Interview with Trend Defining Nike Designers Gerald Sullivan and Shamees Aden
For many an aspiring sneaker designer, the idea of being drafted by Team Swoosh into their revered design team is the ultimate pipe dream. Having turned those ambitions into a reality, Gerald Sullivan and Shamees Aden now work to take their creative fantasies from sketchbooks to shelves as part of Nike Sportswear’s 14-person design cohort. With their team, the creative collective strives to energise the brand through pinnacle collaborations and innovations, with the likes of Off-White, ACRONYM, Martine Rose, Tom Sachs and Comme des Garçons just a few of the names on their ever-growing resume.
In Melbourne to celebrate the AF-1 at Nike Makers Lab customisation experience, Gerald and Shamees recently sat down with us to chat about the inspirations behind their creations, the collaborative process, and what it’s like being part of Beaverton's trend-defining design brigade.
A lot of people are probably curious about your actual roles at Nike? What exactly do your positions entail?
Gerald Sullivan: We’re both footwear designers, but I recently got my title changed to Design Lead, which means I’m overseeing a lot of projects and designing as well.
Shamees Aden: I’m still kind of the newest to Nike, even though I’ve been here about three years now. I help out with collaborations and, right now, I’m more focused on new innovations for the brand, which is cool.
Regarding these innovations, how do you decide what goes into a sneaker idea or design?
SA: I think we’re very much driven by the performance element of the shoe. We’re really driven by that — seeking out problems and then solving them. That’s where the innovation lies.
GS: We definitely are ‘function first’, and constantly problem solving. While we obviously work on fashion lifestyle vibes, the foundation is always driven by function.
Why is functionality so important? Can the aesthetic be jeopardised if functionality is too much of a focus?
GS: No, not at all. Functionality is just so honest and real. It also creates a lot of new aesthetics that we might not normally go for. It definitely aids the process of creating something new and awesome.
Is there a particular material that you both love working with?
SA: We’re always trying to seek out new materials. There’s always things I haven’t touched or handled before, so it’s nice to explore how they can be applied onto the foot.
Gerald, how do you think the industry has evolved since you joined Nike 12 years ago?
GS: When I first started, I feel like we would take an icon and then apply a graphic to it, or change any little detail, and people would be super excited because nobody had done that before. But now we’re transforming shoes into new shapes and aesthetics. So, I think that is one of the biggest changes.
More broadly, I think that sneakers were once only used for sports and activities, but now I see them in the everyday. I see people walk into work in them, and they’ve become a lifestyle fashion product. I’ve also seen the way more people have become obsessed with sneakers in their everyday lives.
As the Design Lead for a key team at Nike, what is your overarching goal?
GS: We strive to energise the brand. We do that in a lot of key moments that Nike have called out. Particularly with runways. We focus on collaboration and innovation. We work with all of these collaborators for those moments.
What’s it like collaborating with one of the world’s top creative masterminds in Rei Kawakubo and the team at Comme des Garçons?
GS: It’s amazing. We’ve done so many projects with CDG, and they’re super fun to work with. They always come through with great ideas, so it’s a great collaborative process with us going back and forth with what we think will be really rad. Rei has a very sharp point of view, so it’s really awesome working with her. She’s like, ‘no, yes, no’.
How do you manage the different personalities and opinions when collaborating, all the while still ensuring that the Nike brand remains at the forefront?
GS: It’s actually really fun. Fortunately, Nike has amazing stuff, so a lot of times, we just show them these awesome things that we’re working on and they’re like, ‘we just want to do that’. At Nike, we work as a team — we’re constantly brainstorming together, and we have a really great group mentality. Our collaborators see that and they get absorbed in that as well.
SA: And it’s not just a footwear designer meeting. We also have the colour, material, and the model maker. So we sit down in a room and ideate with the collaborator and talk about the product that they want to create. From there, we’ll go back and forth. That diversity is really cool.
One year on from ‘The Ten’, how are consumers reacting to the relationship between Virgil Abloh and Nike?
SA: They love it. It was just a great session that we all had. Just like I said before, we had a colour designer, a material designer, and a 3D modeller. We all sat in a room and had eight hours to ideate and create those 10 shoes. We did it as a collective, and I think that process worked well in the market because people loved it.
What spawned off that initial season was all of the off-campus workshops, which were also great. In the end, Nike showed that human side, and dispelled a little bit of the myth about how we get a shiny and innovative product. Up until then, we didn’t really talk about how much we went through to develop each product. However, I think Virgil managed to do that, which was really great. He kind of showed and ripped out some of the internal structure of those shoes, which made it more accessible to people.
Shamees, you have a really interesting background working with McQueen — such an amazing brand and designer. How has your experience working with McQueen influenced your work at Nike?
SA: McQueen was very hands-on. We had to build and prototype a lot. I come from a fashion background, and I think those skills I learned from McQueen and my studies have definitely transferred to working with footwear at Nike. A lot of time, we’re not necessarily sketching shoes, we’re actually being really hands-on, grabbing the materials, grabbing the tools, and constructing and working with others to help build and prototype.
GS: That’s a great point about footwear designers evolving over time. Now it’s very hands-on and prototype-driven. We still sketch, but it’s more like a quick napkin sketch to get your idea down, and then you go build it. At the end of the day, we’re making three-dimensional products, so we should be starting with three-dimensional ideas.
What kind of things are you planning on seeing while you’re in Australia?
SA: We’re seeking out other industries to see how they operate — exposing ourselves to different practices so we can get our heads out of footwear designs.
GS: The more diverse things we see, the more it creates ideas that we can then apply to shoes in a different way. If we’re just constantly looking at the same thing, that doesn’t help the creative process. Meeting with architects and other designers helps to influence future designs. When we start brainstorming concepts for shoes, we have mood boards and things like that. There’s always some sort of narrative that we try to revolve everything around. Sometimes that narrative will come from a trip like this.
I mean, we’re designing shoes for people who live life. You know what I mean? So we should be out there living life too.
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