The Higher Quality moniker that’s been applied to all of the latest Emerica shoes feels totally appropriate. I’ve see some well-constructed skate footwear over the past 30 years, but these really are taking things to the next level. Sole Tech and the name Emerica has become synonymous with high standards.

I guess I can blame my dad a little bit! He used to work on cars and would buy things like old 356 Porsches and restore them back to their original condition. I’d offer to lend a hand and he’d be like, ‘OK’ – and hand me a tin of bolts and screws covered in grease. My job was to scrub them all clean with a toothbrush. He’d come back later on and ask if I was done – I’d say yes – and then he’d pull them out and say, ‘What’s all this? They’re not clean!’. That taught me a really good lesson in regards to attention to detail. These Porsche restoration guys are kinda crazy! They look at everything in detail – they can tell whether something has the right bolt on it or whatever. And with that, you get to realise the difference between doing a sub-par job and a top quality job. To me, it’s plain as day. I just got done sending a bunch of samples back to Asia, where I’d literally pulled out a macro lens and shot all these little things to prove my point. Imperfection is not acceptable.

For me, Higher Quality represents a standard that needs to be set for skateboard footwear. Skateboard footwear needs to have more technology and thought put into the shoes because of the stuff these guys are doing in them. We might have been jumping down 10 or 11 stairs back in our day, which was big, but these guys are jumping down 17 or 18 stairs. Think about the physics in that. My feet are toast. My knees are wrecked. Maybe if we’d had options back then things would be different. We have a bag of advanced ingredients available to us now, so why not utilise that? When it comes to a shoe like The Reynolds, you have a broad list of things that we can choose from or a variety of options we can try when it comes to maximising board feel or best impact protection. Our G6 Technology has taken a whole new point of view and focused it on skateboarding, just like they do with technology for running or technology for basketball.

When it comes to working with skaters such as Andrew Reynolds or Brandon Westgate, are they aware of the technical options available when it comes to designing footwear for them? Or do they leave it with you to come up with the answers?

It varies from person to person. Andrew, for example, came in and sat down and talked with me when we started on the Reynolds 3. I asked him to send me some ideas or images to help get things moving and he began text messing me some of his thoughts across to help get me prepared for where his mind is. While he was doing that, I began doing my own research and I can remember reading an interview with him in an international magazine where he was talking about where he was in his life right now as opposed to ten years ago. The whole focus was on how he was trying to simplify everything and get rid of all the excess stuff. So that became a main concept behind his shoe: getting everything stripped down to what you actually need in a shoe. Ollie protection, impact protection, a clean simple look. I also spent time cutting open some of the shoes he’d been skating in to find out what was working for him. He’s a big guy – around 6’2" or so – which means he needs a shoe that will benefit that kind of body shape and size. The aim was to make the tool that he needs to do his job.

On the aesthetic side, I did a bunch of sketches and went over to his house to go through them.  I did one sketch – a profile angle, in pencil so that we could erase bits and go back and forth – and we tried out a few things from that. We actually found ourselves going back to the beginning a lot, but just making variations and tweaks so that it was right. One of the key things for his shoe was that he really wanted a mid cut, as he’d had an injury that chunked off the back of his heel when his shoe came off. So we looked at that aspect and tried to make the final product a genuine extension of his body. Developing that shoe was a long process with the factory: we’d get a sample in, he’d try it out and then we’d go back and make some changes.

Would those small changes make a difference between the product selling or not selling? Maybe not, but for Andrew as an athlete, a difference of 5mm on the vamp or the width of the throat can make all the difference. You’re looking down at your feet all day so you need it to be right. When I’m working with the guys, they really get involved.

How about working with Brandon? Same process?

When I gave Brandon the sketch of his shoe, he was like, "Yes! Stoked! Love it!’. Alright – cool! I’ll take it to the next stage straight away! Then I sent it to the tech stage, which is where it starts getting really refined. This is where you really start seeing the shoe take shape.

