Look: $500,000 sneakers unveiled at Expo 2020 Dubai

These shoes are hand-painted using chicken feathers

— Supplied photo
— Supplied photo

Anjana Sankar

Published: Tue 2 Nov 2021, 4:37 PM

Last updated: Tue 2 Nov 2021, 4:40 PM

A pair of custom-designed sneakers — worth half a million dollars — was unveiled at the South Africa Pavilion this week, just before the designer kicks embarked on a world tour. It will return to Louvre Abu Dhabi later.

The sneakers designed by 85-year-old contemporary artist Esther Mahlangu will be showcased at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, followed by London, and then the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

“We’ll return to the UAE to the Louvre Abu Dhabi soon,” said Prince Mthethwa, founder of South African shoe company Ayashisa Amateki, who commissioned Mahlangu seven years ago to design the sneakers.

The South African pavilion is currently showcasing 11 different custom-made sneakers reflecting the 11 official languages practised by the country’s diverse population: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Venda and Tsonga.

“These sneakers represent the diversity of South Africa. The shoes also have a cultural context as they are hand-painted using chicken feathers, a dying art in South Africa,” Mthethwa told Khaleej Times.

Today, less than 50 masons are practising this craft, he said.

“We use only use chicken from Ndebele region, which produces the best free-range chicken. So, that is how we have the best quality of brushes. It’s difficult to paint; you need to exercise patience.”


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Launching the designer sneakers, Mthethwa said, is the best way to connect the younger generation with the South African culture.

“Young people connect through sneakers. When they meet someone, they first check out their sneakers and decide whether they want to connect with that person...So, we are using sneakers as a medium to connect.” he said.

“Sneakers are the new museum. That is where you see culture,” added Mthethwa.

According to one of the artists, Thato Kokwana, the rise of sneaker culture is unstoppable, which is why collaborations like this are so significant.

“Millennials and the Gen Z have a connection with sneakers. When you walk down the street, or when someone starts talking to you, they automatically look at your shoes,” he said.

The chicken-feather painted designer kicks, Mthethwa said, is attracting attention from customers worldwide, especially from Japan, China and the Gulf region.

“People want to own a masterpiece. We can incorporate any design they want to have on their sneakers. We had an order to make a diamond-crusted shoes from a Gulf citizen. We are currently doing a Nike Dunks which costs Dh5,000 for a customer in Dubai.”

The rising popularity of sneaker culture prompted Mthethwa to launch the Sneaker Designer Academy in Pretoria five years ago.

“I take in students and train them for six months if they have prior designing experience. Otherwise, I train them for one year. Once they finish training, they are sent to China to work in our shoe factory to understand everything about shoe-making and custom designing,” said Mthethwa.

As for the shoes displayed at the South Africa Pavilion, he said the sneakers will be right at home at Expo 2020 Dubai. “We are where the whole world is,” he said.


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