Here’s How Your Favorite Sneaker Collaborations Become Reality

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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?”

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.

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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.

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