The Westgate shoe came out left field because he came kinda out of left field! He came out to California and I asked him to bring me some stuff – tear things out of magazines or whatever – and he turned up and we laid it all out on my desk and I was like, ‘Alright… Sweet. Let’s do this.’. He’s definitely openminded and looking for something a little more athletic. So I was stoked, y’know. His attitude really opened the doors for me to create something really unique. It’s coincidental that anything else has shown up like that in the meantime. When we put the sketch on the table in the office, the guys were like ‘We love it. It’s not really like anything out there… but we love it.’

On that subject, I initially saw an aesthetic similarity with what Nike have done with their Lunarlon sole, but in the flesh it’s miles apart. The way the Westgate midsole was teased out online has had people who have little interest in skating actually looking at the shoe and thinking, ‘Wow… that’s pretty cool. What are those guys doing over there?’. To have anyone outside of skating strongly considering a technical skate shoe as their next purchase is a huge achievement.

It’s been a milestone for me. When you look at the shoe, it looks fairly involved but when you really study the shoe, you can see just how involved it is. With Higher Quality, it’s not just thinking about the lateral presentation – it’s thinking about the whole shoe in 3D.

When you look at photos or sketches of the Westgate, it’s very different when you see it in person. You’ve got something that’s really technical… but you haven’t cluttered it.

The fun part for me is that it all came together organically: it’s not like we pulled stuff out of trend reports. Brandon came to the table, pointed us in a direction and we came up with this. That said, it wasn’t easy! To get the toe into the right shape meant a lot of working with our technicians and going back to re-engineer that entire section so we could get the right radius in there. The first samples were coming in all squared-off with a real ’90s look! I took one look and was like, ‘This is wrong!’.

My background is in architecture, so I treat these guys like my clients. In my younger years, when I was working with someone’s backyard and their house I quickly realised you have to give them what they want: this process is no different. This is something these guys need to do their job. You need them to be psyched on what you’re creating for them. On the flipside, I also have to make sure we do what’s right for the brand.

It’s an interesting process, because you end up being a facilitator. You’re enabling these guys to be better at what they do through design.

That’s true. I think the Higher Quality tag is about getting people to realise that there’s a significant difference between the skate shoes of yesterday to what we’re trying to bring to market now.

Do you refer back to things from the past when you start work on a design? Do you look at the heritage of the brand? Or do you approach it with a totally blank canvas? Obviously, you have things like logos and brand elements that you need to use and maybe certain things, such as sole patterns and treads, that you can repurpose… Do you feel like you have all this stuff on your back that you need to keep in mind when you start working on a project?

Yeah! It’s a huge part of it for me. Picking up on the history and the DNA of the brand is really important. Actually, if you look back at some of the older models and pick up on the running shoe look, you can see it was already there in some cases. Some of the old models like the Ellingtons had that athletic vibe going on years ago. When the Koston dropped, initially some people were like, ‘What the hell?’. Gradually over time, their feelings changed. I flick through the old catalogues all the time. Brand heritage is like your family tree – and you shouldn’t separate yourself from that.

I remember – back when I was still skating every day – when things went super-tech for the first time. You had a certain degree of that when Vision were doing their whole DV8/DV9 stuff or even some of the Airwalk Prototypes, but I’m thinking more along the lines of when DC dropped the first Stevie Williams model. That was insane! Or the first Axions where the air bubbles were purely decorative – and they’d blow out after a few days of skating! Nowadays, the tech elements are all totally functional. It seems there’s a general step in the industry right now to go down a different path.

I heard a few comments at the Agenda trade show that made me feel pleased we’d gone the way we did on the Westgate shoe. We didn’t compromise on anything and I think it’s worked.

