Yeezy’s Executive Design Director: Steven Smith, The Iconoclastic Godfather of Sneakers

Steven Smith is recognized around the globe as an influencer with unparalleled talent and an iconoclastic spirit. For over three decades, his pioneering designs bring a genius to sneaker culture that has disrupted the history of an entire genre of fashion. He is known for engineering futuristic designs for brands including Nike, Reebok, New Balance FILA and Yeezy.

One of Reebok’s best selling shoes, the Smith-designed Reebok Instapump Fury, released in 1994, became a cultural sensation and is exhibited at both the Smithsonian and London Museum of Art. Smith’s iconic New Balance 574 model has also been a huge success for the brand and has never gone out of production since it was brought to market in 1989. 

In only a few years while working with Kanye West at YEEZY as Executive Design Director, he has catapulted the Adidas collaboration into nothing less than a multi-billion dollar empire––with latest designs known to sell out in less than 30 seconds. Smith, a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, didn’t plan to specialize in sneakers at the start of his career and yet, here he is, designing for some of the most symbolic brands in the sneaker industry. 

Radically imagining the form and fashion of sneakers, he is creating legendary silhouettes that inspire creativity and style. And yet Smith is an outlier. He has an uncanny ability to use both sides of his brain. He also knows how to enlist help. He shares, “I was an odd duck…and I have this odd brain for an artist, where it’s like one half engineer…Even though my things are very futuristic and fantastical in some ways, always in the back of my head I know how I’m going to make it, even if the process doesn’t exist. I have an idea of how to create the process to make the thing…So when you’re dealing with other people, such as an engineer, you solve half of the problem when you enroll them to help you. You can’t do it all by yourself, and you need those people––so you might as well learn their language.”

His perspective is unique and overwhelmingly a major enabler to his epic success. What’s even more remarkable was Smith’s ability to fall into his dream at a time when athletic shoe companies would not elevate their talent and instead would hide the designers behind the brand. He shares, “Nobody knew who designed all these amazing shoes…I barely ever got exposure.” 

He joins LASM with an exclusive look at how his creative sneaker design and bold art collide, while he also humbly shares his thoughtful advice for future designers on how to reach for their dreams. 

TRANSITION FROM INDUSTRIAL DESIGN TO SNEAKER DESIGN

Steven Smith: It was very funny. I graduated from art school and went straight to work at New Balance. At that time, the industry was very performance-focused, especially New Balance. It was their bread and butter. Some basketball shoes used to do some strange things and were used for sport shoes, but they failed as running shoes.

I minored in interior design and architecture. One of my friends had an interview at New Balance a year earlier, and they had a hiring freeze. In the meantime, he’s like, “I gotta get a job.” So, he started a design firm, and then a year later New Balance called him back and he told them, “Well, I have my own company.” Then he said, “But I know this kid…” 

That kid was me, I went up there and I interviewed. It was during Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street. Everybody wore suits and ties to work, and these guys [at New Balance] were wearing jeans, T-shirts and obviously sneakers. I knew this was the place for me. They hired me the next day, which was really cool. It was my first job out of college, and that’s where I designed pretty much all the [New Balance] classics that are still selling today.

KANYE’S YEEZYS 

Steven Smith: One night, the phone rang and I picked it up and it was Kanye. He told Adidas “This is the guy I want. Give me his phone number.” He called me up and said, “Mr Smith,would you like to come design with me.” It’s really mind blowing how much he knew about art, design, fashion, architecture, and I thought this position  could be really interesting. He then flew me to New York to come with him face to face. I was supposed to be in New York for two days. That second night, they’re like, “Oh by the way we’re going to Detroit.” He called me every night for two weeks until I agreed to come work for him. He asked me if I was going to the show that night. I said yeah, I’ll come if you got a seat for me. Halfway through the show, he started the floating stage from the Saint Pablo tour. He came and stopped in front of us, He said to the audience, “I want you to know we’re gonna be taking Yeezy design to a whole new place. I got the master futurist right there. He and I are going to show you pieces from the future that you’ve never seen.” 

I flew home and told them “Sure, I’ll do it.” That was over five years ago now. I didn’t want to move out of state but I said I’d come down three or four days a week, and work with him, they’re down in Southern California. 

CREATIVE SHARKS

Steven Smith: Like Kanye, like L.A. STYLE Magazine, we are creative sharks -if we stop creating like the shark stops swimming we die. Kanye has something like 600 songs in his laptop. I probably have 2,500 unrealized complete designs and we just keep going. 

Because money wasn’t my motivator, [instead] creating has always been. 

That’s what I want to do. I want to make cool stuff. Part of making cool stuff is so that other people can enjoy and can share it with you. For me, it’s been personally satisfying when I can walk down the street anywhere in the world and see somebody in my design. There’s nothing more satisfying. I always go up and tell them, “Thank you for buying.”

FIGHT FOR IT

Steven Smith: I’ve definitely been an asshole when I needed to get things done. Do what you think is right, because [for example] the Reebok [sneaker] OR [theory or marketing concept] wouldn’t have existed if I didn’t fight people for it. I had to go up to go see Paul Fireman [former Reebok Chairman & CEO] and tell him “The marketing team is trying to stop me from doing this.” “You empowered our innovation team to create the future.” Fireman replied, “Choose some swear words.” I went in and told the team I went to talk to Paul Fireman. Immediately everyone was in panic and fear. I said, do you really want to know what he said? He said, “He’s f*cking doing this shoe, get out of the way.”

So many people are afraid of risk taking and play it safe. 

Reebok ended up taking the recipe and today, 30 years later, it’s a large portion of Reeboks overall business. It’s crazy when you think about it.

WORDS OF WISDOM FOR FINDING YOU CALLING

Steven Smith: Figure out your way. Figure out what you’re good at. I think that some of the best advice would be to step back from 10,000 feet… Without caring about what other people do––do what makes you happy. [Then] you will find you are successful.

Stay true to yourself, do the right thing and be nice to people. 

I always say that I could go to bed at night and sleep well knowing that I did the right thing and that I made these products. I may have sacrificed things in my career and sacrificed monetary gain but it’s amazing to still see them around. When I look at that product, I know I did the right thing.

I always say to the younger designers, show me something I’ve never seen before. Change the world.

Interview by Tricia Love Vargas
Featured Image: Image via Getty/Brad Varket

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