Three Stripes meet The Walrus

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Now that sneakers have usurped stamps as the preferred medium with which young collectors can indulge their obsessive tendencies, the marketplace has been inundated with scores of artist-inspired footwear. It seems that illustrators, painters and designers are quickly becoming the sneaker industry's next step beyond the oh-so coveted pro athlete endorsement. Except instead of massive product runs, these shoes are lent an aura of exclusivity by being available in only limited numbers. It's this approach that gives many a collector what the medical community often calls "the crazy eyes."

Now, San Francisco-based, walrus-adorned, arty apparel brand Upper Playground has teamed up with Adidas for a new, limited edition four sneaker series. Each shoe, to be released a week apart starting this Thursday, is designed by a different artist chosen by UP -- Sam Flores, David Choe, Herbert Baglione, and rapper Aesop Rock – and production is limited to 500 pairs for each design.

Herbert Baglione starts off the series.
Herbert Baglione starts off the series.
We spoke with Upper Playground founder, and current editor of Juxtapoz magazine, Matt Revelli about this new series, how UP approaches brand partnerships and why artist sneakers are so damn special.

You guys have done sneaker collaborations before. How did this one come about and what's the idea behind it?
Matt Revelli: We first worked with Adidas on the 35th project (for the 35th anniversary of the Superstar sneaker) about three or four years ago and that went really well. So when the opportunity recently came up where they asked if we were interested in doing a small set of sneakers we said, Absolutely. What's unique about this project is that there are only about 500 pairs of each design being made and Adidas isn't really selling them, they're only available on our site. Typically, it's not even worth their time to make things in such small quantities but they saw the value of working with us and the artists we would have design each shoe.

Is there a theme or idea to tie the series together?
MR: Well, the original concept was "All Day I Dream About Adidas," so it was about the artists just dreaming up a shoe that they'd want to wear, from choosing the specific model to how they would design it.

What made you choose these four artists?
MR: I work pretty closely with a lot of artists and a lot of times, especially on the gallery side of what we do, the fine art doesn't always translate so well to apparel or footwear. So a lot of the decision was based on whose ideas and art I thought would translate well to a shoe.

A big departure for us on this one was asking a musician to participate. Most people don't know that Aesop went to art school and, while he doesn't do it professionally, he does do illustration. He's also just been part of what we've been doing for a long time so I thought it would be interesting to have him make something that his fans would like as well.

The release dates seem designed for exclusivity. Why go with the one-design-per-week schedule as opposed to making them all available at once?
MR: Really, it's just that we're a small company and it would be a bit much for us to handle 2000 shoe orders in one day. So it's more a matter of function. But that said, given a week between releases allows each design to be in the spotlight for a period of time.

Is this curatorial role something you guys actively pursue with other brands or is it more of a see-what-comes-along type thing?
MR: A bit of both. There are certainly people who come to us and others we approach but we're pretty focused on our core products that we design and manufacture. In terms of partnerships, I approach it as, we can make shoes if we want but why try to manufacture something that someone else is an expert in? Am I going to make a breakthrough sneaker design? Why not work with a partner who's already perfected that? Another example is our ongoing relationship with New Era. We could make baseball hats if we wanted, but the reality is that they make the best baseball hat so why should we try to reinvent that wheel? If I see someone as a leader or expert in that field I'd like to bring our design ideas to them and collaborate. There's enough room in the design process to work with partners to add our vision to an existing product.

What do you think artist edition shoes are so popular – with both artists and consumers?
MR: You're essentially asking some of the most creative people of our generation to re-interpret basics. Some RISD hotshot or other design whiz who works at one of these corporations are bound by certain constraints, while these artists aren't tied down by any rules. Their life is one most people couldn't imagine – they paint and create and do all these things in their studios with zero limitations. Even the most creative person at Nike or Adidas has to answer to someone at the end of the day. But these artists can do whatever they want and I think that's how you get truly breakthrough ideas. These artists have built their lives on their own terms from the beginning – Sam Flores? Didn't go to art school. David Choe? Didn't go to art school. Aesop Rock? Went to art school but then became a rapper. Herbert? Again, no art school. So they've never been tied to traditional ways of working and with that, interesting things are bound to happen.
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