Steven Smith–Yeezy Design Director | In episode 56 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks to Kanye West’s Yeezy co-director, Steven Smith.
Sneaker guru Steven Smith is responsible for innovating the iconic Reebok InstaPump, Nike Air Zoom Spiridon Caged 2 Retro Fury, and, of course, the wildly popular Yeezys. When Kanye West decided to start Yeezy, he called Steven to lead the design team. The ‘godfather of the dad shoe’ tells us why working with Kanye West is the best job he has ever had and why VW Beetles are his favorite car to race.Read Transcript
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Light Culture. One thing Kanye West can do that is beyond dispute is recognize genius in others. Not that Steven Smith was an unknown in the industry before teaming up with West as Yeezy’s creative director, already a legendary sneaker designer with signature shoes running from New Balance to Reebok and beyond. He was at a low point in his career. He had walked away from a big job at Nike, the world sneaker Mecca, and was home feeling despondent when the phone rang. It was Kanye wanting to talk about Steven Smith coming over to work with him as design director of Yeezy labs.
Even the prospect of commuting from Portland to Wyoming, to the Kanye compound, where the West brand idea factory was in full effect, did not deter him. Before he knew it, he was on board, the prospect of freedom to design without the bullshit corporate culture that stifled his ideas winning out over comfort and security. So now, Steven, how do you feel a few years later? What do you think about your decision? Would you do it all over again?
Steven Smith (01:52):
Oh, absolutely. And it was actually, at that time it was Calabasas, where his home was. We hadn’t moved to Wyoming yet. So yeah, it was interesting. It wasn’t a bad commute, so it seemed to make some sense. And three, four days at a time, I told them I’d love to come work with them, but I really wasn’t interested in moving to California. If I could stay in Oregon, it’d all be great. So that’s what we kind of arranged. And so I go where he goes and yeah, it’s been a magical four years where before you were restrained with corporate calendars and trying to hit margins and make the shoe cheaper every year, you had to make it better, which was kind of nonsensical. And with him, all that baggage and garbage from the past is just gone. We create the new, and that’s it. And it’s liberating.
Some people can make the adjustment, others can’t. They need guardrails, they need rules, you know. But I’ve always lived in kind of a different world. Kanye and I talk about time and space a lot in the future, and we were living in the future. Everyone else was in the present or the past. So they catch up to us eventually and that we’re still in the future. So it’s very different. I look at things like the fury, it was very futuristic then. And people were like, what is that thing? And it’s taken them years to see that it stood as this really different visionary icon. And even today it still looks futuristic. So that’s the way I’ve always thought about a lot of these projects and the designs. And designing with [Kanye West] is that ability to create this magic, that the future that you always wanted, that the other companies were too ignorant or scared to see. Part of it is fearlessness.
Not that you’re not afraid of things, cause you never know. There’s always an element of fear. But knowing that you’re on the right path and believing in it is what’s critical.
Speaker 1 (04:27):
Well, it must be unusual to have a CEO of the kind that Kanye is, someone who doesn’t come from the financial world, who isn’t thinking about all those issues all the time, who’s just on a journey of exploration and discovery.
Steven Smith (04:44):
Yeah. It’s amazing, because you find yourself pulling back because it’s been ingrained in you. You’re like, well it costs a lot of money. And he’s like, “So?” Like, “All right, game on.” And you still, inherently you don’t want to waste people’s money. So you still find out the best economical way to do things just out of respect. And that’s the way it should be. It shouldn’t be just like going mad and spending people’s money like water, but be smart about it. Spend a little, and then you make a lot from that investment.
Yes. And also it’s respect for your own craft. You can always put gold on top of everything and make it shiny and beautiful as well. So what have you learned from the experience so far that you’d like to share or you think would be worth sharing?
Steven Smith (05:41):
I can’t get into a lot of the details of the how and the why, but it’s a different creation process than I had worked in in the rest of my career. It’s a lot like music. It’s very different than traditional design, and it’s cool because you’re producing. You’re not necessarily designing within a corporate landscape. You’re producing cool, exciting products that do good or help the world as part of what you do. Case in point with the eco foam that we used on the new foam runner based in algae. So that’s really cool. And manufacturing in the US, which is pretty epic to me.
Speaker 1 (06:33):
Yeah. There’s a whole corporate culture around the company as well that is being sustainable, making things in America, using algae, just trying to be as progressive and thoughtful about ecology as part of the process.