For the most part, I try not to look at what any other brands are doing: I look at what’s NOT being done in the market instead. Before I joined Sole Tech, my last job, which was great and I learned a lot, worked with some great people, but it felt like a job: my passion really stayed with skate footwear. When I got projects like trail shoes to work on, I felt a bit more connected and would excel at those. But the whole time, I kept going into skate shops and feeling really disappointed. I’d look at the wall and it would be 150 of the exact same shoes with different logos on. It was sad for me. When I was younger, I’d go into the skate shop and be like ‘Damn! I gotta see that shoe there!’. You’d have a completely different emotion tied to going into a skate shop that didn’t seem to be there three or four years ago. I got into designing skate shoes again because I wanted to give something back to skateboarding. I’m a lifer. Skateboarding did a lot for me – kept me focused, kept me out of trouble, kept me engaged in my creative side – and I wanted to contribute something back.

When I got the job at Emerica, it was like a dream come true. Working for the best skate footwear brand in the world and having the opportunity to contribute something back… The Westgate is the pinnacle piece for me that embodies that emotion of when you were younger and were itching to get to the shop so you could see it in the flesh. You’d seen the ads, you’d seen the photos and then you finally got a chance to see the shoe in person.

Do you get involved in anything beyond the actual product side of things at all? Such as the ad layouts or the marketing ideas?

I’ll sit in on meetings and stuff. Timothy Nickloff does an amazing job with brand direction, Yogi Proctor is a creative genius and Jeff Henderson does an amazing job with the marketing side of things, and the cool thing is that everything is so organic there. The way things are set up is that it’s all open plan – I’ll be working on a shoe and be like, ‘Hey Timothy! Hey Jeff! Come here! What d’ya think?’. Then he’ll talk to the rider and say ‘I just saw your show that August is working on!’. That energy just starts flowing, y’know? We collaborate and our ideas are accepted and discussed openly. No-one is shut away in a back room or anything like that.

So, let’s talk a little about your personal background. I know you’ve been involved in a lot of cool projects and brands over the years. How did everything start off in the design world for you?

My dad was an engineer – a mechanical engineer. When I graduated high school, the acceptable options for me were pretty narrow! He wanted me to go to engineering school and I was like, ‘No way!’. I wanted to go somewhere I could skate all year round so we started looking at schools out west. I didn’t get anywhere with the California schools, but my favourite school was the University of Arizona so I decided that was where I wanted to go. Three weeks before I graduated high school, I was out skating and I blew out my knee. I was still going to skate if I could, but I realised I might need to change my focus a little bit. I went to UA, started in architecture and was really inspired by it but I wasn’t moved by it. I am now, but there were a couple of teachers there who put me off the whole deal. It was super competitive and difficult to progress, so when I started looking at the credits for my sophomore year, I saw there was a credit for Introduction to Landscape Architecture. I thought that sounded cool so I signed up for that class and, as it had the term ‘architecture’ in it, I thought my dad might buy it! I took the course and it was designing, not buildings, but everything else outside the building. A lightbulb went off in my head – ‘I’m gonna be able to design some skate spots!’. So that was my instant connection there. I had a lot of fun there and it was just as demanding as a regular architecture course: you had a project on Monday and had to hand it in on Friday, plus you had all your other classes as well.

After graduation I went back to Connecticut and got a job at this well-known firm called Towers|Golde and I think that was where, from a technical and communication standpoint, that I really flourished in soaking up all this stuff. Working in a professional environment, understanding the level of expectation that’s required… working with radiuses, understanding grading… all these things I learned back then I have been able to apply to footwear. Everything is designed 1:1. If you want a 2mm radius, you draw a 2mm radius. When I was at DuFFS I had the opportunity to work on a project there, which was Hensley’s shoe. I took all the things I’d learned in landscape architecture and applied those disciplines. That shoe came back and I was like, ‘Awesome!’. It just came back looking pretty damn close!

Hang on. Was that the first shoe you ever designed? A shoe for Matt Hensley was the first shoe you ever did?! Oh my God!

Yeah! Haha! I was already working for him at Innes Clothing before that point for a couple of years but when I left I realised I had a great opportunity to finally give Matt the shoe he’d been asking for. If you went through the old DuFFS catalogues you’d look at some of the shoes he’d had and you’d be like, ‘That’s not a Hensley shoe! What the hell is that thing?’. So, yeah, my first shoe was a shoe for Matt Hensley. It doesn’t even sound real – it sounds made-up!

