Mark Ong SBTG
People Published: November 28, 2018 Updated: December 4, 2018  |  WORDS: Amirul Shazzani  |  PHOTOS: Mari Martinez

Pioneering Singapore’s custom sneaker scene: 10 questions with Mark Ong SBTG

There’s no questioning the legendary status of Mark Ong SBTG in Singapore’s sneaker scene.

Mark Ong SBTG
Mark Ong SBTG has been in the sneaker customizing business for 15 years

It started with one man’s desire to replicate the colorways of his favorite sneakers. Fifteen years on, after winning a competition on the Nike Talk Forum, Mark’s SBTG brand is now world-renowned, putting its stamp on collaborations with major footwear brands and boasting customers like Mike Shinoda.

Mark Ong SBTG is not the kind to rest on his laurels. Despite being one of the pioneering sneaker customizers in the world, he has his eyes set on continuing to tell stories through his custom sneaker designs. In fact, the next of his sneaker collaborations drops December 1 at Culture Cartel. Dubbed Monsoon Patrol, the pack is a three-way collab between Asicstiger, Singapore sneaker store Limited Edt and SBTG.

We met with Mark to talk more about Monsoon Patrol, his art and storytelling. Here are the key points from our discussion.

mark ong sbtg monsoon patrol
Mark has an upcoming collaboration with ASICSTIGER and Limited Edt, dubbed Monsoon Patrol, set to drop Dec 1
Asicstiger

Congratulations on your upcoming collaboration with Asicstiger and Limited Edt. It seems very practical, especially for the wetter season. What inspired the Monsoon Patrol collection?

I wouldn’t have done anything differently because everything is a learning curve. I view it as a journey, not a destination.”
– Mark Ong SBTG

Monsoon Patrol is a collection I imagined when I was in Tokyo visiting Asics’ office for the first collaboration with Kicks Lab. It was raining at the time and if it rains in Japan, most of the time it lasts the entire day. I remember by the end of it, my toes were all wet and I told a friend right after that, “For the next collaboration, I have to design a shoe that can be protected from the rain.” That’s what sparked the idea. What’s funny though, the chosen silhouette is the Gel-Lyte III and it has that split tongue which makes creating a waterproof shoe difficult. But I like to push the boundaries of manufacturing so we went through my past work and I realized that I always put a cover over my shoes. It’s like a little contribution I would add to a shoe, instead of simply tweaking the colorways, which, unfortunately, is what most brands do. Also, I wanted a second colorway from the first Asics shoe I did which was mostly beige. The idea was to flip the colors to predominantly olive – a little bit more military and very SBTG.

Mark Ong SBTG
Mark took elements of his past work, such as the shoe cover, as inspiration for his upcoming waterproof collaboration sneaker

Please talk us through your design process for the Monsoon Patrol collection. Does the same design process apply to all of your collaborations?
Mostly it starts in the head. I’ll ask myself, “What’s needed?” I’ve been designing shoes for the past 15 years and the process is the same for me. I can imagine 80 to 90 per cent of the design in my head and then it’s sort of executing it on the computer. It probably takes me about a day or two to design a collaboration sneaker. I also don’t usually sketch my ideas, because I can’t see color from sketching. At most, I will simply doodle a description on a note. I get to travel a lot as well, so I rely on my trips to spark new inspiration and ideas which is exactly how I conceived the idea for Monsoon Patrol.

What are the factors that you consider before deciding to collaborate with a brand?
First of all, I see sneakers as pieces of art. There’s no paragraph or anything to explain it. Hence, I must be able to tell a story that will explain the design and the reason for the collaboration. At the end of the day, the success or failure of the collaboration is dictated by the story.

