ARTICLE BY Gabe Filippa

Interview: The Radical Design Genius of Lori Jacobs

Interview: The Radical Design Genius of Lori Jacobs

Lori Jacobs’ friends still call her Mighty Mouse. At five feet tall with defiant curls and a brain boiling with design ideas, Lori developed a mountain of sneakers for ACG, Ralph Lauren and Reebok. She even prototyped a skate shoe for Nike in the late 90s – long before the unstoppable reign of SB!

‘Working with you is like riding a jetski through a storm,’ one of her co-pilots at ACG once told her. ‘I just hold on for dear life because I’ll know you’ll get us where we need to go.’

We jumped on the back of Lori’s jetski to find out how she rode against the tide of sneaker design in the 1990s and 2000s.

Were you always into sneakers as a kid?
I was obsessed with shoes before I could even talk. I grew up sitting in my mom’s closet, fantasising about being able to wear a certain pair of shoes. I would put cotton in the toes to try and make them fit; I was always trying to jerry-rig her sneakers.

Because I’m a very small female, it was really hard for me to get a pair of shoes that I didn’t feel like an idiot wearing in gym class. All the other kids my age were wearing adult-looking shoes – the cool stuff.

I got the Nike Cortez when I was 14, and they changed my relationship to sports. I had them in blue. I didn’t have to wear kids’ shoes anymore; they made me belong.

Did you love pulling things apart?
My grandpa was a mechanic and electrician. I used to sit on his lap, and we would take apart lamps and telephones. That’s how I learned how things were made. I asked him why there were two holes on Barbie’s butt, and he told me that’s where the injection sprues were to make the mould for her.

I was fascinated with taking apart Barbie and figuring out how she was made rather than playing with her. I learned about the factories overseas and thought, ‘I don’t want a beautiful wedding gown and white picket fence.’ I dreamed of one day owning a factory!

lori jacobs metal max 2
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Did you visit a lot of factories as part of your work?
I learned very quickly that if you don’t have something: make it. If something’s broken: fix it.

I’ve been in the sneaker industry for 30 years, and there were times it just shocked me. I remember when I was working in the mid-90s, and I was in one of the major factories abroad, taking a tour of the leather factory that did polyurethane-coated leather.

I saw these workers at the spray booth, and they were just rolling out hide after hide on a conveyor belt, coating them with polyurethane. Underneath, there was what looked like a swimming pool of white paint. I said to them, ‘God, it’s great that you’re saving that. You’re filtering it and recycling it.’

They just laughed and said, ‘No, no,’ and pointed to the back door. They were just running a hose straight outside onto the ground.

It was shocking how little was being done back then.

How did you end up at Nike SMU (special make-ups)?
I never viewed Nike as this impenetrable castle on the hill. I wanted to work with people better than me, so I could be pulled up and absorb information and learn.

I remember during the interview, they asked me what sports I played. I told them: gymnastics, Tai Chi, yoga, swimming and modern dance. Then I realised, ‘Shit! None of these sports has shoes. They’re all barefoot!’ So I added cross-training and racquetball.

But working at Nike was pretty intense and competitive – there wasn’t a whole lot of mentoring going on. It was more like, ‘We’re going to throw you into the deep end and see if you sink or swim.’

But I was also female, so let’s just say there wasn’t a similar reward structure to the men.

lori jacobs nike metal max 2

Did you find it difficult as a woman in the industry?
You definitely swim upstream. I really wasn’t getting paid nearly what the lowest guys were getting paid, and I was way more experienced than them. Ten out of ten of my shoes in a season or a year would go into production and then expand beyond forecast. I even had my women’s shoes get pushed up to men’s. The guys in my group were getting bonuses and raises, and I’d heard from my superiors that, out of their ten, significantly fewer went into production.

But at Nike, you don’t speak critically of Nike.

We used to joke back then: when you go to HR with a problem, they won’t solve the problem. You become the problem. Ninety per cent of HR is just trying to avoid a lawsuit.

Look, I can dish it out as well as I can take it, but there has to be a balance.

At what point am I trying to be on a men’s football team that doesn’t want me?

So I was trying to find a culture where I didn’t have to fight all the time to prove that I’m not a female – I’m a shoe designer.

