Can creativity eclipse clout? Learn how one Jordan Brand designer drafted a new sneaker not for an athlete or artist, but rather for the everyday sneakerhead.
Designer Gemo Wong’s list of clients is impressive.
While those stars has a fervent following — a hive, even — Pralica, the CEO and co-founder of SoleSavy is surrounded by a community. He has spent the last few years attempting to rebuild sneaker culture from within.
Putting people over products, he’s helped members of his community-based platform find shoes, make friends, and share stories as a way to humanize a hobby recently categorized by mainstream media as an asset class.
To take care of his people, Pralica reached out to Wong — the creative force behind the $20,000 Christian Dior x Air Jordan 1, countless Travis Scott collabs, and retro releases from Jordan Brand tied to streetwear powers such as KAWS, Supreme, and Union.
Now functioning as a freelance designer and consultant, Wong is able to spread his wings to new passion projects with fewer constraints.
Collaborating with a community on the new SoleSavy SS4, the first physical and digital sneaker from the virtual village of sneakerheads, Wong left behind big brand quotas and global influencers for a project put out for the people.
It’s the first of its kind.
It likely won’t be the last.
A Tale of Two Risk-Takers
Wong’s journey into the footwear industry started in Cairo.
No, not Egypt. A small town in Southern Illinois.
Getting his first pair of Air Jordan 3s as a seventh grader, the curious kid headed up to DePaul for college before transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago. From there, Wong went to New York City, cutting his teeth at companies like ENYCE and Sean John before being brought on by the man who went to work in the elephant print sneakers he adored as a kid.
“My dream was to ultimately work at Nike,” Wong told Boardroom. “And it came to life. I took the first flight out, and I didn’t look back.”
Starting at Jordan Brand in apparel, Wong pivoted positions on campus by transferring to Nike Sportswear to work on footwear. From there, the skill set was complete to go back to Jordan Brand and head up the special projects division.
Wong was working in his dream role, and he helped create a slew of sneakers that consistently top year-end lists.
“I did everything from the Christian Dior x Jordan project to Supreme and Union,” Wong shared. “I kickstarted it.”
In recent years, Wong left the company he once fantasized creating for as a kid in favor of blazing his own path. Today, Wong works with Travis Scott, Beyonce, Jimmy Butler, Russell Wilson, and more as a freelance advisory consultant for their various fashion projects. He’s also heading up his own apparel and lifestyle line.
Last summer, amidst messages related to Cactus Jack, Ivy Park, and BIGFACE Coffee, a familiar phone number rang Wong.
“Marco Henry Negrete hit me up and asked, ‘Are you interested in doing a new shoe?'” recalled Wong.
Negrete, a former Jordan Brand employee and current VP of content & communications at SoleSavy, saw an opportunity to create a pair of kicks untied to an icon but rather a community.
The concept was left field, leaving Wong wondering what he was even being asked to do.
“At first, I was hesitant because I couldn’t quite figure it out,” Wong said. “We went back and forth, and I met Dejan. It took like three to five months of texts until I said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
Diving deep into the Slack channels of SoleSavy and seeing the passion that burned from the kids and collectors who hunted his work with Jordan as if it were buried treasure, Wong felt it right to act as a vessel for the community that fuels sneaker culture through pure passion.
Pralica “was ready to press ‘go'” as soon as Wong agreed.
Like Wong, Pralica’s path is one of imagination and unlikely opportunity.
As a young adult in Vancouver, Pralica’s love of music led him to create fan sites for Frank Ocean and Kid Cudi. Pralica’s Dat New Cudi blog quickly bloomed into the one-stop-shop for all updates tied to the Cleveland star. Before long, Pralica was actually conversing with Cudi — playing his part in mixtape releases while following the ascent of an artist that would go on to influence modern hip-hop and popular fashion.
Years later, Pralica’s understanding of the internet and his adjacent love of sneakers turned into building properties for Complex such as KicksDeal before founding SoleSavy in 2018. Since its inception, SoleSavy has caught fire in funding while connecting sneakerheads in a scene that’s as commercially massive as ever yet feels fragmented.
“The product of our business is people,” Pralica told Boardroom. “It’s about the people who wear the shoes, love them, and drive that passion.”
Pralica prioritizes people over product. But sneakerheads still love, well, sneakers.
Since its start, SoleSavy has created an environment to talk and trade kicks while offering intel on how to beat bots. However, deep down, it was clear there could be more. Last summer, Pralica looked to take it one step further by creating a physical shoe for the community that was entirely their own.
Putting their heads together, Pralica, Wong, and Negrete reached out to community members and production studios to get the project in motion.