Steven Smith (06:54):
A lot of other companies talk the talk, but then when it comes to actually doing it, it’s another thing. Because they’re big leviathans. You can’t get out of the way of that a lot of the time, and we’re small and nimble. We sell a lot of product, we make a lot of money with it, but we’re small and nimble and can accomplish things others can’t.
Do you think that this COVID world that we’re in now and all the changes that may result of it will also impact design there’s a lot of talk that people aren’t dressing up in the same way as they used to, or thinking of just wearing their own clothes more and just sort of a different approach to lifestyle. Has that entered your thinking at all?
Steven Smith (07:50):
It’s kind of hard to say, because there’s still a hunger and a thirst for what we create, which is pretty cool. We haven’t slowed down a bit through all of this. The impact on traveling has had some very minor effects, just because you don’t get as much face to face time. But as far as the fashion side of it, I mean, you think of it, one of Kanye’s big tenets is Yeezy makes life easy. So we are already making clothes that you could go to work or just chillax in.
Speaker 1 (08:24):
As you said earlier, you were ahead of the time and now people are catching up, and now you’re taking a couple of more steps forward.
Steven Smith (08:32):
Yeah. Who doesn’t like to be comfortable?
Speaker 1 (08:35):
Are you still living in Portland?
Steven Smith (08:46):
Yeah, just south of there. It’s where I’ve lived for 24 years.
Speaker 1 (08:50):
Yeah. So how do you feel about all the craziness that’s going on there right now? With government intervention and the whole…
Steven Smith (09:02):
I don’t want to touch on too much of it to give people political ammunition, but I’m not happy about them destroying downtown Portland. It’s a beautiful little downtown, and now it looks like fricking Beirut. I mean, they’ve destroyed the statues… it’s an elk. You destroyed an elk. What does that have to do with anything? They destroyed the fountain that surrounds it and burn a fire in it every night. The entire downtown core is covered in plywood and graffiti.
Steven Smith (09:31):
I don’t even recognize Portland anymore. It’s sad because these kids don’t understand… They think they’re making a point, but they’re basically destroying people’s lives. All the people who worked in those businesses, the businesses that people have spent their whole lives building, and any of their future employment for entry level jobs and stuff, even in the fashion world, because like H&M, Nordstrom, the Nike town, the Columbia store, it’s just gone. That stuff’s gone. Chrome. The Chrome store is boarded up. All your opportunities in the past would have been a foot into the business through retail, and then work your way into marketing or sales, into a brand or even product. You have shut your own door. That’s the sad part about it, because the companies that are here based a lot of their hiring on local people through those stores. They become almost like audition studios or minor league teams where you test your mettle and then could rise into Nike or Adidas or Columbia Sportswear. They don’t realize they’re shooting themselves in the foot and destroying their own downtown.
Speaker 1 (10:53):
You don’t like the tactics, but do you support the principles of what they’re protesting about?
Steven Smith (11:03):
Yeah. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with equality for all. It’s great. Who would say that’s a bad thing? It’s just, I don’t get the destroying your… It’s like taking a crap in your own living room and going, “Ah, that’s great. I proved a point.” It’s like, just look at a piece of crap in your living room and you’ve got to look at it all the time. You know?
Speaker 1 (11:26):
We’ve seen in other situations, like in Atlanta, for example, where the people who actually lived in the neighborhood had to come out and tell people, “We live here. Don’t destroy our community. Just protest, yes, of course. But you’re ruining our lives and our homes.”
Steven Smith (11:49):
I don’t know.
There’s a lot going on to process these days, and it’s an ongoing struggle to try to figure it all out.
I don’t know very much about you. You described yourself to me in an email as an old, straight edge punk. What does that mean? Tell me where you grew up and what your life was like, your childhood influences.
Steven Smith (12:17):
I grew up in a dying industrial town in southern Massachusetts. It was all manufacturing. And I saw all the factories closing. And a lot of that impacted me to where I am today, with the desire to bring back manufacturing, to see some of th\ose historic mills just be run down and boarded up. In that environment in the south of Boston, you’re an Irish kid and I always say either you become the police or you run from the police.
Which one were you?
Steven Smith (12:59):
There’s a lot of police in my family.
I bet, yeah.
Steven Smith (13:03):
So I ended up very introverted and an artist. And I spent a lot of my time drawing and building things. And I had a grandfather who was very hands on oriented and did a lot of fine detail woodworking and carpentry. So he taught me all those things. And he was also from that generation where they could fix or do anything of plumbing on the house, wire your entire house if you wanted to. So he taught me all that skill and craft. So I started to understand how things worked, what they did. And a lot of that ended up shaping who I am today and how I approach product design. I don’t just design things to be different. I design it to be better. And that quest for better is what takes you to do new and different.
