Back with part two of “On the Record,” I had a chance to talk with Under Armour basketball category leader Ryan Drew. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Ryan covering everything from the business side of footwear to the design side, talk about online sales numbers to what material we should use for a shoe we’re doing for Brandon Jennings. Bottom line, Ryan knows footwear. With that said, Ryan is also one of the hardest employees at UA to track down, to find him in his office is on rare occasion.
It took some time to get the answers out of Ryan but things like these are worth the wait.
My name is: Ryan Drew
My nickname is: Drewsy
My position at Under Armour is: Category Manager – Basketball
I’ve been part of the footwear industry for: 15 Years
During that time I’ve worked at: AND1 from 1996 to 2007, Under Armour since 2007
What motivates you?
Ballplayers! The footwear industry has evolved as the game has evolved. Players are much bigger, stronger, and faster than they were even 5 years ago, and the shoes that we make for them are getting lighter, and in some cases lower. Who will be the first company to go sub 10oz with a shoe that actually lasts longer than one or two weeks? What’s the next great bottom technology or upper technology? Is there a rubber compound that exists that gives players superior traction…just enough to get that “first step” edge over the defender? How can we provide ankle support without adding weight?
I’ve spent my life in gyms playing ball, and watching kids play ball, and I’m constantly motivated by thinking about what’s next and can we make it?
What has been your favorite project at Under Armour so far?
The Black Ice was a great project because of Brandon’s involvement from day one. He’s been a great partner for us to work with because he’s a sneaker kid, and loves to talk about shoes. He’s honest about what he likes, and he is direct with us about the things he doesn’t like. It’s easy to see his involvement when he talks about the Black Ice. He can talk at length about the details of the shoe, the reason why the shoe looks the way that it does, and how we built it for his game. If you watch videos of other players talking about their shoes, you can tell that they weren’t involved in the design at all. It doesn’t mean that those are bad shoes, it just means that at UA when we tell you that we involve our athletes in the creative process, we aren’t bullshitting you.
John Humphrey and I have also been working on an underground, “skunkworks” project for the last couple of years that’s a pretty big departure from the product that we’ve made to date. The product that we’ve created for Brandon is very light, with minimal overlays, so it’s clean. Not every player is 6’2” and 165 lbs like Brandon. At South Carolina, which is one of our UA schools, Darren Horn has two freshman guards that are beasts! Bruce Ellington is 5’9”, 197 lbs, and Eric Smith is 5’11”, 211 lbs, and they’re both lightning quick. The forces that those two players put on their shoes requires a different build, something more structural, but still lightweight, because they’re guards, and an average guard can run as many as two miles during a typical game.
To date, the footwear industry has thought about players in one way…guards and bigs…and every brand has built shoes for these two player types. In some cases, the “force” kid is now 6’2” and runs the point, and needs a shoe that was made for a power forward, but doesn’t weigh 22oz.
Under Armour basketball works as a solid unit, I hear you and John Humphrey bounce ideas back and forth all day. How would you describe the creative process?
John and I have worked together for almost 7 years, so our creative process is pretty unique. Ultimately it comes down to constant communication and creation. There is no break in our creative process. We are constantly ideating, sketching, tweaking, and begging our factory to try different things. The guys that don’t get enough credit in the creative process are our developers. Alan Toronjo is the developer that we’ve worked with for the last three years, and he brings a technical point of view to the process that grounds us in reality. At the end of the day, these shoes need to be manufactured a certain way, and Alan works with the factory to make sure that the concepts that we put on paper can actually be constructed.
How has this process evolved since it started?
We’re constantly tweaking the process, but it’s still a process that requires staying on a timeline. At Under Armour we have a saying….doing something a certain way “Because that’s the way it’s always been done!”…is the quickest way to get you fired. We try and push the boundaries with construction, materials, and technical concepts, but we are always aware of the challenges that our ideas create for our factories. We can dream it, but if the factory can’t make it, it’s just art.
From your experiences, what is the biggest lesson the footwear industry has taught you?
Teamwork. The number of moving parts to get a shoe made is actually pretty scary. If all of those parts are moving in unison you have a chance to be successful. If they aren’t, you’re dead in the water. In our basketball group, we do whatever we can to make sure that we’re in constant communication, traveling together, and sharing experiences. It’s easy to feel disconnected when you’re a part of a large company, so we make sure that the people that work in Basketball at UA are all from the Basketball world so that we all relate to each other based on similar backgrounds and interests.
What is good design?
A more interesting question is “Who decides what good design is?” We all look at design through a different lens, or our own personal interpretation. Ultimately, I think the consumer decides what designs are good by ringing the cash register.
For me, good design is a functionally beautiful product.
What is the most important aspect of your work environment?
I wouldn’t have said this when I first moved here, but living in Baltimore has been a critical aspect of building this basketball division. There are great ballplayers all over the country, but the level of talent along the I95 corridor, from DC to NYC is staggering. The talent level just coming out of Prince Georges County, MD, 1 hour south of our office, is amazing. People in this area are highly knowledgeable about basketball, and kids get started at a very young age. Our goal is to own our backyard, and expand from there.
As I read Ryan’s answers, I became more and more excited about posting this and sharing what UA basketball is about. But one thing was bothering me.
What isn’t described through Ryan’s answers is his personality during our impromptu meetings. In between Blackberry clicks of the mini keyboard lies an old school side of Ryan. He demands focus and respect no matter what the project is, if there’s something important on the table, phones down, “Focus in”. He can recognize great product without me explaining details and with the same ease kill projects that he’s not feeling. Everything has to carry a story.
There have been a ton of laughs and tons of work but so far during this internship Ryan and John have been great mentors.
Thanks for the support and comments guys and stick around for the next post.
Tom Spence is currently a senior at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) and a footwear design intern at Under Armour in Baltimore, MD.
Check out previous “Training Camp With Tom Spence” posts: