker, the team can also paint the designs on other types of shoes, like Vans.

Liu said collaboration is one of the team’s most prominent goals, and because the painters have such a diverse array of artistic strengths, he said they are able to make each customer’s idea fully come to life.

The six artists on the Catlett Customs team are all UI students. Their roles in the business are to help draft designs graphically on the computer and help translate them to the physical medium. Liu and Diaz oversee this process and help the artists come up with new designs. Diaz said he has seen his ideas come to life in a way he never thought was possible.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Liu and his team have made adaptations to safely deliver their products. The business currently does not sell the shoes directly, only the customizations. Customers drop off their shoes to the Catlett Residence Hall front desk to deliver to Liu’s room. From there, the team properly cleans the shoes and paints them. The customer and Liu then discuss how to safely deliver the shoes back to the customer. Initially, each customization cost $100, but has since been lowered to $50, because college students were struggling to pay that amount.

“Receiving our first sale was a huge accomplishment,” Liu said. “We have had a lot of other people interested as well, and in order to best serve them we changed our prices.”

The duo takes orders both through their website and Instagram, and voiced their hope that, when the pandemic clears, they will be able to do public demonstrations of their projects in the Iowa City downtown area.

“We are just getting started,” Liu said, “and we hope to continue years down the road.”