Last week, Kanye West appointed the tenured creative as Head of Industrial Design at Donda. Boardroom explores Smith’s storied history in footwear and why he’s become Ye’s ace.
Kanye West, now legally known as Ye, has taken a brief break from the public eye, but the multi-hyphenate mogul has been building his Avengers squad of innovators as it relates to Donda.
Donda, Kanye’s creative house founded in 2011 and named after his late mother, has already altered the aesthetic of album art, shifted the future of footwear, and developed DIY remix and release technology through the Stem player. Donda has also extended into sports by signing Aaron Donald and Jaylen Brown for marketing representation.
Based on Ye’s original stream of consciousness Tweets, the tale of the tape suggests Donda’s set to take on education, politics, and transportation next.
Whether moving by Foam Runner or Foam Vehicle, storied designer Steven Smith will be driving Donda’s future. Last week, the footwear phenom was named as Head of Industrial Design at Donda, set to take his talents seen for decades in sneakers to new spaces and platforms. Since 2016, West and Smith have made noise and money through their radical releases at Yeezy footwear.
“Yeezy is the perfect place for me,” Smith told The Complex Sneakers Podcast back in 2021. “Because I’ve got an advocate of design, an advocate of disruption — a fellow disruptor! That’s part of why we jive so well. We just want to change the game constantly.”
So, who exactly is Steven Smith and how do he and Ye plan to change the game next? To predict the future, you must study the past.
In sports, rarely is a star player also a journeyman. In the sportswear industry, this isn’t quite the case.
Honing a curiosity to create thanks to his older brothers breaking his toys as a child, Smith studied industrial design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, leaving with his BFA degree in 1986. That fall, he landed at nearby New Balance, immediately making an impact on running and basketball products.
The placement and the timing proved perfect for all involved. Not only did Smith hit the ground running with performance products made to turn corners on the track, but New Balance also drafted off lifestyle energy thanks to the ‘Casual Friday’ trend. Suddenly, offices around the country were embracing tennis shoes as more than just gym attire.
From the New Balance 574 to the New Balance 996, Smith’s sneakers were selling at a rampant rate. After designing breadwinners in both basketball and running, competitor brand Adidas showed interest in Smith, essentially offering double his salary.
Smith spoke to his superiors at New Balance about his new opportunity and whether or not they could match. The team at that time turned up their noses at the notion that designers would ever make more than an average salary, forcing his hand to jump ship to the Three Stripes. At Adidas, he brought his same balance of function and edge to basketball before eventually leaping to Reebok for a return to running.
Over the course of the ’90s, Smith’s need for speed changed the design language of Reebok running, eventually imploring FILA to hand him creative reins. By the new millennium, Nike made Smith their man when it came to ready-to-race footwear, crafting everything from track spikes to transforming Air Max into VaporMax. Short stints at KEEN and The North Face took his work from track to trail.
It all set the stage to join Kanye West at Adidas.
Working with West, Christian Tresser, and an array of creatives from Calabasas to Wyoming, Smith’s product journey had suddenly placed him right at home. Not only was he collaborating with fellow renegades, he was finally able to transform footwear’s modern design language with maximum amplification and no censorship.
Father, Stretch My Hands
Among the masses, Smith is highly regarded as the “Godfather of Dad Shoes.”
To much irony, most of the models today’s market deems “dad shoes'” were designed by Smith when he was only 21 years old. Having patterned popular parent pairs like the New Balance 574, New Balance 997, and New Balance 550, Smith styles ideated in the ’80s now stand amongst the most traded models on StockX decades later.
“I ended up doing all of these shoes that New Balance today sells more of than when they were new,” Smith told The Avants Podcast in May 2022. “As of late, the 550 basketball shoe that I designed is now considered in the market to be overtaking the Air Force 1 this year in relevance.”
Not only is the New Balance 550 overtaking the Air Force 1 marketshare, it’s doing so in a year where both the Beaverton brand and the court classic are celebrating massive anniversaries. In 2022, Nike turns 50 and the AF1 turns 40. Despite marketing momentum, it’s Smith’s basketball model-turned-dad shoe that’s sonning them all.
Over the course of his career, Smith made his mark over and over again by defying authority through design. In doing so, his counter-culture approach to creating resonated with radicals just like him from sport to stage.
Famously, Smith’s revolutionary Reebok runner, the Instapump Fury, not only lacked laces and won races, they saw artist endorsement from the likes of Steven Tyler and Bjork. On the hardwood, luxury basketball builds for FILA’s Grant Hill franchise outfitted the Pistons point-forward as he ascended to All-Star status. By the ’00s, Nike entrusted Smith to elevate innovations like Caged Zoom Air and Shox support, blazing a trail for both techs that stretched from Olympic tracks to household treadmills.
