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Cipher Sneakers Interview (Collin Thompson)

Date: March 24 2009

By: Sneaker Freaker

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There’s a new brand hitting the shelves that could possibly be described as the longest ‘overnight success’ story in footwear history. Cipher first opened its doors in 2003, being sold gully-styles straight out the back of creator Collin Thompson’s Acura. A master of on-the-job training, Collin took his know-how with him through a journey of ups and downs that eventually led to the brand relaunching to a new audience in the ’08. With a new crew of advocators, Cipher is quickly becoming the new Indie brand of the moment. Fresh, fruity and glossier than Juicy Tubes, Cipher is more fashion than hardcore sneakerhead, but there's always room at the dinner table!

Hey Collin, you restarted Cipher last year, how did the year work for you?
It was a shaky start, got rough through the middle, but I’m happy to say it closed out well. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and how we’ve grown as people and as a company. We’re planning some really creative projects and products for 2009.

Your brand Cipher has been around since 2003.
I’ve been bugging Woody for years now, I remember when we were discussing SF8 and getting Cipher in there, but we were really small then! Well it really started after I finished film school, I really loved Wong Kar Wai films, and always wanted to come out to Hong Kong, so I did, and I just kind of fell into this. It was a little difficult for me to imagine ever directing or producing a feature length film, as I wanted to do something more immediate and still creative. My brother had a tee and hoodie thing going on, and I wanted to get in on it but do something different. I noticed a lot of skate kids with the most busted sneakers so I was like, 'I’ll design some sneakers.'
I sent some really wack designs out to a factory I found on the Internet and they sent me out 200 units. I sold those sneakers out of the back of my Acura at the 905 park to the young skate kids, who thought it was so cool for a young guy to be selling his own sneakers. We sold those shoes in two weeks, and I took that money and came back to Hong Kong to get more serious about footwear design and production. I’m completely self-taught. I never went to design school, or studied industrial design. While I was here I did odd jobs, and kept up with design, made lots of samples and made a lot of friends in manufacturing and fashion. Hong Kong is an amazing Fashion Capital.
In 2005 I dropped a small collection that was initially picked up by Highsnobiety. David was the first person to notice Cipher and he featured my Kung Fu sneaker hybrid. I continued to do a small run of limited edition numbered and signed sneakers called the Urban Guerrilla, which was featured on Hypebeast. These really sold well. We handmade four styles in a small workshop, 50 units each style and I signed every single shoe! Nas, Black Thought and DJ Diesel Boy were some of my first customers, that’s when I got really passionate about the design aspect of sneakers and what it meant to our generation, and just kept moving forward from there.

I do the tradeshows every once in a while just to catch up with people, but in 2007 I met some people that believed in what I do, and now I’m with an amazing group of professionals who have taken on Cipher as their own. I feel it really shows, our growth in design, and the way our company operates is going to be something unique from all aspects. But overall we’re still a very underground lifestyle design company — we live what we do.

Where is the brand being based nowadays and what was your decision to base your company there?

Cipher is based in Hong Kong. To me this city is the perfect place right now for someone like myself and for the brand. The films of my university days really gave me a romantic vision of the city and it’s really grown on me ever since. As well, with what’s going on geo-politically it’s exciting to see such dramatic social change right on the doorstep. I’m close to the production, so I can always tinker around and come up with new stuff. The city is an international explosion of cultures colliding, dizzying futuristic buildings, the neon, and a dynamic lifestyle— the city and its place in the world is one of the main inspirations for Cipher.

What does Cipher bring to the sneaker scene that no one else can claim?
It’s funny that you say that, because I’ve seen brands come and go, people get on and get off trendy-type brands. We’ve had a small following for a while and I’ve always been known to this group as making an interesting contribution to the sneaker and design community at large. With the addition of our new team members it will allow us to delve deeper into the message we’re trying to communicate through sneakers and design, while allowing us to express a lifestyle that many people in our generation either aspire to or are living right now.
On a product level, I look for ironic, thought-provoking creations that will make a statement, but won’t totally alienate you from society, and that offers a twist to the memorable, and sometimes obscure parts of popular culture, politics, art and design, and music. I’m a huge fan of ‘homage’ or in literature the ‘allusion’, because it really helps to solidify the message in a way that gives people a context for what we do. So our products always have a story behind their creation, which reinforces what we’re trying to communicate as a brand and as a company.

