Tommy Peng—he’s a ‘sole’ man

Senior Tommy Peng weaves through a crowd of people in the vast market in Guangzhou, China, in search of his desired merchandise.

Peng glides past exotic leathers, fabrics and animal skins—noting especially the fish skins on display—to arrive at a stand where he purchases some leathers.

He pauses and mentally checks his shopping list.

A straight-hair wig? Check.

Geese, chicken and duck feathers? Check.

Satisfied that he’s collected all materials needed, Peng hops on a bus.

On the way home, he thinks about how to assemble his very own high-heeled shoes using the materials.

Over the summer, Peng interned at a shoe factory—Global Shoe Concepts Corporation—where he learned how to make high heels.

To others, it may seem like Peng did it for fun, as a time-filler or simply because he could, since his father is the owner of the factory.

But for Peng the internship was a necessity—a step closer to his childhood dream of becoming a designer.

“I got this idea from a famous designer—Alexander McQueen. He really likes to do his designs with death, such as skulls and skeletons. I was inspired by him and tried to do something from him in order to glorify him. The skull I was modeling after had its tongue out; that’s why the inside of the shoe is red. This one was actually really hard to make because it required a special type of vegetable-tanned leather. I used that leather to cut up the pattern of the skull. I needed to heat it up and play with it like clay. It cools down really quickly, so I had to heat it up again and wait for it to cool.”

Peng has been a talented art student for many years.

“He’s very skilled in using a variety of art mediums,” art teacher Patricia Kelly said. “He has a good eye for composition and design.”

But Peng wants to go beyond art, which he finds different from design.

“Art is a scaled thing,” he said. “You borrow ideas from images and use them to tell a story.

“In design, you express the idea with a story of the product, the story that you want to tell people, the story that is too strong to be expressed through words.”

Peng also finds that he can use more of his imagination through design, exemplified by the six pairs of high heels that he made last summer.

His internship wasn’t Peng’s first experience with design.

In summer of 2011 Peng was also in Guangzhou, interning at ex-Prada shoe designer Ajoy Sahu’s studio, RADDISSHMe.

Though he eventually wants to design all kinds of clothing and accessories, Peng decided shoes were a good place to start.

By the end of that internship, Peng had designed one pair of flip-flops and three pairs of high heels, including one that was inspired by the Water Cube in Beijing.

In 2012, Peng wanted to go a step further.

“After I learned the designing aspect, I wanted to know how shoes are actually made,” he said.

Peng also thought he could use this opportunity to “build up (his) college portfolio.”

First, Peng had to create 20 shoe designs. He took ideas from everything around him and sketched the 3-D images of what the shoes would look like on a piece of paper.

Ten designs were chosen, and of those, four were eliminated for being unrealistic.

The next step was to produce the shoes. At first, Peng simply gave the six remaining designs to the “masters” of the factory, who handmade the prototypes while showing Peng every step.

“A prototype is no different from the finished product,” he said. “We just use cheaper materials or something that can be replaced so we can fix it.”

However, Peng wasn’t satisfied with the prototypes.

“They were usually crappy, and sometimes you can’t tell they’re your original designs,” Peng said.

So Peng worked with the masters on fixing the shoes for the second prototypes, but those were just as disappointing.

Peng then decided to get involved himself.

First, Peng had to flatten out the six designs in 2-D.

To do that, he placed strips of painter’s tape on a shoe last (a model of a human foot) and drew the designs on it. He then took off the tapes, laid them flat and copied the 2-D design on cardboard.

“I got this idea from an iPhone case. For iPhone cases, we can switch them all the time depending on our moods. With this pair of shoes, you can change the straps. I’ve made blue and orange ones, and if this pair was for sale, we could just sell the straps themselves. The hard part of making this pair was how I was going to put the straps on the shoes because I didn’t have room there. I needed to put the buttons on the shoes, so I added extra leather, which was unusual. I designed it for a special someone.”

Then, he put the cardboard over a piece of leather to cut out the “flattened” designs in one piece. He took the leather, put them on the shoe last and bound the extra leather to the bottom of the inner shoe sole with glue or staples.

According to Peng, gluing the leather in place was a very easy step to make mistakes, and when mistakes were made, the shoes were sometimes placed into the oven to melt the glue or the refrigerator to cool the shoes or hold their shapes.

Next, Peng placed the outer soles on top of the inner soles.

“Folding the extra leather underneath the inner sole was the hardest part because you need to stretch it really hard or otherwise the shoes would look loose when you take out the shoe last,” he said. “The shoes won’t look nice.”

Then he had to attach the heels, which was done by sticking a screw into the bottom back of the shoes and stabilizing it. Finally, he finished off the shoes with their individual designs.

Making the shoes was no easy task, Peng said, especially when he had to choose materials himself from the huge material market.

“Although I’m not picky in terms of my academic grades, I do care about the little mistakes of my designs,” he said.

But Peng sees the process as a necessary experience.

“If you want to be a designer, you have to go through (the process) without complaining,” he said. “I think it’s important to know all the steps.”

Three prototypes later, Peng finally ended up with the versions of the shoes that he was happy with.

Peng debuted the six pairs of high heels to Jane Brady, the assistant director of undergraduate admission at California College of the Arts, Oct. 23, and received praise.

“I was immediately impressed with the sculptural elements and craftsmanship,” Brady said in an email.

“My first thought was while he had designed them, he must have had someone else produce them. To my surprise he had produced them himself!

“It is uncommon to see functional sculpture in a freshman portfolio.”

Peng hopes to receive similar praise when he applies to Parsons The New School for Design in New York City—his dream school.

And in the future, Peng plans on working with famous fashion houses before building his own.

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