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The Biz! Ben Pruess (adidas Originals)

Date: December 29 2009

By: Sneaker Freaker

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Ben Pruess is one charmed dude. A pro-snowboarder since the age of 16, he literally flew with the greatest of ease, before landing in the snow-biz in various roles. His claim to fame now is his lofty position at adidas as Vice Prez of Originals, which seems like a job for a pretty smart operator. Sit back as Ben fills in the gaps and reminds us all that art is art and business is business. Take heed young steeds!

Are you based in Herzo full time now, or are you pretty much on the road constantly?
Herzo’s the work HQ and Nuremberg has been the personal HQ for more than five and a half years. But home is where the bags are because we have three offices around the world, Tokyo, Portland and Herzo. And that requires me to spend a lot of time in the market, making sure that we’re staying in touch. We’re a global player.

Has life turned out how you thought it would?
I couldn’t even fathom I’d be in charge of the leading sneaker brand when I was a kid. But I always believed that doing what I was passionate about would lead me to the things that fulfil me. From growing up in NYC being a skateboarder and being into street culture at its infancy, hip-hop, early punk rock, it was always about being involved and contributing to a community that I cared about. I'm pretty happy with how it’s worked out. I love working for adidas.

What education did you have?
I was lucky enough to go to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, which is a private school in Aspen, which allowed me to snowboard during winter and go on the World Cup, then during the off-season come back and finish up on the study. And then eventually I spent some time at the University of Utah.

So how did you end up at the Three Stripes?
Let’s say, like all good stories, we found each other. I became a professional snowboarder at the age of 16 and then started working in the industry because it was a natural transition, I loved the sport and I loved the business. I moved to Salomon in France almost 12 years ago and one day we came to work to find out that we had just joined the adidas group. My relationships inside the adidas group started growing just because we were part of the same family. Eventually the conversation arose 'Hey, maybe you’d like to try your hat over in the Original side of things' because we were sharing a lot of similar consumer perspectives.

You’re now the Vice President of adidas Originals – what exactly do you do? It’s a very simple question, but most people find it difficult to answer.
You’re right, it’s hard when you get to a certain level in your career to quantify your job day-to-day. I’m basically in charge of a team of global product marketers, regional merchandisers in various countries, and designers, who are all working together towards the common goal – to maximise and to create the best opportunities for adidas Originals. Essentially, I have become a steward of the brand, making sure our values are respected and clarified throughout the process and listening and reacting to where the market is going. That involves planning for growth and looking at the trends that are going on. We’re facing a changing environment economically, sociologically, even geographically. We have even been talking about climate change and the changes that will possibly create.

Is it cool being the boss?
The coolest thing is working with people that genuinely provide inspiration and a new sense of creativity. We get to have moments that really blur the line between work and fun and it’s a wonderful thing not to check in and check out and think, thank goodness that’s done! We were in Barcelona last week for the launch of our ZX collection, we were out to dinner and we’re all talking work, but it’s not really work. You’re with friends, you’re sharing ideas, you’re creating new concepts of what’s next. So that’s much better than being the boss.

Do you think people who sell copiers and phones get as excited about what they do? Is there something intrinsic about footwear that makes people, I don’t know, sort of extra emotionally connected to their work?
I can’t speak about photocopy salesmen but knowing the rewards my job gives me, I sure hope so. I’ve always had a philosophy not to chase money and to listen to what your heart tells you. When you’re genuine, you’re being true and therefore the expression of your ideas tends to be more on point. I’m sure there are some people that are really passionate about mobile phones, I mean look at Steve Jobs when he talks about his new iPhone. Fair play, it’s wonderful to see. That’s a message I think that isn’t always given to the youth through the education system. I mean, I was a little unconventional in the way I went through my childhood, but thank goodness I had a mother allow me to follow my passion. The education system will tell you to do things in a certain way and achieve certain marks as a sign of success, as opposed to what makes you most rewarded being the driving force.

How do you know what’s right and wrong as far as the brand?
There is no right and wrong. We’re talking about a brand that is here to service consumers and the only thing we can do is to have guiding principles. Originals, as you know, has a point of view, which is to ‘Celebrate Originality’. We talk about three core values – authenticity, creativity and individuality. And as long as those values are represented in an honest way, then I think we’re doing the right thing. We don’t try and prescribe one point of view. Our job is to make sure that we have that variety and diversity.

Do you see Originals as getting more localised or will we all have access to the same product on a global level?
There is a globalisation of trends and a hyper-increase in speed of information. The idea of kids having to go on shopping trips to find the undiscovered is very quickly eroding and that’s a shame. Now you can find any limited edition product anywhere on the internet in 30 seconds flat. You can also find hip stuff in the middle of Wichita now because there are informed kids. That’s a wonderful levelling of the playing field.

Does that mean we’ll see trends from outside the big cities?
Absolutely, there is no doubt. You can now run a business and expose your work no matter where you are from. And the wonderful thing is a lot more people will be exposed and find careers and the recognition that they deserve. You can find the coolest artist in the most random of places these days and I think that’s wonderful.

What advice would you give kids?
If you want to get into the industry or to really work on products that are meaningful, kids need to come to terms with the difference between art and commerce. Those who succeed, balance their creativity with the understanding that they’re actually trying to sell products. And that means that you’re finding a way to be less selfish because you have to have a point of view that a consumer needs to part with their hard-earned money. If you just want to make art, it’s a pure thing. But art is art and business is business and it’s finding the balance that will ultimately lead to success in this industry. Spend time working in sneaker shops, or generally in business, and try to understand how you want to sell yourself. Listening to others is also a very important skill to learn for anyone. So if you come out of art school and you have only thought about art, it’s going to be a very tough transition. But if you want to be a shoe designer and you’ve gone to a design school where you also spent time learning about marketing, you’re going to have much more success.

Great advice... what sneakers are you wearing right now?
I actually have on the mustard-yellow Foot Patrol Campus.

This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here 

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