The global hunger for shoe collabs has never been stronger. This past year has produced some of the best (and worst) collaborative shoes in memory: from the Nike x UNDEFEATED Air Max 97 to the adidas x Sneakersnstuff “Datamosh” NMD, 2017 produced lust-worthy shoes of more than just the “AIR QUOTE” variety. In fact, while celebrity co-signs may have grabbed most of the spotlight, most of the year’s biggest partner projects came by way of a team-up between a global brand and a local, independent boutique.
And that’s not just due to the adidas Sneaker Exchange. Since the dawn of the industry, sneaker boutiques like Boston’s CNCPTS have built a rich history of putting their unique stamp on products. Limited releases, experiential activations, and, at the heart of it all, some good old-fashioned storytelling. Building a lighthouse at ComplexCon to promote a shoe collab that celebrates your city’s connection to a yacht-loving national icon? When a sneaker boutique gets involved, expect the unexpected.
Yet, boutique collabs captivate sneakerheads for reasons both aesthetic and aspirational. At one point in the life of every collector, a certain distinct thought has crept into that wounded post-L psyche: “If I owned my own store, I could get it all.” Unlike being a pro athlete or a Hollywood mega star, running a sneaker store seems decidedly obtainable – not easy, mind you, but at least not decided at birth. That attainability also carries a promise even sweeter than simply getting the latest Jordan or Yeezy: “If I owned my own store, I could make my own shoes.”
Bringing one’s unique design vision to life through a collab shoe is a sneakerhead’s dream – a chance to create, to dare, to give joy back to the community that nurtured that love of shoes to begin with. However, even for the world’s most influential boutiques, the path to collaboration is anything but simple.
We sat down with Rick Williams (co-founder, Burn Rubber), Erik Fagerlind (co-founder and CEO, Sneakersnstuff), and Deon Point (Creative Director, CNCPTS) to learn about the process, the politics, and the pride of creation that goes into collaborations with the world’s biggest brands, all to learn one thing: “How do you get your own sneaker collab?”
What was the first collab you worked on? How long into the store’s life did it happen?
Rick Williams (Burn Rubber): Our first collab work was with New Balance in 2010, six years after Burn Rubber opened, and the shoe was the MT580. It was basically my favorite New Balance, and I was kind of kicking it with New Balance a lot. This was way before collaborations were such a regular thing. I had an affinity for the brand. I got to meet the product line manager and we just started going back and forth with ideas, me giving him feedback on the brand and how I feel like it was being perceived in the Detroit area.
From that point I made it clear we would love to do a collaboration. We ended up getting a call a few months later out of the blue. The rest was history.
Erik Fagerlind (Sneakersnstuff): Starting from the beginning, you have to sort of understand that everything was a lot different in the late '90s. We started asking brands for collaborations before adidas had adidas Originals, before Nike had Nike Sportswear, but there were no large style departments of things at that point.
We asked a lot of brands for SMUs [strategic market units; styles exclusive to one retailer] or to work on stuff together and I think adidas offered us a country SMU in like 2000, but that was not a very creative process. It's more a way of us being unique in the marketplace. adidas arranged two shoes – one of them, a Gazelle made from hemp - that were only available at SNS, and we both got the sales we were looking for. So we started approaching all the brands at the same time and asking for stuff.
PUMA was actually the first to pick up. This was like four years into the life of SNS in 2003. At the time, we looked at that Gazelle Hemp shoe and thought, "What if we do that on a PUMA Quad, all the hemp, with all details that we sort of liked?" We did that, played off the original, and made it a tribute to the original location we had. The street number was 136, so we made 136 pairs, numbered one through 136. That was a big thing for us - having our own shoe with our own logo on it.
Deon Point (CNCPTS): So my first collab was with New Balance, I think around '07, maybe '06 [CNCPTS opened in 1996]. Keep in mind, I have no formal training when it comes to this kind of stuff, so it was kind of like a kid in a candy store. I just started asking aggressive questions about what I could do and couldn't do. I wanted to put a B on one side. They were like, “no, that's not possible.” Then I tried to do this double translucent logo where when you put the blue over the yellow it turned green. They were like, “you can't do that either,” so I was just getting shot down left and right. But I knew that the creative juices were there.
Needless to say, the first collab I did was pretty tragic in terms of looks. We had maybe 12 kids in line. Didn't do well at all, but it's the first for a reason. After that, I started developing a different instinct when it came to creative and where we are now.