Cipher as a brand has always been about evolution so you will always see us changing, ebbing and flowing with what is going on in the world, how we feel, and where we’re going. I think when you design from a personal level, that is when products are unique, as we will always design something that is intrinsically different from the next brand because we focus on the unique content of our lives as the seed for our creations as opposed to market driven capitalization.

Tell us about the three main styles from Cipher; the Seditionary, Subterranean and the Libertine? They all have strong stories behind the designs. Can you break them down for our Freakers?

These three models continue along with my previous drop in the ‘Urban Guerrilla’ at that time, I always perceived myself as a Travis Bickle type who designed sneakers, and I really tried this year to make our own statement with this brand. I always try to connect the context of my life with what might have been going on in a previous generation. I was totally consumed with British punk, particularly the Sex Pistols and how fashion was transformed in the UK by Malcolm Mclaren and Vivienne Westwood, which essentially influenced a generation and the world. They had this store called ‘Sex’ which before that was called ‘Seditionary’.  I think of the sneaker phenomenon as a cultural movement so I conceived the shoe based on the Chuck, the iconic shoes of the punk generation, but twisted it with the fetish shoe, and the Cipher Seditionary in Bondage Black was born!
The Subterranean is a design that came about first from the product, and then actually came alive as I was making my way through the city. The complex looking lacing system ironically makes the shoe very easy to wear. I spend a lot of time travelling on the MTR or subway in Hong Kong, so I tend to read a lot. I was reading the Subterraneans and it just seemed to click with the design, and where I was at the time. I usually always field test my shoes before working a story and a name around them. It grew into a homage to Jack Kerouac who led a tragic but fascinating life and was also a great influential American to a generation of people who felt ‘beat’. I know we can all feel like that at times and Kerouac mixed poetry and narratives and to me he was like the first rapper, mixing jazz, and words to create these amazingly harrowing stories that were very personal, but spoke to his generation.
The Libertine began with the materials. I wanted to make a dramatic statement for a sneaker and take a risk, so I chose these brightly coloured satins. I was sitting at my desk looking at these quirky colours and looking at this old school basketball silhouette and I thought about the early sneaker days in New York in the ‘80s, but in particular the movies that were spawned from that generation like Wild Style, Breakin’, and Electric Boogaloo. It was a mixture of the silhouette, the materials and the attitude I perceived of the person that would wear these types of shoes that led to the name. ‘Wild Style’ was obvious, but when thinking more about the satin and the context of the other models, the Libertine era of Victorian England came to mind, which then connected to the author Oscar Wilde. He was probably the most (in)famous person to be clad in flamboyant satins. He was also a very respected speaker on the idea of Aesthetics, which made that particular family more connected with our other shoes, but distinct enough to stand alone. Throughout this collection we kept in line with the identity of the company as a progressive urban brand, but threw in twists and ideas of subversive. It’s our way of separating ourselves from the glut of sneakers out there.

It’s been long said that music and sneakers go hand in hand, and you seem to really push that in the Seditionary and Subterranean. How important has music and the culture surrounding it been to Cipher and yourself as a designer?
That’s literally what Cipher means! A ‘Cipher’ is the circular formation that freestylers drop their game in. It’s the circle that spawns the music, the circle that breakers form when they throw down. I love music all the way from classical Rachmoninov to the jiggy dirty south stuff. I listen to a lot of jazz, and my partner here, plays the most eclectic mix of music I’ve ever heard, sometimes we’re listening to British new wave pop and sometimes ragtime blues. Cipher is inspired so much by music, because we feel that it’s the one medium that requires little translation — you can feel it, it conjures up memories, it teaches, and it provides a soundtrack for your life, like no matter what you think of Michael Jackson now. In my generation, everyone around the world knew ‘Beat It’, in the punk generation a few bands who couldn’t even play instruments changed our lives, the way we dress, and provoked governments to change. Music can be very powerful on a personal, creative and cultural level. Cipher could not exist without it.

