Like the punk-rock style designer sneakers -- seemingly put together haphazardly with smatterings of paint and material -- that belie the painstaking work and conceptualization that go into each and every pair, there's more than meets the eye about international designer and artist, and owner of cult favourite sneaker label SBTG, Mark Ong.
"The SBTG stands for sabotage," the 33-year-old designer tells us brightly. "It was actually my branding as an artist which I created during a rebellious phrase when I was still in school." The name has stuck with him since, and he believed in the branding so much he's coined it his moniker. Mark "SBTG" Ong, he's known as.
But Ong's meteoric rise to fame on the international stage (his sneaker designs have attracted the likes of Kobe Bryant, Mike Shinoda and Joe Hahn of Linkin Park and he'd been invited to commission designs for industry giants like Nike, Casio and Gelaskins) isn't your typical "reformed kid" cliched story that you'd come to associate with an industry that's still considered part of a subculture movement. No, it wasn't a path wrought with difficulties, neither is there any tear-jerking story with unsupportive parents. Quite the opposite.
"My parents have always been very supportive," he says. "My dad is a talented and creative person who paints very well. He painted murals on every wall of our home."
In fact, Ong himself confesses that he was very lucky to have it really easy from the start. "I've never had to pitch for a single project ever since I started out eight years ago. My main difficulty was handling the people I worked with and expectations at first."
"I wasn't grateful for a lot of things, and I ended up burning some bridges," he elaborates, candidly. "But I'm glad those things happened when I was still in my early 20s, and I've learned much since."
A career born out of a love for skateboarding
Indeed, gone are the days where sneaker customization was a means to patching up shoes worn out from skateboarding. With a wild imagination and a budding artistic flair even as kid, Ong would paint crazy designs on shoes he collected. But it wasn't until after he won an international sneaker customization competition on the Nike Talk Forum that it occurred to him that this could be something that was viable as a career.
"After I won first prize at the competition, a store from Tokyo called me up to order 72 pairs of my shoes. An order that big was something that's completely unprecedented, even today. It then occurred to me that I could actually build a career out of this." SBTG was hence born, with Royalefam, the designing company behind it holding the reins.
These days, Ong, together with his wife and co-owner of Royalefam, Sue-Anne, works out of a good-sized workshop at an industrial area at Commonwealth. Each pair of sneakers commands at least S$1,000, and Royalefam has moved beyond just mere sneaker customization and other apparel.
"We have formulated a certain type of look for SBTG after all these years, and we would release designs that we consider classics," Ong explains. "We're not trying to sell a lot -- we're trying to sell cult classics."
And the workshop is their playground. The space is littered with pairs of vibrantly patterned or coloured sneakers, fabrics, tools, posters, and more significantly, not one or two, but three giant American flags draped across the rafters.
"I love America!" he enthuses, gesturing to a poster of punk-rock band The Misfits. "I was brought up on a culture of all things American. In fact, Royalefam positions itself as not a Singaporean company, but an international one."
And an international company it is indeed, judging by the widespread popularity of SBTG across the globe -- most of their orders come in from the United States. Ong's love and understanding for all things American, it seems, has paid off.
Working with Johnnie Walker on an unprecedented scale
With all of the success, Ong has been afforded the luxury of taking his pick of conglomerates who approach him to work him. And yes, he's turned down quite a few, citing "different vibes" as a reason. "I wouldn't work with a brand that doesn't resonate with me," he says.
Resonate he did, with Johnnie Walker, whose pioneering spirit convinced him of a working relationship. The whisky giant approached Ong early last year on the possibility of working together on a crowd-sourcing project. When the collaboration finally came to fruition late last year, it was a project on an unprecedented scale.
For the very first time ever, fans of Johnnie Walker in Singapore and Malaysia are invited to be part of the decision-making process of choosing the design of a limited edition Johnnie Walker Black Label bottle. The project, named Project Black Inspiration, features three designs by Ong based on the themes of "masculine", "authentic" and "pioneering", on which fans will be able to vote and give feedback to. With this feedback, Ong will then put together the final design to be released in April, and the most engaged fan will win a all-expenses paid trip to The Johnnie Walker House in Shanghai with three friends.
Lofty ambitions for the future
To most, Ong is living the dream -- after all, how many designers has, or would ever have, a portfolio as illustrious as the one he holds? But not one to rest on his laurels, Ong isn't satisfied with what could very well be a cushy job running Royalefam. His vision for the company in the next five years, is for them to be branded as visual artists.
"We hope to be represented by galleries, and have shows internationally. We want to do artwork for corporate companies -- we've already started doing paintings for the Facebook office in Singapore."
Lofty ambitions? Hold your horses -- that's just the tip of the iceberg of Ong's future plans.
"I want to design sneakers for the Singapore Armed Forces!" Undeterred by our somewhat stunned silence, he rambles on, enthusiasm palpable.
"I am a patriot, and I love doing things that promotes Singapore. As a designer, I see it as my duty to be part of creating a culture for Singapore. You get a lot more fulfilment when you formulate projects for the community."
And this isn't mere PR talk -- when asked if he'd rather design a pair of sneakers for Thorn Yorke, or for the Singapore army, he chose the latter. In fact, he has already pitched the idea to New Balance, and emphatically states that he'll continue trying until it happens.
"Well, what I really want to do is to paint a portrait of Lee Kuan Yew, but I'm not sure how he'd feel about that," he laughs. We're not sure either, but if there's anybody who has got the persistence and ambition to see his goals through, it's Mark Ong. Who knows, you might just see a bombastically different portrait of our ex-Minister Mentor one day -- you heard it here first.