Swizz brings Reebok back.
In the last few years, sneakers and streetwear have become more a collaborative business with artists, designers, celebrities and brands in general partnering up on products and events. The celebrity endorser role is no longer relegated to just athletes. Apparel lines and shoe deals for non-ballers are now common. Reebok in particular is relighting its fire in the lifestyle market. Instead of going the traditional route of other major sneaker companies, the Vector brand chose to bring in rapper, producer and entrepreneur Swizz Beatz to redirect the Reebok helm. Beatz was named the new worldwide Creative Director of Reebok Classics earlier this year and is also behind the Reestyle Collective to help give back to the art community and ensure that Reebok sets the tone for a reenergized, all encompassing lifestyle brand for the years to come.
CounterKicks’ Creative Editor Megan Wilson recently sat down with Swizz Beatz in his Chelsea recording studios in New York to talk about his design process, inspirations, new Creative Director role at Reebok, the “Reebok Back” music track, and of course, those much hyped Swizz Beatz x Reebok Kamikaze III’s.
CounterKicks: First things first. Why was Reebok the right brand for you to work with after all these years in music, art and fashion? Why now?
Swizz Beatz: I didn’t chose the timing, I think that the universe chose the timing. Just like everything in my life, it’s just how it worked. I think by me turning down a lot of stuff in my early years from a lifestyle standpoint, I’ve always had an independent mind frame. Like when we started Kid Robot, it felt independent, it was a small brand. I felt I was able to penetrate the culture and stay authentic to the art. It was something that we could offer where we had different artists, we’re using their prints and it was numbered and signed and it’s all apart of the art world, which is something that I always like to give back to. So I was comfortable with that. By being from that side of the tracks, it was hard for me to sign with a major and not be able to have the green light, to have the creativity I wanted to offer so I would always get deals on the table, a lot of money, but I would have no creativity. I would rather just be the face in the video and be the face in doing what I’m doing rather than be the face of what other people created and I’m just sitting there like a mannequin, holding up a sneaker. It was a big red flag. Then I started getting mentored by Tommy Hilfiger, this one and that one, traveling. And I ended up meeting Christian Louboutin, who’s one of my main mentors in the shoe world and going to the factories. We collaborated on the “Spikes” [Christian Louboutin Rollerball Loafers] and then right after that, I got a phone call through a mutual friend saying that Reebok was looking to do some interesting things. Then I had this meeting and it was like this weird interview. There were five people with notepads and I was sitting there and they were asking me a bunch of questions and it felt like Punk’d, really, what do these questions have to do with designing sneakers? They had their reasons. And then I got a phone call back a couple of weeks later and flew out to Boston and it’s been history ever since.
CK: How do you think your work with Reebok is different from what we see from a lot of celebrity clothing brands, both endorsed and under their own name. Do you have more say or do you think your relationship is much more hands on?
Beatz: Well, I don’t have an endorsement deal. I’m the Creative Director globally so that platform right there allows me to have kind of an anti-celebrity deal which I was shooting for and a lot of the celebrities don’t have the creativity to have that direction. So as a brand, it’s a smart thing to do to say “okay sign off here and we’ll take care of the rest”. But for me, I love to be hands on. It’s more valuable to me and more valuable to the company. It’s a hands on communication, it’s a hands on environment. Even to the point where I’m speaking in front of seven hundred people that represent the company worldwide and being that hands on as well, I think that they can’t stop us that way.
CK: How does your creative process work when you get down to design a shoe? Do you sketch, do you start with a story, inspiration or colors?
Beatz: Well I have a great team that assists me on those different things but my inspiration comes from travelling and being a fashion fanatic. Being in Milan and knowing how things work and knowing how the youth right now are accepting certain changes, certain colors, being in tune and not being in Swizz world but being in the world where you have to understand what’s going on. A lot of people would say no, I’m this person. But no, you really have to take a little piece of the culture and what they’re used to and then you can play around with that. Your palette has to be something familiar when people first see it and it’s like oh, okay, it’s something familiar, I like it. But if you go way far off in the deep end, you can go over people’s heads and I think you need to take your time to change things.
