Ting Lun Lai remembers the year he began playing basketball not as his freshman year of high school, but as 1999 — the year Paul Pierce made the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team.
While Lai recalled that it was hard to watch basketball games during his childhood in Taiwan, his love for the sport and Michael Jordan — whom he calls the “G.O.A.T.,” short for greatest of all time — persisted.
“I was intrigued by what basketball has to offer not only as a sport but as a culture,” he said. “And the same passion goes towards sneakers as well.”
I realized that if you are not born in the States, you need a medium to connect with others.
Lai wasn’t allowed to wear basketball shoes outside of his PE classes, but after he moved abroad to study in Canada, he began collecting them, he said. He called Air Jordans, made by Nike, “the holy grail.”
As he studied — first a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and then a master’s in architecture — Lai began to dive into sneaker culture, where he is best known as “Ting Meister.” Eventually, Lai began customizing shoes after growing “disappointed” in 2013 that the market was being driven by resellers.
The systematic nature of his engineering classes, he noted, heavily influenced his shoe-making process, which he described as “very logical and rational.”
“Making a pair of shoes is like building a house,” Lai said. “Craftsmanship, attention to detail and dedication make a huge difference.”
The project that first brought him notoriety in the fashion community bore the name of his basketball hero: a pair of Air Jordan 3s, made over in khaki, denim and brown leather. Last April, the shoes were featured prominently on Hypebeast, a streetwear fashion site, and garnered Lai a partnership with nicekicks.com, a site focused solely on sneaker culture.
“I strongly believe that great things will happen as a result of staying focused on what I enjoy doing,” Lai said of his success. “And that was exactly what happened in 2017.”
His latest project to garner attention, called “History of Hmong,” pays tribute to the Hmong-American community by incorporating traditional designs into a pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers. One of Lai's clients, a Hmong-American man, approached him with a commission for a pair of shoes that he could dedicate to the Hmong American Association and a Hmong-American celebration scheduled to place in Minneapolis later this spring.
To create the project, Lai found inspiration in a photo of a Hmong-American girl dancing in traditional garb and was struck by how the beads and embellishments of her dress were “flying in the air,” he said. The final pair of shoes features 288 hand-braided beads along with Hmong fabrics, red silk, and the stars and stripes of the American flag.
The decision to combine American and traditional Hmong design elements, was, for Lai, “especially interesting and meaningful” because it allowed him to represent the multiple facets of the Hmong-American community, a large part of which came to the U.S. as refugees after the Vietnam War after fighting for the U.S. in Laos.
“The American Flag plays an important role in the design, as it relates directly to the history and tradition that they preserved, and how it had merged and rooted deeply in America,” Lai said.
Each of Lai’s projects is influenced by his career in architecture. Although he believes he could pursue shoe design full time, Lai said architecture allows him to “keep learning every day.”
“Architecture is a lot more complicated in many aspects, from design to engineering to clients relationships to coordination to humanity,” he said. “Each project has its own unique site, scale and lifetime. I consider building a pair of shoes as a small architectural project.”
Lai worked on 18 shoe projects in 2017, he said, and has three projects currently in process. He also plans to experiment in his future pieces, incorporating elements such as small lights or motors.
After moving to Boston in 2016, Lai met “The Shoe Surgeon,” a pioneer of shoe customization, during a visit to Brooklyn. Lai learned basic techniques and began building upon that knowledge on his own.
“I never stopped searching and researching,” he said. “I would speak to local cobblers, visit new shops, call specialists for formulas, and that is what I am still continuing to do.”
Ultimately, Lai’s career in shoe design is the culmination of multiple factors: his studies in engineering and architecture; his childhood love for a sport, its players, and its culture; and the challenges he faced, moving first from Taiwan to Canada as a teen and then from Canada to the United States.
“I realized that if you are not born in the States, you need a medium to connect with others.” Lai said. “Other than architecture, sneaker was a great medium. It is like music and art. There is no boundary among races and different social statuses around a shoe topic.”