The Worldview of Designer Asha Harper
Footwear designer Asha Harper has always been inspired by creativity and freedom, and today they permeate through every aspect of her life, from her worldview to her design ethos. Since joining Nike, Harper has worked on high profile projects like the Patta x Nike Air Max 1 'Wave Pack', as well as a number of sacai collaborations. Not only does she boast a stellar portfolio, thanks to her deep understanding of the world – paired with her arts studies, eventually going on to study footwear design – her career foundations have been laid down thoughtfully and strongly.
Always driven by her ambition and the support of her parents, Harper made sure that she jumped at every opportunity she was presented with. Going on to complete stints at companies including Dr. Martens and PUMA (where she consulted with Rihanna's Fenty), Harper would land at Nike, where she is now the creative lead designer at the Beaverton, Oregon HQ. Sneaker Freaker’s managing editor Audrey Bugeja spoke to Harper on freedom of expression, the Virgil Abloh effect and much more.
Once you wrapped up your studies, what was the first gig you landed in the footwear industry?
Around three months after graduating from De Montfort University, I started an apprenticeship program in engineering and manufacturing at Dr. Martens, based at their headquarters in Northampton. The program lasted for roughly 14 months and allowed me to have an in-depth experience on how Dr. Martens were produced in their Made In England factory. The course covered a rotational breakdown of each technical procedure used starting with the clicking room, closely followed by the closing line, swiftly moving on to the lasting line, then closing off with the finishing room. Month by month the apprentices would go on to study every skill set used on the factory floor, until we’d eventually get to choose which department we’d want to specialise in.
I ended up gravitating towards the closing room department, which is where you would stitch the componentry of the upper together before it gets to the lasting line. I feel like I was heavily influenced by the endless amount of days I would sit on the post machines at uni and lose myself in trying to master my stitching process – post machines will always have a place in my heart! During my days in the factory I was very lucky to gain the skill set and knowledge passed on to me from the incredible women that surrounded me in the closing room. The energy really inspired me to push through the days where I needed to be a little more patient and trust in the process.
You're coming up to four years with Nike, what are some of your career highlights while being with the Swoosh?
One of my highlights has definitely been my team (I have to thank Nate Jobe for orchestrating that). I was supposed to be a footwear designer on the NSW women’s team but got poached last minute. It’s rare to work in a space with a collective of multifaceted creatives that hold no space for ego and are extremely passionate about changing the mindset of our industry little by little, without losing themselves. Our process isn’t always tangible and from the outside-in can look a little intimidating, but I guess that’s what happens when riding the wave of uncertainty, you have to let it flow. We’ve all managed to find a hidden language in each other that unlocks freedom in creativity which allows us to be, whilst having fun in the process. This team continues to teach me so much about myself and continues to challenge me to step outside of my comfort zone even when I don’t want to.,
Another highlight has been observing how collaboration works internally more than externally. The ecosystem that is our diverse team is not only responsible for product but also for collaborative relationships, brand storytelling, business strategy, comms, development, product marketing, colour and materials, graphics, costing and engineering. Like bees, we all cross pollinate with each other to create a collective vision. Each person’s pollen is just as important as the other yet over time we’re slowly being moulded into a new breed not just collectively, but individually.
Consumer-facing you only see the end credits, but for me it’s always been about the collective process that comes before the finale and all the energy that’s pumped into making these experiences what they are. It’s not only about what I bring to the table, it’s about what we all bring to the table and how we encourage each other to show up and be better.
Why is freedom of expression important to you?
Because it’s the source of creativity. It provides a safe space where we can let go of everything we believe in about our realities and identities, to help flip the narrative. It allows us to be guided by intuition, emotions and feelings in the playground of life, whilst simultaneously realising that we can not be defined. We were designed to evolve, adapt and to dismantle belief systems that no longer gravitate to our highest good. It’s within our purpose to move like nature so that we can constantly shed outdated attachments, in order to welcome new expressions that align to the evolved version of ourselves as a collective. The same with design.
Over the course of your career you've worked on some really amazing product. You’ve previously mentioned that Nike ISPA Overreact sandal is one of your favourites. Has that changed at all?
Honestly, I can no longer pin it down to just one project that has been my favourite, because every project that myself and the team have touched has unlocked new knowledge and understandings that I'm able to apply to the next project and so fourth. Each of these projects have their own universe whether it be through the narrative of improvise, scavenge, protect and adapt, hybridisation when it comes to Sacai or the cutting room floor with Virgil Abloh. Each of these projects are master classes within themselves – we all take it in turns to be the mentor or the student helping to manifest each others’ creative visions.
What does collaboration mean to you?
