The first time Isaiah Kelly sat down in his garage with a pair of secondhand Nikes and a paint kit from Walmart, money wasn’t on his mind. The former all-state football player, fresh off a summer job at Shoe Carnival and heading into his freshman year at Northern Kentucky University, wanted to create something special — something that looked good.
$10,000 says he succeeded. When Kelly graduates from NKU in May, it’ll be as a business owner with clients all over the planet.
“It’s a dream come true, honestly,” he said Friday night. “It’s been really cool. … I mean, honestly, I think it’s definitely been a huge blessing to be able to express my creativity and really just put it on a canvas that you can wear and walk around with.”
Kelly’s company, Smoove Creations, began in his garage but found customers on Instagram. When he posted pictures of the secondhand shoes he had restored and painted, often with bright, eye-catching designs, his friends and family wanted their own. He took commissions at first.
Then people he didn’t know started getting in touch.
“Once I received more notoriety for them, I started to take it more seriously and consider it potentially a business,” he said.
The INKubator, a business accelerator for NKU students, helped him figure out the rest. He officially launched Smoove Creations in May 2019. By the end of the year, his team had grown to eight people, begun incorporating embroidery into its designs and moved $10,000 in high-end customized shoes.
Their customers included people as far away as Australia and as famous as Raiders middle linebacker Preston Brown, who ordered a pair of custom cleats. That was a tough one, Kelly said.
“Not only do you have to make the cleats really creative, but you also have to make them durable for an NFL football game,” he said. “There’s, like, high-profile athletes who weigh 300 pounds, so you obviously don’t want the cleats chipping on national TV.”
He managed it. He also donated 10 pairs of custom shoes to the Cincinnati Children’s Home for the 2019 holiday season.
In the future, Kelly said, he hopes to expand Smoove Creations’ customization to include other types of apparel, incuding hats and clothing items.
For now, he’s focused on graduation and growth. Although the business was a byproduct of his private summer hobby, he acknowledged he never would have been able to make it viable without help from NKU and the people who supported him.
“The reaction’s been a huge blessing,” he said. “I’ve received a huge amount of support that I was not expecting, especially within the INKUBATOR.
“I remember when I was on my kitchen table or in my garage, just doing this as a hobby,” he added. “I didn’t even do this for money. I didn’t really care if this blew up, but it’s a huge blessing to be able to take my passion and develop this to where it turns into a team.”