If today’s currency of cool are sneakers, then you can consider SBTG as something of a legend.

That’s the moniker of Mark Ong, the homegrown sneaker artist who pretty much placed Singapore on the map as a legitimate streetwear capital. He did it by taking iconic sneakers (especially those by Nike, at the beginning) and laboriously injecting them with a rebellious attitude by way of camouflage brushwork and graffiti-inspired tweaks.

He did it so well that now, two decades from when he started, his one-man sneaker customisation show has transformed into a full-blown operation, complete with a workshop that he helms alongside his wife, Sue-Anne Lim (or Mrs SBTG). It’s out of that mythical workshop that SBTG has produced custom kicks for the likes of Mike Shinoda and the late Kobe Bryant, or dreamed up distinctive designs for his many, many collaborations with sportswear giants.

That includes his latest one with New Balance and Limited Edt, Singapore’s cult sneaker boutique chain. It’s called “Urban Islander”, which is a nod to the inherently Singaporean contradiction of a modern metropolis that doubles as the perfect tropical island getaway.

The collection is made up of stuff that would suit both: breezy shirts, tote bags, towels and socks, all featuring a pineapple print that’s not really what it seems. (More on that later.) The real stars are the shoes, of course; there’s a pair of New Balance 327 sneakers and a pair of 900 sandals, both remixed by SBTG with camouflage and pineapple patterns, as well as surprising material combinations like suede and nylon.

It’s the kind of DIY, rule-breaking approach you would expect from someone whose first loves are punk rock and skateboarding. Below, SBTG himself tells us more about the Urban Islander collection, and the relationship between streetwear and Singapore.

What was the starting point for the Urban Islander collection?

It was some time in 2019 when the former country manager for New Balance Singapore and I wanted to start a project together. We were offered to design the 850 sneakers and had already proceeded with the concept and sampling process.

What is your idea of an “Urban Islander”? Do you consider yourself one?

In my design practice, I had already loved the approach of fusing elements of opposite spectrums to evoke a new feeling. I started to think of what Singapore is, and how it can fit that approach. The concept is pretty self-explanatory and yes, I do consider myself an Urban Islander.

The Urban Islander tote bag. (Photo credit: New Balance)
The Urban Islander tote bag. (Photo credit: New Balance)

What’s with all the pineapples in the collection?

The pineapples were referenced from a Hawaiian shirt that my brother had. I wanted to throw in a hidden element where they were actually grenades. I got the idea when I was having the flaming pineapple beef dish in Dragon Chamber and decide to create it visually.

What do you like about the New Balance 327 silhouette?

I love the 327 as it was already intended to be asymmetric, allowing me to express my concept very well. I also love the angular silhouette of the midsole from the top down. The collection ended up being very asymmetric, featuring different patterns on the panels that communicate the opposite spectrums.

What is your favourite piece from the collection?

The collection exists as a whole so it’s very hard to choose. For example, the pockets of the bag were meant to store the sandals. The towels are lightweight and super compact to bring out. The aloha shirts are my favourite thing to wear now for our weather… you see how hard it is for me to choose? I guess my favourite thing is that I got to work with friends to push out this successful project.

Towels from the Urban Islander collection. (Photo credit: New Balance)
Towels from the Urban Islander collection. (Photo credit: New Balance)

How has your business changed in 2020?

The pandemic has actually given me the opportunity to recalibrate my business. One of the many changes is how we drop our products. We now do a raffle to purchase programme where we gather a collective interest to buy a certain design and pick only what we can produce based on the quantity of shoes we can gather to fulfil. This approach spikes the excitement level of the customers and they feel extremely happy, like they won something. We also do random sample creation drops so each design stays unique and limited.

What do you think of the sneaker scene in Singapore today?

Sneaker culture has become mainstream and it has become hard to buy sneakers at retail, but there is an overall excitement in the scene and the audience is much wider. As much as there is a downside, there are positive vibes too, so I will say that it is what it is and I have chosen to move together with it. I’m excited that there have been way more designer collabs on sneakers now. It’s what I hoped for back when I started, so I’m pleased.

The Urban Islander 327 sneakers (Photo credit: New Balance)
The Urban Islander 327 sneakers (Photo credit: New Balance)

What do you think will be the next big thing in the sneaker world?

It’s hard to say, but I feel that sneaker customisers are taking over slowly now. Any sort of unorthodox ideas that brands themselves wouldn’t roll out would start to exist in the form of customisations. And as long as they exist, people will have a chance to gravitate towards it and form a collective consciousness that isn’t dictated by the brands.

Virtual fashion, including sneakers, is on the rise. What do you make of that?

I think, good or bad, we need to try to know. I personally am excited for it and I’m actually working with a virtual being for my next collaboration.

What have you been inspired by lately?

I’ve been inspired by the thought of scaling my ideas and allowing my business to stay reactionary. I’ve been listening to many audio books on consumer psychology.

What are you looking forward to in 2021?

I’m looking forward to executing what I learned this year on a bigger scale next year, and to operate very efficiently with my projects.

 

Header photo credit: New Balance

Shop the Urban Islander collection here

Pameyla Cambe
Senior Writer
Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.