How did a Yeshiva University junior from Teaneck get to design cleats for professional athletes, cleats that sell at auction for prices way out of his own league?
The story begins with bar mitzvah logos.
“My dad is a law school professor and gets discounts on Adobe products like Photoshop and Illustrator,” 21-year-old Ari Solomon recalled. “When I was in high school, he asked if I wanted to learn how to use them. I started clicking around and began designing bar mitzvah logos locally in 2017. I realized I could make money working at home on my couch.”
In November of his gap year in Israel, Mr. Solomon’s computer crashed, and he lost every logo he’d ever created. That cloud turned out to have a silver lining, because it forced him to start over and up his game.
He created Ari Solomon Design (www.arisolomondesign.com) and embarked on a side career in graphic design and marketing with a special emphasis on sports design.
He’d been a five-sport high school athlete at Torah Academy of Bergen County, he said. That’s why “I always wanted to work in sports, and I knew that wasn’t so realistic without finding a niche.”
Last January, Mr. Solomon began reaching out to athletes who are active on social media, offering them a free personalized piece of original graphic art to post. “I got a bunch of responses and something clicked in my mind,” he said. “When corona started it really kicked off.”
Let’s take a pause here to remind ourselves that Mr. Solomon is a college student carrying a double program. As a marketing major, he takes Judaic studies classes from 9 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. and then takes his secular classes.
Last year, his morning chavruta — study partner – was Eli Karls of Montreal. Mr. Karls had a buddy, Joe Veleno, who was a first-round NHL draft pick. Mr. Veleno, sensitive to the psychological effects of the pandemic, was interested in raising awareness and funds for nonprofit organizations dealing with mental health. The two YU guys joined with Mr. Veleno to create CellyForward, a social-media challenge to achieve those goals.(“Celly,” short for “celebration,” is used in hockey culture to describe a player’s celebration after scoring a goal.)
“From that, I got connected to some of the best NHL players and developed the idea for the ‘5 Minute Drop,’” Mr. Solomon said.
“5 Minute Drop,” which had its premiere on June 18, is a live Instagram series where Mr. Solomon interviews a professional athlete. At the end, he reveals a custom artwork showcasing that athlete. “The first four minutes are spent chilling with the athlete and asking some engaging questions for the viewers to build up to the drop of the custom artwork, which is shipped to the athlete as a gift,” he said.
The fifth of more than 30 interviewees so far was Alex Katz, an American-Israeli pro baseball player who pitched for Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic and hopes to compete with the Israel national baseball team in the 2021 Olympics.
Mr. Katz was impressed with Mr. Solomon’s shoe and uniform concepts and invited him to work for his custom athletic footwear company, Stadium Custom Kicks. “The company works with pro athletes and also drops seven new shoe and cleat designs online every two weeks for purchase,” Mr. Solomon said. “Alex gave me a test phase, and after three weeks he asked if I was interested in doing cleats and sneakers for pro athletes.”
Yes, he was.
And this is how, with no formal design training, a college student with a black kippah and an infectious smile began designing footwear for pro athletes — about 40 of them so far.
“My first assignment, in August, was for Jacob deGrom from the Mets,” he said.
Mr. deGrom autographed those hand-painted cleats, which memorialized the great Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, who had just died. He wore them in one game — in which he struck out 10 batters. In October, the cleats sold for $8,010 at auction for the benefit of More Than Baseball, a charitable organization that helps minor league ballplayers improve their lives during and after their careers.
Tampa Bay shortstop Willy Adames wore wire cleats that Mr. Solomon designed at this year’s World Series. “Athletes are all reaching out to tell me they love my work, thank God,” Mr. Solomon said. “Broadcasters talk about my cleats. It’s amazing.”
Because they’re so expensive, Mr. Solomon owns only two of his own creations. One is the first pair he ever designed. They have a donut theme, and his parents bought them as a surprise for him. The other pair he bought himself as a keepsake; Nicky Lopez of the Kansas City Royals wore them.
Ari Solomon Design, meanwhile, has gotten graphics commissions from athletes and their organizations. One client is Players for the Planet, an environmental action organization founded by Major League Baseball player Chris Dickerson.
The hyper-busy Mr. Solomon said that he can accomplish all he does in a typical weekday because school is on Zoom for now, and because he is hyper-organized.
“I write a list every day and don’t go to sleep till I’ve check everything off,” he said. “My days are crazy. I get up at 6:15, daven at 7, and then begin learning. I do my work between or after classes. I also go to the gym almost every afternoon. I basically wait for Shabbos; that’s how I get through my week.”
Mr. Solomon, his parents, Sonya and Moshe, and his younger brother attend the Young Israel of Teaneck. His faith is apparent in everything from the acronym bet-samech-dalet on his business logo — it stands for the Aramaic term “b’siyata d’shmaya,” “with the help of heaven” — to his kippah.
The athletes he interviews on “5 Minute Drop,” he says, “are very intrigued by my kippah,” Mar. Solomon notes. They sometimes ask him about his background or where he goes to school.
Getting pro athletes to engage with him is simply a matter of “being a genuinely nice person,” he said. “I don’t step on people. Athletes just connect with me because I approach them in a very real way, without going all fanboy on them.”
Not surprisingly, Mr. Solomon hopes to embark on a full-time career in sports design and footwear. “I definitely have an entrée right now,” he said. “With my portfolio, I hope to get a shot somewhere.”