Designer Ricardo Vestuti has worked on-and-off in the sneaker business since the mid-1980s, with stints at Saucony and Nike and nearly twenty-five years at Reebok. In the first part of our interview, we discussed his early fascination with footwear and the art-school training that brought him to the sneaker world. In part 2, we talk about his past designs and current projects, and he predicts what’s next for the sneaker industry at large.
Natalie Espinosa: Can you tell us a little bit about the sneakers you’ve worked on? Or the ones that you’ve liked better?
I’ve done a lot of different shoes, but I’m in a group now at Reebok called the Future Group, which is advanced R&D. Some designers work on the day-to-day catalogue shoes, but our projects are more exploratory. Many—if not all—of the shoes that we do never see the light of day, but we have interesting prototypes that we put in our portfolios. Most of the time we can’t show them, but they’re satisfying in and of themselves. In some cases, though, we’re able to take something that we’ve done and push it into the in-line process, the mainstream product engine.
Bearing in mind that I myself am not the target consumer for sneakers, there are also shoes that have been satisfying either because they sold well or because they’re iconic for the brand. In 1995–96 I did a shoe called the Kamikaze—the first one. It was worn by a really great basketball player from Seattle [Shawn Kemp, playing for the SuperSonics], and they reissued the shoe twice. It’s now considered a classic shoe, which is interesting.
Reebok Kamikaze I, originally released in 1994 and retroed in 2014
KP: What’s that like, to have your shoe retroed?
It’s funny, this last year I had a shoe retroed from Nike and a shoe retroed from Reebok at about the same time. The one from Nike was called the Air Slant, and the one from Reebok was the Kamikaze. It’s nice to see these retros, but the aesthetics are certainly of an era. You know, like when you listen to bad music from the ‘80s—you like it, but you cringe at the same time. I could never do that again, but at the time it seemed relevant.
Nike Air Slant Mid, originally released in 1996 and retroed in 2013
The other shoe that I did was the Zig. The technology that defined the Zig products here has generated I think fifteen million pairs of shoes for the company, which is good. That’s a huge number for any shoe. Usually when you get to a million-pair shoe, that’s a big thing—
KP: That’s like going platinum?
Yeah. It was nice that it generated, and is still generating, more products. It’s one of those things like the Pump, where there’s a longevity within the brand with a technology, a component, or an aesthetic, so I’m happy with that. Personally, I don’t wear the stuff! Right now I’m wearing these German leather hiking shoes.
Another shoe featuring the Reebok ZigTech sole,
which was designed to propel athletes forward and was first introduced in 2010
If I go to the gym I’ll wear sneakers, but I’m not the quintessential sneaker person. What I like is the shoe as a design challenge, rather than as an accessory. There are some people who really live the product—they’re involved with the classics, which are both originals and bring-backs, like the Stan Smith, the Cortez, and all those iconic shoes. But because I’m dealing with so many disposable ideas, I don’t want to latch on to just one.
If you approach a design consultancy, they’ll give you what they think is the ultimate, singular solution to a design problem. But footwear isn’t like that. It has so many different aspects—fashion, material, process, celebrity—so there’s never really one solution. That’s what makes this field so interesting, and that’s why it’s populated with so many different designs. Everyone has their own interpretation of a solution to what they think the problem is. The problem is varied, and the solutions are varied.
You know, I’ve been teaching classes off and on for the last fifteen or twenty years, so sometimes I ramble… [laughs]
Originally released in 1997, the Nike Air Turf Raider was rereleased in 2013—as seen here in its “Pimento Red” colorway
NE: Since you started in the shoe world in the ‘80s, how has the industry changed? You’re clearly looking toward the future, right? You’re always thinking about the next thing?
