The Rise of Sneaker Culture, what a perfect name. Not just the Rise of Sneakers, but the Rise of Sneaker CULTURE. That is what it is all about for me, the culture. Without the culture, a sneaker is just another sneaker. Add the cultural relevance along with special moments associated with the sneaker or brand and you have something amazing.
My name is Allen Largin and I am 21 years young, from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. Growing up in the suburbs gave me a very different perspective and insight into the culture of sneakers. My love for sneakers came from my love for sport. Just like how many OG sneakerheads had Michael Jordan growing up, I had Kobe. I started to associate his greatness with his footwear in 2004, when I began playing basketball. I always struggled to find people who shared my enthusiasm for all things shoes, and was known as the “shoe kid” among my friends. To be honest, growing up in a white suburb where your friends only go as far as Dicks Sporting Goods about once a year for a new pair of shoes that they wear everywhere doesn’t exactly exude “sneaker culture.” Playing basketball helped me immerse myself a little deeper into the sneaker world. It also gave me an excuse to buy another pair of shoes each year for the upcoming season. I remember, when we would play teams from the bigger cities, they would always have the best shoes, like the Nike Huarache 2k4s and Dada Latrell Sprewell Spinners. Those players became my influencers and who I idolized along with Kobe. Looking back, this helped me shape my own unique perspective and taste in footwear because I wasn’t able to walk down the block to the hottest boutique or store to find out what shoes were huge, I had to make do with the resources at my disposal (mainly an Eastbay catalogue and what games were on TV). I grew to appreciate the culture from afar and saw things others couldn’t because of that distance.
As my love for sneakers grew, I was always drawing. You could say I was destined to become an artist, considering my parents met at an art class in college. I was an unusual mix: I loved art, but played sports. For a while I felt out of place, my friends that I played sports with never quite understood me, but neither did the kids in my art classes. Teachers would tell me that I needed to think more practically and put my pencil to good use and solve more math problems and write better essays, and to those teachers—I hope you’re reading this now. They were tired of me doodling cars and basketball players in my notebook instead of taking notes. It wasn’t until 8th grade, because of a teacher’s horrible advice, that I realized what I wanted to do with my life. The teacher pulled me aside and asked what I was going to do with all my car doodles, and I replied, “I’m going to design Ferraris and Lamborghinis in Europe.…” The teacher laughed and said, “Well, it clearly seems like you don’t have a love for math and numbers, and car design is all engineering. Sorry to break your heart, but you’re just not a car designer.” If you know anything about car design, you know how wrong this teacher was, but this was the best thing anyone has ever said to me. I was crushed and didn’t know what to do, so I went home dreamless. My mom asked me what was wrong that night, and I explained to her what happened, and she sat me down to think through what I could dream to be one day. We talked about how much I love shoes, and sports, and art … and then the lightbulb went off. I wanted to design shoes. As a kid, I never really thought about how shoes were made. I always pictured Nike like Willy Wonka’s factory; the shoes just magically grew on trees and were amazing. But someone needs to design the shoes and people actually get paid to do it. If I couldn’t be a pro athlete, why not design the shoes for those pro athletes?
Now began the tough part, finding out how I was going to become a footwear designer. For the next two years, I would sketch and constantly think about shoes, but couldn’t figure out how I was going to become a footwear designer. In 2010, the opportunity finally arose: there was this article I stumbled upon scrolling through sneaker blogs. Nike started a competition for aspiring footwear designers called Nike Future Sole, started by the amazing D’Wayne Edwards. I saw how in the first two years of the competition the winners were flown out to Nike and got to present their concepts to the leaders of the company. The competition was exactly what I needed and was my chance to get my foot in the door. That summer I submitted my first-ever shoe design to the competition, the Air Jordan Wade. I didn’t think the design was special or would get me anywhere, but I received an email letting me know I had been selected as one of six semifinalists. Now it was on to the online vote, and the two designs with the most votes would be selected as finalists. I campaigned hard and sent emails off to distant relatives, got on the local news, walked around the neighborhood trying to find anyone that would take the time out to vote for my design. The hard work paid off, and I ended up setting a record for the number of votes I received during the competition.