Suddenly, Wong was creating with no quotas to hit nor no corporate calendar to deliver by.
The path was paved for something entirely new.
From Pencil to Pixel
Originally intending to create a new upper on a Vibram platform, Pralica and Wong went against the grain and decided to go all-in on a fully from-scratch sneaker. To do so, Wong called on his friend and former Jordan Brand colleague Justin Taylor.
Having helmed performance pairs for the likes of Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, Taylor employed his expertise to make something both functional and unique. For Wong and Pralica, the goal was always to make something that was practical and accessible.
In essence, the exact opposite of, say, the Dior x Air Jordan 1.
“We wanted a shoe that you could wear every day that didn’t feel like this precious thing,” Wong explained. “We wanted a certain sense of familiarity.”
After weeks of courting conversation and months of drafting, the first sample of the SS4 arrived in January.
While Pralica may have had the first pair, they were never intended to be just for him. Wong channeled a running spirit for function and comfort, elevating the craft and luxury. Wong and Pralica weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but they also weren’t inspired by inflation.
The SoleSavy shoe was to be all about sneaker culture, leaning away from the glitz and greed that often overwhelms it.
“The design brief was clear: it needs to be simple, wearable, and something you can have at your front door at all times,” said Pralica. “We really wanted the first colorway to appeal to everyone.”
With Wong, Taylor, and the team at Garrixon Studio shaping the final production pairs based on insights taken from Zoom meetings, the shoe that’s seen in the professional photos above has come to life.
Typically, a standard run of sneakers manufactured by a major brand usually takes 18 months to go from concept to store. SoleSavy’s first foray took only nine months. The shoes are now ready for the world, and also the world of Web3.
On April 18, the initial minty makeup will live up to its colorway and release first in NFT form.
“I wanted to do the Web3 version of this for people wanting to be a part of a new experience,” Pralica said.
Though traditional pre-order pairs already launched through SoleSavy, Pralica sees the debut of the SS4 as a way to tie tangible value to that of the metaverse. Curious community members that purchase their pair through the NFT mint will be gifted matching merch designed by Wong while having the backing of the blockchain to claim their cache in this historic launch.
Better yet, they’ll have a hand in styling the sequel.
“Everyone who participates in the NFT program will be part of creating the next shoe with Gemo and Justin,” Pralica teased.
For those not already signed up to SoleSavy, a public-facing release of the SS4 will take place in June for $300.
For those involved in this unprecedented project, the SS4 could just be the beginning of an industry shift.
Creating is the New Clout
The big business of sneakers — both at retail and at the aftermarket — is still booming despite a pandemic that’s altered logistics and allowed collectors fewer opportunities to actually wear their shoes at public outings.
Not only has production been paused by outside forces, but the success of selling the same styles over and over again has impeded innovation from within.
“Being inside the machines of Nike and seeing what’s ahead, you just get this sense that you’re fueling something that doesn’t feel so fresh,” Wong said. “I think the sneaker world feels a little bit stale right now. I’m kind of bored of seeing another AJ1 or another retro model. I want to see new and fresh.”
Like other industry employees that recently left big brands, Wong is enjoying the freedom to create without quotas or constraints. Just as his former Nike colleagues at Omorpho look to rewrite the rules on training, Wong is excited about altering the notion that a shoe is only important if it flips for more than it was purchased for.
“We didn’t do it to be something that would create some aftermarket craze,” Wongs said of the SS4. “We just did it to hope people would wear it.”
So far, the list of people wearing it already includes the SoleSavy CEO.
For Pralica, the intended impact of the SoleSavy SS4 is more than minting NFTs or even a bigger branding play. Community remains at the core of their business, and he hopes the experiment that he and Wong just embarked on sparks a similar dialogue between brands and their consumers.
“In sneakers, everyone is making decisions and telling us how it is,” Pralica noted. “We don’t have a say in many things. I want to challenge the status quo and carve a new lane that gets brands to engage with the audience because right now everything is transactional. If we don’t try to innovate, who will?”
Just days after the first pre-order and on the eve of minting, community members are ideating just how far the story and style of the SoleSavy SS4 can go.
“I had someone ask if we could make the sole into a sandal,” Pralica said. “We can do anything we want because we own it.”
When Pralica says “we,” he means the entire SoleSavy community.
This June, pairs of the SS4 will ship to community members that pre-ordered the shoe or minted the NFT. While the running style will wear well throughout the summer, Pralica plans on continuing the conversation around creating the sequel far beyond when boxes hit doorsteps.
“I want people to be thinking about this shoe the entire year,” he said.
If it only took Wong nine months to make the SS4. There’s a good chance we see the SS5 even sooner.