Kick Game: Provocative Sneaker Pimps

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With the sneaker-collecting hustle running rampant–spanning everyone from junior high kids to corporate execs–we got to thinking about the people behind the shoes themselves. So we hollered at Undftd's James Bond and HUF's Keith Hufnagel, who own the stores that stoke the fire for hard-to-get kicks. We phoned JB of JB Classics–on a break from designing displays for the next Sneaker Pimps show–to ask him about running an independent sneaker company. From Puma HQ, industrial design powerhouse Gavin Ivester broke down the connections between sport-shoe technology and fashion forwardness, and Vans' Steve Mills gave us a look inside the mind of Vans Vault. Here's a sneak peek behind the scenes.

Jason Bass
Owner, JB Classics
San Francisco, CA

Suite 2206

XLR8R: What was your inspiration to start JB Classics?

Justin Bass: I was influenced a lot by going to Japan and seeing the color palette [of the shoes] and the intensity of the testing core footwear companies were doing out there. There were a lot of shoes that never saw the light of day. That inspired me to investigate all these holes in the market that existed. I have an MFA and [have had] this whole creative bone in me from early on, and I sort of applied that to this lifestyle void in sneakers. It was something that I experimented with and it became my life real quick.

Do all your shoes start off with a theme?

I'm constantly influenced. An example would be going to the UK and stumbling upon the Jack the Ripper tour that goes on in East London and then being like 'I'd like to work out a Jack the Ripper-style shoe.' Then comes the shaping, the silhouette of the shoe, the color palette, researching, and before I know it, it's all applied to the footwear. A few months later, I'll hear a rapper like Kanye West mentioning Jack the Ripper [the guy, not the shoe] in an interview. Also, I find myself more now pushing into experimenting with actual footwear construction–the materials, the assembly process. For instance, I'll want rougher edges or certain materials to apply to killer bee graphics that I am coming out with.

Do you have a favorite shoe that you've made?

Some of the favorites are the huge collectible stuff. Me and NYC Lase–this graffiti head–put together the MOTUG (Monsters of the Underground), which had 10 artists [including Futura, Doze Green, and Shepard Fairey] on one shoe, produced 24 times, and released in a gallery in the Village. That was a huge inspiration to me. Once or twice a year I'll have a shoe that will shock me at how it comes together. Usually it has to do with collaborative efforts or a graphic theme that will play across many markets at once.

What is the longest you've worked on a shoe to get it right?

Oh, I just move on. I seriously look at it in a painterly way. Like, if I'm having a frustrating time with this painting, I'll move on to make another painting because the ideas are endlessly flowing. Lately, I've been nailing every sample [I get back from the factory]: the translations, the graphical stories, the color combinations, the materials. If anything, there are some construction issues that happen in any development stage, [usually] a matter of changing materials or applying different shoelaces or inner linings.

What kinds of things are exciting to you right now?

To me, it's just the acceptance of this whole sneaker culture. What was once this underbelly type of thing is now making really huge moves. It's really nice to see old graff heads and different designers coming out and putting a face to the retail part of this whole movement. And it's global. Wherever I go, there's another 10 new stores opening and you see the skate market adapting to this whole sought-after sneaker atmosphere. Now my mother or grandmother could walk onto a certain block and see various magazines that cover the culture.

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Keith Hufnagel
Owner, HUF store
San Francisco, CA


XLR8R: Are there certain colorways or styles you're known for?

Keith Hufnagel: HUF green is our color; it's the color of our bags, the vinyl on our windows, and we use it in all our clothing. It even has a PMS [Pantone Matching System] code. And with San Francisco, everyone affiliates it with the SF Giants colors, which are black and orange. We use those colors a lot, but we're not claiming them.

What was the inspiration behind that?

Pretty much every shoe we've done–except the Air Max and the Vans we've got coming out–has a story behind it. We are based out of San Francisco so a lot of our stories come from San Francisco. The [Nike x HUF Gold Digger Trainer 1 SBs] was based on gold mining and the Barbary Coast. The mesh on the toe resembles what they use when they pan for gold–how they're shifting the dirt around. Then there's gold underneath the mesh, then heavily stressed-out leather. There's a painted sole that represents gold dust, and it's also in the 49er colors, which are brown, maroon, and gold. There's also the sickle and ax on the side of it to represent mining with the SF logo. The Nike Dunk SBs we did had tie-dye on them because of [the] Haight-Ashbury [district] and the hippies and tie-dye being so big out here. We looked into doing them as a vegan shoe, but we ended up going with cracked leather because it looked really nice. The tie-dye was black, red, and orange, which represented San Francisco as well.

What's the most limited shoe you've done?

The Air Max 1 we did with Nike that had our logo and the SF skyline embroidered on the back. [That's known as] a 'hyper strike': 24 pairs specially done for one person or store, usually with their logo embroidered somewhere and in a special box.

What is your favorite shoe that someone else has done?

The Jordan IV that Undftd did. Pretty much no one is allowed to touch Jordans at all, so to do one is pretty awesome. Jordan has such a following and they really don't retro their shoes that often–five or 10 years for some pairs. To do a Jordan shows it can be done and Undftd opened the door to other people doing it, but I don't know if it will ever be done again.

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Mark Ong takes custom to the nth degree.

Singapore's Mark Ong has become infamous for his steady hands. The 26-year-old–who goes by the name SBTG (pronounced "sabotage")–painstakingly customizes sneakers by hand, bestowing them with elaborate camouflage, custom textures, rivets, and custom buckles and straps. He is known for working mainly with Nike Air Force Ones and Dunks, but he explains that he's been branching out.

