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.
Trying to sum up Safa Sahin’s design methodology is no easy task. In fact, when I ask the man himself to describe his approach in a few words, he has a think before laughing, saying that it should be someone else's job. Fair enough. How about “absurd, otherworldly maximalism”?
Having cut his teeth at smaller gigs across Turkey, Sahin eventually found his way to Nike where he honed his craft, working on some of Beverton’s biggest and most advanced footwear projects. It was during this time he also began to make waves online, getting in on Instagram while it was still bubbling. Operating to an almost Stakhanovite work plan of uploading one new render every day, it wasn’t before long he had amassed well over 50,000 followers on the platform. Naturally, professional suitors soon followed.
Adept at drawing up a pair of fashion week heels as he is a pair of bonkers kicks, Sahin eventually made the leap from sportswear into the luxury space. These days, he is a trusted lieutenant of Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, bringing to life some of the craziest and forward-thinking footwear on the planet.
Keen to find out more, I interrupted Paris Fashion Week for a chat with the man himself.
Was there a particular sneaker that inspired your design journey as a kid?
I'm from Turkey. I grew up in a small city called Yozgat. I came to Istanbul to study footwear design at university, which was a big decision. Before that, I was a graffiti artist. I was a shoe shiner when I was 11-years-old, which looking back, is when my career technically started. I’d take worn-out shoes and clean them up; painting and replacing parts. The type didn't matter. When it came to sneakers, I was always obsessed with Converse. Even when I was studying at university, it was my dream to work for the brand. I couldn't find an authentic pair because I was living in a really small town. My first sneaker was a pair of fake Converse.
So eventually you graduate from university. Where do you go from there?
I did an internship at a very small company for four months. After that period, they didn't like my designs. They came to me and said, “If you don't change your designs, we're going to fire you.” A week later they did!
The second job I did wasn’t as a designer. It was more working with glue and putting lining and leather together. During this period I realized that I don't have good knowledge about art, so I decided to study fine art. As a graffiti artist, I already knew I had the talent. I went back to university to study for five more years. I’d dabble in the shoe industry whenever I had some spare time.
I didn't get any money from my family. I earned my money to make my school payments and apartment. Sneakers were not popular in this period. Plastic shoes, high heels, and casual shoes were, but not sneakers. When Y-3 started launching sneakers, that blew my mind. Particularly models like the Qasa.
What did studying fine art teach you that graffiti didn’t?
My mind totally changed. We were taught to be free. Nobody can judge you. If you draw this curve or if you draw differently to others, this is your style. This touched me and changed my mind.
It informs me to this day in that I am always trying to bring something new and not follow others. I still respect tradition — I'm really curious about the techniques. But I am focusing on bringing something new.
How did your move to Nike come about?
I started to learn more about digital renders. Instagram also started around this time, and I posted every day. I targeted doing one per day for six months, no matter what. This idea came from Steve Jobs. He said to put one dot every day. One day you will realize that the dot is actually huge. After six months, I got an offer from Nike. They said, “We were following you for a long time.”
How did things develop from there?
They invited me to Portland. It was a big problem for me, because I couldn't speak English. They sorted a translator and told me to focus on design. Work was done about 5 PM and she would then come to teach me English for two hours every day. Every six months they collected all the designs. Some of them would go to market, some of them inspired other designers.
After Nike, what was the next step?
When I worked at Nike I was still posting stuff like high heels. I didn’t have many friends there because of the language barrier, so I was focused on my work. I started getting offers from big houses and big brands, including adidas. YEEZY contacted me three times. Louis Vuitton, Versace, Giorgio Armani, Marc Jacobs, Jimmy Choo… There were so many brands.
So why did you end up at Balmain?
They contacted me before, but they didn’t want a freelancer at the time. I was in Vietnam for production and looking at factories when my friend from PUMA called. He said, “I'm creating now the team for Balmain. Would you like to join me as had of sneaker design?” He was one of the big reasons.
What are the immediate differences between working for a sports giant like Nike versus a luxury brand like Balmain?
The freedom. For example, when I came to interview for Balmain with Olivier Rousteing, I had another meeting with Louis Vuitton for the adult sneakers design position. I said to Olivier, “Hey, Olivier, I have another interview tomorrow with Louis Vuitton.” And he said, “You can go. You have a talent. Probably it would be nice, but you will not be free there.” It is exactly the same with Nike. Before starting the design project, you have to abide by certain rules — stuff like the text and thickness of the sole.
Olivier was different. He told me, “If you select us, I will keep you totally free. And you can do exactly what you show on your portfolio.” He keeps me free and has been true to his word. I have more freedom here to make crazy sneakers.
Do you care about making something that falls in line with the Balmain DNA or do you have a free canvas to create?
It’s a bit of both. Right now I’m focusing on the cushioning system, like the Bbold. It still has the Balmain gold, but it’s totally new. We’ve since rolled the system out to other models — high and low. Evolution is the best word to describe this.
How do you predict sneaker design will progress in the future?
I think the silhouette will fundamentally change and they will bring in more technical things. Comfort and materials — everything will be combined. It's not separate from each other. This is true of most industries, from fashion to cars.
Finally, how would you describe your aesthetic?
Experimental. Futuristic. Trying think outside of the box. I don't know, actually. There are so many words. I also like tradition. Maybe a critic should come up with it for me!