Growing up Boston Irish, there was a lot of drinking, but I saw it all as a kid, didn’t want to be part of it and at that time in the early eighties, was the beginning of straight edge. In the East coast and West coast pockets as well, but there was a lot of it going on in Boston, like SSD Control, bands like that. Minor Threat um and um Slapshot in the Boston area. And so I liked the ideals of, I didn’t need these poisons or external substances to alter my mind, or my thinking, or slow it down and figure I’m pretty whacked out enough as it is. And so I adopted that straight edge mentality, of a very pure lifestyle, I ran and was an okay runner.
And that piqued my interest to go get my job at New Balance out of college, because I ran in New Balance shoes and the idea of being able to design sneakers that you yourself could run in, was pretty mind blowing to me. And when I started, this really didn’t exist as a career. There were a handful of us that started it as a career for people. They laughed at me back at design school when I went back and said, “Yeah, I’m working at New Balance.” And they’re like, “You’re designing sneakers?” And I’m like, “Yep.” That shaped that part of it. I always laugh and I say, “If you remember married with children, Al Bundy was like, ‘Yeah, scored the winning touchdown for Polk High.'” And I always say that was my Al Bundy moment, because I ran high school track. So I was interested in sneakers and running it again led me to that first job at New Balance out of school.
Steven Smith (16:07):
But it was cool where I was located in Massachusetts, you’re halfway between Boston and Providence. So you could go see unbelievable shows and if you went to see The Damned, or Murphy’s Law out of New York, you could see them in Boston one night, see them in Providence the next night and double up on all your concerts. It was really cool, so I saw an amazing amount of bands. Four nights to five nights out of the week, I was at shows. It was a cool time and that influenced a lot of the way I thought about things. Because a lot of it was rejecting convention, rejecting the norm, seeing things and figure things out for yourself and that’s what a lot of the straight edgers were about. I didn’t need a scene and it was good times.
Speaker 1 (17:02):
And when you say you were drawing, what were you drawing? Were you making comics? Were you drawing products, nudes?
Steven Smith (17:11):
You had to do that at school, but I was always designing stuff. Machinery, cars, spaceships, guns, planes, making my own tools, if I need them from those skills, from my grandfather. Guitar ideas, so I taught myself how to build electric guitars. And that’s another good case in point, is when I was a freshman in high school, a bunch of my friends were getting electric guitars and I was like, “Oh, I would like one.” So I went and asked my mom and they were like, “Wow, we don’t really have any spare money for that.” And I said, “Well, what if I I built one?” And I said, “Would you at least give me the money for the supplies? It’s like a quarter of the cost.”
They’re like, “Yeah, if you get to do a skill or a craft out of it, sure.” And my grandmother worked at a lumberyard, so she got me the wood and my grandfather had all the tools. So I built my first electric guitar when I was 16 and it was again, one of those hold my beer moments, even though I don’t drink, because the other guys were like, “You can’t build a guitar.” And I was like, “Hang on a minute.” So two weeks later I went back to school, brought in my electric guitar. They’re like, “Where’d you get that?” I said, “I built it, because you said it couldn’t be done.” And they’re like, “Oh, can you make me one?” I’m like, “No. You said it couldn’t be done, go make one yourself.” And that kind of set up a lot of that mentality of how I operate and all I need is a challenge, or just tell me something can’t be done and look out, because I’ll do it.
Speaker 1 (18:57):
You grew up in an era where, as you describe it, everything was very hands on, you learned how to work with your hands. Whereas today most of the work is on a computer and it’s possible, or maybe it isn’t, you’ll correct me and it’s also possible to make things that were never possible to make before, because of what the computer can do and computer printing..
Steven Smith (19:22):
Yeah, I mean, a lot of the 3D printing has allowed us to do some incredible stuff. You could always draw it and design it, but they could never make it, so it’s refreshing to see that. Again, I was drawing things with smart electronics in shoes in 1990, conceptually at Reebok, even before the Fury and they all just looked at me like, “Are you on drugs?” And I’m like, “Remember, I’m the straight edge punk.” They’re like, “Where do these ideas come from?” I said, “I don’t know, visions?” I always think Nikola Tesla would say, he would receive these visions from other worlds and from the future.
