Thirty years ago, ASICS first released the now-iconic GEL-LYTE III sneaker. In 1990, a shoe appeared on the scene that would earn its place in the history of sneakers, the GEL-LYTE III. Originally a running shoe, it made waves on and off the track thanks to its unique design that skillfully merged ASICS’ athletic functionality with a fun and playful aesthetic bolstered, in particular, by its unusual split tongue.
While the world took notice, the shoe was nearly impossible to find in Japan. But, in 2008, ASICS solved that problem with what they called the “official collaboration project.” Through this project, they began to work with local and international partners including Patta, Collette, and Tokyo’s mita sneakers.
“ASICS is a global brand,” explains mita sneakers’ creative director, Shigeyuki Kunii. “ASICS is the brand that Japanese people know well from school sports. Since the core of ASICS lies in being an athletic brand, they never reissued their high-performance shoes, making it the most familiar yet most elusive of brands. I think that unwavering positioning is what appeals to people all over the word.”
Kunii has worked with ASICS on a number of shoes since that first collaboration and for the 30th anniversary of the GEL-LYTE III, he’s teamed up with the designer of the original GEL-LYTE III, Shigeyuki Mitsui, on an honorary release. The release is the first in a series of celebratory collaborations set to drop throughout 2020.
“Since production is now so systematized, it’s difficult to bring together design and functionality – the two things don’t necessarily come together naturally,” says Kunii. “In Mitsui’s time though, he got feedback directly from athletes around the world and worked that into his designs. He is a designer and also an artisan. He designed manually, not digitally, and was therefore able to work extremely fine details directly into not only the aesthetic but also functional aspects of shoes. Meeting the original designer is really a precious experience. As a fan, I was thrilled.”
When it came to the design of the shoe, Kunii and Mitsui worked in close collaboration. “I kept talking about what everybody wanted and expected, and I was playing it conservative as a result. As I talked to Mitsui and we exchanged drawings, he slowly changed my mind. He’s my superior in so many ways, it’s a miracle that we even met. He said we should do new things, and that pushed me forward. I again realized that designers and artisans are always trying to do new things.”
When designing the sneaker, Kunii took note of a major event coming up in 2020 and incorporated a twist on Japan’s flag – a must for an Olympic-motif shoe. He took inspirations from the red of Mt. Fuji, cranes and other recognizably Japanese elements, to evoke the image of a runner taking a victory lap wrapped in the Japanese ‘hinomaru’ (rising sun) flag.
“The red on the toe of Mitsui’s tricolor design was gorgeous,” says Kunii. “When I saw that, I felt that doing something new was the perfect way to start a new era. I’d never used red in a collaboration before. It’s fine to do what everyone wants and expects, but I decided that this was a personal collaboration between Mitsui the person and myself as a person. I took Mitsui’s feedback and went further with the designs.”
As well as the vivid red toe, the new ASICS X mita sneakers GEL-LYTE III featured a zipper on the signature split tongue, colorful stripes highlighted on the medial side, and reflective GEL technology on the heel. Pointing to the country of inspiration, the sneaker also features “Tokyo kai” (Japanese for “Tokyo Edition”) embroidered on the side of the tongue in Mitsui’s handwriting and “Far East” printed on the sole. Finally, to honor the partnership, Mitsui and Kunii’s names appear on the insole.
mita sneakers has done more than 100 collaboration projects most recently with Givenchy. Kunii values never doing the same thing, not following trends, and maintaining the brand in question’s identity.
“I’m always thinking about the significance of each individual project. I’ve been doing these projects since before design collaborations were a thing, so I am always inventing what it means. This project is supposed to bring attention to the anniversary of the GEL-LYTE III. But, if I’m being real, I think it’s more important to make something that will be part of ASICS history than make something that will sell.”
For Kunii, the most appealing aspect of sneakers is that they bring people from all walks of life to one level playing field and give people the power to go anywhere.
“Our job is to break away from established ideas. Before, wearing ASICS on the street for fashion was unthinkable, but we changed that. Before, we eliminated the stripes but now we emphasize them. ASICS asked me to collaborate, and I wanted to give them my best, and overturn the expectations of those people who wear ASICS on the street, as fashion.”
He continues, “If athletic brands deal in innovation, then my job is to innovate the ‘fun’ and the ‘wow’ – the parts you can’t necessarily see – in challenging ways. But in the end, it’s about what the wearer sees in the shoe. The best thing about sneakers is that they seem to be in a specific category but they really have no bounds.”
As the interview comes to a close, Kunii “I’m not a designer, but I’ve been able to do so many collaborations after I worked with ASICS. I wanted to create something in 2020 that would start the decade off right.”
The mita sneakers x ASICS GEL-LYTE III is available now at selected retailers and ASICS’ flagship stores. In the US and Europe, it will release on February 6 at $180/€180.
- Words and Interview: Yuka Sone Sato
- Editor: Lucy Thorpe