We love the Nike Metal Max 2. Can you break down the design for us?
If my memory is correct, I think it was my boss in special makeup that said, ‘You’ve been asking for a challenge, well here it is! You better make sure this is one of their top sellers. You have to beat their number one cross-training sales!’

I remember responding in my defensive, snarky, insecure and self-protective manner, with a tad bit of confidence, that ‘I won’t only outsell the numbers in cross-training, but I’ll make it a bestseller company-wide!’

I think half of me was joking, and the other half was willing it to become true. I don’t think I ever focused on a project so intensely, making sure every detail was well thought out and functional. I was intent on respecting the successes of Metal Max One, trying to make this a progression rather than a departure – hence the rib-like structure wrapping around the lateral/medial sides of the shoe.

The tech package was about twice as big as the average. It became a bit of a legend. I made sure every moulded drawing, lace-up feature, stitching, colour-blocking, logo treatment, and material detail was covered accurately and over-explained. I had to prove myself.

The Metal Max 2 became the number-one bestseller outside the Jordan line.

How do nature and the idea of ‘biomimicry’ inspire your design process?
Nature is my teacher. It should inspire all of us. Take Leonardo DaVinci, for example. He would examine a bird’s wing and study the bones carefully. ‘Why is the flesh flexible here? Why are structures in the wing solid but hollow?’

To put it point blank: nature is a fucking genius. In a Darwinian sense, it’s constantly prototyping. Look at the food you’re eating. Look at the structure. Why is something sticky? What does its purpose serve in nature? Why are flowers so colourful and demanding of attention?

It’s just insane all the possibilities there are to draw inspiration.

Tell us about the skate shoe you prototyped in the late 90s.
The industry really didn’t want skate shoes from Nike in 1999. Consumers were very resistant to it back then. It was almost a philosophical or spiritual question: How do Nike find their voice in the skate industry when skaters are so counter-culture? Still, there was this desire to keep trying and trying until we found our way into the skate industry.

So we travelled up and down the Californian coast to have conversations with skaters. We got the lowdown on why they hated us, why they liked us, and why they didn’t want us to be the one that they chose. We were asking them what we could do to honour the skater as opposed to talking down to the culture. Instead of being like, ‘Hey, we’re Nike. We’re going to dominate the industry, and you’re going to buy our stuff.’

But the shoe I designed was mega technology. It was called the ‘Three E’, which stood for energy, experience, and elements, and it was extremely padded and quilted. It looked like a baseball mitt from the old days. It was made from nubuck, and the more you skated, the more it burnished to the shape of your foot. Eventually, it would start to look like your grandfather’s toolbelt. It was made with Benecke – a durable synthetic coated substrate. A German vinyl. It was almost like tyre tread. So you could drag it and kick up your skateboard, and you wouldn’t get holes where you normally would.

But it had an aesthetic to it that was all about the elements. With natural and neutral materials, it was going to get dirty anyway, so it was almost like grunge meets a Humvee meets Navy SEALS techwear. At the end of the day, they told me it was ‘too advanced’ to actually manufacture.

lori jacobs damon stoudamire
lori jacobs damon stoudamire

And you even designed a shoe for Damon Stoudamire? The other Mighty Mouse!
I wanted to do a clean Jordan-ish influenced silhouette, keeping in line with the style because we were using existing tooling. I proposed doing an asymmetrical ghillie lacing for less pressure and a more natural feel on the metatarsal. Then streamline the outer body with an asymmetrical zip-up, accented with 3M reflective piping for a bit of understated ‘jewel’ and nighttime outside play. The raised/embossed large Swoosh on the lateral side was to be big but understated, letting shadow show the graphics of the logo.

I wanted to get Damon’s strength and technical skill to reflect in the upper. Also, the outside is one quiet look, and the inside is a surprise of complexity – like a ‘sleeper car’. I remember exactly where I was standing when they gave me a final sample with his autograph! They said he was really happy with the design and fit, and it was a go-ahead. I still have it, of course!

Then plans changed. It was really sad that he had difficulty with his knee. I was bummed it didn’t get made, but more upset for Damon.

How was it different working at Ralph Lauren?
Ralph Lauren’s premise was simple: ‘We’re Ralph Lauren’. They’re high-end fashion, and while they want to be available to some extent for the masses, they want to be a statement-level product that’s luxury.