And I wonder about that sometimes about some of the designs and some of those things, were way ahead of their time. And people are like, “What is this?” And I’d describe it to them and it was like science fiction to them, but I could see it. And that was the thing with a lot of my things, it wasn’t pure fantasy, it was always rooted in some actuality, or some engineering, or what could be. And so it’s fun to see a lot of those things that you had this vision for, with technology catching up to it all, to see them come to life, because if I saw a design or something like, “Oh yeah, I remember I drew that like in 1989.”
Steven Smith (20:46):
And they’re like, “Are you saying, you designed it first?” I’m like, “No.” I said, “I’m not begrudging anyone, or jealous at anything.” I said, “I’m more excited.” You’re excited to see those things that you envisioned and dreamed coming to fruition and becoming reality, because at the time, you were a team of one that could see it. And that’s part of design is drawing is your communication tool. You’re explaining to people, giving them access to the vision in your head. That’s a collection of things that you’ve seen assembled and reassembled, or re-imagined and out comes the magic and the new.
Speaker 1 (21:34):
Yeah. Very much like an artist would work. However, they don’t have to then pass their ideas through a whole network of committees and approval systems. They don’t even have to explain themselves, period. You don’t have to say “I had a vision.” I can’t imagine what it would have been like if you went… Maybe there were some sympathetic souls, I don’t want to be too harsh.
Steven Smith (21:59):
Paul Fireman. He was awesome, he would be like, “What are you guys drawing up?” And I’d explain it to him. He’s like, “Oh, that’s amazing! Go do it.” And you’d be like, “Okay. The tech doesn’t exist, but there’s fragments of it.” But it was much like with Ye. We had the ability when we had our first innovation team at Reebok, to explore the idea, to try it. And out of it came things like Pump and Instapump and Graphlite, Hexalite, DMX and all the amazing technologies we did at Reebok. It came from a total freedom to create and it was funny, as fireman was a sales guy, but he was also one of the most inspirational for us, because he knew-
Speaker 1 (22:47):
He was at Nike?
Steven Smith (22:48):
He was the owner of Reebok.
Speaker 1 (22:50):
Oh, Reebok. Okay.
Steven Smith (22:52):
And Phil Knight was Nike. And Phil was like that too. Phil just wanted to win, Fireman wanted to make money, but they both knew and understood that through think tanks and blue-sky thinking, is how you got there. If you’re going to make the same old stuff, why? At that point it just becomes like a corn flake, do I buy the Kellogg’s Corn Flake? Do I buy the General Mills Corn Flake? Or do I go buy the corn flake from Trader Joe’s? Or do you get something you’ve never seen before?
Speaker 1 (23:28):
Well, that’s kind of how it was. For a long time, for most of these companies, they didn’t really innovate. They were putting out their classics year, after year. The Converse never changed, Pro-Keds never changed. So what happened?
Steven Smith (23:47):
I think it was that time. Nike had their team, they called APE#, which was the precursor to the Kitchen. It was advanced product engineering and Reebok at the same time, decided they wanted to start this Advanced Concepts group. So I was recruited by a guy, Steve Burris, that I worked with at New Balance originally. He had left new balance and gone to Reebok and I had left New Balance and gone to Adidas.
Steven Smith (24:18):
He was like, “I’m thinking of starting this new team, I think you’d be great at it. You want to come up and be the design guy for this?” And I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know.” And then Adidas started slashing left and right. Adidas U.S. down to the bone and then they told the rest of us, “You could stay working with Adidas, but everybody’s going to move to Germany.” And I was a 23 year old kid, I’m like, “Yeah, Nuremberg doesn’t seem exciting, I don’t think I’m going to go.” And so I called up Burris and said, “Let’s talk.”
And I drove up and got the job the next day at Reebok. And then we put together this seedling of a team, with myself and Burris as the manager, myself and two development\bioengineer guys. We always called us the Land of Misfit Toys, because we didn’t fit in with the rest of the organization. None of us were the smartest person in the room, but when you put us together, magic happened, because we just had an open mind and Paul fireman just let us create and explore, similar to the environment I have now. It’s a lot like that, where you just have this freedom. Imagine the vision, what could it be?
Yeah, but what could it be? I’m perplexed constantly trying to figure out what could be the new thing. There’s a lot of new things coming out constantly, they’re not all reinventing the wheel like you do, more often than most people. But sometimes it’s just a little thing. So what is it, the colors? Materials obviously is a big part of it right now.