Rogue and rebellious, Smith’s design language has translated to numerous eras by being bold and switching flows. Smith stakes claims in inspiring other StockX staples both old and new. In 2022 alone, both the playful “Hello Kitty” Nike Air Presto retro and the aggressive Adidas Yeezy 450 sell in droves and present personality.
During his decade at Nike, one could argue Steven Smith saved Air Max not once but twice. Midway through his run, he helped work on the Air Max 2009 — a shoe that took the annual franchise back to the forefront, energizing the full-length cushioning across all categories. Even innovations Smith spawned in spirit, like Nike’s VaporMax platform assisted by Smith and introduced in 2017, prove a case study on the commercial appeal of his career.
Infamously, Smith ideated the concept for VaporMax during his Diamond DMX run at Reebok in the ’90s. Once working with the Swoosh in the ’00s, the aesthetic was reborn and rebranded with Air Max in mind. To this day, the sentiment expressed through VaporMax continues to crush at big box retailers worldwide.
“The polarizing thing is usually the good thing,” Foot Locker Global Chief Marketing Officer Jed Berger told Boardroom back in March when discussing the commercial success of VaporMax. Since releasing at retail in 2017, the imaginative Air Max update has proven a major part of Foot Locker’s global footprint.
To put it humbly, both the big brands and the big boxes still make massive amounts of money off Smith’s archival classics and deep cuts. All the while, Kanye calls him in to transcribe the future of footwear.
If last week’s announcement is any indication, the next wave of Smith x Ye innovation won’t just be space boots.
To the Moon
In 2011, Steve Smith was back at Adidas, working on wearable tech as it related to apparel and sports equipment. At that time, Kanye West was still under contract with Nike, previewing the Air Yeezy 2 at his epic Coachella performance and laying the foundation for his Donda creative house.
Listen to lyrics and you’ll find that Kanye’s competition has never been limited to musical peers but rather world-building pioneers. Inspired by Walt Disney while fighting for market share with Michael Jordan and Phil Knight, Kanye is very much about changing the world one silo at a time. In 2022, it’s still much more than the music for the self-described “product person.”
The next product appears to be cars. Helping him take on that task for the foreseeable future is Steven Smith.
Last week, Ye’s creative house announced Smith’s new position with a rendering of the Donda Foam Vehicle concept.
Said to be designed and manufactured in the United States, the tea leaves for Ye entering the automotive world have long been brewing. In recent years, Ye’s spotlighted Sherpa tanks as a way to distribute his first basketball shoe at 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend, while also appearing as a means for him and his father to connect on his Wyoming ranch.
When taking the stage with Smith in 2019 at a Fast Company event, the two spoke of the algae-based production of the Adidas Yeezy Foam Runner and the importance of the genre-bending product being made in the US.
It appears an American manufactured Foam Vehicle is next. Smith, though still known for shoes, is the right guy to drive this mission.
As a student, Smith’s original intention was to be a car designer. However, when applying for colleges, schooling of that sort at that time only existed in Detroit and California. Staying close to home, he studied industrial design and took his talent to nearby New Balance. The rest is history.
With West’s vision and a little friendly competion from Elon Musk, Smith’s original passion may course correct.
“Kanye and I had these early conversations where we talked about the concept of the future we were promised from the ’50s and the ’60s,” Smith told Complex. “Flying cars, all kinds of crazy-ass s–t like people wearing silver space suits. We’re wearing the same old s–t we’ve been wearing for 50 years! Why not offer people that future we were promised that we never got? Break the paradigm, escape the matrix, and show people the future that we can see.”
With the new appointment and preview of the Foam Vehicle, it’s quite clear what West and Smith see next.
An avid fan of Porsche, the transportation thread between footwear and automobiles reflects passion points for both Smith and Ye. Historically, Smith’s work has proved palatable and progressive across categories and brands. At Yeezy, his designs are both daring and equitable earners — two chacteristics his billionaire boss/collaborator cares much about. For Kanye to push his peer Musk in innovation and capital, it’s important he teams with someone of the same spirit.
Ironically enough, Smith says he’s influenced by the work of Musk’s muse, Nikola Tesla. As West and Smith look to create the future, the tandem best known for daring dad shoes are very in tune with the past as pushed by their forefathers.
“[Nikola Tesla] was going head to head with Edison and all the people thought he was out of his fucking mind,” Smith recalled to Complex. “Tesla started out as working in Edison’s lab.”
Once again, Ye and Steven Smith are back in the lab. With Smith in the driver’s seat at Donda, it’s still more than music and it’s about to be much more than footwear. The future is now as the two see it and the race for innovation is taking to a new track.
Buckle up, Elon.