We must admit, we’ve never heard of a sneaker that has been based off a playwright and the Libertine does exactly that! Is it far fetched to think that a lot of sneaker heads need to be schooled in literacy, meaning, not a lot of brands would associate footwear with literature…
I think you can assign meaning to anything really, and it just depends on what you stand for. Like, we don’t make sports shoes. We’re lifestyle designers, we travel, we read regularly, we enjoy the gifts that people create to make our lives more enriched — films, food, theatre, clothing etc. I like sports, and I’m amazed by how Michael Jordan can slam a ball, but what truly inspires me is how a small group of individuals can create things from their mind to inform the world and make it progress, like Jack Kerouac, the punk movement, and the Libertines.

We simply use the format of the sneaker to communicate ideas; which may seem progressive to sneaker heads, but I firmly believe, that the context of the sneaker is more than for just sports, it’s evolving, hence why we say ‘Sneakers for a new generation - Life in the Brave New World’. I think being literate is important, because it opens your minds to what is possible. We’re never going to make the next best basketball shoe, but people who wear basketball shoes as a fashion statement—unless you’re a recreational player, and a huge sports fan; amaze me. Your attire is a personal political statement about who you are. So I guess we’re reppin’ different people and associations because we are living different lives, and that’s cool, to us that is what choice, freedom, and brand association is all about.


How challenging has it been to be an Indie label in a sea of corporates. Is the competition stiff?

Yeah, for the big irrelevant corporate brands, we on the other hand, are doing well, especially in Japan, here in Hong Kong and Korea. We get a lot of love in Russia and more and more in Australia. France has got love for us, and we’re growing slowly and surely. We don’t focus on the ‘economy’; we just do our thing and how we do our thing. This was the best time to launch for us because for some reason, change was in the air, and people are looking to the new young brands to bring the flavour to the market. I don’t think of it as competition, I think of it, for us, as aspiring to be as good as we can, if we do that, people show and spread love. We challenge ourselves to be great, not at the detriment of any other brand.

Has the dwindling economy played havoc with the new release of Cipher?
Not at all, we have a core following online and as more and more people hear about us and see our products, people catch on. This recession will pass, there have been countless ups and downs and it doesn’t faze us, it just gives us a chance to be more innovative, more creative, and more focused on creating resonant brand images and products that inspire people.

Are you able to spread a little knowledge to those Freakers that are thinking of starting their own footwear brand?
Just do it, err…sure. Every path is different, but it sounds cliché, and I can’t believe I’m going to tell this to all the little Sneaker Freakers out there, but any profession is going to be a long road, you have to want to do it because you love to and how it makes you and your friends feel, not for the money. You must decide and then act, and don’t stop until you have accomplished what it is you want. You will face failure, many times over, not everyone will think your shoes are the illest, your feelings will get hurt, a recession will loom, but keep going. You won’t get that job at Nike, or Adidas, or Puma…or even Reebok, but keep going. Draw, learn, read, get out and meet people! People will be your key to success; not everyone will like you but keep going. You are on a journey, and you can’t get there if you stop halfway. There is no map; you have to forge your own path.

In your blog you state ‘The word luxury gets thrown around quite a bit these days, it seems as if everyone is looking for luxury, is luxury, or wants to be luxury. Cipher has seemingly been lumped into that group as a luxury sneaker brand, or a premium sneaker brand, which to me as the founder is very ironic.’ Why is this ironic to you? Are you trying to steer clear of these labels?
It’s ironic, because of the nature of what we do, who we are, and how we go about our creations. I think our generation is more fluid with the traditional definition of luxury, and to a greater extent I think that word has become numb to most people. I like nice things, but I can also wear Uniqlo jeans. I think we make things that are congruent to whom we are, but I’m a streetwear cat and designer, who is into hip hop/punk, electro pop etc, so for a luxury brand to be born out of that is surprising. I’m not so sure that I could see Prince William rocking Libertines, you feel me? We define it as ‘progressive urban’, or ‘modern urban contemporary’, a generation that grew out of traditional urban culture, but with a mix of high fashion design and urban in one— with an international perspective.

Peering into the crystal ball of the future, where do you see Cipher going?

Our Cipher will just keep rollin’ like a rollin’ stone…you’ll have to stay tuned into cipherism.com

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