What I’ve learned from working with collaborative partners is that we’re all challenging each other to match our highest vibrations via creative expression. Each partner will help reveal a newer version of exploration. It’s nice to escape to other partners’ minds to understand what creative expression means for them and how they apply it. It really broadens the horizons especially when creatives are on the same magnetic fields. No path to creativity is identical. We’re all super nerdy art kids trying to push the footwear industry to places its never been, using the power of expression, naivety, freedom and knowledge. I’m hoping someday it can get far deeper than that – collaborations don’t have to be based on product alone; it can also be a key tool for exploring the many ways of experiencing. Now we’ve learned how to keep the collaborative mindset afloat whilst juggling our own thoughts at home during a pandemic. We’re all here to push inclusive and non-biased ways of thinking outside of the conditioned mind. For me success in sneaker design looks a lot like creating safe spaces for all creators to be the purest versions of themselves.
In a parallel universe it also means finding ways of avoiding sneakers reaching landfill. As a team we hold ourselves accountable for new ways of processing and engineering – not only should we be problem solving in design but also for the afterlife of a product and what we feel its 360 journey could be. We should study the effects of consumer consumption and challenge how much we produce and why? And what the long-term effects of these choices could mean.
Transparency is important, I can’t stress this enough. For every thought or concept that is sold to the world comes consequences, that’s why we have to design and move with purpose without the universe paying the cost for it. Success for me is far from a sold-out shoe and clapping your hands every time one of your concepts hits the market. Although small wins can be appreciated, we must remember that our work here isn’t done and that our biggest collaboration is one that aligns with our planet, its people and the give back. One that encourages the creative world to think intentionally about what our future holds.,
Would you say the female presence in the industry has increased since you entered it?
Of course! I think the power of information and technology has helped big time, making it easier for us to connect the dots a lot faster and with ease. There’s also been a heavy push on ‘inclusivity’ when it comes to business strategies catered specifically to women’s needs, providing opportunities that once never existed. When I first entered the industry, the lack of female footwear designers (not just designers, all fields) was pretty blatant, of course over the years it’s progressed and it continues to do so. Now there are moments where I work on projects where the majority of the team are female and I have to say I really appreciate the support system, it really inspires me when we show up for each other in spaces that weren’t intentionally built for us.
We fully get into our feels and try to crush every project we touch and I love that the brains behind some of your fave colabs are produced by women, but you’ll never know that. Throughout my career I’ve had a lot of firsts especially being Black British and female, it’s interesting to know that it’s rare, but also at the same time I’m just out here trying to make my parents proud. It’s not until someone mentions that I’m one of two Black female footwear designers from the UK that works at Nike and then I’m literally like ‘Oh yeah.’ Definitely slow progress but staying hopeful.
Back to Virgil Abloh – the way that he authentically brought community and design together was something really special. Do you think there are any other people in this space who do that, or who do that well?
I don't think this planet is ever going to see another movement like the one we all witnessed in Virgil. He is the epitome of abundance and will forever remain the message inside of us all – especially for us creatives – I feel like we all became his creative disciples and now everything we do or touch will have fragments of influence in the way we think and work. It’s still truly a blessing to have witnessed all that he was and still is in this lifetime. You rarely come across people inside these walls that want to see everybody win, but deep down I genuinely believed that he did. I’ll always admire him for his altruistic persona and how he went about dissecting everything in plain sight in order to give us another perspective. Not only that but also how important it is in creating opportunities and connecting the dots across all layers of industries. He truly gave us the creative blueprint and I can’t wait to see what we all do with it.
What barriers have you been faced with in the footwear design industry?
I think some of the barriers you run into as a female footwear designer is knowing your worth and when to stand up for yourself. Cooperation can be a heavy machine to manoeuvre and it isn’t for the fainthearted. There are going to be spaces that you enter that aren’t safe for your mental health or that go against what you stand for. But you have to think about what’s best for you in that situation and speak your truth. Sometimes you’re going to have to incorporate boundaries to remind people and systems that you’re a human being first. Finding a safe space for you to grow towards your potential is key. Let that be a reminder.
I think the pandemic really highlighted what we need to prioritise first and what things we no longer want and need to normalise. It also made me very aware that we’re working on systems that are outdated or that need an update. You constantly need to challenge yourself into becoming that change whilst also encouraging your team mates to do the same. It’s important to plant seeds and nurture them whilst they grow. It’s not easy but opening up the conversation might inspire someone to speak their truth.
For a collection of in-depth interviews and features, head over to <Platform> – an inclusive space created by Sneaker Freaker, which aims to champion the women who are breaking barriers and are helping to shape the sneaker and streetwear industry.