From Coveted Kicks to Ass-Kicking Artwork: Reina Koyano Interview
Reina Koyano loves her sneakers, but looking at one shoe to the next, she sees entirely different personalities – feminine embodiments of the contours and texture. Through her venture Sole Fatale, Reina coaxes these creations out of her imagination to give them life on paper. With a stunning portfolio, she explains how she takes Jordans from the court to the catwalk.
Wow, your work is incredible! Who knew Jordans could be so slinky? Thank you!
Sole Fatale is my wild version of sneaker art where I reimagine iconic sneakers as female figures. Like, if you rubbed your kicks like Aladdin’s magic lamp and a goddess appeared before your eyes, what would she look like? That’s what I draw.
Do you have a background in fashion design?
Not at all, actually. Fashion design is a huge mystery to me, although it’s a field of design that really tugs at my curiosity. I enjoy watching the runway videos from fashion weeks and seeing what celebrities wear to the Met Gala; I marvel at the the imagination and craftsmanship that goes into every garment. Street fashion intrigues me in the same way. I love observing people’s style because everyone is their own personal curator, showcasing their character, personality, and life stories in the form of fashion. When you start seeing it that way, crowds start to look like giant, free-flowing art galleries.
What spawned the concept of reimagining kicks as clothing?
Before I started this series of work, the majority of my illustrations were inspired by the style of classic 1950s pin-ups. I love everything about them from the vintage colour palette to the feminine, flirtatious and provocative style.
My first sneaker art piece was born when I moved to LA and had a mind-blowing experience discovering the sneaker culture. I grew up loving my bright-coloured Vans and adidas high tops from ABC Mart, but I never knew there was an entire culture engulfing sneakers that connected everything from athletics to art and past to present. So when I walked into Flight Club for the first time and saw all these people passionately talking about their love of sneakers, it was as if fireworks went off in my head. I went home that night desperately wanting to record that experience. My very first piece was the result of pure curiosity. I wanted to experiment with what it would look like to merge the vastly different worlds of pin-ups and sneakers. Or maybe I just wanted to draw Jordan-themed lingerie! [Laughs]
I’m sure there’s a market out there for it! What factors do you keep in mind when choosing a shoe for your clothing designs?
I tend to pick sneakers that have intriguing silhouettes, layers of varied texture and lots of detail in their design. That’s probably why most of my illustrations revolve around retro Jordans. I love choosing shoes that have interesting concepts and stories behind them, like what inspired the design or what Michael Jordan accomplished wearing them. That sort of imagery really helps shape my illustrations.
Your work seems to transcend pure fashion design. It’s almost like you are creating superhero costumes. Do you envision personalities for your creations?
Absolutely. To me, each pair has its own personality. There are some shoes you put on and instantly feel different. Or, you see someone walk into a room with a dope pair of sneakers and you can just feel that energy. The goal with my art is to visualise those personalities.
What would she look and act like?
I imagine this boss-ass lady proudly flaunting her body. The girls I draw are powerful, fierce and full of attitude. She’s a showstopper, a neck breaker. She’s the girl you chase after and hate obsessing over, but you can’t stop. For my Air Max 97 piece, I turned the sneaker into this superhuman whose body is made from AM97 technology. She’s wearing a bodysuit lined with 3M strips that allows her to withstand travelling at lightning speed. Her thighs are made of massive Air soles, which gives her a powerful stride. She can move and think at the speed of light and was built to travel incredible distances. She’s all around us, flying through the city lights way too fast for us to catch.
Another example is my piece based on the ‘Doernbecher’ Air Jordan 7. For some reason, Wonder Woman’s outfit in 2017’s movie reminded me of the AJ7, so I couldn’t wait to draw something. While sketching, I came across the Doernbecher 7s, designed by Damien Phillips – a brave young man receiving treatment at the Doernbecher Hospital. Suddenly, it all clicked. Paying homage to Damien’s design, my drawing incorporated the shoe’s details inspired by Damien’s love of music, like the heel tab and the guitar pick in the laces. If you look closely, you’ll notice the dragon featured on her sword is the same one found on Damien’s guitar, which was printed on the sneaker’s sole. The Doernbecher 7 is to me a symbol of bravery, so the character I drew is a powerful warrior, but also warm, kind-hearted and compassionate.
Wow, we’d love to see you make a comic book one day! Take us through the steps – what’s your process when breaking down a shoe’s design?
Each sneaker has its own unique design elements that makes it cool. For example, the most attractive part of the Air Jordan 3 is the heel tab with its iconic Nike logo. For the Bordeaux 7s, it’s the geometric patterns and colour combinations on the soles. Sometimes, it’s more about the concept behind the design, like the Air Max 97 I mentioned earlier. Whatever it is, I focus on the elements that spark my brain to imagine the personified version of that sneaker. I try to deconstruct the shoes in my head and rebuild them in a way that’s radical but makes sense, while also paying respect to the original design of the sneaker.
