Hosted by Highsnobiety Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency flew to adidas’ showroom in Paris and spoke with Nic Galway, the man behind some of the brand’s biggest sneaker innovations and collaborations including those with Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Raf Simons.
Many might not know his name but certainly his work. As senior vice president of global design for adidas for the past 20 years, Galway has been instrumental in propelling adidas into the cultural zeitgeist. From leading high-level collaborations with Kanye West and Pharrell to designers like Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Stella McCartney, Yohji Yamamoto; to reissuing iconic models like the Superstars and the Gazelles; to being in charge of the designs for the NMD, Pure Boost and Tubular, Galway has been key in crossing over sneaker culture with high fashion. In doing so he’s cemented adidas as one of the world’s most forward-thinking sportswear brands.
At adidas’ Paris showroom, Galway spoke about working with Kanye on the Yeezys, the power of meaningful collaboration, and how to stick out in an oversaturated market.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Episode 2. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: Where are we sitting today? I'm looking at this wall displaying all of adidas’ past, present and future collaborators. We got Pharrell, Stormzy, Guillermo Andrade from 424 and Yohji Yamamoto. Then we have Beyonce and Craig Green coming up.
Nic Galway: We're sat in our showroom where we present our collections at fashion week, but it's also the place where I and my team get to play. And we get to invent how we'd like to express the brand, and that's why we built the showrooms. And then, like you said, those great names up on the wall. I would give a shout out to Gonz as well, he's up there
It's such a diverse group over here. I mean it's changed over the years as well. Working with artists like Daniel Arsham isn’t something that would happen a few years ago right?
It's interesting you say it's changed. What I find consistent up there is that we've always been really interested in collaboration and surrounding ourselves with people who see the world differently to us. And I think that's the constant, but then as you said, the names are different because culture changes, you know? And I really like that mix. I love the fact that we've known Yohji [Yamamoto] for 20 years and now we’re building relationships with some of the newer generation.
I know that you do a lot of things at adidas and you've been here for quite a while now. For the people who might not know how much influence you actually have in the company, could you talk a bit about what you do today?
I'll do my best. So my official title is Senior Vice President of Design at adidas. So Creative Director of Originals and Sport Style, and it's evolved because I came into the brand as a shoe designer. So I oversee every creative touch point we have with the consumer across all of Originals and all of our partnerships. So that allows us to think about what the stores look like in the future, what the campaigns are, what kind of product we want to create and what stories we want to tell. I think the advantage I have today is that I'm able to have an influence on all of those topics rather than just how a sneaker looks.
So it's almost like a creative director role at a luxury fashion house?
Yeah. And I've always loved the connections to culture. Having direct access to these amazing people, but also having all the technologies that we have [at adidas]. Working for a big brand could either make you fall in line or make you could say "You know what? I have these incredible resources to play with, where could we take it?" That's obviously more my interest.
You weren't always in the fashion industry. You’re from the UK and started in automotive design.
I've just always loved creating. If I'm not designing sneakers, I'm designing something every day of my life. It's just what I like doing. And back then I thought I wanted to be a car designer, cause in the 1980s that was the pinnacle of design, so I got myself into an automotive course in Coventry, in the UK, and I really thought that's what I wanted to do.
I also started rock climbing back then, and more and more of my weekends I was out climbing, and I started making my own climbing gear. So I'd go climbing with my friends, and in the evenings I'd stitch harnesses or backpacks, and I just found that more interesting than designing cars. So even though my first jobs were in the new automotive world, I just felt something was missing, that's why I left, and I got super lucky and ended up at adidas.
What was the company like back then?
I think in Germany alone, there's about five or six thousand people today. Back then it was very, very different. I joined in September '99, and it was the first or second week that they had moved to what is now our headquarters. Had I joined a month earlier, I would have actually been in the original space that Adi Dassler had founded. So I was the first generation in that new building, and it was really interesting actually. Firstly, I didn't really know anything about the brand other than my memories growing up as a kid, and there were all of these kind of big waste bins around the building because they were moving from one place to another and people were throwing lots of stuff out. And I remember in my first weeks going into these bins and taking stuff out that I liked.
It brings it back to environmental responsibility that we see so many young designers focussing on today.
