GREATEST: Steven Smith
The sneaker visionary on solution-oriented design, maintaining the purity of ideas and creating the future of footwear with Kanye West.
The New Balance 550. The Nike Air Zoom Spiridon Cage. The Yeezy 700. Though each comes to us via a different footwear giant, they’ve all been designed by one person: Steven Smith.
Widely recognized as the godfather of the Dad Sneaker, Smith currently holds the position of Yeezy Design Director, continuing his legacy in tandem with Kanye West. Together, the two are disrupting the foundations of sneaker design and the industry as a whole with creations like the one-piece Foam Runner, constructed partly of harvested algae, and the clawlike 450, which features "fingers" that wrap up the sneaker’s side panels.
Looking back at nearly four decades of innovation, we talk to Smith about his unwavering design ethos, why certain sneakers become iconic and his favorite part about working with Mr. West.
You’ve been designing for more than 35 years. Today, so many of those designs are considered classics. What do you think makes them so timeless?
A lot of my designs are rooted in a performance solution. I never design for design’s sake. I try to make individual items that stand out and tell their own story of the performance solution with aesthetic appeal. It's not just me drawing a picture and deciding where to throw a line. If you look at the Cage Spiridon, its inspiration is the human foot and the human bone structure—that's where the overlays fall. It's cut away around your ankle and your malleolus [bone]. It's all modeled after intent and purpose.
Design should always be better and improve what you do. That's what I'm always after. Those designs become iconic looks because you solved a problem and did something that didn't exist before.
It’s interesting because it’s easy to see the solution-oriented design when you point it out, but not necessarily when you’re just presented with a new product. What’s something else people might not realize about the footwear-design process?
It's always hard to do the first of something. People think it's easy because they're like, "Oh, well, why did the Fury get updated instead of a new design coming out?" Because it's easy. It's easy to shuffle a few lines around. It's difficult to create a whole new Fury. People forget that. It's like, "There's only one '64 Mustang." All the other ones are derivative of it.
That takes us to Kanye West. Nearly every silhouette released so far feels like a standalone design. How did you start working with him?
He invited me to the 'Saint Pablo' tour. It was wild. adidas called me and said, "He wants to meet you. We're going to fly you out there." Like, "Okay, when?" "Tomorrow." So I get on a plane to New York, spend the day with him, which was really cool.
The next day we fly to Detroit like, "Why are we here?" "Well, there's a show tonight and Kanye got you a pass. Are you coming?" I said, "Well, if you got a seat for me, I guess I'll go."
Fast-forward to the show, Kanye starts his rant by saying, "I got the master futurist—right there. He and I are going to fuck shit up and show you stuff from the future." I was like, "What the hell's happening?"
Kanye starts his rant by saying, 'I got the master futurist—right there. He and I are going to fuck shit up and show you stuff from the future.' I was like, 'What the hell's happening?'
That’s the most Kanye thing ever. What’s your favorite part about working with him?
There is no fence. You're constantly dreaming. All those things you've always wanted to do that the corporations were afraid of. There's no fear. It’s raw creation.
Companies start out as risk-takers. They deliver something that somebody else didn't. That's how they make noise and create a business. But then as they grow and mature, they become more and more conservative to preserve the business.
But once you get to that hundred million it's like, "Why not get to 300 million? Why not a billion?" You dream big and you swing big. And when you do, you score big. And that's what's refreshing about Kanye. He does it at every level of everything he touches, from Gap to music.
You see that in some of the more boundary-pushing silhouettes, both in the design itself and the initial reaction from the public. What would you say is the most challenging part about working on a new Yeezy silhouette?
Usually the transition to market because you want to maintain the purity of the idea. A lot of people want to take the easy road, so that's the biggest challenge; getting everybody else on board to work at the same level.
I heard Kanye talk about no more shoelaces because he was tired of tying them during his Sunday Service performance series. Then boom: The Foam Runner. Walk me through how that one came to be.
It's funny, I talked about performance insights and how those solutions became iconic. Some Yeezys had round laces and round laces are notorious for coming undone. And so Kanye was frustrated because his shoes were always coming undone. That became, "I don't want any laces because I don't want to worry about that." So even though the Foam Runner is perceived as a lifestyle product, it was originally a performance solution.
"I want to jump in them and I want to go. I don't want to tie them. I don't want them coming untied. I don't want to trip." All of those things become the recipe for a performance solution. A lot of people might look at it and think it’s just some fashion statement, but it’s rooted in a problem that we solved.
It sounds like Kanye’s mantra is to make sneakers better.
One of the first things he said to me is, "Yeezy makes life easy." And it's not some electronic gizmo or some overcomplicated thing that can break. It’s simplified and straightforward. And we do it at $75 as opposed to $750, like somebody else might.
What keeps the ideas fresh? What’s the inspiration that drives you and the team?
A huge part of it is Ye and we're all onboard with our eyes wide open. We're looking for things; we're looking everywhere. And it’s the same with him. That’s why we vibe so well.
It's like, "Wouldn't it be cool if you could do that?" And he goes, "Let's do it." It's a complex path, but the end is simple. So, as bizarre as it sounds and as different as we are, we're a lot alike. The zero-fucks-given attitude. You've got to have that to get to new places.
What advice would you give your younger self and any aspiring footwear designers for that matter?
Never compromise yourself and your beliefs. I've suffered from it financially sometimes, where I didn't get the raise or the promotion, but I got a good night's sleep. What are your goals? If your goal is monetary, suck it up and be a tool. If your goal is creation, create and things will come with time.
That and push it. Show me something I’ve never seen before. Step out and revolutionize. That’s always been my mantra and my goal.
What are your goals? If your goal is monetary, suck it up and be a tool. If your goal is creation, create and things will come with time.
How has this manifested throughout your career?
I've stayed true to what I was about; my morals, my beliefs. And I can look back and see the impact that I've made on the world and the product that I do. That to me is more rewarding than anything—but I'm not done.
Some people criticize me because I've worked for different companies, as opposed to staying with one my entire career. But each of those companies gives you a whole new toolbox or palette or brand DNA to work with, so you can reinvent what they do and reinvent yourself at the same time. That's helped me because I've never designed the same thing twice. That's a challenge for a lot of designers.
Speaking of other designers, do you have any favorite sneakers created by some of your peers?
The Sock Racer, designed by [Bruce] Kilgore. When that shoe came out, it blew my mind. I was like, "What is this?" And that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to create the, "What is this?" That one encompassed it all. It was pure. It was simple. It was purposeful. It looked like nothing else at the time, and that's what was so beautiful about it. Even now it feels timeless. You look at it and you can't say when it’s from.
I could say the same about so many of your designs.
It’s wild. If I look back at my entire career, it's all competing against itself. It's mind blowing.