If you walk to the end of the brick and concrete hallway of The Gasket Alley and make a left through a narrow corridor, you’ll find Dirt Army — a cool shop that cleans and customises sneakers, caps and bags. I speak to three of their founders over teh tarik about how it all began. Azizul Hanem had started a shoe-cleaning shop in Taman Tun about three years back. “Cleaning was the main thing but we did customise sometimes,” he says.
He was approached by Aaron Lau and Cheong HH who wanted to rebrand the business to focus on artfully customising shoes. “To be honest, we’ve always been streetwear people. We fell in love with sneakers, and that eventually inspired us,” says Cheong. They began Dirt Army over a year ago, cleaning with military precision and using shoes as a outlet for creative artworks. “We try to be ourselves and of course that is subjective because it doesn’t mean that other people will like it. So, in that way, I feel we are quite unique,” adds Aaron.
Dirt Army was created with the intention to do more than just serve customers. “The whole ideology behind Dirt Army is to create a platform for artists out there to showcase their art with sneakers as their canvas,” explains Cheong. “Malaysian artists have very few opportunities to make money, so we want to do something about that,” says Aaron. Dirt Army helps young artists learn how to customise and express themselves on sneakers. “There are a lot of kids who look for us and their artwork is sick. They don’t have a direction, and that’s where this platform comes in — to give them that direction,” Cheong remarks.
Inspired by their travels and other shoe-art platforms, such as SBTG Surplus from Singapore, the three guys wanted to encourage the customisation culture in Malaysia for lovers of sneakers and fashion. “Zul is running operations, Cheong is doing creative and I work on management and accounting. I’m the MOF lah,” Aaron jokes.
Initially Dirt Army struggled to find the right staff to help with their services. “We were actually struggling for about six months, trying to find the right people. I think to make people stay, you have to make it like a family and that’s what we have now,” says Aaron.
Aaron and Cheong had to learn on the job as they came from advertising. The two of them work at Dirt Army part-time while Azizul is there full time. “I would not say this is a part-time job because I wouldn’t call this a job, maybe a hobby. I wanted to invest in creating a platform for people to actually join us and create things,” says Cheong. Using their combined skills and contacts, Dirt Army is encouraging more artists to join their team.
“A lot of people don’t understand such a business but art will prevail. We just need time to grow and showcase what we can do,” Cheong says confidently. With their team of five, Dirt Army has produced some impressive designs for their clients. They even did a collaboration with Tarik Jeans for KL Fashion week.
The Dirt Army founders each have a particular reason why they love their company. “I love painting, so whatever the paint job is, the finished product gives me complete satisfaction. We do many designs but when each one is done it’s like the best feeling,” explains Azizul. For Cheong, it’s about a standout look. “I personally love shoes and sneakers. You come to a point where you don’t want to wear shoes that are hyped right now. You want to wear a shoe that you customise”. As for Aaron, it is about being flawless. “They love painting and I love washing, cleaning. I love clean shoes. We each found our own thing”.
What’s most notable about Dirt Army’s work ethic is that it is all about fun and chilled vibes. Their outlook is focused on encouraging good art and keeping their space open and easy. “It’s mainly a creative job and it’s a very fun environment that we’re in,” says Cheong.
This article first appeared on Oct 15, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.