Sung Choi’s resume in street fashion could not be gained with a diploma or a degree. As one of the partners in the early nineties New York brand known as PNB, Sung contributed to the spark that would ignite independent streetwear into a full-blown backdraft. Sung was also an early driving force in the indie footwear market when he introduced Clae back in 2001. As common as a boutique shoe label is today, that wasn’t the case when Clae started. Things didn’t work out according to the master plan, and the brand has been In hiatus before boldly relaunching in the last twelve months or so. Fusing athletic and casual, Clae has blazed the middle ground between shoe and sneaker, and doesn’t sacrifice style for comfort. With consumer sentiment beginning to turn to the mature side of the moon, Clae would appear to be well primed to dominate...
Before we get into Clae, I want your opinion on the sneaker game right now. I’m tired of the normal retro model deal with the extra colors and random materials. I’m not saying that as a youngster I didn’t get caught up, but right now I feel like creativity has hit a plateau with major companies. What’s the cure?
I think many of us feel the same way. It's just a natural reaction to the over saturation of retro models in the market for the last seven-plus years. We are currently back to square one – take a look at all the Vans and Chuck Taylors people are wearing again... what’s next? There has been nice energy and some great product brewing inside a handful of independent shoe companies. Companies are offering alternatives to the retro re-hashing to an audience that’s ready for something new and fresh.
During the first launch of Clae in 2001, you didn’t have many peers at the independent shoe level. What was the reason for the first launch of Clae and has that reason changed with the reintroduction?
Clae was created to bridge the gap between sneakers and shoes by creating versatile footwear with style and comfort. That mission hasn’t changed. We want to keep making shoes that feel new and refreshing to that consumer who’s burned out and continue to expand on our vision of modern footwear.
Who are you talking to with your designs?
Young, old and everyone in between. People looking for our combination of style, comfort and versatility in a straight-forward good pair of shoes. We are a product-driven company, filling the void between sneakers and shoes. I know that I personally need shoes that are versatile, that can carry you from day to night without sacrificing style or comfort. Clae is here to address the changing times of menswear, I think Clae is where footwear is going for this generation and beyond.
Where does that inspiration come from?
My design influences are the clean, simple lines of the mid-century modern art and design movement coupled with the energy and attitude of NYC in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I see both of those inspirations culminating in a vanguard youthful energy with a sense of tradition and practicality in function. With travel, music, food, design, art, and film as my guide, I’m driven by a myriad of varieties in life and the discoveries that lie therein.
Triple 5 Soul, PNB, DC Shoes, Supreme, Lakai Footwear, and Ecko are a few companies on your resume. How did working with these brands fuel your need to do your own thing?
It’s been a great path to take to get to where I am today with Clae. The days of building PNB Nation in the early ‘90s really gave me the understanding and the strength to start Clae. I got my feet wet at Triple 5 Soul, Supreme got me into skate, DC gave me the tools in the footwear trade, Lakai gave me the opportunity to start Clae the first time around in 2001 and Ecko gave me the time and space to figure things out between the re-launch.
You came up in NYC during an era in fashion, music and culture that continues to influence what is happening today. From brands being inspired and new music sounding like old music, how do you feel about the constant reference to the ‘golden era’?
I believe that we all have to look back for inspiration and step forward for innovation. It’s how that inspiration is internalized, interpreted, conceptualized, processed and executed that will separate you from the rest today. A perfect example right now in music would be Santogold, an artist who has the understanding, the energy and the vibe of many musical forms that came before her; punk, new wave, hip hop, freestyle, dub and reggae. She looks back and uses various inspirations intelligently and she creates something new. Big ups! On the flip side, there are so many clothing and footwear brands with poor interpretations and executions of things that have been done. In those cases, the ‘golden era’ should be left alone. It takes more than just putting your favorite verse on a t-shirt.
What brands do you dig?
I dig brands like Polo, Barbour, Uniqlo and Nom de Guerre, brands that know exactly who they are and where they’re going. Brands with a unique but clear-cut point of view, original concept and great execution.
If you had to sum up what design meant to you, what would it be?
Design is more or less, solving a problem.
INTERVIEW :: Frank The Butcher
This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here