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. For this debut iteration we spotlight nine designers (most of whom were born after the Air Jordan) working across sportswear, streetwear, luxury and everything in between. They represent youth culture today, and show us early glimpses of where it's going next.
It comes as no surprise that ASICS — a sportswear brand that is steeped in as much sauce as it is in history and heritage — has a first-class roster of sneaker designers. They ensure the brand stays as far ahead of its competitors as its athletes do, and are the reason sneakerheads get to enjoy models such as the GEL-Lyte 3 and GEL-Kayano 5 OG or newer models such as the GEL-Nimbus 22 and NovaBlast.
One of the Japanese brand’s best is Kenichi Kawano, who currently heads up the SportStyle category as a senior footwear designer and will be celebrating 15 years at ASICS come April 2021. Kawano’s circum vitae is unique, even when compared to the other designers spotlighted as the future of the footwear industry. His 15 years of experience make it hard to call him an up-and-coming designer, yet he represents a new generation of designers at ASICS.
Over the years, ASICS has been able to lean heavily on iconic archival models, such as the aforementioned GEL-Lyte 3, designed by Shigeyuki Mitsui in 1990. More recently though, ASICS has carved out an impressive niche for itself in the fashion world, and Kawano has become the go-to designer for collaborations and special projects. Kawano’s portfolio spans from designing for Berlin’s GmbH and iconic Japanese fashion house COMME des GARÇONS to working with hype kids’ darling, Sean Wotherspoon. If you’ve got a favorite ASICS sneaker, chances are Kawano-san had a hand in designing it.
For Kawano, though, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. “I have specific memories of all the shoes I designed, so they are like my children,” he jokes. “Recently, I worked on the GEL-Lyte 3 30th anniversary model. That was a special experience as I got to work with Misui-san and discuss his coloring process from back then.”
Back in university, Kawano had love and appreciation for luxury brands. “I wore a lot of luxury sneakers from brands such as Balenciaga, Prada, Botegga, and Margiela. I think while enjoying these shoes, I really started to appreciate footwear and its beauty,” he explains. “Some of the high-end brands are so timeless and traditional, while others are more commercial and high-street. Martin Margiela, for example, I don’t really like anymore, just because the old designs were so good.” Nowadays, however, he says he doesn’t have time to wear other brands, wholly committed to ASICS and his own work.
Kawano comes across as very pragmatic — in his sneaker choices, as well as his approach to footwear design. “I like to start by thinking about the brand’s design direction on one end, and the current market situation and relevant consumers on the other,” he says. “I then try and focus on placing my design where these two ideas intersect and build upon it.” That approach has allowed him to create successfully for a wide range of sneakerheads, as his portfolio shows.
Like most of us, Kawano has been affected by Covid-19, and he believes the way people have dealt with the pandemic has shifted the footwear industry’s path. “Covid-19 will more or less continue to reshape how people consider and choose footwear in the future. We will need to think about practical and accessible design, as well as multi-functionality,” Kawano muses, before adding that these changes won’t affect everyone equally. “I feel the tastes of core “sneakerheads” will not be affected much. As so many sneakers are released on a daily basis, I think a strong concept and impactful design will be key points going forward.”
Listening to Kawano speak, it’s clear that he’s a devout student of the sneaker game, which is surprising when you consider if all had gone to plan, he might have never become a sneaker designer to begin with. “I graduated from art school with a concentration in sculpture and at first I wanted to focus on landscape design, like car shows,” he tells me. “Instead, I became an art teacher at an elementary school, before joining ASICS in 2006.”
Perhaps his experience in other fields has served him well, perhaps it was fate that Kawano pick up a pen and pencil and start sketching sneakers and there was no way fate wouldn’t let him get to where he is now. Either way, the results speak for themselves and the sneaker industry is better off for it.