Steven Smith (26:30):
I missed a lot of those little things. It’s one of those things we all taught ourselves in those days of innovation at Reebok. You see something interesting, whether it’s part of your industry or not and then you figure out if you can integrate it, or explore it and come up with something completely new and different. Aerospace is a huge influence for all of us, but you never know where something’s going to come from. You can see a kitchen sponge and go, that’s the aha moment of the spark, that turns on the light bulb that you come up with the next amazing thing. I always said you had the four or five F’s, fit, form, function and fashion and if you address all of those things, or see something that addresses that, it’s the beginning of the idea. Who doesn’t like things that fit well, Or who doesn’t like a pleasing form?
Speaker 1 (27:29):
When you said fashion, fashion is also a new component of the shoe, that has arrived over, I don’t know, what a decade?
Steven Smith (27:40):
It’s definitely blurred, but at the time when I was at Reebok, I did some spikes for the Atlanta Olympics, for the sprinting athletes. It was during the Dan and Dave period actually, if you remember that period at Reebok. I did this, Instapump
The pump track spike with a carbon fiber bottom. And it was the first one with an aerodynamic shroud over it, which was inspired by downhill skiers and speed skaters. And all of a sudden, somebody sends me a picture of Vogue of some runway model, walking down in a pair of carbon fiber track spikes, which had one purpose. It had to do a quarter as fast as humanly possible. And then here’s this runway model dress-wearing these tracks spikes. It’s got to be miserably uncomfortable, but damn it looked cool.
Speaker 1 (28:43):
And that was the fashion moment for the arrival?
Steven Smith (28:48):
Well, they were definitely that. And then snippets of things, run DMC with the shell-toe Adidas that brought in culture as well as fashion. For me, when the Furies showed up, again, that was always one of the pivotal moments for me as a kid growing up in Boston, as I saw Steven Tyler come out and I’m on the MTV Music Awards. And I was like, oh my God, my rock hero is wearing a product that I designed, how freaking cool is that?
Steven Smith (29:21):
And then about the same time Björk started to show up, and Björk wore them constantly for years. So those guys were kind of early adopters on the fashion side of taking these things, I built machines for running. They look at the Fury, it’s not really a sneaker, it’s mechanical. It’s a machine. I love machines. And that to me was a machine for running. And to see these guys adopt that as a look and a style was kind of weird to me because I was so performance-focused. But those moments and those people for me expanded into the fashion world, that it could be more than just a running shoe.
And do you take that into account now when you are designing something? That it can, and maybe will, be more than just a running shoe, if you see someone like Jeremy Scott, and some of these Balenciaga shoes?
Steven Smith (30:30):
In some ways, but it’s what separates what I do and what Kanye does in that. Yeezy is still rooted in legitimate sport. And I’m part of the conscience of that. That was the element I brought to him, was this 34 years of experience creating high-performance sporting footwear and other stuff too, accessories and gear. And I did all kinds of things like body armor for riot police and armored padding for the Stryker crews of the US military active telecommunication devices for Bell Laboratories, all kinds of crazy stuff.
But it adds that strand of legitimacy and performance into the DNA of what Yeezy is. So it makes it more than say a Balenciaga that is purely made for fashion or to look different. The stuff that we do still serves the purpose, boosts the bar for comfort and just happens to look good as part of all of that. It’s a recipe as opposed to purely a formula if that makes sense.
Speaker 1 (31:49):
High performance is actually a trend as well. That I think even as we started talking about earlier with the coronavirus and its impact on design, I think I’d already had seen it coming anyway. The idea of people wanting lightweight in the winter, sports influenced outerwear from skiing and snowboarding worlds and things like that, that make it into, quote on quote fashion.
Steven Smith (32:55):
God. I mean, a lot of the truly performance outdoor brands that were used for mountaineering in the past. You needed their product so you won’t die. That’s what’s so cool about it. Like if you got to go climb Everest, you better have a Patagonia or North Face jacket, but you could still walk down 5th Avenue in it and look badass.
Speaker 1 (33:24):
And then people do. To wear those heavy winter coats that weigh 20 pounds, just the coat to be able to substitute something that’s lightweight and still does the job is fantastic.
Steven Smith (33:41):
Yeah. Again, it’s those brand’s strands of DNA of performance that then weave into the fashion side of it as well. It’s still rooted in pure performance. You buy it and you know it’s going to work at the end of the day. It’s still going to work. So then it’d be an amazingly warm coat no matter what it looks like and that’s what we strive for as well.
And you went back to school at a later date. I see Pacific Northwest College of Art. What did you go to learn at that point? Because you are already well into your career.