So, yeah, that was when I got into footwear. I was really good friends with the DuFFS rep in New England and I was loving what they’d done with the KCKs (Kareem Campbell’s shoe). They stopped making that and came out with all these other shoes and I was like, ‘What the hell is this? You can’t skate this thing!’. You couldn’t even bend these things!

That Kareem shoe was the real pinnacle shoe for me at that point. Seeing his poster in that issue of Big Brother magazine where he was doing the backside flip at the World Park… Everyone wanted those shoes. They looked so good, even though they were pretty much a carbon copy of the old Reebok Workouts! Which, funnily enough, Palace Skateboards here in London recently collaborated on with Reebok and did a great job…

But, back to DuFFS, they started off great and I liked things like Jeremy Wray having his Dukes offshoot, but they seemed to lose their way a bit. Was it hard for you to join and have to design a shoe for Matt Hensley knowing that they’d probably already made a few things that were far from what skaters were really looking for? How did you approach that?

Ever since I got my first pair of Nike Jordans and skated in them, I’d had this fascination with shoes. I took everything apart. I was fascinated with how things were built. Same with the KCKs: I had an old pair, I cut them apart. Then I got these new shoes that were like bricks and did the same – and difference was obvious. The midsoles were like an inch thick! So I started figuring out the differences between things that worked and things that didn’t. So I knew what I wanted to do to take it back to skateboarding. To a skater, it’s all about feeling.

Before I joined DuFFS and worked on his shoe, I’d drive Matt around the parking lot with his shoes skidding on the concrete because he couldn’t skate them until he’d worn them down! From knowing things like that, when I worked on his shoe, I knew exactly what to do! I knew how thick the rubber needed to be, the foam, the midsole… everything! Looking back, I put a little too much foam in the tongue, but overall it was pretty good! It was a huge departure from where things were before that point. I think that came out in 2000 and the difference between this shoe and what else they’d done previously was like night and day. And it really took off.

So where did you go after DuFFS?

I had an opportunity with Tum Yeto, as they were expanding their product offering: a guy I was working with at DuFFS – Kevin Furtado – and I pitched an idea of doing a shoe brand to them. So I was one of the original co-founders of Dekline footwear. All of a sudden, going to China and seeing the factories and having new opportunities totally clicked – ‘Ahhh… So that’s how you do it?’. I had to spearhead the whole design and sourcing and get everything up and running, as those guys had limited experience with shoes. I was there from 2000 until 2007 or 2008, getting the whole footwear side of the brand off the ground.

Then I did freelance for a bit, which was actually a really sobering time to reflect on everything and the opportunities I’d had in the past. I started thinking about 3D design a bit more and took some courses so that I could dive into the technical progression and other things. At Dekline, our consumer didn’t really want more than a vulcanized shoe. There was a huge technical piece with drop-in technology, but it was all on the inside of the shoe: 7mm on the forefoot, 13mm on the heel cushion, polyurethane midsole – which was heavy, unfortunately, but necessary as we were trying to create a comfort story on a basic vulcanized shoe. You can’t use EVA or any of those materials because they just crystalize and shatter after they come out of the tank. So I decided that we wouldn’t put anything in the shoe then but slip it in after it’s cooked. That’s how you create a nice comfortable vulcanized shoe!

After freelancing for a while, I joined Browns Shoes and that was where I learned a lot from dissecting running footwear working with some very experienced developers opened a huge deal for me in understanding some key technical features and making the most of the resources to hand. And from there I went to Emerica.

I think it makes for an interesting back story that you’ve had a slightly different route to get to where you are today. You’ve taken inspiration from each different situation you’ve been in. That’s probably one reason why you’re creating such amazing products such as the Westgate!

Haha! Thanks man. I just feel fortunate. I really do. I feel like I listen to my gut and keep trying to follow that. For the most part, none of this has ever really been a job to me.

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