One of the things about being a creative leader at a brand for 20 years is that you see the different mindsets of each generation that come in and work for a brand. And I'm seeing more and more that the sort of questions young designers are asking today are around purpose, not just what something looks like and I think that’s good.
It’s different than when you started off. Your first collaboration being for Yohji’s Y-3 line. When was that?
My memory gets foggy at times on this one, but basically I got the chance to first work with Yohji somewhere in 2000. Back then, I didn't know who Yohji was but he'd seen some of the shoes I'd been working on and asked if we could do something. Then for a couple of seasons we did his own main line and runway shows. There was so much interest around that, that we decided to look at making a collection, that’s when we did Y-3.
Stella McCartney was early on as well. Along with Yohji at the time, those collaborations were ahead of their time. It was long before anyone was crossing over high fashion and performance. What was the response back then?
It was very, very controversial at the brand for sure. Sometimes they send us on training courses, and you're with people from all different areas of the brand. We were on a lunch break and everyone there was talking about how terrible this Y-3 thing was, and how it was going to destroy the brand. And I'm stood in the room thinking, "Hang on, I'm doing this. This feels really strange." But that was kind of the sentiment back then because no one had ever done anything like this, and it was only once we had proven it and people started to see how well received it was, suddenly everything changed. But someone had to be first.
Was it because at its core, adidas is a performancewear business. And doing anything that puts culture over performance can be perceived as something far-strayed to what the company set out to do in the first place?
Absolutely. And again, it's really hard to imagine today what this industry looked like before collaborations existed. If I rewind to 1999, Originals didn't exist either, it was just adidas. And you could buy some old shoes because they were still in the market, but there was no retro business. That all happened around 1990/2000, and obviously reshaped the entire industry as we know it today. We were the first with Yamamoto, and then it just accelerated really fast, but back then, collaborations were completely unknown territory.
What did you learn from those first two collaborations with Stella and Yohji? Where did you see opportunity for the future?
With Yohji I learned that I knew nothing if I'm really honest. I knew nothing about the fashion world. I'd never heard of him. So it just opened my eyes, like there's this incredible world out there and I want to know more. And Yohji, I don't think he realized it, but he really changed everything about how I look at design now, and I'm super lucky to still work with him today.
Stella taught me something different. Stella taught me that my perceptions can be wrong, you know? I remember the first time I had a meeting with Stella and we did these amazing renderings as if we were presenting to the board of adidas. And so I went in there really confident, I presented her all these drawings and she just stared at me. And she couldn't understand them because I didn't understand who my audience was, and the meeting was terrible. The next time I went back I made lots of shoe prototypes and it went incredibly well. And that understanding, that you have to get to know someone and understand what's important to them rather than try and impose your way, that was what I learned from both of these partnerships.
You’ve done so many collaborations in the past 20 years, everyone from Rick Owens to Raf Simons to Daniel Arsham. What are some key components that make for a good collaborator and how do you stick out in today’s over-saturated market where the speed of collaborations has never been faster?
I think probably the key would be to really ask yourself why are you doing it in the first place? Do I admire this person? What is it about them that I find interesting? What would they bring that we haven't already done? If you can't answer that, then I think there's no point in going further. Even if they're really famous or really big. You have to have a purpose there. Then the second thing is obviously to meet them, because sometimes you meet someone and then you realize, "Actually, I find you really interesting, but we don't seem to have a connection." That's also okay. And I think we all go into these things with a preconception of what we might do, but you shouldn't rush it.
Do collaborators approach you guys, or do you guys actively scout for new talent?
Absolutely both. Talent finds talent. People want to work with us as a brand because they know that we're open as a collaborator. I'm also very interested in the networks of our partners. Who do they know? Because again, they often know who's going to be the next name more than we would. That's the whole point of having a family in a network.
I want to speak about two big points in the early 2010s that really boosted adidas's credibility in the sneaker space. First off, the launch of the NMDs, and then the Yeezys. When did you know that you had to create a new model that resonated with culture at such a mass scale?