As you said, there’s always a story behind a sneaker collaboration. How do you think sneakers have evolved to become one of the most creative storytelling vehicles these days?
Stories basically connect people, which in the end translates to culture. People have different formats and medium to convey their message. For me, it’s sneakers. I use my design to tell stories and sometimes even slip in secret messages. This ties back to the SBTG concept of camouflage which is why I took to camouflage to express my messages in the first place – it’s hidden in plain sight. Even with our logo, it’s an Arabic script which actually just says “SBTG”. I didn’t want people to be able to read what I’m wearing and there’s a saying, “If you know, you know”. Even guys who can read Arabic script would be confused. It’s really taking the concept of camouflage to another level.

Mark Ong SBTG
The SBTG workspace featuring the Arabic script logo (bottom right)

You’ve worked with sneakers and seen trends come and go for over a decade. What are your thoughts on sneaker culture in Singapore?
I guess in Asia and most places these days, 90 per cent of the population follow celebrity culture, trends and the hype phenomenon. But back then it was different. Plus, there weren’t many sneakers to go around. It all boils down to a different point of view between the now and the then. I do feel that the culture has grown. It’s an important time in history where the culture has transformed into such an amazing and expressive state.

You are considered the pioneer in Singapore’s custom sneaker design scene. How does it make you feel to be respected and admired by artists and sneakerheads alike?
It definitely feels great. Like Limited Edt and I, we are part of a smaller percentage who are pushing culture and boundaries by creating original designs, plus getting the opportunities to work with brands such as Asics to come up with new shoes, to tell stories and call it our own. We are very fortunate to be writing history in Singapore’s sneaker culture.

Mark Ong SBTG
15 years in the business has seen Mark Ong SBTG put his signature touch on a variety of sneakers

I hope that people will start questioning trends when they see what we do and our rebellious spirit. We have not taken the easy route to do our stuff. Hopefully, people will appreciate that and have a little bit of that spirit in them as well.”

Can you share with us some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Learning the business side of things, I would say, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently because everything is a learning curve. I view it as a journey, not a destination.

What are the moments that you have taken special pride in?
I have to say that I’m actually proud of the Prime Minister mention at the 2018 National Day rally. When I first got the call, I thought to myself, “Did I get into trouble?”. Honestly, I didn’t know what to feel at first but obviously, it’s a huge deal. It was a great experience being among the crowd seated for the speech and I even had a photo op with the PM. Another proud moment has to be the custom sneaker for Kobe Bryant 10 years ago. Nike got me to do it as a national gift when he visited Singapore at the time. And recently, I did one for Steph Curry too. Looking back, in a space of ten years, I had the chance to design a shoe for two NBA champions. But of course, I came from the Michael Jordan era and I’m still waiting for the day I get to customize a sneaker for him. If I were to actually do it though, it would definitely have to be a collection, not just one.

If there’s one thing you could do differently, or one advice you could give your younger self, what would it be?
One thing would be choosing a different material for the Nike SB collab I designed as the toe box cracked. But yet, it’s fine because everything has an expiry date. The end of one shoe could well be the beginning of something new. You’ll never know. As for advice, I don’t have one for myself, but if I were to give advice to someone, I’d say, never keep an idea in your head. Let it out and execute it. Even if you fail, at least you know that you’ve done it and you can move on.

Mark Ong SBTG
Mark’s reputation also landed him a monumental collab with Nike SB back in 2006

What would be the defining characteristic you hope people see when they look at your entire body of work?
I want them to see that we have been pushing hard to actively not follow trends all these years. It’s definitely easy to follow trends but at the same time, you don’t get to define yourself. When people follow trends, it seems like nobody questions why. I hope that people will start questioning trends when they see what we do and our rebellious spirit. We have not taken the easy route to do our stuff. Hopefully, people will appreciate that and have a little bit of that spirit in them as well.

Keep up with Mark Ong SBTG on Instagram to check out his incredible custom sneaker designs. Also, stay tuned for more details on the upcoming Asicstiger x Limited Edt x SBTG Monsoon Patrol collection.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more: “The Ultimate Sneaker Book” is 650 pages of sneaker geekery, fun facts and fresh photos