This was just the start of an amazing experience. Now I was matched up with high school senior Scott Zenteno, from a design school in Miami, Florida. We were told we now had 30 days to design a whole new shoe. The brief was to design the new Jordan Brand signature shoe for Carmelo Anthony. Being the basketball nerd and fangirl that I am, I was almost in tears. At the age of 15, I was getting to design not only a Jordan but a signature shoe for Carmelo Anthony. I was partnered with the great Denis Dekovic as my mentor, who taught me how to address a brief, how to research and find problems, how then to solve those problems and come up with a story, how to sketch, and finally how to pull it all together and come up with a final product. Those 30 days were rigorous and pushed me to my limits, mainly because Denis wouldn’t let me settle and demanded only the best from me. I learned so much and still can look back to those four weeks as the foundation of my design learning.
At the end of the 30 days, Scott and I were flown out to the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon to present our final designs. It was a four-day trip that included tours of the campus, a trip to the employee store, and total immersion into Nike culture. Finally it was time for us to present, and we walked into the Tiger Woods Auditorium and saw our finished designs on stage with a process board with all of our sketches behind. The judge panel started to trickle in and I recognized some of my idols in design like Leo Chang, Jason Petrie, and Justin Taylor, along with Nike executives. I had never been so nervous in my entire life, but I was so excited that I finally had the chance to start my career as a footwear designer. It turned out to be the best presentation of my life. The panel of judges selected my design as the grand prize winner. I was in such shock and so amazed at what had just happened. This meant my design, the Jordan Melo M7 Future Sole, would be worn by Carmelo Anthony and sold in Footlockers across the United States.
Three months later, I was flown out to meet Carmelo and talk to him about my design as well as receive his feedback. I was living the dream, talking and meeting with an NBA All Star about a shoe I had designed specifically for him. Changes would be made to his specifications, but one last-minute detail needed to be added. After Carmelo met with me, his sister passed away unexpectedly. I felt that we needed to somehow pay tribute to her through the shoe to make it special for Carmelo. Working with the Jordan design team, we came up with a special design that has the outline of an infinity symbol with her nickname, Chelle, inside it to represent that she lives on forever. Carmelo had no idea this detail was on the shoe until he received his first pair. In March of 2011, Carmelo would debut the shoe against my hometown Detroit Pistons in Detroit, and I was there to witness it. It was such an amazing feeling and one that I will never forget. I got to see my creation on the feet of one the best athletes in the world. To add on to the amazing experience, the shoe was sold at Footlockers across the United State and sold out within three weeks.
Just when I thought the Future Sole experience was over, I received a call from a great friend, Sean Williams. Sean informed me that my Future Sole design was going to be part of a museum exhibit that was the first of its kind, The Rise of Sneaker Culture. I couldn’t believe it; my shoe was going to be in a museum! This year in late January I was able to drive down to Toledo to see the exhibit and my shoe in a display next to some of Tinker Hatfield’s best designs and Michael Johnson’s gold Olympic track spike. It was such a surreal moment and reminded me of not only the impact my design had on my life but potentially on others and the culture of sneakers.
Nike Future Sole along with the continued mentorship of D’Wayne Edwards jumped started my design career. Once I graduated high school in 2012, I enrolled at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, Michigan where I major in product design. Since being at CCS I have been blessed enough to intern at companies such as Under Armour in 2014, Adidas in 2015, and, starting this past June, back at Nike. I will graduate this upcoming December and plan to continue in the footwear industry with a goal of making impactful footwear that will better lives, not just more footwear.
Once again, I would like to say thank you especially to Denis Dekovic and D’Wayne Edwards for your mentorship. Along with that, the amazing team that produced The Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibit as well as Sean Williams and many others. THANK YOU!