Yassine Saidi is the head of PUMA Select, a division of the German sportswear brand that oversees the brand's high-level style partnerships. Mainstream interest in sneakers and sneaker culture has ballooned in the last three years, as PUMA's financial reports for the first quarter of last year attested. The numbers revealed a 92 percent leap in net earnings to $54 million, with the brand's footwear sector growing by almost 25 percent year-on-year from Q1 2016, marking one of the best growth rates in the history of the brand.
Saidi's work has been part of that acceleration. Recent PUMA brand partnerships and celebrity sneaker endorsements include fashion brands such as South Korea's ADER Error, video game developer SEGA, electronic musical instrument manufacturer Roland, and pop culture figures such as The Weeknd, Selena Gomez, Big Sean, Cara Delevingne, and one name that stands out above all others: Rihanna.
Saidi joined PUMA from adidas seven years ago as global head of sales for accessories. "I came to PUMA for the role of sales, but I ended up creating the Select line," he says. "Nobody told me, 'What if you just start working on this?' No."
Watershed moments in Saidi's early days at PUMA, setting the stage for the brand's current successes, include signing Brooklyn We Go Hard and Vashtie as ambassadors and collaborators. "Influencers that can actually design," as he puts it, although no one was really using the word "influencer" in that context at the time. Then came a series of release events that truly put PUMA in a different spotlight.
Between late 2013 and early 2015, Saidi lined up a trio of premium, concept-driven sneaker collaborations that told specific color stories through above-and-beyond detailing. The resulting products were true collectibles and got people talking about the German sportswear giant like never before.
"I had three massive projects," Saidi explains. "I had the Sneaker Freaker Blaze of Glory 'Shark Bait,' I had the Brooklyn We Go Hard R698 'Bluefield,' and I had the Ronnie Fieg Disc Blaze OG 'Coat of Arms.' I had these three launches. For me, it's like we pressed a button, launch, boom. And from that day, we didn't have to call anyone."
Fieg's KITH empire has only grown since that early "Coat of Arms" collab, and Saidi isn't surprised at what the native New Yorker has accomplished. "I've been working with Ronnie for the last four or five years and we were able to work on some really exciting projects together," he says. "His vision is beyond anybody can think of."
The feeling is mutual, with Fieg telling us, "Yassine is a very driven and knowledgeable veteran who understands both product and marketing. I consider him a good friend and a forward thinker who will help evolve this industry by pushing the envelope and helping reinvent traditional retail."
Saidi's career path started back home in France when he landed a one-year internship at Salomon. Once his internship was completed, his network helped him land another internship for six months at a company called Boards & More, which specializes in windsurfing, kitesurfing, and paddleboarding gear. Looking back on this grounding in the industry, Saidi encourages people to seek out internships while studying. "Today I think it's important when schools provide internships," he says. "I would tell the kids that want to choose this path, choose a school that allows you to have internships, something that gives you the opportunity to face the reality of the business."
Subsequent career inspiration came from an unexpected source. "One day I go home and there's a documentary on TV on the World Cup of 1998, and that documentary is actually about Nike versus adidas," he says. "So Brazil was sponsored by Nike and France was sponsored by adidas, and that was the final. The documentary was about these two brands from a marketing point of view, how they went into the World Cup."
Later that day, he sent his CV to both Nike and adidas.
"You can't buy heritage. You can't buy history," Saidi adds.
Saidi met the team at adidas France and was handed a position heading accessories and swimwear in 2003. But his ambition was to move to the tennis department. He successfully pitched a contemporary tennis collection named Edge, which included polo shirts, T-shirts, shorts, and footwear, and was supported by Novak Djokovic, who was with the brand at the time. This led Saidi to a leading role at adidas' global headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany — a town that is famously also home to adidas' historic fraternal rival PUMA.
Within five years, Saidi was offered a position by PUMA then-board member Stefano Caroti, and the groundwork started on PUMA Select. "So I built an organization of 12 people," Saidi says. "Part of them were PUMA people and part of them were new people. We built a small startup within the company, and very quickly we had success. It was extremely difficult, because when I was calling brands to do collaborations, people didn't want to work with us."
A meeting with Parisian streetwear boutique BlackRainbow was arranged, and a shortlist of collaborators drawn up. "We were the first brand to give access to these people, not only to the color and materials but actually design shoes," Saidi says.