Steven Smith (34:17):
Steven Smith (34:19):
Yeah, I had an old Volkswagen Bus. I wanted to restore it. So I went there and it seemed like the best accessible welding class at the art school. So you learn sculptural welding and then was able to reapply that back into like performance welding by putting floors in my rotten old VW Van.
Speaker 1 (34:43):
So you’d have time to work on cars as well.
Steven Smith (34:49):
[crosstalk 00:34:49] When I can when I’m not traveling or weekends. I race vintage cars. I do all kinds of crazy stuff.
You actually raced them as well.
Steven Smith (34:59):
Yeah. I vintage race, which is a lot of fun.
So what kind of cars do you like and is it primarily again, combination performance design that turns you on? Or is it one more than the other?
Steven Smith (35:12):
Yeah. I mean a lot of those classics, Shelby Cobras… Trans-Am Era cars, not Pontiac Trans-Am, but Trans-Am Racing. Because that was unlimited. It was like the equivalent of unlimited hydroplanes. It was unlimited, no rules, sports cars were like the Porsche 9, 1710s, and McLarens and things came out of. I love vintage Porsche’s and the irony is I drive a vintage Porsche, but I race a vintage Volkswagen Beetle. And so part of that’s a little bit of that disruptor punk rock of…
Well, how fast can that beetle go?
Steven Smith (35:59):
[inaudible 00:36:02] It’s… Must be rattling.
Steven Smith (36:06):
The front gets light above 90, so it’s a little scary. But you know, it’s that kind of disruption. Because people have their Porsches and their Alfa Romeos and MGs and you come with this bug and people are like, is that a joke? And I’m like, what do you mean by a joke? You get it to handle as well as the Porsches once you tweak the suspension right. I mean it’s a little more bulbous and top-heavy and not as aerodynamic, but I can keep up with some of the early Porsches as well with a beetle, which no one likes to get beat by a teal beetle.
Oh no. Not even a Honda. No way.
So Also, you were credited, I don’t know how you feel about this with the granddad of the dad shoe. I know about the dad jeans and I know about the momma jeans. What is a dad shoe? You know, I can guess, but I’d like to hear what you say.
Steven Smith (37:07):
All-white, navy, white, French blue, gray, the Steve Jobs New Balances, 900 series grays, 1500s grays. It was the one where the dad in Iowa would mow the lawn in. And then all of a sudden it became like this icon of chilling. And so I don’t know. It just became a trend because they were comfortable. They were just simple, understandable, comfortable sneakers, and a high-value quality. The leathers were always really good quality. And so it stood for those things.
Speaker 1 (37:50):
People who I know who have bad backs or something and need, they always swear by the New Balances to be the best shoe for them.
Steven Smith (37:59):
Yeah. Doctors, I mean you always see doctors in New Balances. It’s almost like… IZODs, when you and I were teenagers. It’s that country club lifestyle.
Speaker 1 (38:18):
Steven Smith (38:19):
There were things about the lifestyle that you associated with it. And I think like those New Balances, because they were more expensive, high quality. I think it was that aspirational thing of it that ignited this whole ad shoot craze. But I’ll show you a picture of those people… They see me now as the 50-something-year-old dad, but that’s the guy who designed the dad shoes. I think it’s funny that I have that moniker now as a dad, but back then it was the 22-year-old punk rock kid.
On the other side of the dad shoe, you have the person who’s spending as much money as it’s necessary to get the whether it’s Yeezy or some Jordans, original boxed and then wearing it. I don’t know if you can call it inappropriate or not, it looks cool. But it also looks like maybe somebody’s also trying too hard.
Steven Smith (39:35):
Yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s that quest for individuality. And if you look at what we create and that’s what I think is so cool about it. We create this wearable art. Some people can’t go get a DaVinci or even a Banksy but you’d go buy a pair of sneakers for under a grand. And feels great about it. You could use them, you can wear them.
You could even resell them.
Steven Smith (40:09):
Yeah. You could resell them. You can show off in them. I mean, it’s a status thing too. And especially with some of the limited editions, like you were one of a 1000 people that were able to get that all over the world. I mean
Steven Smith (40:21):
And so in a lot of ways, I loved it coming out of school. They geared our curriculum towards the industries that were there at that time in the Massachusetts Miracle. And it was the early tech days. So it was Wang, Digital Data General, and Corning medicals. All these guys I graduated with, went to go work and design products for those companies. At the time the computer business was small, it was specialized within tech labs and the medical device, those guys would go design something that 10, 20 surgeons around the world and some operating theater-used.
