Updated: May 12
What started with the simple question, “What could only happen in Lexington, Kentucky?” exploded into an international sensation that garnered billions of views and changed the course of one local artist’s career.
Horse Kicks is a Lexington-based shoe brand kickstarted by Marcus Floyd, a local artist that specializes in sneaker deconstruction and reconstruction, in partnership with Cornett, an award-winning Lexington advertising agency and VisitLex, the city’s tourism bureau.
“It was kind of a joke. We thought, ‘What if there was a shoe store for horses?’” said Jonathan Spalding, associate creative director at Cornett. “And then we were like, ‘Wait a minute, what if we actually did that?’”
The Horse Kicks campaign began as a publicity stunt, a way for Lexington to earn media attention around the Breeder’s Cup, which took place at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 4-5, 2022.
“For me, it was never a publicity stunt because that’s my business. I love to take orders and I don’t mind making more [shoes],” Floyd said. “That goes back to the original — when they approached me about making a horseshoe, they said, ‘It doesn’t even have to be wearable, it just has to look good.’ I told them, ‘I need to make it wearable, because if this thing blows up and someone wants a pair, I can just duplicate what I’ve already done and put it on a horse.’”
Floyd’s early models included the New Balance 650, Jordan Court Purple and Yeezy Boost 350. Although designing sneakers for horses had never been accomplished before, Floyd said he had heard crazier ideas and decided the campaign was a “cool opportunity.”
He ended up using a medical protective boot commonly used on horse hooves as a base for the shoes, incorporating a process called cut and sew reconstruction to take apart shoes meant for people and create new (horse) shoes out of the pieces, “almost like a puzzle.” Floyd said he learned this technique during the pandemic in classes at The Shoe Surgeon’s SRGN Academy in Los Angeles, California.
“I believe art is one of the few things that supersedes going to college or anything. I think maybe they can teach you some techniques, but for the most part I think a lot of people are born with the gift of it and are able to draw naturally. That’s just an opinion,” Floyd said. “I like to think I’ve always been an artist. I’ve always drawn since like kindergarten. I remember excelling in art from an early age, so naturally throughout the years I just continued to do that.”
Floyd already knew what direction he wanted his art to take from a young age, even though he didn’t act on his abilities until recently.
“I’ve always been into sports, particularly football, so I remember early high school years I would try to paint my cleats and different things just to give me a different look. That’s kind of how I started doing merch. That was my first attempt at merging my art with doing sneakers and cleats, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I decided to fully go all-out and start customizing sneakers,” Floyd said of his background in sneaker art.
Floyd is proud to be one of the only sneaker artists in the area that produces art that utilizes not only paint, but full reconstruction of shoes by combining pieces of existing sneakers. Incorporating this technique into wearable sneakers for horses, though, was no easy feat.
“[Floyd] was a great partner from the get-go. He really just jumped in and figured it out, recommended publications we could target and everything, all while working a full-time job and having other clients. He was full-on busy with other shoe orders during that time too,” Spalding said of Floyd.
While he said his goal has always been to dedicate himself to his business and art “100%,” Floyd is currently trying to find the balance between his art and his full-time job as a third-shift maintenance team leader at Toyota.
Right now he works at Toyota from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. before clocking in at his personal business once he returns home, working on shoe orders until noon or 1 p.m., depending on his deadlines.
Though each custom order can take Floyd about a week to complete, the attention he has garnered from mainstream media has launched the artist to international acclaim.
He now fields calls from names such as Luka Dončić, NBA superstar and player for the Dallas Mavericks; Jas Prince, known for discovering musical artist Drake; the Seattle Seahawks and the Compton Cowboys, an organization of African American horse riders in Compton, California. All sought to order custom shoes, either for people or horses, from Floyd after hearing about his work on the Horse Kicks campaign.
“When I started this campaign, I never thought that it would overshadow the rest of my work, but it’s opened up some doors for me as well with my other work. Now I’m known. I went from Infinite Kustomz to ‘the horse guy,’ the guy that makes shoes for horses, so, I mean, it is what it is. It’s still my art,” Floyd said. “It’s given me a lot of notoriety and it’s shining a light on my other artwork as well.”
Infinite Kustomz is the name of Floyd’s personal shoe business that he started out of his home studio in 2017.
Besides taking shoe orders from household names, Floyd, VisitLex and the team at Cornett have gained unparalleled attention for the city of Lexington. Horse Kicks turned out to be what Robert Baker, director of social strategy at Cornett and photographer for the Horse Kicks campaign, called the group’s “biggest success.”
“Horse Kicks cost us $60,000, and it could have flopped,” Spalding said. Instead, the Horse Kicks campaign accumulated over 3 billion earned media impressions, which would have cost the agency over $100 million in advertising spending.
By contrast, one of Cornett’s most successful campaigns for VisitLex before Horse Kicks, The Harmon Room at the 21c Museum Hotel (themed after the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit”), earned 800 million media impressions. In total, the campaign earned “tens of millions if not nine figures worth of ad revenue,” Baker said.