CK: When you look at some of the work you’ve done so far, do you see your own personal design aesthetic or point of view coming through?
Beatz: One hundred percent.
CK: How would you describe your personal style and aesthetic?
Beatz: Well personal style, I have a lot. Like one day I’ll wake up and be like “Okay, we have to do all dark suedes and let the hex just pop in certain neon colors, and let’s do an all red or all black.” I don’t know, it just changes. That’s why we have 30-40 different colorways. We can just chose at any given time.
CK: I work with a lot of basketball freaks and sneaker fanatics. When the news came out that the Kamikaze was being re-designed, a lot of them were nervous or upset that a classic was being toyed with and changed as it was Shawn Kemp’s shoe. How did you come up with using the Kamikaze as your shoe and the silhouette? Was it your choice or Reebok?
Beatz: It was definitely a collaboration and I think that as a brand we have to be very careful of re-introducing so many things that happened already. The Kamikaze was so different and so fresh that it was accepted. I think with the other brands, I feel like they’re killing themselves by it’s just a cycle, it’s just recycled, it’s the same old paper that comes out. I think it’s cool for us to recycle but I think it’s more important for us to put new things in the market and have a small selection of recycled things. As far as the Shawn Kemp version and the version that we have now, I think it’s night and day. I think we advanced to another level, a cooler level where it can be more lifestyle than basketball but still basketball. I think that the original Shawn Kemp was more basketball.
CK: Let’s talk more about your role with Reebok outside of just the Kamikaze. How important was it for you to have a role with the Jean-Michel Basquiat line? I know you collect some of his art pieces.
Basquiat: I have Basquiat tattooed on my arm too. That was a big part of my contract. It was to give them to renew the deal with Basquiat because it was at the end of the deal when I came in and I think it was important for me to stick to what I always do, which is give back to the art culture. I feel that our culture doesn’t know too much about Basquiat. I think that man, you see him on my shirt and you think “who is that” and you think he’s a reggae artist or something. It’s like man, this is Basquiat! And time and time again I hear people say his name, but don’t know who he is. But I think bringing Basquiat into the culture it can help a lot of official art heads or people who want to get into art. I think that it’s very important not to just have his face on the apparel and his artwork on the sneaker, but I think it’s important to educate the community and different cultures about Basquiat and what he brings to the table from an art standpoint, from a design standpoint, from a music standpoint. And we actually are in the middle of bringing Basquiat to SoHo in a very special way. It’s like the best thing ever.
CK: Was Basquiat an inspiration of yours growing up?
Beatz: Not growing up, I was around more Keith Haring than Basquiat growing up in the South Bronx. “Crack is Wack!” on the handball court. But as I grew up and really got into the art world, Basquiat was definitely. Just the fact that he was so smart but played so dumb. You know, this kid spoke four languages, he just was raised in a different environment but still wanted to keep it that real that he would sit there and act like he didn’t know anything but he knew everything and more that you asked him.
CK: You mentioned Keith Haring. Are you hoping that the Basquiat line becomes like what’s happened with Haring’s work? There are so many licensing deals, are you hoping to expand to something that large?
Beatz: No, I hope Basquiat stays the way it is but still gets the awareness out. There’s still some discovery to be made. As far as it being the cool factor just to license to a bunch of brands, people are wearing Keith Haring but they really don’t know where the Pop Shop was. It’s like wearing a Che shirt. People wear a Che shirt and they don’t even know his history and why they’re wearing the shirt. i don’t want it to go over people’s heads to the point where it’s just a fad and you burn that out looking for the next thing. I want us to have Basquiat as an educational piece to where at least eighty percent of the people wearing it know the story, not just to license it to this one and that one, that would be a waste of time.
CK: How does the Reestyle Collective help you give back to the art world?
Beatz: We’re still working on our approach to those different things because it’s a global partnership and there are so many ideas globally that we can touch. The first step is building this Basquiat store in SoHo which I said is going to be to educate and we’re going to have a small – I don’t really want to give it away, it’s a stay tuned situation. That’s going to be our first step.
Continue to Page 2 for Swizz Beatz’ creative process, favorite shoes, and some cold calling…