In parts one and two of my interview with Sneaker Freaker’s founding editor Woody, we discussed the history of the magazine, and what defines sneaker culture in Australia. In the final installment, Woody reveals how his office operates today, and offers more insights into other recent Sneaker Freaker projects like books and sneaker collabs.
KP: You’ve mentioned a couple of your staff members already, so I’m curious how you run your office on a day-to-day basis.
We have nine staff members here at the moment. We have full-time photographers, graphic designers, and four writers who just write blog posts or press releases, and we do a lot of creative work for brands. We have an operations guy, and we have someone who just deals with our freight and tidies up. He’s in charge of my shoe collection—managing it, putting things away, and generally keeping it under control, since it’s gotten so big. Most of the people have been here for a while, but we just added quite a few extras last year.
Woody’s prodigious sneaker collection
We’re always looking for extra staff, so if you find anyone who’s a great writer, has a passion for shoes, and has the knowledge, please send me their CV! You’ve got to love shoes to want to work here, because we don’t do anything else. We’re fortunate in that we’ve got a good team at the moment. They never know what I’m going to throw at them, like working on books. We just did a book for Adidas—in two weeks we made the whole thing!
We’re really fortunate to choose a niche business. People used to laugh at me and say, “What are you doing that for? There’s no future in that!” But I think we’ve proven them wrong. You know, the whole reason I started Sneaker Freaker was to get free shoes, and I got a lot of free shoes. But I didn’t expect that there’d be ten people on staff, or that we’d be flying around the world, playing a pretty big role in global sneaker culture. We’ve done a lot of work under our name that people see, but we also do a lot of work for the brands that people might not know is ours, whether it’s writing books or taking photos.
I feel like sometimes we actually know more and care more about the history of the industry than some of the people who work in it do! We religiously collect everything to do with stuff that happened in the 1980s and 1990s—whether it’s old magazines or other ephemera—which to me is so important. That’s the history of the industry, and that’s what we specialize in: knowing stuff about weird, arcane shoes and brands, like Mizuno, which I’ve just found out has been around for a hundred years, but they don’t know anything about their own history. I’m still finding things that we don’t know anything about.
Woody with his sneakers
KP: I love that you’d done books about PONY and New Balance, and I especially love the interview you did with Steve Van Doren of Vans—that was so helpful when I was doing research on the company! But how did you get involved in putting out an actual publication, as opposed to producing blog posts or content for the magazine?
If you go back to 2002, blogs didn’t even really exist. There were probably only a few guys who were really interested in tech stuff who knew how to set one up, and the only business model at that point was Google Ads. So there was no display, and no one was paying anyone to make any content, at least that I knew of. So really, Sneaker Freaker started purely as a magazine, and I thought, “Oh man, we’d really better make a website.” We started putting stuff on it every day, and it grew from there. Now we’re fortunate that, though print is on the way out, brands really love the magazine, the way we tell stories, and presumably the amount of effort we put into it, and we’re still getting bigger and better.
We’re still committed to print, but man, sometimes it’s a lot of hard work. The grind that goes on to finish a two-hundred-page magazine is considerable. If we just did a blog, I could probably go home at lunchtime, but when you make something with your hands, it’s so satisfying. I’ve seen the guys who’ve worked here a long time, who just do blogging, and it’s a really soul-destroying occupation. They burn out after a certain period of time. It doesn’t really give you any great sense of satisfaction unless you have a big story that goes crazy and you get half a million people reading it or something. There’s a sense of satisfaction in that, but when you make the magazine and you get it back from the printer, it’s a tangible thing—you’ve actually made something.
Sneaker Freaker – The Book, published 2005
Last year we made a couple of books. That PONY one we made [PONY: 40 Year Retrospective 1972–2012] is actually one of my favorite things that we’ve ever made, because we found the original owner of the brand [Roberto Muller], and he told some of the most outrageous stories I’ve ever heard. Some of them were true, some of them weren’t, but he’s one of the most enigmatic, mercurial people. I think that the shoe industry in general has attracted a lot of amazingly charismatic people over the years. He was from Uruguay, a total playboy, and one of the most amazing storytellers that I’ve ever met. I’ve really loved meeting people like that over the years.
KP: Who would you would consider the most interesting person you’ve met in the course of doing Sneaker Freaker, and is there anyone in the sneaker world you still want to meet?
Roberto Muller is definitely one of the most interesting, and Steve Van Doren was amazing too. I couldn’t believe some of the detail and how honest he was in that interview, and that article is still referenced by a lot of people in the sense of understanding the history of Vans. His dad started the company, so he pretty much lived in the factory.
As for people I would love to meet, I saw Phil Knight in the cafeteria at Nike once, and much as I would’ve loved to have gone over and said hello to him, I was just so scared that he would freak out and throw me off the Nike campus. I found his book, Shoe Dog [published by Simon and Schuster, 2016], absolutely amazing. He says that he wrote it, and he’s said that he quite enjoyed writing when he was young, and I thought, “Man, it’s actually really well written.” I would love to read the follow-up, because that book stops around 1980. I would love to hear more about the athletes’ side of things as Nike became much more of a marketing-driven company.
Jim Davis from New Balance is another person I’d like to meet. He’s notoriously shy, very reluctant, super humble, doesn’t like giving interviews. He took over the company way back when there were about twenty people working there, and he turned it into a multibillion-dollar business.
