Who Let the Dunks Out? An Interview With Nike SB Designer Bryce Wong

Who Let the Dunks Out? An Interview with Nike SB Designer, Bryce Wong
The Premier Store

Chances are that Nike SB footwear designer Bryce ‘The Sandman’ Wong is the brains behind all of your favourite Dunks from the ‘Striped Box’ era. A kid from Southern California, Wong first got off the leash in 2019 with the ‘The Dog Walker’, a ballsy inline release that helped spark the rabid SB revival. With a hefty portfolio of collaborators, including The Grateful Dead, Neckface, Todd Bratrud and Oskar Rozenberg Hallberg, Wong’s designs have left us footwear feral all over again.

Nike SB Dunk High 'Dog walker'
The Premier Store

How did you get involved in sneaker design?
I grew up in Southern California, so I was very much into skate culture. I was always a creative person – doodling in class when I was supposed to be studying. I remember, for my 15th birthday asking for power tools so I could make stuff (when most of my friends were asking for an Xbox).

Once I hit college, being a starving artist was never really on my plate. My parents are from the healthcare and medical field. I was like, ‘Okay, I need a paycheck, but I also want to be creative and make things.’

My first gig was at Vans in California, so I met a ton of cool people and got connected. I began to understand the weight and importance of sneaker culture and collecting. Specifically, I was learning how performance and style intersected. The experience was eye-opening. Funnily enough, when it was time to graduate, one of my buddies at Vans ended up getting a gig at Nike SB.

When I first started at SB, I was working on seasonal narrative stories like the Blazer Edge ‘Hack Pack’. After that, I ended up falling into the collaborations and Quickstrike releases. Design is cool, but storytelling is really what I fell in love with.

What’s behind the resurgence of the SB Dunk?
I think it’s a mixture of timing and luck, honestly. After the Air Force 1 started to taper down, a lot of interest shifted back to the Dunk. I think a lot of sneakerheads were looking for another chunky shoe with heritage and expression. Virgil Abloh was also really popping off around 2017, so we saw a lot of crazier, aesthetic shoes.

The first shoe I designed was the Nike SB Dunk High ‘Dog Walker’ in 2019. That’s when we started to realise that people were open to wearing riskier, more ‘out there’ sneakers again. Sneakerheads were also really starting to gravitate towards skate culture. After I landed the role of lead collaborator and Quickstrike designer, I really started talking with skate stores and brainstorming the types of stories we wanted to tell.

At SB, we really get to tell our own stories. It was a little more ‘protected’. Because Nike is such a big sportswear company, we really relied on people working at SB to have an authentic take on what would be cool for the brand.

But that kind of changed a little bit once Travis Scott wanted a Dunk. That was one that just landed on our laps, and we were like, ‘Uh-oh.’ After that, the projects were still cool, but they started to come from elsewhere.

Cop These Dunks From Nike

concepts nike sb dunk low orange lobster
Travis Scott x Nike SB Dunk Low
Nike SB
Nike SB Dunk Low x The Grateful Dead
FTC Skateshop

Was there anxiety around the Travis Scott collaboration? Obviously, SB have always been about authenticity and grassroots collaborations.
Totally. I mean, we’ve always been about telling stories like Concepts’ ‘Orange Lobster’, you know what I mean? That’s straight from an account. We know sneakerheads get it.

So to bring somebody in who’s very important to the culture but not necessarily tied to it was always going to be a challenge. We had to make sure that it still felt right.

Can we take a deep dive behind some of the models in your portfolio? Maybe we could start with the trio of Grateful Dead colourways…
That’s definitely one of my favourites. The project initially got legs because one of our East Coast friends is a huge Deadhead. He was like, ‘Yo, I got the connect. We should smoke some weed in the park together and brainstorm.’

At that time, we were trying to tell stories and educate people on the fact that SB had been around a long time – well before 2020. It’s kind of funny, actually. Even now, people who are getting into sneaker culture are wearing Dunks, and they’re thinking, ‘Oh, where did this new shoe model come from?’ And you’re like, ‘You know this thing has a history that goes way back, even past SB?’

So I think a lot of the collaborations were trying to educate and reintroduce fun stories from the past.

