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One Step Ahead: The Footsoldiers

Date: September 21 2017

By: Matt Williams

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In partnership with New Balance, Sneaker Freaker’s ‘One Step Ahead’ series explores the journeys of five creatives who have blazed their own trails within the sneaker industry.

There’s far more to the sneaker world than simply the brands we know and love. Dig a little deeper beyond big-name collaborators, major hype and stalwart stores and you’ll find a crack team of design guns for hire. Based in London’s Shoreditch, The Footsoldiers are an independent footwear design consultancy working to transform the face of footwear from the outside in. Read on as The Footsoldiers’ commanders-in-chief, Tom Astrella and Hector Rubio, expound the benefits of going rogue.

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Take us back to the beginning – what led you to pursue careers in footwear?
Hector: When I was a child my father was the commercial director for a vulcanised footwear brand in the north of Spain. I always felt drawn to footwear because of him.

Tom: I took a more meandering route than Hector. I’ve always been creative and passionate about design. Art and design were my top subjects at school. I gained the highest marks and completed the subjects one year early. I wanted to design the future, and so my initial aim was to get into special effects for sci-fi movies, but then when I was 23, I went travelling for a year and ended up in Vietnam. I visited a small shop that had this collaged footwear catalogue filled with pages taken from retail catalogues. They would make any pair you wanted, but I wanted them to make something I’d designed. I created a one-to-one scale drawing and just a few days later I had my own shoe. After returning home, I began to perceive footwear in a more critical way, analysing how to redesign and improve it. It was another year before I realised shoe design was the vocation for me.

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Sounds like you come from very different backgrounds. How did you meet?
Tom: I started working for a major footwear brand around 2005. They would hold these things called ‘design camps’ to introduce designers and I was sent to meet Hector. I was actually his first meet and greet. We hit it off and became friends.

Hector: We were working on high-end collaborations at what was really the beginning of the fashion-focused sneakers. We worked with a fantastic team. It was an incredible nesting experience for us.

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That must have been a pretty sweet gig. What led you to branch off and form The Footsoldiers?
Tom: We both ended up leaving the company a few years later, but realised there weren’t many opportunities within other companies around London. After the experience of working in a great environment for a great brand, there was nothing else on offer at the time that resonated with us. We launched The Footsoldiers in 2009. There was no grand plan to build a large design consultancy, or to have a team the size we’ve got now. In the beginning it was really just work; sometimes it takes a little while for these things to get moving. Initially we were unsure how long we would be able to sustain the business. We weren’t even paying ourselves in the beginning.

How difficult was it to get The Footsoldiers name out there in the beginning?
Hector: Footwear is a peculiar industry. Even though it’s huge in business, it’s very specialised, especially in design. There aren’t many experienced designers out there, so word of mouth was huge for us. People we’d worked with in the past had gone on to work with other brands. They knew that we had set up our own firm and that we had a certain set of skills, so they would put our name forward and from there it grew.

Tom: Even today, we meet people for the first time and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, The Footsoldiers? We know you.’ It’s a weird one for us because it’s not something that we ever planned. We’ve never really done any marketing or anything that would sell us, aside from nailing briefs and doing the work. When you work like that, you get a reputation and that’s what matters.

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Why exactly do big name brands look for outside designers rather than relying on in-house talent?
Tom: It’s not as if the in-house design teams are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs. They have important projects that they’re working on and deadlines they need to meet. So, if there’s something new the brand wants to explore and they try to give it to already-busy designers, they’re not going to be fully focused. That’s where we can step in.

On the other side of things, employees are ingrained in the brand they work for, and obviously see a lot of that brand’s product – they become cocooned in that brand’s style and direction. That has positive and negative effects. We try to integrate ourselves into every brand we work with, but being on the outside looking in, rather than the inside looking out, has its benefits in being able to generate fresh perspectives.

Given that you’re working behind the curtains, does it ever frustrate you not to receive public recognition for your designs?
Hector: Everybody likes a pat on the back, so it did in the beginning, but we understood that the brand is bigger. If you play on a football team, even if you score, it’s about the team. At the end of the day, our goal is simply to stay on the team for a long time. We are happy to see our work make it onto sneaker blogs but we don’t feel the need to be credited.

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Why has The Footsoldiers been so successful?
Tom: I think it’s because we have an understanding of what’s needed commercially within the markets at any point in time. We also have a solid understanding of how brand DNA needs to be incorporated into new product. Combining these begets something that feels familiar to the brand, but is hopefully new and different enough from their current offering to warrant production.

Hector: We really focus on the brand, but the secret is that we don’t just design, we’re also able to develop. And in footwear that’s huge. My background was in leathers, patterns, and actual footwear commercialisation; Tom’s background was more engineering and injection moulding. So we combine our skills to get the best of both worlds. That ethos applies to whenever we bring a new person into the team. No designer works on a project solo. This way you get the best skills out of each person in the design team and produce the best shoe.

Do you pay much attention to what people say about your designs when they hit the blogs?
Tom: Oh, we fully read the comments!

Hector: We laugh about them more than we take them seriously.

Tom: So many successful products have been trashed initially on blogs, then one year on everyone loves them. Consumers are inherently resistant to new designs and need time for the new idea to grow on them. So we take the comments as seriously as if your Facebook profile was completely open to the public and anyone could comment; it would be impossible to take those comments 100 per cent seriously. In addition, online anonymity means we have no idea whether criticism is coming from a 12-year-old – who isn’t the intended consumer anyway – or a 45-year-old who knows his shit. In the end it’s mainly entertainment.

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Would you ever consider launching your own sneaker brand?
Hector: It’s something we’ve always considered but we realise how difficult it is, even if you’ve got a trusted household name. We don’t know much about distribution or things like that and have always thought you are best to play to your abilities.

Tom: People see all these brands that they consider new on the scene that are finding success. The reality is that these ‘new’ brands have been plugging away for years to reach that point. When you create your own brand, you’re going to struggle to find a good factory, you’re going to struggle to afford great tooling etc. We feel much more fulfilled producing a fantastic shoe in collaboration with a brand than having the stress of attempting it by ourselves.

What advice would you give to others looking to launch careers in the sneaker industry? Tom: Like anything, work, work, work. There a lot of different avenues into footwear design that weren’t open to us when we started. To land my first role at a major brand, I spent time researching who I needed to talk to and literally phoned them up every week, bugging the head of design until I got in there. Nowadays you can post Photoshop mock-ups to Instagram and gain tremendous exposure simply by tagging the right people. It’s not something to be ignored, as these kids are landing positions at major brands. Smart brands now also target social media to find their creatives and they’re not necessarily your traditional footwear designers. Like many industries, it is entirely possible to promote yourself in non-traditional ways – the kids coming up now know better than me how it works! [Laughs]

Hector: My advice would be research is key. To come up with something new, you need to get inspired by other fields. You need to consider what are the new technologies, what are the new looks, what is the new trend, what is the consumer behaviour? Research is key to defining a product. Technology evolves constantly, so be prepared to never stop learning and adapting.

The Footsoldiers wear the New Balance 574 Sport available now from select stockists, as well as through New Balance’s online store

Photography by Dom Fleming

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