In addition to monetary success, Horse Kicks has racked up over 275 earned media placements in publications like The Washington Post, Vogue Italia, People magazine, NPR, Adweek, The New York Post, CNN, Complex and BBC. Horse Kicks was even mentioned in a tweet by the Indianapolis Colts. The campaign also broke into the talk show space with features on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Drew Barrymore Show in November 2022.
“Waking up to see [that Horse Kicks was featured on] Jimmy Fallon was cool. You can’t get bigger than Jimmy Fallon,” Spalding said. “There’s no other tourism brands who consistently put out work that people want to talk about around the world. That’s a unique opportunity for us and this client. This was, by far, our biggest success in the earned media space.”
For Ty Duckwyler, content creation associate at Cornett and a photographer for the Horse Kicks campaign, the campaign’s success exceeded all expectations.
“Horse Kicks was actually my first campaign that I’ve ever worked on, so to see it kind of go the long mile is insane considering it’s the first thing I’ve ever touched or been a part of,” Duckwyler said.
But why exactly did Horse Kicks skyrocket to success the way that it did? By hitting a combination of two niche markets and making the outcome relevant to as many people as possible, Baker said.
Horse Kicks combined two markets that people are “crazy about” — horses and sneakers, which Spalding believes made the campaign a “guaranteed success,” especially with such an eye-catching visual.
“What we have seen come out of this is, ‘Oh, there is actually a segment of the population that are Black horsemen that don’t think their culture is represented in the equine industry.’ No one knew about that. It was such a closed-off, niche community and this gave a little bit of a spotlight on that,” Spalding said.
The team also thought that part of their success came from the fact that the idea developed in Lexington, the self-proclaimed Horse Capital of the World.
“Lexington still has a smaller mindset than some of the other bigger cities that I’ve traveled to and got to see the sneaker culture there, but it’s growing. Up until now I’ve been hindered by living in Lexington, but I think the fact that Horse Kicks took off was because of Lexington … because of the fact that I’m from Lexington. I don’t think that it would have gone off had I been from New York or somewhere else,” Floyd said.
Until this campaign, Spalding believed that Cornett (in partnership with VisitLex) hadn’t yet broken into Black culture.
“That was something that we wanted: an idea that could help put VisitLex and Lexington in front of people who hadn’t seen us before, who hadn’t felt like we were for them, maybe. That’s why we loved it. This idea is great because it’s going to connect Lexington with the side of culture and sneaker culture that we’ve never connected with before,” Spalding said.
The group’s challenge was to position the city of Lexington in front of the public to “get people’s attention in unexpected ways,” Spalding said.
“One of the things we talk about is being unexpectedly cool,” Baker said. “You wouldn’t think that Lexington would know about the biggest Hypebeast sneakers at the time, you wouldn’t think they would be culturally relevant to a certain extent. I just feel like we did it the right way, the most ethically responsible way. We did it in a way that showcased that it’s genuine, so it’s not anything fake, we didn’t just do it for the money.”
Duckwyler’s takeaway from the campaign was to show the world that Lexington is not afraid to experiment with culture and to share different dimensions of the city.
“We want to accurately reflect each person that’s represented in the city. We’re not afraid to take risks, it’s a lot of fun and unexpectedly cool as well,” Duckwyler said.
The public’s close-minded view of Lexington is about to evolve, the team at Cornett said.
“People come [to Lexington] and they have one thing in mind. They might come for horses or for bourbon or whatever, and they get here and they’re like, ‘Damn, this is actually a cool place. I didn’t expect this creative culture,’” Spalding said.
After seeing the overwhelming positive reaction both to Lexington and to Floyd, the team at Cornett thinks this campaign will change how they approach ideas in the future.
“VisitLex is the tourism agency, but it exists to support locals and local businesses and local artists, so the fact that we were able to uplift an artist and put them on the map is probably the coolest part of this whole thing,” Spalding said.
From sports frontrunners to music industry legends, Floyd has certainly earned his time in the spotlight.
“It was just funny because [Floyd] really wanted to do a shoe for a football player, and now his stuff is all over the world. He did one for an NBA superstar,” Baker added.
Currently, Floyd is working on an exclusive pair of Horse Kicks for the Pegasus World Cup in Miami, with coverage from NBC.
Floyd said he believes Horse Kicks will “fit right in with the culture” of horse racing in Miami, which has “a whole different vibe than what we have here.”
In the future, Floyd said he hopes to continue to hone his craft and use the spotlight placed on him from Horse Kicks to grow his personal brand and potentially even find a company to mass-produce Horse Kicks based on his designs.
He “loved” his experience with Cornett and VisitLex and hopes to collaborate with the team more later on.
“You never know what’s going to happen, especially with an idea that’s crazy. For us it started with a conversation about making sneakers for horses and it turned into changing this guy’s life completely,” Duckwyler said.