There are but a few shoes that combine the fanaticism of footwear ownership with the fandom surrounding cinema. While many probably point to Marty McFly's Nike Air MAGs as the gold standard, Reebok certainly does not take a backseat when it comes to outfitting a legendary movie character thanks to the creation of Ripley's "Alien Stomper" from the aptly-titled 1986 James Cameron film, Aliens.
In honor of the inaugural "Alien Day," and the enthusiasm surrounding the re-release of the Alien Stomper model itself, we caught up with Stomper designer, Tuan Le, who was tasked with taking the shoe from his sketchbook, and interpreting what Ripley would favor after 57 years in space stasis.
Touching on his own design past, and Reebok's look to its basketball shoes as a point of reference, Le gives a better understanding what was happening over 30 years ago.
Can you talk a little about your own personal design history and how you ended up working at Reebok?
I was 25 years old when all of this took place - which is more than 30 years ago now. I was fresh out of design school and Reebok was my first design job. Reebok at that time was very much a running shoe importer in Boston who imported running shoes from England. There was a new trend that was bubbling up that everybody was [reacting to]. They wanted somebody that could draw aerobic shoes. That was received very well.
After that, they asked me to go into basketball shoes. And that was what I was working on when the big boss asked me to come in and said, "we have a deal with 20th Century Fox for this movie." I was not quite an experienced designer, and because all the more experienced guys were doing aerobic shoes at the time, they said, "off you go. You go to England, meet up with this production team, and get going on it."
What was your plan and first thought for the Aliens assignment?
During the meeting we had in London, I met with James Cameron for five minutes, but most of the time we spent with the production staff and they ran through the script with me. They described to me the last scene in the movie when Sigourney Weaver battles the alien and they both got sucked out into the airlock. She was hanging on for dear life and the aliens were hanging on to her shoes. The shoe had to slowly come off her feet [so that] the alien was sucked out into outer space. That was the requirement based on the script that was read to me.
Therefore, my direction was that the shoe had to easily [slide] off her feet. That was the only requirement they told me. There were no requirements for colors, looks or any particular theme that I had to follow. The only thing that I had to follow was that it easily came off her foot.
The immediate response to that was that it had to have some kind of Velcro strap. I left with that direction. Basically, anything I wanted to do with Velcro straps that would allow her to get sucked out into space easily. That was it.
As a designer, how did the sci-fi elements of the script awaken your creative direction?
It was a very cool assignment for me because growing up, my dad was a military helicopter pilot. I grew up around airplanes most of my life. I've always been inspired by airplanes. All through my career - even today - there are a lot of little cues from airplanes that I borrow in shoe design.
Did you try to look at NASA's footwear as points of inspiration at all?
No. I did not. The other requirement when I came back to my office in Boston from that meeting was that I was halfway done with a range of basketball shoes. The bosses at home basically said that I had to use existing basketball outsole molds in order to meet the deadline and control the costs. So basically, the mold for the BB 5600 - which is a mid-range basketball shoe at that time - was selected to be used on the Alien Stomper.
How long would you say it took from the initial meeting to the final product?
My guess is about six months. Not very long at all.
And you referenced the existing BB 5600. Was that anyone's signature shoe model at the time?
It started out as a generic basketball shoe model. The very first Reebok basketball shoe range was introduced in three models - with three price ranges - and this outsole model was the "middle" price range.
As Reebok began introducing them, they got quite a few Boston Celtics players to sign on because it's a local team and a local company. I believe Dennis Johnson and few other big names wore that shoe. It became a very big shoe and huge success for Reebok.
Was the idea of "storytelling" always in the back of your mind when working at Reebok?
Yes. Always. That goes without saying that on every product we ever worked on the story has to be stability, traction and flexibility. There was no connection to the Alien Stomper at the time because it was a basketball shoe to begin with.
One of the things that stood out to me was that Reebok had the foresight to believe that people would latch onto a progressive and powerful female hero like Ripley during a period in time when action heroes were mostly men. Are you proud that you created something for such a strong, female heroine?
I'm extremely proud. I got to meet Sigourney Weaver for about two seconds in passing. They just said, "this is Sigourney Weaver, this is Tuan, the guy from Reebok." I got to shake her hand and fell madly in love with her. She was about six feet tall. Red headed. Beautiful woman. And powerful. I was extremely proud to do the shoes for her. She was definitely a hero of her era.
With "Alien Day" happening, do you feel any pressure to replicate what Nike did with the Air MAG and Back to the Future?
It's two really separate entities. I must say, Nike at that time was not a significant player in the industry. We were flying high. Reebok was very successful. We were almost an overnight success story and everything we did was gold. Nike's shoes were very much a commodity. You buy the shoes to go running in. But Reebok was breaking ground and thinking outside-of-the-box. We were creating new looks and categories for the fashion industry.
Are there other Reebok's you would like to see come back and retroed?
Personally, I would like to see a bunch of the old basketball shoes come back. They were very much timeless designs. Those shoes would look awesome today.