Bryon Sheng is a man with a plan. From the age of 16 when he started at Foot Locker, he has always had his eye on the end game. In fact, he has literally spent his entire adult life in the footwear industry. Oddly enough, after we spoke with Bryon about his success at adidas with their Remix Division, he then left his job to become a partner at UndrCrwn. Impossible is Nothing? Ask Bryon...
Let’s go from the beginning... You got your start at Foot Locker many moons ago – is that as good a way as any?
Many moons ago is right. I got the job on my 16th birthday. It was my first job and I often wonder what I’d be doing if I had started elsewhere because retail taught me many of the fundamental elements that I still use when creating product, presenting to sales reps, buyers and even working with athletes. Retail is also the final stop of the product creating process. My days at Footlocker, Second Sole and Sport Chalet (So-Cal Shoe Stores I worked at through high school) gave me a good idea of what was being taught by retailers to their sales staff and provided insight on the consumer. I didn’t always enjoy getting up and going to work, but looking back, those early retail years were some of the best times. I did it because I knew it would be a great way to get a discount, fund my sneaker addiction and assure that I’d always have the freshest kicks before anyone else.
It seems like you had a very strong idea from an early age about your career – is that a blessing or a curse?
It’s been a blessing. At an early age my dad shared some advice with me, he suggested that I look into getting a job that I would always enjoy doing so it would never feel like ‘work’. Like most teenagers, I didn’t think my dad knew what he was talking about, but he did and I’m glad I listened. I’ve been successful because I’ve been able to establish and maintain positive relationships. It’s similar to the old saying ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’. I also think that being able to communicate your ideas is really beneficial, especially when it comes to presentations and business writing. I didn’t finish college, but I took classes in those areas because I knew those skills, coupled with my experiences, could provide an edge. The only curse or downfall for me starting in this industry so early was my five years at Nike. I wasn’t ready to compete or navigate my way to positions I would have been happy with during my time there. I started there when I was 19 or 20 years old and was too young to understand it all.
Nike and adidas are polar opposites in the way they approach things – how do you compare the corporate atmosphere?
Honestly, my age and the timing of my life at those places were so different that I don’t think it’s even fair for me to compare. I was a ‘nobody’ at Nike. I wanted to do more, but my time there was spent at retail and in a warehouse. Both jobs are important to the bottom line, but they didn’t do much in terms of challenging me or allowing me the same level of creativity adidas did. I loved the environment at adidas, the people, and most of all the opportunities I was provided. The company really supported me and allowed me to grow with their brand. I spent 11 years over two stints and was able to work on a little bit of everything. I don’t think you have enough room in the mag for me to talk about all of the positive experiences I shared while representing the brand with 3 Stripes.
You took on a mammoth job at adidas with the Sports Performance division. What was your actual role and what were your responsibilities?
Yeah, Remix was a great opportunity for me to step up or shut up. I had all these ideas in my head and the SP division gave me a platform to execute them. Ted Williams was the founder of the division and brought me on board to handle the creative responsibilities, along with sales, marketing, and all the other fun stuff like meeting with athletes, creating collaboration projects and travelling all over the world as the ‘adidas guy’. I think my title was Senior Product Manager, but I’ve never been much for titles, I just enjoy getting things done and creating cool product.
Adidas kinda had a zero-colab policy at one point, but you managed to kick-start the Remix project back in 2006. Was it difficult to get the project up internally and why did you think the company needed to go down this path?
It wasn’t too hard at first. We were so under the radar with Sport Performance products that we had the freedom to throw a few ideas around. I initially got one shoe sold in to UNDFTD and our business (at that level of distribution) instantly grew by 100%. I also knew collaborations worked, got people to take notice, and gave retailers a reason to give the products a chance. I felt for Remix to be successful, it needed to go that route. I also know that kids play sports and there wasn’t any reason why the shoes they wore on the court or field had to be so basic.
Remix Collaborators include UndrCrwn, Robot Films, Mama Clothing, Lemar and Dauley and 5th Platoon, not to mention Gil II Zero. How did you approach your talent and what were the essential ingredients in making the venture successful?
I paid attention to what was going on in the streets, retail, music videos, Youtube, MySpace etc... I got a good feel for what brands would mesh well with adidas and made a few phone calls. adidas had a set of goals I was responsible for setting and meeting and I wanted to also help these brands accomplish their own goals. Some of the partners just wanted to have a shoe made with their name on it and others looked at it as a real opportunity to broaden their consumer reach.
It’s great you gave the ladies some shine too, with the ProMama shoe. It didn’t pander to the perception of what a lot of footwear companies think ladies want.
Do you think companies find the women’s sneaker market just too difficult to work out which direction to go in? I think the biggest challenge is finding retailers that support women’s sneaks, not so much the companies. The honest answer is that companies want to make money, so they are going to make whatever has a chance to sell. The Pro Mama shoe was created by Gabriella of Mama Clothing, I can’t take any credit for that one. I handed her a blank template and she colored it up, created the repeat patterns, and did her thing. I flew her up to Portland, she sat down with the adidas development team, picked out materials, executions and lace clips. I think I left her there and came back a few hours later and the shoe was done. I had nothing to do with it, and it probably worked out better that way.
I’ve always felt it was because most product developers are men... not saying it’s an evil conspiracy, but just the way it is. How do you see it?
It’s got something to do with it, however most developers I actually worked with at adidas were women. But that’s why it is important to talk to your consumers and people that know the market. If you don’t know, you better ask somebody. When it came to women’s products we created out of Remix, my daughter Zoie and her friends inspired most of the shoes. She would pick out colors, patterns, materials and then I’d go in the office like I knew what I was talking about.
Ha haha... You seem to have your ear to the streets... is that an instinctive talent or can you learn that kind of stuff?
I think it can be learned or taught, but it’s not as authentic or genuine. The reason why I entered this industry and feel I’ve had personal successes is because, deep down, I am very passionate about what I do and really enjoy it. I pay special attention to the little details and I care what people think when they see the product. I’d like to think that’s why people became fans of what adidas was doing with Remix.
What are your thoughts on sneakers being primarily utilized for fashion over sports these days? The Remix line was an example of fusing the two together, but are we now steering too far away from the original intention of sports footwear? Have sneakers become too cool for sport?
All we wanted to do with Remix was bring lifestyle elements to performance products, and as you said, fuse them together. One thing I made sure of was that all the true performance models could still meet the needs of the athletes wearing them. I was always taught that about two out of every ten shoes purchased would actually be used for their intended purpose. And I tried to create products for the eight people just chillin’ in them, but that could live up to the needs of the two other people running or hoopin’ in them.
You recently left adidas to pursue other ventures... Will you be staying within footwear?
I think everyone gets to a point where they have to change gears and try to challenge oneself with new goals. I felt like I accomplished and exceeded the goals I set for myself with Remix so I left adidas not really knowing what I’d be doing next. I had planned to just chill out for the summer, coach my basketball team, lay low, and enjoy the time with my familia. However, just this morning, I talked with my boys from UNDRCRWN and was given an offer that I couldn’t refuse – to join the team as a Partner. I can now say, I am an owner of a company. Hopefully, the successes I’ve brought to other brands, I can now create for myself. It’s a big responsibility, a little scary, but I believe in the team over there and in myself enough to know that my brightest and most creative days are still ahead of me.
And finally, what shoes are you wearing right now?
Dude, the honest answer is at this moment I am shoe-less. But earlier today, I was rocking a pair of the adiDante’s (adidas X UNDRCRWN) set to drop in February 2009. And tomorrow for the first time in more than ten years I plan on pulling out a fresh new pair of Jordan IIIs.
This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here