Then I start sketching. My illustrations are done digitally, but I love starting by hand. There’s something stimulating about freely drawing these messy lines and getting my hand dirty in the process. It’s almost meditative. I strategically pose the girl so that she can flaunt the most attractive parts of the shoe. Piecing together the angle, pose and facial expression to match exactly what’s in my head is like solving a puzzle.
Once I’m happy with the sketch, I bring it into Photoshop and paint for hours and hours. I get obsessed with replicating even the tiniest detail of the sneaker and the subtlest textures of the surfaces. So a lot of the time I’m painting for what feels like only a few hours, only to turn around and realise the sun is coming up. I’m like, ‘Damn it! I forgot to sleep again!’ [Laughs]
Did you plan for Sole Fatale to become an ongoing exercise?
When I started drawing my first piece, I had no idea. I was just so inspired that I wanted to put something down on paper. But then, once I finished my first design I wondered, ‘What if she wasn’t just dressed in Jordan-themed costumes, but wholly epitomised the sneaker?’ I got curious about what I could create using other sneakers as a base and couldn’t help but let the designs flow.
Have you ever attempted to produce one of your designs in real life?
No, I have the sewing skills of a three-year-old! [Laughs] So that would be kind of tough…
Fair enough. Best to work to your strengths. So far all your designs have been for women. Have you ever considered designing outfits for men?
Not really. The premise of this series is to combine the female essence with sneakers to create something the world has never seen. I see sexiness in sneakers. Maybe it’s the smooth, curving silhouettes, or it could be the way the laces tighten up your feet like a chic corset. I view sneakers the way I see sports cars. Their immaculate contours and luminous gloss are undeniably captivating, whether you’re into cars or not. It’s interesting that both cars and sneakers, historically seen as masculine interests, often have a feminine essence in their designs.
What if Michael Jordan himself requested an outfit? What shoe would you use and how would it look?
You know how Michael Jordan wore that crazy green satin jacket for his appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1991, and Nike are releasing an Air Jordan 6 colourway inspired by that jacket? I would do that, just the exact opposite. I would probably design a sick bomber jacket inspired by the ‘Chicago’ AJ1s or the ‘Flu Game’ AJ12s. Maybe even a motorcycle jumpsuit inspired by the ‘Black Cement’ Air Jordan 4s. Hmmm… I should probably put some thought into this. [Laughs]
You recently teamed up with atmos on a series of prints for their mismatched Dunk release – welcome to the world of collaboration!
It’s so crazy. Last winter, I was shopping at the Harajuku atmos store and right when I walked out, my phone buzzed. It was a DM from a stranger that said, ‘Were you just at the store?’ I panicked, looked around and hesitantly wrote back, ‘Yes…?’
Turns out it was Hidetaka Hino, the general manager of Sports Lab by atmos, who had been following my art. Later we were formally introduced and hit it off right away. He then introduced me to Hommyo Hidefumi, who casually pointed at Hino-san and said, ‘Talk with Hino. We will make something together.’ It was an unreal experience right from the beginning and I’m so thankful that atmos saw something in my art.
To coincide with the release of atmos’ Dunk Low CO.JP, I created a series of exclusive artwork. The guys at atmos were pretty much like, ‘Here’s the design, go wild with it.’ The navy and grey colourway reminded me immediately of school uniforms’ sweaters and cardigans, so I knew where to start. Since the pair was making a comeback from its original 2003 release, I wanted to go for a look that connects past and present. I created ‘Aska’ and ‘Nina’, rocking a throwback to the Japanese schoolgirl look of the 2000s with baggy cardigans and pleated skirts, although the details of their outfits were constructed from the 2017 version of the Dunks. I titled the piece ‘New School.’ What’s crazy about this piece, though, is that only after I sent everything to atmos, I realised the original inspiration behind the Dunk Low CO.JP was the ‘Georgetown’ Terminators from Nike’s ‘Be True To Your School’ collection.
We released 80 prints of each design and they sold out on release day, so that was pretty cool. Will it happen again? You’ll have to wait and see.
What would your dream colab be?
My dream would be to bring one of my girls to life by collaborating with a world-class cosplayer or designer or perhaps even a body paint artist. I would want someone fierce like Teyana Taylor to rock it, strutting down the runway and just slaying left and right. That’d be crazy. I think that would probably cause the world to set on fire and explode! [Laughs]
Portrait: Neil Talangbayan
Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 39. Get your copy here!
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