For you personally, where does a collab’s creative process begin?
RW: With Burn Rubber, since the beginning we kind of have adopted the idea of telling Detroit stories, or Michigan-based stories. So we've done a project that featured the Spirit of Detroit and we did a project that paid homage to the blue collar and white collar workers of Michigan with New Balance.
We're trying to tell stories and get positive stories from Michigan out to the world. We were experiencing that so much in the narrative based around Detroit and where we are was just so negative. So, we thought that we'd just play our part by doing what we do, but telling these positive stories about the city.
EF: You have to understand that product is not always enough. You have to have a story attached to it. Whether it's the big story or a small story, you have to tell something like you have to have design concepts around it.
It's important though. A lot times, we actually overstepped our boundary and made a design concept a lot better than the actual product. That doesn't work either. You have to have that balance to make a nice looking shoe, but it has to be a story and there has to be a reason behind why it looks the way it looks.
DP: My process is probably different than everybody else's. Personally, I'm pretty hung up on having a reasoning behind a design. I’m never one to just position colors amongst each other, throw a few materials on, and call it a day. I just have kind of a deeper commitment to myself and the consumer. I like to carry an idea through from its inception to its packaging all the way to the launch to consumer, so I usually start with that.
I do that for the sole reason of keeping my sanity because an artist, they get to do whatever they picture in their head, but when we're doing a creative project along the styles of a shoe, it's a little bit different in that we want it to be what we picture but we also want it to appeal to a broader spectrum. Sometimes, when we align it with a story, it's a lot easier to digest.
What finally got me “there” [for collab designs] was not sacrificing for the sake of doing a project. There's so many great projects I've missed out on primarily because it didn't align with the way we wanted it to be. I like everything to be “we,” not “me,” because there are always other people involved, no matter who you're talking about.
Who typically approaches who about a collab opp first? The store or the brand?
RW: After we had one collab, other companies saw how we did it and they were like, "Yo, we think we want to do a collab with you." It kind of rolled from there with PUMA, Reebok and our others. You can let them know that you are interested in doing something and make your interest known, and then if they see a fit, they'll reach out.
I think that it is the same process but it's harder to find the right people in those bigger companies. I don't know who to talk to when it comes to Nike - that's its own beast. But we've worked on projects with adidas that never came out. We've had projects that pay homage to Michigan with adidas but for whatever reason, just never put them out.
EF: I think today it's a little bit of both. Today, the bigger brands - meaning adidas, because we don't really work much with Nike yet - are a mix. One division can come to us and ask us to do something to help commercialize a product. Another part of adidas can come to us and be like, "Can you be mentor and a creative?”
It's usually, as a lot of things, getting to know the people that call the shots. I'm not going to say explicitly "have a beer with them," but get to know them. Get on their radar. Have that conversation and then slide that question in when it's appropriate, like, "Hey, we want to work with you." That's how it starts.
We still ask those friends, but we're not going to ask for the impossible. We just ask for the stuff that we think is relevant, and we're always going to think what's relevant is going to be the stuff that we're not being able to do, if that makes any sense. We ask for it because it's out of reach.
Today, there’s a very strict division business-wise within the brands. We are obviously heavily affiliated adidas Originals, but if we wanted to work off an UltraBOOST, the UltraBOOST doesn't sit under Originals - it sits under Performance. We are not a Performance account per se, so we can't really collab on an UltraBOOST, unless it's under Consortium.
DP: When I first started out here, it was us approaching brands because we were eager. We thought we could conquer the world and we wanted to make sure that we blew up everybody's inbox and phone. Now it's kind of switched; it's a little bit of both.
Sometimes if we have an idea that we feel would partner best with a certain brand we'll reach out, but more times than not, it's them approaching us and saying, “Hey, we've got a situation here, would you want to be a part of it?” Right now, we're pretty much filled all the way through 2018.
Some cities have richly authentic relationships with certain shoes/brands (i.e. Baltimore and Nike’s Air Force 1). Which brands and shoes make natural partners for you?
RW: A very popular shoe in Detroit is the adidas Top 10 and that was a consideration. It's like a home run. If you can do a project on a shoe that the city is particularly fond of, why wouldn't you do it?
DP: I think everybody does. When we sit back and look at the calendar for next year, it's always “what's missing?” Oftentimes, maybe as it pertains to us, we like to involve brands that are off the beaten path a little bit. You've seen us in the past work with Clarks. We work with Birkenstock. We continue to work with Red Wing. We almost did a Crocs. We did it for fun. One of my colleagues at the time was just a huge Crocs guy.
