Interview by Joel Watamaniuk + Will Jivcoff
It’s not difficult to understand why skateboards have remained roughly the same over the past 30+ years. Seven plies of maple and polyurethane just works. While they’ve come in various shapes, sizes and responded slightly different, they’ve stayed relatively unchanged through wild innovations like carbon ply inserts, wheels with air cores, rotating truck axles and so on.
Footwear however, offers a bit more diversity when it comes to the technology that’s used. Cuts, styles, materials, footbeds and the inspiration they’re drawn from vary and change year-to-year. Because we’re shoe nerds, we wanted to better understand the design process of skateboard footwear so we reached out to an old friend of ours.
Paul Kwon has been in the shoe design game for 11 years with experience that spans some of the biggest names in the skateboard industry. He grew up in Troy, Michigan and acquired a BFA at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit where he majored in industrial design. After graduating, Paul packed his car, headed for Los Angeles, and landed a job with Quiksilver’s footwear department shortly thereafter. Since then, Paul has certainly carved out his path. He and Andrew Reynolds were kind enough to shed some light on what it takes to go from concept to a finished product that everyone is satisfied with.
Photography courtesy of Kyle Seidler
Medium: Who are you, what do you do, and who do you work for?
Paul Kwon: My name is Paul Kwon. I am the Lead Footwear Designer and Merchandiser for Emerica.
M: What are some of the brands you've worked for in the past?
PK: I’ve worked for Quiksilver, Element Skateboards and Footwear, DC Shoes, Vans, Dekline, HUF and I’ve been at Emerica for the last 2 years.
M: How did you end up at Sole Tech?
PK: My old boss from Element hit me up when I was working at HUF. The powers that be decided to pull the plug on Dekline after the video so I had gotten a job at HUF but had only been working there for 3 months. Sole Tech gave me a really good offer and I already knew some of the Emerica team so it seemed like a good fit.
M: Tell us a bit about how you got interested in shoe design and how you got to where you are now.
PK: Well it more or less stems from the love of skateboarding. I didn’t really take an interest in footwear or design until I started skateboarding. It was through the lens of being an avid skate rat that I began to more closely examine the shoes I was skating in. I remember in middle school starting to draw what I thought would be improvements to the products I used at the time. I wasn’t aware that it would be a profession until much later on. It was just something I would do while daydreaming about skateboarding when I was bored.
M: How much freedom do you have when creating a shoe? Is it all you or are you more so bringing someone's vision to life?
PK: It depends on the project. My position is kind of a conduit between the desires of the marketing team and the needs of the sales team. I am here to equip both departments with product that is able to sustain and grow a business, as well as create excitement and energy around the brand. When dealing with the riders, some of them are a lot more vocal than others about the products they endorse. From my perspective it’s a matter of feeling out the work dynamics and stepping in when I need to or holding back when it’s necessary. In any case, it’s always a collaborative environment. Creative freedom without accountability is a bit of an illusion. I find I’m at my most creative when I have limitations to work within.
M: What sort of behind the scenes work goes into designing and creating a shoe that most skateboarders don’t know about?
PK: A shit ton of communication between the sales team, marketing department and even Pierre (André Senizergues), the owner at Sole Tech. The end goal is always to generate income for the company in a sustainable manner so that the brands can thrive. In order for the brand to succeed, all three departments need to work collaboratively to reach that goal. Compromise, humility and inclusion are paramount in getting people to be emotionally invested in a brand. Creating an awesome product is only one piece of the puzzle. Understanding how that product needs to be sold, how it will perform once it’s on the shelf and how that product can tell a compelling story to a consumer takes time and experience.
I think when you are a young designer you tend to be hyper focused on the small details of creating every individual shoe. I guess what I’m trying to say is the older that I get, the more I tend to look at the actual system in which the product is produced, as opposed to just the individual shoes. Kinda like examining the whole machine rather than one small part.
The design part is easy. Creating something that satisfies all the parties involved is very difficult. There’s a more tangible, emotional element involved because it involves people and how you navigate those relationships. It’s easy to sit a desk and create something. It’s harder to convince others that the vision you have for a company could benefit them in the long run. However, the process that occurs helps edit the decisions being made which in turn, creates a more solid product and if everyone is stoked, I am stoked.
