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January 19, 2017

From Runners to Rappers

Iconic sneaker designer Steven Smith on celebrity clients, the Olympics, and West Coast shoe culture

By OMCA Staff

Steven Smith has designed some of the most iconic shoes in the game, from Reebok Instapump Fury to the New Balance 574. He has designed and worked on both coasts, for companies ranging from Reebok to Adidas, Nike to FILA, and recently began a new role designing for Kanye West’s footwear line. Smith sat down with OMCA staff at the opening of new exhibition Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture to share highlights from his remarkable career.

We’re always interested in the California or West Coast angle as the Oakland Museum of California. What do you think is the difference between West Coast and East Coast in terms of shoe culture and shoe design? Is there one?

If there’s any differentiation between coasts, it’s between brands, because of the California lifestyle. It has become more homogenous as an industry, but you still have Vans or Sketchers, which are more lifestyle sneakers. The roots of other companies are basketball or running.

Also, the East Coast is traditional New England manufacturing companies: Converse, New Balance, and, in the early days, Nike. But if you look at the West Coast companies, they’re more Asia-Pacific influenced. Nike was the first to go to Japan. Mizuno has an office in Portland. Asics has an office down in Southern California. It’s definitely more of that Pacific manufacturing base versus the traditional shoe-making New England base.

How long have you lived on the West Coast? Do you find the West Coast lifestyle influences your point of view as a designer?

I’ve been living in Portland for 20 years. Maybe it influences me on the Yeezy stuff, because Yeezy makes life easy. It’s a little more laid-back than the true performance side of things.

This is also the West Coast premiere of the exhibition Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, and your first time seeing the show. What was it like to walk through the exhibition, see your shoes in there, and talk to folks about it?

People don’t necessarily know who I am, by face. So it’s pretty cool to overhear people, especially if they’re real hard-core geeks. They get all excited that you’re there.

You’ve had a few run-ins with celebrities in the process of being a designer for so many decades. Do you have any favorite stories?

Steven Tyler was one of my favorites. He left me the most insane message at Nike on my voicemail system. He was like “Waaah, Steve Smith, best shoes ever woo!” I saved that. Any time things were going badly in a meeting I’d come back and just play that. It’d put a smile on my face. And then they switched phone systems and it went away and I was like, “Nooo! My happiness!”

What is it like working with Kanye?

Depending on his mood, he’s either with us in footwear, or he’s in streetwear-footwear, or he’s working on the high fashion stuff. He’s over with the apparel people, he’s over with the graphics people for the concert shirts. He’s doing it all.

How did you end up working with him? Did he ask for you specifically by name?

He called me at home one night! His assistant called and said, “Mr. Smith, Hi, this is Izzy. Can you take a call from Kanye West?” I was like, “Oh. Yeah! I don’t think I’ll say no.” He was very polite: “Hi, Mr. Smith, this is Kanye. I’d love it if you could come design with me.” I was like, “Really?” “Yeah, I know all of your work, I’ve been following you for a while. You’re the master. I think it’d be amazing to have you come work with me.” I’m like, “Okay, let’s talk more!”

My wife texted me, “Can you pick our daughter up from school this afternoon?” I was like, “Mmm, I can’t, I’m kind of on the phone with Kanye West right now.”

At a concert in Detroit, Kanye stopped the whole show and pointed you out and talked about you.

One of his epic rants was about me. It was crazy. He was like, “I got the master futurist of footwear right there!” I was there with two young Adidas designers, and they just turned to me with their eyes all wide.

When you were in the gallery, you were talking to a group of young people. They had been eyeing you, saying, “Who’s that old guy in the Yeezys?” You just exude expertise.

I told them, you see that Reebok shoe there? I designed that one. They’re like, “Oh yeah? You still work for Reebok?” I said, “No, not really. I have a new job.” The kid had on the Saint Pablo tour shirt, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m a design director for Kanye West.”

We should just keep you around. Want to hang out in the gallery full-time?

Yeah, “Sorry Kanye, I got a new job at the Oakland Museum of California.”

What is your ideal project to work on? Or maybe what have been some of your favorites, in terms of the design challenge?

I don’t know, that’s a tough one. As the old punk rocker, and what Kanye appealed to in me, what I like is to f*** things up, and twist people’s heads. I like to do things where they’re like “What. Is. That?” That’s the best answer I can give.

Does being a punk rocker influence your design work in any other ways?

Did you read the article that says I am the Godfather of Dad Shoes? I think it’s so funny. A straight-edge punker designed the dad shoes.

When you try to reflect someone’s personality through shoes, what are some of the things you think about? Do you associate certain colors or materials with certain personality traits?

When I work with an athlete or celebrity, I let them stream of consciousness and say some things. Justin Gatlin, when I was doing his Spikes, he was like, “I want Jesse Owens, I want that clean leather, but like, Jesse Owens from the future.” I was like, cool, I like that. When I did that Monster Fly Spike, it’s very clean with this cool perforation pattern put in it with a very retro-futuristic flair to it, and it was because of that comment.

I’ll always try anything once, you know. See how it looks. What do you have to lose? Steve Burris, who I worked with at New Balance and Reebok, always says, “Whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing, for f***’s sake do something.” Because you never know.

Do you have a favorite company you’ve worked for?

You know, there were moments at each. Magical moments. Putting together the team at Reebok on the innovation side. We created Hexalite and Graphlite and DMX. All of Reebok’s technologies came from that core group of us.

At Nike, we had some good moments. When Shox were coming out, I thought it’d be really cool to do a track spike that elevates your heel like you’re in the blocks. We had a big meeting on the Olympics to show everything we had been working on. They let me start, which was a mistake, because I pulled out the track spike and showed it to Mark Parker.

I said, “See how it elevates the heel? We did some timing studies on the sprinters and they all think they stay on their forefoot but they don’t. They get halfway down the sprint and their feet start to relax and they drop their heel. My goal is to keep their Achilles extended in that launch position and under tension. That’s what I’m doing with the Shox column.” Mark took it and stared at it and sat like that for the rest of the meeting. Everyone else went on. He just turned to me and went, “You should do this.”

One of the key things with any Olympic product is, if you screw it up, you screw up their career. It’s four more years before they can try anything new, so it better work. Shawn Crawford was this young sprinter kid, and he was like, “I’ll try that! That looks cool!” And he goes and wins gold medals. He came back all thankful, signed them, and gave them to me. I got one half pair and pulled the other half out of the bag and gave them to Phil Knight.

It’s like having a gold medal.

Things like that are magic, where you help people achieve their dream. You’re the eyes and ears and hands for them. For me, that’s more satisfying than money or anything else


Steven Smith’s Instapump Fury design can be seen in the exhibition Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, on view at the Oakland Museum of California through April 2, 2017.