This article was first originally published on Culture Cartel on 31 December 2019.
The sneakers have come a long way. Its earlier conception was merely a pair of rubber-soled shoes, made with no apparent distinction between its left and right sides, and its appeal belonged to its functionality across the realm of fitness. It has since evolved to become a ubiquitous footwear of sorts with unique silhouettes, interesting designs and new technology incorporated to boot.
Within the taxonomy of sneaker designers, few stand out as well as Steven Smith. With more than 30 years of expertise in sneaker designing, Smith’s expansive portfolio of iconic creations panders across unique silhouettes belonging to some of the world’s most notable brands, such as New Balance, Reebok, and adidas.
The master sneaker designer’s foray into the industry first began in 1986 when the then 21-year-old Massachusetts College of Art and Design graduate cinched a gig with New Balance. There, he played a pivotal role in refining the brand’s 995 series, conceptualising the 996 series, the 1500, and much more. In the years to follow, the industry would come to learn that Smith is not one for subtlety either.
Case-in-point: the Reebok Instapump Fury.
In an era bridled with conservatism and also a relative dearth of creative expression, the release of the Reebok Instapump Fury in 1994 was perhaps Smith’s most epochal and wholly eccentric creation. That was an era when the cherished and well-loved monochromatic or grey toned colourways appealed to the masses and thus, dominated the market, while the vibrant alternatives were largely shunned away. Offerings then ran the gamut from Tinker Hatfield’s Air Jordan series to Smith’s timeless New Balance 1500, and the advent of the Reebok Instapump Fury defied all expectations with a fiery colourway comprising vibrant splashes of red and yellow (along with the lace-free upper and CO2 charger). It was a head-turner amongst shelves of “blacks and blues” and the Reebok Instapump Fury became the very embodiment of disruption that would portend the variations to come.
“I was a young punk rocker then. If you looked back at the ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ by Sex Pistols, you’d notice the album cover is bright, it’s in your face, it’s disruptive, and it makes a statement. I wanted the Fury to have that same kind of effect,” Smith explains. “I wanted it to look like fire on your feet, like you’re going so fast that your feet are on fire.”
Today, the cross-pollination of vibrant colour palettes and eccentric designs — in the form of winged extensions or chunkier bodies — comes as no surprise. If anything, the convergence of the two aesthetics today is a much-celebrated feat of how far the sneakers of yesteryears have evolved. Having transposed from the running tracks to the streets (and runways), the sneaker industry has indisputably boomed across the decades and Smith is one who has seen it all.
In the earlier days, “sneaker design” was a largely unchartered territory and a career in sneaker design was unheard of. “Nobody was doing this,” Smith admits. “What I think we did in those early days was to help define what it means to be a sneaker designer today. As time evolves, new technologies, processes, materials, and new directions from consumers start to appear. And all these present new challenges, new ways to think of solutions, and new ideas to incorporate into our creative consciousness.”
As the world becomes acquainted with and comes to love Smith’s radical silhouettes, the market for eccentric drops booms. The race to procure the freshest release is an obsession amongst zealous sneakerheads and the pursuit of releasing the next big drop becomes a resolution amongst designers. In the seemingly saturated but competitively creative market, Smith remains hopeful. For the veteran sneaker designer, the hallmarks of an iconic sneaker design are non-existent and are largely dependent on how designers of the streetwear set and luxury fashion houses relate to the brands they represent and consumers who wear them.
“I don’t know how to do it, they just become that! You can’t just go ‘Today, I’m going to create an iconic product’. I’ve never thought about it that way, and I always try to make the best product I could at the moment in time, for the company that I work for, and with the resources and materials I had,” he says, smiling. “I’m a weird designer, and I’ve never designed the same thing twice. if you look at the things I’ve done for the different companies, they’re all very different. Each brand should have its own flavour and DNA.”
Fast forward to a dreary evening in September 2016, Smith received a phone call from someone he had least expect. “It was a weird New York number,” Smith recalls. And it belonged Kanye West’s. The American rapper-turned-fashion mogul wanted Smith to design for his billion-dollar sneaker label, Yeezy. For Smith, who had recently quit his job (or as he is frequently quoted, “I just walked away.”), it was light at the end of the tunnel. “If I had known that you had just left your job, I wouldn’t have spent two hours tryin’ to talk you into coming to Yeezy,” West jokes in a press conference with Smith earlier this year.
“There is no better disrupter and partner than Kanye West,” Smith affirms.
For the duo’s first collaborative creation, Smith and West dug deep into Smith’s previous sketches and after an exhausting 48-hour marathon of creative banter and exchanges, the iconic Yeezy 700 was born on February 2017. “When it dropped, it was sold out in six and a half minutes, which was incredible. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of that magic?” Smith says in an interview at the Fast Company Innovation Festival this year.
At present, Smith is the design director at West’s Yeezy Lab who spearheads much of the design from the iconic Lamborghini-inspired sneakers. The duo had also recently announced their intent for the brand to embark on the sustainability route. In two years, the label will bring manufacturing back to America, set up their own hydroponic, wheat and hemp farms, and take on more responsibility in their production processes by going from seed-to-sow. The latest sneaker prototype features foam partially made of algae.
While much of the world likely knows Smith as a sneaker designer, he still regards a part of himself as an engineer who innovates. “I wanted to make the shoes a machine for running. For athletes, it’s a machine that makes them perform better,” he says. For Smith, the act of manoeuvring between the two personas is challenging. “The two don’t really get along together. Part of it is about problem solving and that mentality of making the sneakers better. The other part wants to make them look cool, exciting and interesting for people who want to buy,” he confesses. “I’m a weird combination of those two; I want to solve problems and still want the shoes look different. All of these drive the thought processes from the first moment I start sketching.”
For Smith, who remains unfazed and confident at the offerings to come, delivering a pair of sneakers that has impact and a considerable clout requires the qualities of being persistent and tenacious. The designer doesn’t bode well with hesitations or stagnation, and this particular spirit of his may well be the impetus that keeps sneakerheads on the edge.
“You just keep creating. That’s the beauty of it. I never stop, and that’s why I think I’ve been able to create relevant products for 33 years. It’s because I never stop.”