And I mean, they did amazing things. But with me, when I designed something 250,000 to half a million people have access to my design and it was pretty amazing being able to travel anywhere in the world and you see someone who appreciated your vision and your art and even to this day, I’m still humbled by it and I’ll go up to people like, thank you, thank you for appreciating my design. I designed that shoe, you know, and I see people in 5, 7, 4s, I’m like I designed that, I designed that shoe. It’s like, I’m very proud and excited to see that you spent a hundred dollars on that. Thank you. Thank you for appreciating my art. So that’s pretty cool. You know, it’s very different.
Speaker 1 (41:54):
You wear it as well. And you actually enjoy coming out with a rare shoe or pre-release and going out and waiting for people to kind of spot it and wondering what the hell is this guy doing, wearing these shoes?
Steven Smith (42:11):
Especially here. It used to be great here, working at Nike or before when I worked at Adidas, if you had some early release and you’d be downtown, and you knew somebody from one of the other companies would see you in it. And it would be like, “Holy crap.” Or you’d see somebody from one of the other companies in something, test running it at lunch, and then you’d go back and rethink things or tell somebody, “Hey, I just saw this shoe here,” and they’re like, “What? What’s that one look like?” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before.” So, like I said, it’s pretty cool. And in those days, in the nineties, there was a lot of corporate espionage between all of us, with the companies, to this day, still very secretive about what we create until it’s dropped, and we would then Yeezy tease things all the time to just build the excitement for people for the next drop.
I was wanting to ask you about that corporate espionage thing. So has anyone ever actually stolen a design and gone out and produced it?
Steven Smith (43:22):
When we were working at Reebok, I had worked on this pump shoe that had an electronic pressure device in it so that you could adjust your right shoe the same as your left shoe logarithmically. And it also had pump units under the foot. So you could adjust the cushioning of the midsole, separate forefoot and heel. So by having this electronic device, you could calibrate your right foot to your left foot on the shoes. Or if you had some problem with your foot, you could adjust the cushioning slightly differently, forefoot to heel and right to left. And my development counterpart was in Hong Kong at the airport, and he had the luggage cart and he had his briefcase in it and it was half unzipped. And he went to go get his luggage off the carousel and came back and someone had stolen a whole dossier on all of the electronic devices, the suppliers and everything. And within a week, someone from Adidas had reached out to the electronics company, asking about doing pressure gauges and things with them.
We had gone completely outside the sporting goods industry to Casio that had nothing to do with anyone from the sneaker business who would have ever known to reach out to them. So we knew right away that that’s who stole the intellectual property. It was pretty amazing.
Were you able to do anything about it?
Steven Smith (45:06):
No, we just told them don’t deal with them. And we weren’t going to, anyway, we were just shocked, but all of a sudden, of all the companies, they reached out to them, because we had been working with Sony, Casio and Alps, which was the parent company of Alpine on these electronic pressure gauges. So it was pretty mind blowing to think that somebody reached in and stole it, this briefcase-
Not today. I mean, if you think about it today, it’s not as mind blowing.
Steven Smith (45:36):
Oh yeah. You could easily have just gone and snapped a picture with your phone, you didn’t even have to steal it.
Right, which they do as well with the Apple phones constantly, right? To have someone who’s always trying to release the early version of what it’s going to look like. I think William Gibson, in one of his books, maybe it was called Pattern Recognition? I’m not a hundred percent sure, but the plot partly revolves around jeans, denim, that everyone is trying to get, to steal the secret of the denim in order to rule the world or whatever. So sneakers become the thing, isn’t it? If you had to pick an object that has universal appeal, that’s not, obviously, a diamond or some crazy mineral, it’s just massive.
Steven Smith (46:28):
That’s millions of dollars to be made off of those designs. It’s, again, it’s like somebody stealing a piece of artwork, you just don’t do it, or breaking into the Louvre, or stealing the Hope Diamond, potentially on the turnaround of what you make in profit from those designs.
Did you feel good when you hear people compare Yeezy to the Apple of apparel? Because everyone uses the Apple comparison for almost anything at this point, but I’m always curious whether that’s a good thing or not, in your case, particularly.
Steven Smith (47:07):
I think it is, there’s a purity to Apple products and understandability, just a natural understandability to it, towards it. You never ask why it is there or why it was made, you pick up the iPhone and you know how to work it, it’s swipes and motions and it feels nice in your hand, and it does what it promises to do. And that’s what we go with with the Yeezy product, it’s simple to understand.