M: Do you get any unusual design requests from skaters when creating their signature shoes that just won’t work, either for design or sales purposes? How do you let them down?
PK: I get unusual requests from time to time. I haven’t really gotten anything too crazy per se. Most of the time I can talk people down if it’s too far out there but I try to make people feel comfortable being able to spit out ideas no matter how crazy they might seem. It’s my job to help skaters turn their ideas into a reality. If you are honest and polite about things, people are generally pretty understanding.
M: You worked with Andrew Reynolds on his latest shoe, the ‘Reynolds G6’. What’s it like working with him? Is he very particular about his wants and needs from a shoe?
PK: Working with Andrew is pretty awesome. He is very meticulous when it comes to things he wants. When I first got hired he was pretty unhappy with the shoes he was skating in, not so much from the performance aspect, but the aesthetics. I remember the first day I met him, he came into Sole Tech with a bunch of cut outs of different shoes he printed out. He would collage them together to try to explain to us what he wanted. I thought it was rad that he did that. From that point on he was very involved with the whole process and gave a lot of constructive feedback. It was definitely a career highlight to hand deliver his first pair of G6’s to skate in and see his reaction. I remember him doing a head high Kickflip on a bank ramp at the park first try and thinking, “Damn, looks like they work…”
M: What is your favourite shoe you've designed?
PK: Probably the Reynolds G6. It was a lengthy but enjoyable process. Memorable for sure.
M: Brandon Westgate and filmer Jon Miner recently departed from Emerica. Do team changes like this affect how you work?
PK: Yes, team changes occur and that affects the nature or the product line especially when there are pro models involved. Re-merchandising a line is pretty easy. However, replacing people that possessed immeasurable impact and influence on a brand is difficult.
M: The corporate shoe brands have made a lasting impact on skateboarding and it seems like an uphill battle for core brands to keep their influence and share of the market. What’s your outlook on this? What does a brand like Emerica have that a corporate shoe company doesn’t?
PK: We were conceived out of community, not competition. Our entire existence is for skateboarding so we don’t feel any pressure to “dominate” or “win” the industry. We aren’t some side segment of a larger company designed to appeal to a youth demographic in hopes of keeping a basketball/running shoe brand relevant. We exist for skateboarding, always have and always will. They do their thing and we do ours. I feel like there’s room for everyone. The competition just motivates us to be that much better.
M: What shoe do you look back at and cringe when you see your name attached to it?
PK: I’ll probably cringe when I look back at this interview and read my answers. But as far as shoes go, not really. It’s all a learning experience and there’s something good to take out of each one even if the designs aren’t that great. I’m pretty sure every designer has a wall of shame at their house. I’m just surprised that no one has caught on to the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing.
M: Where do you draw inspiration from for your designs?
PK: Friends, family, and food. There are lots of similarities between the skate industry and the culinary industry. Both exist to please a hyper critical audience while maintaining innovation and staying familiar at the same time.
M: Is there a shoe out there you wish you could have in your portfolio?
PK: Not really. What’s done is done. The most exciting part about my job is the shoes that have yet to be designed.
M: Favourite skate shoe of all time?
PK: Cupsole : Etnies Sal 23 or Jamie Thomas’ first Emerica pro model
Vulcanized : Vans Old Skool (Classics, not the Pros)
M: What is the best part of doing what you do?
PK: The travel, meeting interesting people and free shoes.
Medium: What goes through your mind when it’s time to design a shoe?
Andrew Reynolds: I think about how it’s going to feel to skate in, if it will be durable as well as trying to keep the look and shape somewhat current.
M: How involved are you in the process of designing your pro model shoes?
AR: I’m very involved, from start to finish. Paul and I sit down and work out all the details; what I want and need in the shoe while trying to keep it fresh for the marketing department.
M: As you’ve gotten older, how have your needs in a shoe changed?
AR: Not much has changed. I’ve always liked more padding in a shoe. The current trend seems to be shoes getting increasingly slim but I like to keep them a little padded.
M: Where do you pull design inspiration from?
AR: The late 90's, Kickflips, trees, Kader (Sylla), architecture and early skate fashion.
M: Who and what in skating gets you stoked right now?
AR: Baker, Zach Allen, Donta Hill and Kader Sylla.
M: Top three favourite non-skate shoes?
AR: All the ones I like got turned into skate shoes.
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