In an industry addicted to retro, Highsnobiety presents The New Vanguard of Footwear, a dedicated hub that celebrates the pioneers from around the globe who are changing the face of what today represents a multi-billion dollar industry.

Kitty Shukman is one of this generation’s most skilled sneaker designers. But she could have just as easily been a philosopher, a fact that becomes abundantly clear after talking to her for a few minutes. Every question asked or topic broached is met with considered, sometimes abstract, but always interesting thoughts. That same philosophical approach is evident in Shukman’s process and work.

After spending time at YEEZY, Shukman is currently working as a freelance designer, which gives her the freedom to pick and choose her clients and allows her to more closely align with people and brands that share her values. Her portfolio has grown since leaving YEEZY, and she’s able to leave her very distinct mark on different parts of the industry.

“The benefits of going freelance really outweigh the challenges. I get to work in an environment that suits me, and I can work with people that I really resonate with,” says Shukman. “I left YEEZY after almost three years and took some much-needed time for myself. As a creative, your job is to come up with ideas all the time, but if you’re not nurturing that field and giving it the nutrients it needs, no crop is going to grow continuously.”

It’s clear that Shukman values looking after herself and putting herself in the best position to fulfil her potential — not just as a designer, but as a human.

She explains that while objectives and expectations can change from project to project, she has a core set of design and personal values, but always aims to leave enough room to be flexible. Those values inform Shukman’s process and how she approaches her work. Having a rough process not only helps get into the flow of things, but allows Shukman to find her self and approach every project with the enthusiasm she constantly radiates.

“I’ve got more tools to center myself. If I feel uneasy, I meditate first, just to clear my mind. Then I relax and trust myself,” Shukman outlines on how she gets into her zone. “I like to start with something fun, and something that gives me joy is looking at old shoes. There are so many obscure places I love to look, but normally I start with eBay.”

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Whether it’s orthopaedic shoes, fishing socks, or a product so abstract someone who’s not a designer would have no idea how it relates to sneakers, Shukman’s references and inspirations are plentiful.

“Then I’ll find a channel to just flow through and don’t constrict myself. Don’t try and have an end goal. Just be open,” she says. “And then I’ll start sketching or dropping things into Photoshop. If I feel hands-on, I’ll use clay.”

Image on Highsnobiety
Image on Highsnobiety
Sirui Ma, Sirui Ma

Shukman is acutely aware of how her creations resonate with people. Having designed at YEEZY, her sneakers are at the edge of footwear design, responsible for pushing the boundaries and asking: why not? Why can’t a sneaker look like this?

“We’re obviously all still going through this pandemic and we want a sense of belonging. Maybe subconsciously, we want to feel grounded, because there’s so much anxiety out there,” Shukman says, explaining the role of sneakers in the world today. “Sneakers are where your foot connects with the ground the most. Your foot is solidly on the ground and helps you feel balanced.”

It’s a beautifully considered way of looking at why so many people are so obsessed with shoes. And it’s evidence of the aforementioned philosophical outlook Shukman has on a lot of topics.

Another theme central to Shukman’s being is duality. Her first shoe was a sky blue Vans sneaker, which she reveals was because she wanted to be like her two older brothers, both of whom skated at the time. The bulky Vans shoe was incredibly masculine, while the colorway was decidedly feminine.

“I’m so interested in the enjoyment between those extremes. The juxtaposition of masculine and feminine. That’s where I find my joy, in the middle of these different things,” Shukman explains.

Her work at YEEZY embodies that, but so does Shukman’s entire aesthetic. “I love to dress both very masculine or feminine, depending on how I feel,” she continues. “And that’s 100 percent the future of footwear. It doesn’t matter how you present or what gender you align with, you should just have a shoe that you like. That’s why YEEZY is so incredible. YEEZY sneakers are just shoes, they’re not for men or for women. It’s like ‘these are our shoes, and they’re all fucking hard.’”

Through her work at YEEZY, Shukman has rubbed shoulders with a lot of great designers, one of whom she considers a great mentor and inspiration: “Steven Smith is such a special person. I’m so grateful to him and he’s taught me so much,” she says. “He’s a real visionary. Someone who came to earth to change how we live, how we dress, and how we express ourselves through the things we wear.”

Daniel Bailey, co-founder of CONCEPT KICKS, is another name Shukman is quick to mention. “I’ve been so lucky in finding people who have really supported me. Daniel came to my graduate show and ever since then, he’s had my back.”

Shukman also notes that both Bailey and Smith’s advice has gone beyond the day-to-day work of a designer. “It’s their demeanour and how they work with people. They’re both such kind people and I really want to follow in their footsteps, because there needs to be more people leading with kindness,” she reveals.

Looking forward, Shukman is currently learning how to use Gravity Sketch from another industry-leading designer, Finn Rush-Taylor. Shukman and many of her peers believe the program to be the future of design, not just because it connects people from all around the world, but because it further democratizes the industry and allows people without traditional design or art backgrounds to become designers. Additionally, the environment and the footwear industry’s impact on it weighs heavily on Shukman, who is using her flexibility as a freelancer to align herself with companies that are really trying to make a difference.

The future of footwear design looks incredibly bright, in part, because people like Shukman are driving the industry forward.

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