Footwear designer Chris Hill on creating shoes for brands like Tom & Jerry, Alien and Jurassic Park

Chris Hill on why licensed footwear collections need to span the ‘mild to wild’ spectrum when it comes to design.

Chris, it’s great to chat. To get the ball rolling, how did you find your way into footwear design?
Well, growing up I was always into shoes because of the athletes I followed. I was also into drawing, and my parents were both good artists in their own respect.

Were you drawing shoes at that early age?
Yes, I was drawing shoes and monsters ­– and then I got into girls at high school… But I was still drawing shoes!

The monsters took the hit!
Exactly! And I went to a small high school in Iowa, so there wasn’t any real pathway to becoming a footwear designer. At that point, I didn’t even know that was a thing actually.

When did the footwear design career come into focus?
It was probably at college. I went to school for graphic design originally, because that’s what I was told you were supposed to do. I didn’t end up sticking with that, but I’m glad I did it as it ultimately proved useful as a skill. From there I went to a school for fashion design – which again, wasn’t the right thing! – so I took some time off from school for a handful of years.

“I try to come at things from a fan’s perspective through a design lens.”

I moved to Portland, Oregon because adidas and Nike were out here. I thought if I’m in the area, there’s a higher chance of me getting a job… I was working shitty jobs at the time, which motivated me to go back to school, but this time I studied Industrial Design – which was the correct thing for footwear!

Third time lucky!
Exactly. Halfway through my course I got an internship which turned into a full-time job at IDW, and that’s how it got into it.

You mentioned being into shoes, but was licensed footwear an area of interest?
I’ve always been into pop culture, so to work on licensed footwear has been a dream come true. I actually had to work really hard to get an opportunity like that, and it’s not something I ever thought I’d get to work on.

How did you come to work on collabs?
From IDW I joined adidas, but I didn’t really work on pop culture stuff there. I then joined Reebok and worked on the inline product there, and if I was working on a storytelling pack or a holiday pack, I’d always bring it back to pop culture. I saw it as an area of opportunity for Reebok – and I’ve always liked doing the crazier, wackier stuff!

Season after season, I kept pushing to marketing people that we should do more pop culture stuff and real collabs, and we started to do it.

Chris Hill

My first project was actually for Cam’ron, the Purple Haze Ventilator. That broke me into collabs, and then we did Alien. That product did really well, so I started getting more and more projects like that until all of these projects came to me. We then did Tom & Jerry and that was really successful… It helped catapult these projects into a full-blown division of Reebok that focused on pop culture.

When you’re working on licensed footwear, what’s your approach to getting under the skin of a brand?
Well, movies are easier than TV shows as there’s less to watch, but with something like Tom & Jerry, I watched a bunch of the cartoons, the movies that came out and also read some of the comics they did. With Jurassic Park and Alien, I rewatched all the movies – even if the design is going to be based around the second movie, I’ll still watch all of them. I really try and immerse myself as a fan, and luckily for a lot of the brands I’ve worked on, I am a fan.

Chris Hill

Some designs feature subtle brand nods, while others are more ‘in your face’. What, for you, dictates the design direction for where to go with licensed footwear?
It’s a decision that comes from both marketing and design. From a design perspective, there should always be mild to wild stuff in a collection. Getting that diversity and range is important. We’d work with marketing to decide how much of a range needed to be more commercial.

The model of shoe would also dictate that. For example, I’d go crazier with an Instapump Fury than I would with a Club C.

Chris Hill

I loved the detail on your Jurassic Park Club C 85 inspired by Alan Grant, with the collar pattern of the sneaker resembling the bandana he wears in the film. How do you ensure the references you want to include will resonate with fans, rather than being too obscure?
Well, the wearability of the shoe is an important factor in this. You don’t want to put so much shit on a shoe that it’s no longer wearable! It also depends on the IP and its fandom. Tom & Jerry, Jurassic Park, Power Rangers… I approached them all differently because the fandom around each is very different.

Chris Hill

In what way?
Well, there are some big Tom & Jerry fans, but it’s not a brand like The Simpsons where fans are reciting lines. At the other end of the spectrum, Power Rangers is probably the range I went hardest with the easter eggs – I may have even done too many… There’s plenty of things there that hardcore fans will pick up on, and even some things that people may never find! We went above and beyond.

Chris Hill

And that even extends to the packaging…
Yes. If you buy all six shoes, the boxes combine to build one big Megazord. We wanted to do something that was over the top; something that had never been done. I knew I was coming to the end of my time at Reebok and I wanted to go out with a bang! I worked with an amazing artist, Natalie Barron, on that. I did the schematics and she did all the artwork.

It was a big challenge – the costing, getting it to work, getting people to buy all of them… It almost got dropped several times but I managed to save it. I’m prouder of the boxes than the shoes!

So that range was one of your biggest creative challenges?
Yes. There are things about the collection I really like and things I don’t like. It was one of the last projects I worked on at Reebok and I was working insane hours; I was a little burnt out. It turned out well, but it could’ve been even better if we had a little more time.

It was the first project with a brand-new team, the models kept changing, there were lots to redesign – some for good, some for bad. The Freestyle Hi Pink Ranger shoe got changed late in the game, but for good. It turned out much cooler than our original plan.

Chris Hill

How do you approach working with brand owners?
They have what they think is important and you have what you think is important, but I try to come at things from a fan’s perspective through a design lens. I’ve been lucky that most brand execs I’ve worked with are really into what they’re doing, especially the guys at NBCUniversal. They’re fans of their properties, so they get excited about the designs and the easter eggs. They genuinely appreciate design.

Looking at the wider world of licensed footwear, is it in a good place creatively at present?
It was, but I think it’s tailing off a bit now. Everyone is doing licensed stuff now, and there’s a fine line between doing too much and not enough. It’s a bit oversaturated and the cash-grabs can start to taint the wider collab space. There was a sweet spot a few years ago, but it feels like it’s being watered down now.

Is footwear an industry that celebrates its designers?
Yes and no. It depends on the brand you’re at – and who your manager is. In the last few years, marketing has realised people are interested in the creative process and the minds behind some of their favourite things. That’s really nice, and I’m pleased that’s becoming more common, but like any industry, there’s still plenty of underappreciated people out there.

Interesting insights Chris, thank you. Now, before I let you go, I can see lots of toys behind you! Is the toy space a source of inspiration for you?
I’m really into toys; the Ninja Turtles, He-Man and Marvel. The vintage Turtles and He-Man figures are really out there when it comes to design. Same with The Toxic Avenger figures. The action figure space inspires me.

In footwear, ICECREAM Billionaire Boys Club stuff and golden era Nike SB stuff inspires me. I’m also into movies and sports, so it’s a nice eclectic mix of things I pull inspiration from.

Great stuff. Chris, a huge thanks again for taking time out for this. Let’s tie-in again soon.

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