Speaker 1 (47:47):
A lot of our conversations so far have been about fashion and performance and image and branding and things like that. And I’d like to read to you a quote that you gave, “The cool thing about the Yeezy is this: we’ve kind of ruined the industry, by creating a non-categorical shoe. What is it for? I don’t know, but you can run in it. You can go to the gym in it, you can play ball in it. That’s what’s kind of cool.” So do you feel like now that you’ve broken the mold, that people are just going to start copying that idea that, okay, we’re going to throw out the concept of purely any one thing.
Steven Smith (48:42):
You could see it happening on basketball courts. Everything’s not these high tops, it’s not even a five eights anymore. It’s mids and lows. See these players in lows, whereas in the past, people would have been horrified, “Oh, you’re going to break your ankle, where’s the ankle support, where’s this brace that the shoes used to be?” But you can already see the influence of that in some of the players. Because they would try these other things, I saw a couple of the NBA guys playing in the Yeezy 500s, low-top, which is crazy.
But again, it shows that strand of performance into the DNA that it can do it. It may not have been a hundred percent designed for that. But part of me being involved in it is that when I create it, it’s the way my brain works. If I do this, this and this, it will be good for that, regardless of what it looks like, and you can make it look nice and it’s all intertwined. I go back to the Reebok Fury, you think about it. If you look at the Fury, there’s a Bauhaus purity to it. If you took away one piece off of that shoe, it will no longer work. And that, to me, was cool, because it was just distilled to the essence of what it was. It’s just a natural way for me to think when I start sketching something.
So you’re actually thinking about the ankles as well, particularly? I mean, it’s built in already to the DNA of what you’re creating, is it something you always consider?
Steven Smith (50:34):
Yeah. Because you’re serving a person, and you’re enhancing the performance of their foot, with the footwear. So how can you just do that naturally? It just happens after this long.
So where are we now? I know you’re working for this volatile individual who has been in the news quite a bit lately, particularly, but always is obviously a brilliant man in many ways, but also quite controversial. What does it feel like to be working for anyone who, in a state where COVID, Black Lives Matter, personal issues are blowing up. How does one handle it?
Steven Smith (51:33):
Through all of it, he still feeds me concepts and ideas and gives me license to create. So I just kind of stay focused on why I’m there and what I do best. And that’s what I do for him. I just never stop creating. He and I are a lot alike, believe it or not, in that we’re these creative sharks, and you think about a lot of it. I’m pretty mellow at this point in my life. But creativity is always a fine line between sanity and insanity. You have all these ideas in your head and they’re fighting with you all the time, illogic versus logic, fantasy versus reality.
Sometimes one of the other things beats out the other and you end up looking not stable to people, but the genius is still behind it all. And that’s the way you kind of have to think about it. Same with myself, we’re creative sharks. If we stop creating, we die, similar to a shark if they stopped swimming. So I’m not done yet. He’s far from done creating things in life. He’s trying to solve a lot of stuff, not just sneakers and fashion, it’s architecture, it’s housing, it’s vehicles, everything, all these things fascinate him. And we have the ability to explore it all, and Yeezy has the ability to become any of those brands, including the latest thing with health and beauty, and then the arrangement with The Gap, we’re going to take it to the masses, which is something he’s always wanted to do.
It’s nice to have the exclusivity, excuse me, in the very high end product, but you don’t want it to be so elitist. And so through a brand, like The Gap, that gives us the ability to bring more of the apparel to the people, rather than just elitists. Speaking about my squeaky chair, the Eameses, and a lot of the mid century designers that I grew up following or studying in college, all of these designs were meant to be mass produced, to bring good design to everybody, the same kind of thing I was talking about. Being able to share these art pieces that other people can appreciate and understand and love. And a lot of these design classics have evolved into that elitist category. An Eames chair that should be a hundred dollars is a thousand, if you go to Knoll or somebody who makes it.
And at that point, you’d have to… If Eames saw what had happened to their designs, they would be spinning in their graves because it was about bringing good taste to everyone. And that’s one of those great noble goals that Ye has, and we help him to achieve those ideas and those concepts of great design and great product for everybody.
And that’s great news. Good to hear that work goes on and we can still look forward, and can’t wait to see what you come up with for Gap. Oh my God. So, thank you very much, Steven Smith for meeting with me today, and I enjoyed our conversation very much.
Steven Smith (55:12):
Oh yeah. Thanks. It was a lot of fun. Go Sox.
Speaker 1 (55:20):
From the West Coast. All right. If they ever play again.