With a multiskilled and multinational background in both skate and retail, Eric Obre Is a self-made man. Now firmly ensconced at DC Shoes as Director of Footwear, he has a stack of tips for any wanna-be sneaker designers out there. Word-up as Eric lays down the law about retro, colabs, small wheels and living your job 24/7.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in the South of France in a small town near Avignon and Marseille then moved to Paris when I was 14. I had this fascination with JJ Cousteau and his boat ‘The Calypso’. I dreamed of being an oceanographer, diving with his team and exploring the forgotten sea depth. This dream quickly got de-railed as school bored me to the fullest.
How did you go from the ocean to the footwear industry?
I totally fell into it and learned my way up. I grew up skateboarding, did the whole sponsored/contest thing, dropped out of high school and went traveling the world instead. I found myself working in a skate shop, of course. I went from clerk, to buyer, to manager, to owner of Street Machine. I’ve always had a thing for shoes and have been collecting since my first pair of Jordans. A friend of mine, who was a designer gave me some pointers and I learnt the software from a book, so I was able to build a portfolio and present my ‘models’ to a few brands. I freelanced for a year while still running my shop and then had an interview at Sole Technology because they had bought a couple of my designs. I started as Trend Forecaster, became Design Manager, while slowly moving to a Merchandising position, and here I am 12 years later, Director of Footwear at DC!
What does a Director of Footwear do?
My role is to oversee product creation from concept to market. I make sure that we have relevant footwear models and colours from a global perspective. It requires a multi-hat type of attitude. Imagine a week where one day I would be working on a more mature boutique range, and then have to jump to a core skate product, sit down with our pro-riders and discuss how to build shoes to their specs. From that I could get into product for a mainstream distribution model, like Journeys or Famous. Then I might have to go to the East Coast in the middle of the week to meet up with urban retailers in NYC, Atlanta or Baltimore to brief them. I finish my week by working on some special projects like the Aaron Rose with co-founder Damon Way. A very versatile 1000-foot view of our business is necessary, as well as a solid product background.
Which part of your job do you dig the most?
I really love coming up with a concept and following it all the way to the feet of the kids, it’s a very fulfilling and rewarding feeling. Of course it has its frustrations and you hit walls many times, but finding solutions and alternatives is just as exciting. There's never a dull moment in the footwear industry. You are always working on a few seasons at once.
Is your background in sport or product more valuable?
I think both of those assets are valuable and complementary. I understand skateboarding from a rider’s point of view therefore I can use my knowledge to make functional products. Being able to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk helps to gain insight and respect, especially in this industry.
Have you found any resistance to a skate brand trying to enter the higher tier of the footwear market. Usually it’s the other way round isn’t it?
Well it’s always challenging for a skate brand to enter this tier as most stores don’t necessarily expect us there. With DC, it’s a little bit different as they have been pioneering the ‘Special Project’ category and have always entertained the lifestyle segment of our footwear range. Nike and adidas have this market on lock and it has been only recently that other brands (Vans Vault/Syndicate, Creative Recreation, Clae, Alife, JB Classics and Etnies to name a few) have been able to establish a proper business model in that tier. It’s true that higher-end brands have looked at what the skate industry is doing and taken inspiration from it. In my opinion, if the product is right and brings something fresh, there should be room for a good buyer to get into it.
Given DC doesn’t have the varied product history that traditional sports brands have, how have you approached creating new shapes for the Life category?
Well my strategy is to create a stand-alone collection that doesn’t share the same silhouette as the main line. My target is more mature and stylish and has grown up participating in our sports, but out of classic skate styling; a consumer who is ageing and more sensitive to the cultural aspect of our industry.
How do you quantify success? Sales cannot be the only criteria - how do you judge the Life category in this regard?
This is always tricky, but we are looking at this category to be more of a tool to balance our distribution reach as well as to provide stylish footwear to our ageing consumer – guys like you and me! It also allows us to be more creative and less constrained by a target market. To understand our success, we first look at the classification of those retail doors. Best, better and good gives you a good pulse on the demand. The editorials/blogs are another way to gauge the popularity of models or collections as direct feedback keeps us informed of what we are doing right or wrong.
Where are you at with colabs?
Well as much as we are getting close to overdosing on colabs, they are still relevant and allow good product stories to be developed outside the normal boundaries. They also bring interesting people to interact with your product and it usually keeps it fresh. I think that we are also looking outside the ‘regular’ artist colab and are venturing into bigger projects.
Do you think the skate industry has lost its sense of humour somewhat? There seems to be negativity towards anything that is not ‘vulcanized and black’.
Yes it has become very stale. First, the skate industry has lost its incisive ‘fuck you’ attitude and it has become very complacent. Where is the irreverence? I guess it is the ransom of being accepted and more mainstream, and the industry has auto-censored itself. Product wise, I feel it has became a commodity product race. There is less risk-taking, which is a pity because there are a few companies trying to bring out the freshness. Progressive product gets shut down because it’s labeled ‘different’. But there’s hope, and I think it’s all a cycle. The retro trend has done as much harm as good, but we need to go through it for the product to evolve. Think of it as the small wheel trend of the early ‘90s.
Would you describe your job as being a classic nine to five?
Like we love to say ‘it’s not a job it’s a lifestyle’. I live it 24/7, from checking shoes at malls to looking at what people wear everywhere I go. I make connections and network, whether in the water surfing or at an art opening. I’m constantly thinking of where my product could go, things that could be a good inspiration or colour story. It’s non-stop. I wake up excited to go to work and feel like a kid on Xmas day when boxes of samples come back from the factory.
What advice would you give kids who wanna get in the biz?
I would advise them to finish school, get into design or merchandising and maybe take a year off to travel the world, get acquainted with other cultures, languages and people. This is probably the best experience they will get before getting into a 9 to 5, and who knows, that might trigger other interests. An internship is a great tool to get your feet wet. Retail is also great for understanding the buying process and getting to interact with consumers. It will also give them a better idea of how hard it is to stay in business.
Is there one moment that really stands out in your career?
I’m still pretty young in this career, but two very defining moments stand out in my mind. The first time I saw my design on the feet of a kid, I remember thinking ‘Wow I did those!’ It was almost surreal. The second was when I was in the process of leaving one company to go to another, I received great offers from big respectable brands which made me realise that my experience and knowledge was valuable. I decided to settle down at the DC camp because of their leadership, skate heritage and foresight. Working with people like Damon Way and Ken Block was also a huge lure.
And finally, what sneakers are you wearing right now?
I’m wearing a pair of 1/1 Aaron Rose low tops made out of light grey pig skin. Pure butter!
This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here