The ‘Three Bears Pack’ was a legendary trio from 2006 (the ‘Black Box’ era). With The Grateful Dead collaboration, we wanted to tell new stories that have ties to the past and be able to point people back there to educate them.

Back in the day, a lot of us would throw on a Grateful Dead tee to go skating, so it was sick to actually meet some of the members of the original squad. We landed on three shoes, which was a huge lift. Up until that point, we hadn’t done a pack of three for a Quickstrike. I was pretty stressed out.

But the philosophy at the time was: ‘Let’s do something crazy with our Dunks because we have the rest of SB to pay off our bills. So who cares how crazy these things are?’ This was at a time when people really understood the cultural cache of a wild launch – even if it’s super low numbers and we’re not making much money, which is really rare at Nike. You don’t hear that often.

I spent a lot of time sketching different Swooshes and working on the zipper tongues (which referenced foam-padded bags that are used for certain ‘activities’). It was just so fun to dig into the details. We actually put the name Owsley Stanley on the shoe. He was an audio engineer that used to make the acid for the band.

It’s the details that make the project. It takes things from ‘good’ to ‘great’.

Bored of Southsea

Just on ‘sketching the Swoosh’. Nike seem to be a lot more open these days with artists and designers manipulating the logo – which wasn’t always the case. Did you have free rein when creating the shark Swoosh for the Oski Dunk?
I think, at the time, things had loosened up a little. It probably wasn’t just SB. But after our projects, Nike definitely cracked down. I specifically remember getting an email from legal HR after the Oski collaboration. They were like, ‘Hey guys, we have new rules that are going to be set up because of stuff like this.’

At the time, I was thinking, ‘Damn, maybe we’ve been pushing things a little too far.’ But at the end of the day, how many people can say they drew a shark as a Swoosh? Not many. But apologies to anyone else trying to mess up the Swoosh – I messed it up for them.

What was it like working with Oski?
It was fun. At the time, we were both kids sitting in a room like, ‘What kind of shoe should we make?’ Oski wanted sharks swimming all over the shoe and the Swoosh. I thought it sounded a bit like a kid’s shoe, but it was definitely something I could work with.

I was only in my early 20s at the time, and I didn’t really understand that the Swoosh was super precious and that we needed to be precious with it. So I just said, ‘Screw it, let’s try it. I think it’ll be dope.’

Still, I think because SB hadn’t truly popped off again for ‘this era’, people weren’t scrutinising things as closely. We didn’t really expect it to blow up, but the minute it got leaked, it just exploded. Oski, being a badass skater, also did a bunch of clips repping them, and then he did a bunch of cool activations. It all came together so perfectly.

Initially, it was only supposed to be an athlete colourway with Oski’s name on the shoe. But we just flipped it on its head. It was really sick because it led to numerous skaters coming to us asking for something more than just a colourway. The shoe started a lot of conversations.

Nike SB Dunk Low Neckface

How did you and Neckface arrive at the patchwork-style Dunk for Halloween?
We sent Neckface a patchwork book of different designs we could make at Nike – chenille, woven, hairy, etc. And he just said, ‘You know what? I just want to put patches all over the shoe.’ A week later, a box arrived at the office. We had no idea what it was. It was a pair of Neckface’s old Dunk beaters that he had colour-corrected. Then he had taped all these different illustrations he had drawn to the sides.

Basically, I looked at this thing and thought, ‘I’m just going to make this into a shoe’. It looked like a DIY home project with insane Neckface graphics. But it ended up being a really extensive project because we had so many different patches that had to be perfected and considered.

It was super sick because it ended up being just so raw.

What are your plans for the rest of 2023?
I’ve recently moved on from Nike SB. It was a happy and sad moment. I miss SB a lot because it was so authentic to my come-up. I love the team. But it was time for me to hand over the reins to someone that was ready for the challenge. The division is in super good hands. I know they’re still trying to get weird with it and do some crazy stuff.

I’m now at Nike Virtual Studios and digital goods – the umbrella that houses RTFKT. It’s a lot of community-based activations and Web 3.0. For instance, when I was at SB, I put the shoe out and then somebody bought it. The relationship ends. With my new role, I’m really focused on telling stories that go past the relationship between just consumer and seller. We’re focused on embracing the people who belong to the community.,

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