It's interesting how you framed the question because when a shoe is massive like those, you tend to think it was just that thing that happened, but in reality, it was a number of actions which led to that. It was a series of studies that we had started to evolve. So, that whole period of time started actually with Y-3. Y-3 was always a space where no one would bother you. Products like the Qasa and Retro Boost came out of that period of time because we were allowed to do it. And if you look at the forefoot of the Qasa, it already has the block on it that you would later see on the NMD. And the Qasa was an underground hit. It came upwards from culture and for me that was an indication. I had an incredible team working with me on NMD. It wasn't just me. It was a group of us, and it was where we saw the opportunity to take all of those studies and put it into the mainstream.
How did that look like behind the scenes?
Our idea was to say, "Well, people love the old sneakers, and they're not sure yet about Boost, because Boost has only been shown in highly-technical running shoes. So, if we could put those two worlds together and encourage people to try Boost for the first time for Originals, that could be pretty amazing." That's really where NMD came from.
The whole culture aspect behind a shoe is fascinating, because in its essence, a shoe is just a shoe but for it to get traction in today's day and age, there's a whole formula behind it. To what extent is it strategic in the sense of putting out the shoe in specific quantities and who you put it on, and to what extent is it luck?
I can tell you, and I don't think anyone would mind. We all were very excited about the NMDs. We all felt it was the right moment, and we had confidence because of some of the things I just described. But adidas was a different brand before we had done NMD, before we did Ultraboost. I think it was when people suddenly saw, "Wow, this brand's exciting. They're doing things different." I remember we had a whole year's worth of projection of numbers, and we sold them out almost instantly. Then we were like, "What do we do for the rest of the year?" This is a nice problem to have. The definitive learning I really took out of it and what I always have to remember is I think what people really loved most about NMD in that period was that adidas wasn't afraid, that we wanted to try things, we wanted to shake things up, and I think people were ready for that. I have to remember every day to never get complacent.
At the same time the Yeezys came out. That changed the sneaker game for good. When did you guys start talking to Kanye?
Basically the team had been talking with Kanye for a while, and Kanye was very expressive back then that he wanted creative freedom and he felt that we were the right partner to do that. So, this was already a conversation, which I wasn't part of myself, and then they had to decide, well, who is going to work with Kanye? My team had that track record of being able to take on this type of project where we could really take something on and run with it without being afraid of timelines. I was in his apartment in Soho and we started talking. He showed us his references and was very clear of his ambition.
I think it took us around eight to nine months to get the 750s done, and then the 350s came shortly after that. But what was incredible for me was that Kanye wasn’t about singing a check or something. He was on it every single day. He was living for this. We spent a lot of time. He came to the factories with me, and we'd sit, sketching. He really woke me up, I have to say. You need that as a designer, to see someone with that level of commitment and that level of vision. It really makes you look in the mirror and say, "Wow, that's what it takes."
What did Kanye teach you?
I don't think he would mind me saying that I really learned two key things from Kanye. I remember some of his quotes. He said to me, "You guys compromise too early. Your compromise is my beginning." That was kind of his approach, and I thought that was amazing. Just because we stop here doesn't mean the world stops. He was just saying, "You have to throw the stone way further ahead." I think that's really important.
Then the other thing I learned from him, which I hadn't seen and people might not necessarily expect, is he looks at everyone as equals. He constantly surrounds himself with people who inspire a conversation. But then he asks all of them to talk about things which aren't their own area. I find that amazing. He doesn't have a music meeting and then a design meeting, it's just creators together. So, that level of collaboration and that level of curiosity in other people, sometimes we think we know what we're doing, but his approach is, "Yeah, you might know what you're doing, but it still doesn't mean you shouldn't ask someone else." I think that's really important to remember.
And what a success the Yeezys have been.
Obviously I’m super proud of that shoe. It's a very simple shoe. It's just two halves stitched together down the center, and then the sole. But to get to that, it was a really interesting journey, and again, how we talked about it, how we described the type of product we wanted to create, that's one of the ones I'll always remember, especially in the original black and white colorways.
How many of them do you have yourself?
None. I never even remember the right names now, but I have a pair of the black-and-white ones in a cupboard. For me, this is my work, and people always wind me up about it, but I'm one of those people, if I have an idea, I just have to make it. Many of the shoes I just cut up and turn into something else. I have chopped up some of the original Kanye prototypes to make the next prototypes. So, they don't exist anymore. Personally, I'm not a sneaker collector, I like designing things. I'll wear sneakers until they're destroyed, and then I'll pick something else.
