With the rise of the dad shoe, Highsnobiety looks at the career of one of the most iconic shoe designers in the athletic footwear industry. He has created some of the world’s most recognizable silhouettes, including shoes like the New Balance 1500 and the Reebok Insta Pump Fury, and if this man hasn’t designed anything in your rotation, you might want to check yourself. Let’s meet Steven Smith.
Steven currently lives in Portland, and in addition to New Balance and Reebok, his resume includes brands like Nike and FILA, while he currently resides at footwear imprint KEEN. Working as an industrial designer and product innovator, Smith has designed everything from athletic footwear, apparel, electronics and military equipment for over 30 years.
He gained his degree in product design from the Massachusetts college of art and swiftly began working for New Balance. “I ran track and distance in high school, and stayed a non-competitive runner in college. My footwear weapon of choice at that time was the New Balance 990, and I loved them. When I graduated, I heard about a new design position at New Balance, and realized my two passions could be combined into my career. I was offered the job the next day.”
Revamping and improving footwear designs is something Steven had the pleasure of undertaking during his time at the Boston-based brand. “I got to focus on running and some European sports. It was like a dream come true to work on the 995 and then revamp the 996 and the 997. This was a chance to try to make the shoe I loved even better. I also got to work on the 576 and 577.” The 840 is another shoe that Steven Smith had the pleasure of designing while working for New Balance, which has yet to be reissued.
New Balance’s 1500 is probably the most recognizable silhouette from Steven’s time at New Balance, and also his personal favorite. The shoe has been reworked numerous times over the past year and was also former President Bill Clinton’s go-to running shoe. “We got to work with New Balance Japan to build a really amazing product. It was pretty cool. We were in the old mill along the Merrimac River and we went running as a group every day at lunch.” Steven went on to work for Reebok, where he birthed the much-loved Insta Pump Fury.
The Reebok Insta Pump Fury was originally released in 1994 with its famous CO2 charger and lace-free upper, and it’s without a doubt one of the most divisive sneakers of all time. “The Fury was an interesting one. It became a technical tour de force for Reebok, infused with a little hardcore punk mentality. We had these interesting materials and processes from the aerospace and medical industries, and I just did this quick thumbnail sketch that essentially became the shoe. It took a few really talented people to execute such a radical departure from traditional running shoes. It was a pretty controversial concept even within Reebok at the time. It took going to (North American chairman and CEO) Paul Fireman and having him tell people to get on board with it or get out of the way. Time has shown it was the right thing to do.” Reebok has tapped everyone from Chanel, Maison Kitsuné, BAPE, and recently Vetements for a collaboration.
More than ever, brands are thinking outside the box when manufacturing sneakers. Brands like adidas, Nike, Reebok and New Balance are all using every piece of modern technology to improve both athletic and leisure footwear, but Steven believes in renewable and natural materials and predicts automation to be a key game changer. “I can see a pair of shoes being grown like a plant and being bio-engineered. We could also see smart footwear that morphs as you perform your chosen sport via woven electronics. There could also be harvested waste product reconfigured and engineered into new and exciting materials in a more closed loop system.”
Steven admits to being fond of the 990 and 991, but remains skeptical about other shoe silhouettes in the “dad” category. “I always liked the 9 series from New Balance but things like the Nike Monarch were never my cup of tea. We always called that look the lawn-mowing shoe. I think the grey is more versatile than a white-based leather shoe. Not my style but if some people feel comfortable wearing them, then so be it.”
Not only is Steven the man behind one of the most iconic “dad shoe” silhouettes, he’s also a proud dad himself. Over the past few months, the social “dad” phenomenon has occurred with bodies, hats, shoes and jeans, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s notorious beach body to the popular dad hat.
Steven understands this phenomenon and thinks that authenticity is important. “The majority of men aren’t built like a fashion model or bodybuilder, so why not keep it real? I like to work out but I like living life also. As far as the hats go, I think any fun hat is all good — anything with an obscure logo is cool. Just like the evolution of the trucker hat.”
Steven is all for rocking the dad look, but draws a clear line when it comes to sweatshirts. “Hey, I would rock the Levi’s and the New Balances, but I draw the line at a sweatshirt. To me what comes to mind is Phil Collins and khakis. Maybe I better buy some Dockers stock.”
So what does Steven think when he sees someone rocking shoes he designed? “It always makes me smile and humble. I just want to reach out and thank everyone of them for wanting to purchase them over anything else in the market. I never expected them to live on but it is pretty amazing.”
Written by Madeleine Holth for Highsnobiety