On the flip side, lots of collabs pay homage to neighborhood-specific stories. Is it hard to sell international brands on a vision so inherently local?
RW: No. At the end of the day we're looked at as - not to overuse a word - but, tastemakers or influencers in this market, so they [brands] are like, "Yo, who better to know what makes sense here?"
Brands are so far removed. You have to reach out to people that are local and you have to tell local stories for it to resonate with local people. And then it just so happens that we had a brand that was, thanks a lot to companies like Highsnobiety, given global awareness so even if it's this localized story, people abroad care about that story because it's us telling it.
DP: Awesome question, man. Nobody's even asked that.
No, I don't necessarily think so, because when we commit to a project we're committing to something bigger than just the shoe. We go “full story” in terms of just being immersed in what that is. It can be anything from accessories to packaging to actually building out a whole entire fucking store. For us, I think the sell isn't necessarily a sell. It's more just a vision - and when you show somebody that vision at that magnitude, it's pretty tough to disregard it.
But yeah, I'm sure some people are like, “What the fuck is a 'Three Lies'?” Like, we did a bunch of Vans that are based on Boston [locations], like the Combat Zone. But that's what makes it interesting. You're like, “What is this about?” and you kind of dive into that. I think a lot of sneakerheads have an appetite for learning and spreading those type of stories, and being knowledgeable about it. It’s always fun for everybody
How much creative freedom do you, the designer, have? Can you truly choose any silhouette/material to tell that story?
RW: Sometimes it's any shoe you want. A lot of times I have a passion for a certain silhouette and I'll push for that. But it's also a collaboration. Sometimes, the [brand’s] focus is pushing a specific model and that's what's in their outlook for the year, then a lot of times we'll take that model and tell the story using that model because it fits into their bigger marketing plan.
At the end of the day, when we do a collaboration, it's really a marketing piece. They're not going to get rich off of anybody's collaboration, besides maybe a Supreme collaboration. With us, we're activating this market and that's why they work with us.
EF: For us, it's a difference between an SMU and a collaboration. It's not us doing the shoe for them. It is collaboration so we have to listen and pay attention to what adidas wants out of us, too. If adidas' brand focus is a certain range, or a certain silhouette or like, "This is what we want to establish in the market," that's what they're more eager for us to work on.
It's a longer discussion because if we see a silhouette within a range that we strongly believe in, then the discussion becomes a little bit different. We would ask for that and they would ask, "Why?," because they haven't really put any effort into that shoe. Then we can say, "well, we think it's a great shoe." They would say, "The SNS guys think it's a great shoe. It's very likely that others will think that as well, so maybe we should actually put some more weight into this and then we would work more on that shoe," and they lift it up in the pyramid of what they go for.
It's a lot of discussion and politics, but collaboration is just that. It's collaboration. We have to support them and support us.
DP: I fucking wish.
No, there's always parameters in place. You know, oftentimes it could be a shoe that is the heat of the moment or that a set brand is looking to intro. Those are fun, but it doesn't necessarily work out, so we'll say “no” often if we don't feel like it’s going to coincide with our vision.
But no, there's a lot of shoes I would love to work on and I just haven't got the opportunity. I would love to be able to pick my shoes, and when, and how. We're just a little shop in Boston.
What’s the correlation between seasonal buys and collab opportunities? If you buy a lot of inventory, would that open a door for a collab opportunity? Or is it more a component of building the relationship?
RW: Just look at the first collab with New Balance. After we did that, there was a surge in demand for New Balances in our area of Michigan. It was definitely doing that [in 2010]. I don't know if that's the case now because it's not as special to have a collaboration.
EF: I would say it's almost the other way around for us. For example, in 2013, we did 12 shoes with Reebok – one shoe a month. We had to order, I can't remember, 600 pairs or so of each shoe. That amounts to a lot of shoes, and at the time, we weren't that big. It was a huge business decision to make.
The interesting part is by doing that Reebok gained a lot of the market share within SNS, but it also established SNS as a destination for Reebok. In the digital era, with Google directing all the traffic and a lot of people looking online, that enabled us to be the destination for Reebok for 2014. That year, we only had two Reebok collaborations, but the business we had with Reebok was up almost 50% over 2013.
What surprised you the most about working on a shoe collab?