When I started, there were still companies that were making parts of their shoes, or sometimes the entire shoe, in the United States. Back then the majority had just discovered Asia as a sourcing platform. That started with Phil Knight trying to source track spikes at a lower cost from Japan, to compete with Adidas—that was kind of the first entry point. It’s moved over the years from Japan to Korea to Taiwan to Indonesia, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and it’s been this discovery period of who can make the cheapest shoes. If there’s turmoil in a country, you might have to relocate to another country and do the same, or have a number of Asian factories in different countries. In Asia, you see the cost of living—and presumably the quality of life—going up, and over the years these countries have slowly caught up to the labor rates in the United States, in some respects at least.
What I’m seeing now is that a number of companies, including ours, are examining the possibility of relocating factories to the United States. In order to do that, you have to rethink the labor and the machinery involved in making shoes in a very different way. In Asia there was skilled labor—very capable labor—and a lot of it, at a very reasonable cost. The future—potentially for a lot of companies—will be making shoes in this country in an automated way, either robotically or by some other process. The aesthetics may be very different, because we’ll be limited by what automated machinery can make. To me, that’s really exciting, because that in and of itself is a huge design challenge. When we’re designing now, we’re actually thinking of the factories—what does this machine look like, what can we make from this machine? It’s come full circle, which is really interesting.
A prototype for a women’s fitness shoe for Reebok, 2012
The other thing I’ve witnessed is a shift in designers’ backgrounds. When I was starting out, there were very few designers in this field. They mostly came from Germany, because of Puma and Adidas, and the patternmakers were essentially the designers. They were the ones that added the styles and certain nuances to the shoes. But they were not industrial designers. In the early ‘80s, though, Nike started to hire industrial designers, like Tinker [Hatfield], who had an architecture background. Sneaker companies started to look for people who were not traditionally in the footwear world, which was mostly focused on casual shoes, and they started to look at industrial designers instead. That really changed the complexity of the product, and it changed the flavor of everything. The sneaker became a designed object at that point—in the past it had been a shoe product, not a design solution.
I also think access to footwear collaborations has opened the field up to many, many people who are not designers in the traditional sense, but who have an idea for a shoe style. It’s very democratic and open now. Musicians, celebrities, and the general public have input on what makes a designed shoe.
A prototype for the Reebok SkyCell DMX running shoe, 2013
KP: Is there a current or upcoming project—that you’re allowed to talk about—that you’re excited about?
There’s one project we’re working on that relates to the prior question, about the changing industry. We’re working with a machine that we purchased from Germany, which is almost like a rapid prototype machine—a 3D printer. The project is under the umbrella of Liquid Factory, and there are a couple of videos posted on Youtube [see below] that show what this process looks like. The machine dispenses urethane foam that can be used for soles, or possibly for uppers. It’s a really interesting process, because it allows you to make shoe parts very quickly, without molds. You’re basically using it to draw components. Right now we’re diving into this technology and exploring the possibilities and limitations of the machine to figure out what can we can do with it. It’s making us think about making footwear very, very differently.
We’ve recently bought the machine and set it up with a partner of ours in Rhode Island, and we’re trying to make parts locally. It’s a research and development machine, which we’re using to produce small runs of shoes or prototypes. It’s potentially going to lead to bigger things, and this is the type of thinking that Nike, New Balance, and Under Armour are simultaneously exploring—how do you do things differently, and how do you make footwear in a different way, in a different location? What does the problem look like and what do the solutions look like?
It’s been about a year or two of exploration, and now it’s up to us to make this machine behave the way we want it to and to build things the way we’d like them to be built. I think this machine has a huge potential. In the next few years I think we’ll see other companies coming up with solutions using different machinery, and that machinery will cause the shoes to look a certain way, or feel or behave a certain way, in the same way that knitting changed the environment for shoemaking a few years ago.
A few months back we sold a run of 300 pairs of shoes produced by this machine. The first ones are a little rough, because we’re just learning how to use this machine, but hopefully every subsequent version of the output will be more and more refined as we learn how to turn it into something more commercial. It’s really a new way to approach footwear.
Reebok’s lightweight base-stealing cleat sample for baseball player Andrés “Yungo” Torres