Sneaker culture has gone mass. It’s always been big but not to the same extent as today. How do you feel about what the culture has become?
It's hard to say, really, because you can't rewind time. Even when I came into the company, the digital world was just starting and I don't think anyone would say they wished that hadn't happened. It was pivotal in our culture. I think some of the things which are happening now will be looked back on in the same way. So, you can't wish them away, but I do get the sense that we wish it was still like back in the day. I grew up in England in the 1980s with football casuals and terrace culture. That was amazing, but it couldn't happen today. It just wouldn't. So, I think we just have to accept things are different, and I think people who really care will always find a way. That's what progression looks like.
How do you make sure that you still keep up the quality while at the same time, keeping up the speed to drive novelty for the consumer?
When I joined the brand, we used to make the models out of wood and there was a team of carpenters in the building and they would have to carve a sneaker. That takes a while. But I live in a world today where someone can sketch something, put it into 3D, and have a printout on the desk by the end of the week. And, with today's technology, someone could potentially wear that thing. So it's completely different. Now, just because someone could wear it doesn't mean it would work or that it would perform. If I look at other industries, the first iPod, for example, or the first Tesla, they're not perfect, but no one expects them to be perfect because they know that you're testing something new. So if you want perfect, it's not going to be for you. But if you want to be part of a journey and change, then it probably is for you. That's how I would look at the opportunity of speed in the industry. Why wait for something to be perfect before you put it in the world? Why not, rather, design in the open, if you like?
That brings me back to the Stan Smiths, Superstars and the Gazelles that you updated the silhouette of. How do you make sure that these iconic products are relevant for the next generation?
You want to create the new, something you've never seen before. But in reality, if you look backwards at how people have viewed the future, the things which really resonate are the ones which people can connect to. It's very rare that someone brings in something with no cultural connection, no past story, and it resonates. So I always think that the past gives context to the future. So do people look at the Superstar as the pinnacle of innovation for basketball courts? Because that's what it was the year it was made. Or, do they actually look at it as the shoe that Run-DMC wore and later as the one Pharrell did fifty colors of? Sometimes you just need to retell the story. Sometimes you just need to put it into a new context, and other times, you need to reinvent it. But I think you need balance.
How did Pharell come into the mix in that case?
The story of the fifty colors of Superstars is a good one. We met Pharrell, I guess five years ago or so, at Coachella. And again, I never met Pharrell. He invited us out there and he had this kind of weird ranch place he had rented for the week, I guess, to escape. And he had everyone sat around and said he wanted fifty colors of the Superstar, not five. And he was probably right. We then had to go back to Germany and tell people he wants to do fifty colors, and they're like, can't he just do the black and the white? And we're like, no. So anyway, we did the fifty colors and it was incredible because Pharrell sitting in this center of color is one of the most iconic pictures, I think, of the last couple of years. He only changed the color but just him saying to [the consumer] “actually, you choose,” that was a really bold move. I asked Pharrell at the beginning, "How do see adidas?" And he said, "The thing that makes you unique is you're the people's brand." And, hence, fifty colors for everyone.
What do you learn from working with the next generation?
People like Danielle Cathari, they just remind you why exactly I started. It takes me back. I absolutely wouldn't be having this conversation with you today if someone hadn't asked me to go and meet Yohji Yamamoto. I didn't find Yohji, someone put me in a position to meet Yohji. And that person changed my life. I remember that. So can I do the same for someone else? Because now I'm in that position myself, and I should. So that's what it tells me. People rarely let you down. If you put your trust in someone like that, they normally do pretty amazing things and I'll be very excited to see their journeys.
What would you tell those kids that want to do what you do?
What I would say is firstly, you've got to have energy for this. No one's going to come and find you. You've got to find your own luck in life. So I would absolutely encourage people to put themselves out there. Reach out. And again, from the conversation we've had, we are looking. It's not just us. I'm sure that's industry wide.
Then, what's your point of view? What do you believe in? Because in a world where everything starts to look the same and people start to reference exactly the same things, I believe we're all looking for someone who actually has a different point of view. So, I really think you've got to say to yourself, well, how will I stand out? I don't believe there's such a thing as work for the bin. Everything takes you somewhere and you have to dig deep for that. And don't be afraid if you see us in the street, introduce yourself.