EF: I wouldn't say I'm surprised anymore, but the politics itself gets to you every time. It was easier when we started. There were no business unit issues, because there was only one business unit. Now, since it’s all spread out, there's four or five different business units, and they can fight amongst each other, and they don't necessarily even talk.
Before Boost even, adidas had a lot of interesting materials in their running collection, and we wanted to apply that into a shoe we were working on for Originals. We asked the Originals team: "Hey, I saw that shoe in the showroom. That material is dope. Can we work on that as an upper for this shoe?" They were like, "No, I don't know. We don't even talk to that side's team, so I don't even know where to look for that material."
"You're in the same building. Just walk down there and ask."
"We don't know those guys."
“Ok, well shit.”
DP: Nothing really surprises me anymore – I’ve been doing this for a while. We had a kid from California that lined up for the Blue Lobster [SB Dunk] in 2009. He flew in, sat in line for two days, but then his girlfriend got into a car accident back home and broke her pelvis. He flew home to check on her and then came back and waited in line. They held his seat. I'm like, are you kidding me? We had a six-day line for that. It’s always something going on.
To answer your question, I think the biggest surprise to me is seeing kids gravitate toward trends so heavily, whereas before, multiple brands had a stage at the big show. I enjoyed that because kids were original and thought outside the box. I feel as though that’s definitely changed, so that's somewhat of a surprise.
But I think eventually people will get sick of following along with thy neighbor and branch back to being gangster and all.
How many samples is typical to get a collab "just right?"
RW: For us, it's been one or two rounds. Sometimes we knock it out on the first round. I think it's different with the different companies. Some companies I can be really, really meticulous and we just keep working on it ‘til it comes back, but sometimes you're on a time crunch and they want to get this product out by this time, so you've got to get it together.
EF: It's usually two samples to work on. They usually get a lot of the stuff right [the first time], but there's always a detail that you want to change, so then there's another cycle. It's good to have that timeframe.
Occasionally, it's been more stressful. A sample round is another 2 - 3 months, which means taking time to push a project back. If we want to change this and that, that will be another two months, which means the release is delayed another two months, and the concept that you have might not even work at all.
DP: We like to fine tune it, so three is awesome. Oftentimes, though, we'll have to do one and go sight unseen, but there's instances where we were lucky we've had a third one. On “Three Lies,” we got it back and they had almost nailed it with the first sample. We changed three minor things. Then the shoe we got back was horrific. It literally looked like a completely different shoe. So the third one we used to get back on track and fine tune it, and obviously we were pleased with the finished product.
What makes a truly great sneaker collab?
RW: I think that the ability to get it out into the world is a victory. Obviously sell-through is the ultimate - marketing, raising awareness for our brand and for that brand that we're working with is great, too. But then, you want to sell through, because if it doesn't sell through, then you know part of your job wasn't done well.
EF: I think, to me, it shows when there has been love put into any project. That shows. It also shows when it’s become yet another concept. Where you walk into a mall and see there's endless rows of products, and you can almost feel how much the person who made that product hated making that product. You feel how much passion is missing on some of those.
A great collaboration, or design in general, is something that makes you feel what the person that made the design felt doing it. When you feel that, just by holding a shoe or looking at a shoe, that's a great product. You can tell when there is a thing with love put into it, because they put in that extra detail. Someone designed a shoe and he rested to say, "This is my shoe." That shines through.
DP: In my eyes, I think it's just both parties involved really exceeding expectations on both sides. You really have to believe in what you're doing in order to do that. It’s kind of the reason why we started doing packaging and build-outs catering to a specific shoe: we never wanted to leave it in the hands of the brand to dictate how our shoe is viewed. So we took the extra steps.
Like when we did the Lobster, we spent $60,000 the first time just on marketing and packaging and things like that; the second time around we spent even more money. We weren't even profitable - it was just a matter of us not leaving anything to chance. When we did the “Holy Grails,” I wanted to do the special boxes, even though those boxes cost us excess of $100-something each. That concrete box was like 15 pounds.
But I think that people enjoy the small things. “Holy Grail” was an interactive build out, too - we had skeletons and three tons of sand in the New York store. It was fucking nuts. It looked like Indiana Jones. For us, it was more or less just showing the consumer: “Hey, we're still into it as much as you are, and we want to go and make it fun and enjoyable.”
So to answer your question, a collaboration on our side is making sure that we get a speeding ticket. We're going above and beyond.
Special thanks to Brianna Eccleston for her help making this article possible.
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