Behind the scenes at Converse's in-store 'Blank Canvas' customization shop

If you ever wanted to wear your name, your kid’s doodle, or 1,000 gold studs on your Converse sneakers, now you can. The brand is taking its most popular shoe, the Chuck Taylor, as the foundation of a personalized in-store experience for customers.

Converse opened a “Blank Canvas” workshop inside it New York City Soho store on Thursday, where customers can make appointments to sit down with a Converse designer and create a custom pair of sneakers. The company closed down the location to build out the workshop as well as add more retail space: now 11,000 square feet, the location is Converse’s biggest global store.

Brandon Avery, Converse’s global creative director of direct to consumer, said that the workshop is meant to feel like a more personal, prestigious experience, but that doesn’t make it exclusive.

“We like to say it’s the best kept secret that everyone knows about,” said Avery. “It’s democratic, but elevated and premium.”

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The Blank Canvas workshop.

The basement workshop is equipped with a bar lined with tablets where guests can sit down and scroll through fonts, patterns, logos and images that can be printed on the canvas. On the walls is a display of what some personalized Converses look like when finished: sprinkled with paint splatters, outfitted with colorful laces and eyelets, imprinted with an NYC logo. Customers can also send a personal image to the workshop via email to have their own art printed on the shoes.

The Converse designer behind the bar talks through the design’s color, placement, and details before the shoe is headed to production. Because the workshop creations start with an existing sneaker silhouette, the designs are finished and returned to the customer that day. Customizations add between $25-45 on top of the price of the shoes. You can also get your print-of-choice emblazoned across a t-shirt.

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A designer laces up a pair of personalized sneakers behind the workshop bar.

Printing presses for graphics, spools of different colored shoelaces, and a station for finishing the custom kicks with different eyelets and studs adds a visual experience to the store, even for customers not making shoes themselves. It gives the basement space the buzzing energy of a workshop in action.

The customization space is a real-life iteration of the Blank Canvas capability on Converse.com. There, customers can design their own sneakers from scratch (similar to offerings from Nike, Reebok and Puma), starting with the color of the rubber and finishing with the eyelets and laces. Avery said that the in-store experience is meant to feel more hands on, as each customer gets one-on-one time with a designer, and, unlike online, can bring their own designs to the table.

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The work area, where shows are printed with graphics and patterns.

By October, Converse hopes to enhance the design experience by imitating the built-from-scratch experience that exists online, incorporating new materials and rubbers in the shoe making process on top of the creative design elements.

“We’re going to see how far we can go with the hands-on journey,” said Avery. “We’re considering the next phase to be our ‘pinnacle’ experience.”

For retailers, adding an experiential element to stores has become a tactic in driving foot traffic. At Sephora, customers can mix and match their favorite notes — floral, wood — as they create their own signature perfumes. Beauty subscription company Birchbox, which started online-only, is opening physical retail stores that let shoppers build their own Birchbox beauty boxes from an assortment of products.

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A designer takes apart an existing pair of sneakers for customization.

At Converse, a retail space inside its Boston headquarters serves as a testing ground for new in-store initiatives. There, the Blank Canvas space has been up and running for almost a year. Avery said it acted as a “proof of concept,” especially when it came to zeroing in on the personal touches.

“We’ve noticed the importance of specialized details, especially the ones that are specific to that city,” said Avery, who added that in Boston, personalized sneakers are printed with a red stripe down the sole to symbolize the historic Freedom Trail. Similar touches will be added in the Soho store that are unique to New York, but Converse wouldn’t say what just yet.

“That makes it exclusive — you can only get that product here, in store. That draws people in,” he said.

Images taken by Caity Arthur