It was these enigmatic, volatile, crazy people that started the whole shoe industry. They’re all very similar in some ways, but in other ways they are very particular characters, which in many cases translates into how the company is run. There are still a whole lot of people I haven’t spoken to yet, but those would be numbers one and two.
Following the release of the first Sneaker Freaker x PUMA Blaze of Glory collab in 2008, a limited run of 30 pairs
were handmade with real sharkskin and given away to Sneaker Freaker friends and family.
Since then, PUMA has decided not to use exotic animal materials in their products.
KP: Speaking of working with brands, how did you get involved in doing actual sneaker collabs?
Back in the early 2000s, Nike was building their skate business called NikeSB and doing collaborations mostly on the Dunk—that was their focus at that point. But there were other shoes in that early period as well. Back then I didn’t really know how to do a collab—a lot of people ask me, and it’s really just as simple as saying, “Can you make that panel black suede, and that panel red mesh, and here’s a color,” and you literally draw it. You have an illustrator, and you just choose each panel—that part’s easy. I knew we could do that, but what I didn’t know was how to speak to a brand. You don’t just call up the receptionist at the front of house and say, “Uh yeah, we’d like to do a collab… could you put us through to the collaborations department?”
What I realized is that you go and meet people, and you go out and have as many beers as you can with them in the pub afterwards and start talking, and then somehow by the end of it you’ve agreed to do a shoe. That’s pretty much the science to it. I think it’s evolved a little bit now, to the point that for some brands it’s become pretty much their only business model.
Back in 2002, if you sold a hundred pairs of shoes, that was considered a great feat, and every time something new came out, people were just going crazy. Now, there’s a certain sense of being jaded by the sheer weight of what’s coming through. Collaborations still produce the best shoes, but there are a lot that don’t create any great memories. They don’t live in people’s minds forever and ever.
The Sneaker Freaker x PUMA Blaze of Glory “Sharkbait,” released in 2013, came packaged in a custom box,
along with a limited edition cover of Sneaker Freaker #29 and a matching beanie.
I’m happy to say that I think we’ve had a particular style and probably a good sense of humor with the way our shoes are designed and the style names. We always try and do something a bit different. We’ll take on a model that we like, but maybe isn’t the most commercial—that’s probably the most fun part of doing a shoe. It can be a major pain in the ass as well, because there are so many things that can go wrong: the delivery schedule can change, or the samples are not done right. We’ve had so many things go wrong over the years, but all in all it’s kind of what makes your reputation. If we’re going to call ourselves Sneaker Freaker and say we’re arbiters of the whole industry, we need to come up with a pretty good shoe, or kids will call us out. So there’s a lot of pressure in there as well. We limit ourselves to about four collabs a year, and that helps keep it pretty special as well.
KP: Is there a particular collab that’s your absolute favorite?
I think our first one [Sneaker Freaker x Lacoste Missouri 85 “Minty Fresh”] will have a lot of great memories. We did that in 2006 with Lacoste, so it was kind of an oddball situation. We actually launched it in the backyard at Alife in New York, and we had an amazing party. Pharrell Williams came, and we gave him a pair of shoes, so that was pretty cool. Doing your first shoe is a bit like losing your virginity, so you remember that.
Some of our shoes got much higher profiles than others, but you know when you’ve got a really great shoe, because the phone starts ringing. You’re getting messages on every social media platform, and you get people calling out of the blue, saying, “I haven’t seen you in ages, any chance I can get a pair of blah-blah-blah?” It’s really annoying, but there’s something great about it, knowing that you’ve done a good job.
The most recent Sneaker Freaker x PUMA Blaze of Glory collab, the “Bloodbath,” was released in 2015.
Probably what we’re most famous for is a series of shoes we did with PUMA on the Blaze of Glory models. That started in 2008 with one shoe that was about a shark [Sneaker Freaker x PUMA Blaze of Glory “Great White”]. The shoe had certain elements to it that are very shark-like, and we turned that into a sort of franchise. There are probably about ten shoes in that series now, each one a little bit different, and we’ve really kept that story going. Those shoes are something that most people would probably know about Sneaker Freaker, and I think to some extent we made the Blaze of Glory famous, because it didn’t exist before we worked on it.
We’ve got a very strong affinity with New Balance as well—we did the Tassie Tiger, the Tassie Devil, and we have a couple new ones coming. I’ve realized it’s great to do a shoe that’s a one-off, but if you can keep the story going, it builds on the mystique. You’ve got to come up with inventive ideas and make the shoe look good—that’s the main job. You come up with the storytelling aspects and the materials and everything later.
KP: What’s a current or upcoming project that you’re really excited about?
We’ve got a few coming up—most importantly, we have our fifteen-year anniversary end of this year, so we’re working on the sneaker book of all sneaker books. It’s looking like it’ll be over a thousand pages, and it’s going to be amazing. We’re revisiting all of our best stories of all time, re-photographing things, redesigning, and putting it all in one place. It’ll be everything you ever want to know about Sneaker Freaker. It’s pretty exciting, but we’re still finding out how much work it is. I haven’t got all the details yet, but that’s the main focus for us this year. We’ve got another book we want to work on as well—there’s always stuff. I can never get it all done—it’s frustrating, because these books take a long time.
Woody without his sneakers
I could pretty much talk about shoes endlessly, but I’m really pleased you’re bringing the exhibition out to Perth, so on behalf of all the sneaker fans I’m sure you’ll have lots of people visit from the other states!
See the Sneaker Freaker website for yourself!