His car shopping analogy is the McLaren. ‘Don’t give me something that’s affordable. Give me something that’s so outlandishly the best of the best.’ There’s no price tag. Give me the best. He wanted that mentality to trickle down to his RLX line – the extreme sports area.

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Tell us about the RLX Gator.
Me and two other designers were each given a shoe to design. I was to do an all-terrain extreme-conditions sandal that embodied this top-of-the-line ‘footwear-gear’. I built this with inspiration from military gear, kayaking equipment, camping/climbing gear, and thinking from the outside in to the inside out. Almost all shoes are designed and drawn in a ‘rest’ position – flat on the ground.

I like to design on a dynamic foot, as it is in the most extreme position. Then make sure it can morph into a ‘foot at rest’ position. This way, you’re designing for what’s really going to happen and not just what looks great on paper. After the initial direction was approved, we went to prototyping, using Schoeller, my favourite textile, and making one of the most complex outsole moulds (referencing an actual car tyre tread).

Presentation day: there was a long wall with all the shoe samples on display. About 15 or more executives from both Reebok and RL were all in the conference room. In walks Mr Ralph Lauren in a navy blue, pinstriped, double-breasted suit and brown suede penny loafers. He looks at the wall, walks straight to the Gator, grabs it and says, ‘This is it. This is genius. This is what I’ve been asking for!’. I was numb. I felt ‘made’. I actually felt energetically ‘taller’, and it was as if I was given permission to finally believe in myself.

Do you enjoy the freedom of working autonomously now?
Working for a company is almost like this idea of the frozen Sara Lee cake. These premade cakes that you can just take out of the freezer if guests drop by. It’s this perfect cake that everybody recognises. That’s what corporate life felt like to me. For instance, in the previous year, we would have a version of a running shoe that did really well, so now we want to do version 2.0. There are certain colourways popular in tennis, so let’s adopt them for running.

So here’s our formula that we’re comfortable with, and the marketing and sales team are projecting these numbers. And the designers are like, ‘Great. Here’s your Sara Lee cake.’

I always considered myself more of a Julia Child. I looked like a mess compared with the other designers, and envious that they typically looked very well put together with a clean desk. They seemed to have a formula, and they stuck with it. In retrospect, I always wanted to be placed in innovation, now the kitchen and co-labs, but I did not get that chance in the 90s climate. As I was leaving the campus, one of the top people said that I did work like Tinker and Mike (Aveni), and if I were a 40-year-old guy, things would have worked out for me.

Gator Shark
Gator Shark
Gator Shark

What does the future of footwear look like?
I’m excited because it appears there’s more dialogue between consumer and manufacturing brands. It’s more porous. When I started in 1992, the industry was more like ‘us’ feeding ‘them’ what we think they should eat.

The manufacturing advancements also mean more customising, smaller runs, quicker timelines, and computer-generated prototyping and reproductions. We’re bypassing the need to do huge quantities and ‘cut metal’ (meaning literally cut metal to make moulds for the outsoles and midsole, which is costly and very time-consuming). We used to joke and imagine being able to push a button on our desks and print out our prototype from our tedious mechanical drawings done by hand. Now, you can print your very own outsoles at home!

So, the footwear industry is experiencing the new ‘toys’ of technology. LEDs woven into fabrics, temperature responsive colours on leathers. I think the challenge is to focus and make sure to keep things distinct and purposeful. I have been doing this for over 30 years, and what I had wished for in the beginning, during the ‘conservative’ corporate climate, is actually manifesting here today! I am personally very invested in redirecting my career towards the surplus/waste/upcycling and food scarcity issues.

Today’s footwear industry is a true renaissance of art, science, and technology – fused in a much more democratic playing field. I see that the BLM and the MeToo movements have opened up the conversations, and this needs to be kept ‘real’, not posturing. I’m excited to jump into today’s professional climate, which is much more consciously, emotionally, and even environmentally awake! Finally, I don’t feel like an outsider trying to fit in, but rather the ‘hippies’, ‘artists’, and ‘alternatives’ are integrated into the industry, and it’s much more exciting and vibrant.

The footwear industry is beginning to look like a truer representation of society as a whole, but there is still a ways to go. Change takes time, and I want to be a part of that.

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