Under Saidi, collaborations with German and Japanese sneaker retailers Solebox and mita sneakers cemented PUMA's status as a brand to watch. Drops with Fieg's KITH furthered the hype, with the designer applying his signature colorway approach to the Disc Blaze and Blaze of Glory (Highsnobiety also worked with KITH and PUMA on a collaboration in 2015). Soon, BAPE was also added to PUMA's roster of collaborators.
When PUMA presented its partnership with pop superstar Rihanna in September 2015, the resulting Creeper silhouette was an instant success, arguably catalyzing competitors such as Vans and adidas to push more platform sneaker silhouettes onto the market. A simple PUMA Suede placed on a platform sole, the Creeper concept can actually be attributed to Billy Walsh, better known as Mr. Completely. Walsh is set to introduce his own PUMA collaboration in 2019.
"When Rihanna came to Herzogenaurach, to our headquarters, she was wearing a Creeper custom designed by Billy Walsh — he was the first one to do it!" says Saidi. "He customized that shoe for her, and she came to the office with that shoe. I say, 'What is this?' and she tells me that Billy made it. I say to her, 'I know Billy! That's amazing!' And I look at her and say, 'Why don't we do this as our first shoe?'"
A hug and a high five locked the deal.
Later, Walsh was brought on board directly. "We made him part of the project," says Saidi. "He designed alongside her, and boom — first drop. After that, my team covers the project and I just look at it from the top."
Rihanna departed PUMA's Herzogenaurach headquarters with an unreleased PUMA x BAPE jacket, a gift from Saidi. Despite insisting she wouldn't wear the jacket in public, with the release date still over six months away, RiRi took to social media to post images of the jacket.
"So BAPE called me and said, 'Yassine, what the fuck?'" Saidi recalls. "And I say, 'Yo, it's Rihanna.' They say, 'Yeah, it's amazing.'"
After our meetings with Saidi in Berlin and again in Herzogenaurach, he returns to his busy travel schedule, heading to Paris, Los Angeles, and then Seoul. That's no surprise given PUMA has a fairly large network of "x" collaborators and it's his job to make first contact and then maintain relationships with all of them. Saidi says he doesn’t have or need an office or space of his own at PUMA HQ.
"My office is literally my phone — that is my link to the world," he explains. This gives him the freedom to go where he needs to be, to interact and connect with others at all levels of the company.
"I believe in personal relationships," Saidi says. "I never sign someone on the phone or email. We go spend time with them. So, for example, ADER Error — before we signed them, we had been talking for a year and a half. Then I went to Seoul, I sat with them, we spent some time together, and we realized that, actually, we fit."
The Weeknd's creative director La Mar Taylor tells Highsnobiety, "Yassine identifies great brands before they even know they’re great, or before anyone has ever heard of them. This is a skill you cannot learn or buy. No matter who you are, from industry leaders to an intern to a student, he will treat you the same."
Saidi believes the best way for his team to connect with a partner is to experience and understand where they work. "The design meetings, we usually do the first one in the studio of the partner and the second meeting is done in Germany," he says. "I want my design team to go into their studio and understand who they actually are. Not only through their Instagram, but their own life. Who they are. And for that, you need to understand the city and the environment. So we travel a lot — I would say half of the year."
ADER Error creative marketing director Kevin Lee tells us, "For this collaboration process, Yassine acted as a voice for ADER Error within PUMA. He built the bridge between our brands and made us feel comfortable as a partner."
The next step for PUMA's Select team is the Co.Creative project. Han Kjøbenhavn creative director Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen is one of a few collaborators set to join PUMA under this new banner, which represents in-house partnerships with designers, influencers, fashion makers, creative directors, and more.
"The idea is creating this platform where we work with people from different fields," Saidi explains. "Some of them will come and design shoes, some of them will create marketing stories." Saidi also makes clear that these won't be straight collaborations, but rather projects outsourced to figures in the PUMA network.
As well as recent high-profile collaborations with figures from the worlds of fashion, music, and pop culture, PUMA will soon be rolling out an environmentally sustainable collaboration with the renowned fashion school at London university Central Saint Martins, plus a footwear and apparel collaboration with Mike Cherman’s DIY it-brand Chinatown Market.
With all of this going on, you'd be forgiven for wondering where Saidi finds the energy. But it's the work that drives him on. "Being creative, for me, I would just call it energy," he says.
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