"Recently, I've been customizing a lot of Converse and Vans," says Ong. "I'm very inspired by skateboarding and I'm trying to bring back the '80s feel. [That time] was the birth of so many things: the first skate shoe, cutting up shoes, putting extra leather on to protect against the grip tape. It's like that time is lost and you can never get it back, so I'm trying to have nostalgia with my shoes."

SBTG designs aren't authorized, but so far the companies don't seem to mind. Probably because models like the Saigon and the Casablanca are far from mass-produced–it takes Ong anywhere from 15 hours to two days to finish one pair. Though it's a lucrative business, Ong will be turning his perfectionism to his clothing line in 2006. "I am almost always dissatisfied with products that are available, so I have to do something about it–or modify them to suit my needs," he says. "With Royale Fam, I'm concentrating on getting all the minor details right, down to the label, the stitch, the weave count of the cotton. I just want to make my land everything that I ever dreamed of..."

Chester Wingate

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Gavin Ivester
Senior Vice President & General Manager of International Footwear, Puma
Boston, MA


XLR8R: What are some incidences of sports and lifestyle influencing each other?

Gavin Ivester: Well, actual track shoes became extremely colorful and a bit outrageous to the point where, three or four years ago in Paris, people were taking track spikes and just putting a sheet of rubber on the bottom so they could wear them on the street. That was the kind of hijacking that we love and we watch for. The boxing boot is another great example. It's a serious product that you can actually box in–we got a great response after we put it out from boxers–but it hit a fashion trend and it was totally because people love to hijack products with an authentic story.

What are the advances in sneaker technology we'll see over the next five years?

Lighter weight is a big trend. For 2006, we have a very significant football boot that we're introducing–we were able to achieve the lightest boot possible without compromising stability. We used a carbon fiber plate under the foot to stabilize an extremely lightweight chassis and everything else on the boot is pared down to the minimum. Mechanical cushioning is another big thing–Duocell is our first entry into that. It's a series of hexagonal pillars on the bottom of the shoe that collapse when you step on them. They're hollow but the air inside them is not pressurized–not like an air system (like from Nike), where you have a volume of air or gas trapped inside the shoe and it's at a certain pressure and that's how you're getting your cushioning. We get our cushioning from the properties of the plastic that make up these pillars and they're designed in such a way that they're meant to collapse and spring back. The main area where we saw a difference was in the rate of pronation (flattening of the arch); for us that's an extremely important measure of the success of the running shoe.

What Puma shoes have people responded to the most?

If I look at the entire history of the company, it's got to be the Puma Clyde. [It was associated with] Walt Frazier, a famous NBA player from the '70s. We're reintroducing it now. It's a simple, extremely iconic suede Puma shoe that everybody remembers and everybody loves now. One of the most interesting stories is the Mostro, a shoe that's now five years old. [That shoe] really affected the culture of Puma. If you think back to when it came out, there was nothing like it on the market. It was a shoe unlike what people had seen before; because of that, they didn't really understand it or trust it inside the company. It got a really poor forecast before it launched. (If a forecast is bad enough, we'll kill a shoe before we launch it.) Somebody in the company said 'Let's try it anyway. I think it's interesting.' It became our biggest shoe for a few years. It was the powerhouse that helped build Puma to where it is now. It put this healthy self-doubt in the back of everyone's minds. When they see a design they don't understand now, they sit back and think 'I may be looking at the next Mostro,' which is fantastic for promoting originality and design within the company.

What are some products that really inspire you with their design or function?

I like really beautiful technical products. I am a huge Apple fan. I just think Apple still gets in right. What I love about Apple is that they're not just pretty products–the soul of Apple is that any product you pick up is easy and understandable. Apple does a great job of automating things that you as a user should never have to worry about in the first place. But I also really like cars and watches, because they're both highly technical and highly aesthetically developed products.

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Steve Mills
Director of Footwear for Vans Vault, Classics, & Vans Surf
Santa Fe Springs, CA


XLR8R: What are some of your inspirations at Vans?

Steve Mills: If our inspiration is not coming from skate, music, or surf, then we try to make stuff that we would really wear ourselves, rather than look at what everybody else is doing. For Vans Vault, a lot of our inspiration on the materials side comes from Italy's Lineappelle, a materials tradeshow that caters to the couture industry. On the skate side of things, we're influenced by what our riders are asking for.

What are some colorways or patterns that never got produced?

There are some designs that we simply couldn't use because of legal rights. We played with the famous shot of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston on a slip-on. We did a Virgin of Guadalupe, and I think that's something that might be made.

Is there a shoe that did better than you ever expected?

In the '80s, Vans made shoes for the California prison system. We introduced the Vans Prison Issue about two seasons ago in our Vault line and the heat on that shoe was surprising–it sold out in a couple of weeks.

What are your thoughts on the increase in people being able to customize their own shoes?

I'm seeing more creative stuff coming out of people buying shoes and drawing on them than what's available online. But Vans was 30 years before its time. Back in the late '60s, they had a store in Anaheim where you could go in and pick from canvases, materials, and patterns for shoes, or you could roll in with surf trunks or a sweatshirt and they would make a shoe out of [that material] right there for you.

What's in the works for 2006?

We are working on a Bermuda triangle with DQM out of New York, HUF in San Francisco, and Kicks Hawaii. For spring, we're bringing something out with Circle Jerks and the Dropkick Murphys, and there's a Descendents shoe that will deliver June 1. For Vans Vault, we're also trying to offer a few pieces of special apparel to the boutique accounts. We worked with [legendary flannel-makers] Pendleton and also California's Hoffman fabrics, one of the original companies that came out with the old school Hawaiian prints.

Are you doing any special shoes for your 40th anniversary?

We went back and did the first Vans shoe, [the Era], in its two original colorways: black and a kind of maroon. We also did the first Vans patterns–the Vanosaurus and just the Vans script logo. They're only going to make 1,966 pairs, which represents the year the company was founded.