When Reebok unveiled the Final Battle pack in New York for Alien Day I got to meet a couple fascinating Reebok designers, but I knew I needed more time with them. Fortunately, I was able to speak with Chris Hill.
At 6’3″ Hill is a massive individual — big beard, big jersey, big smile — and he’s making big moves at Reebok. He designed what may have been the fastest selling sneaker in Reebok’s history and he is designing a ton of unique products for the brand including one half of the Final Battle pack, another shoe for Cam’ron, and so much more.
This interview contains several exclusives — some very famous people are getting Reebok signatures soon, designed by Hill — so enjoy.
[Noah Goldowitz for WearTesters.com]: Please, introduce yourself.
My name is Chris Hill and I’m a senior designer for Reebok.
You have worked with huge brands — Reebok, adidas, Nike, The North Face — and smaller, local brands. After you got your degrees, how did you get into the footwear industry?
I went back to school to get my BS in Industrial Design. Halfway through my three years at school the owners of IDW, a small design firm in Portland, went to a senior portfolio show at my school. From what I was told, they didn’t find what they were looking for. The Industrial Design head at the time gave them my name, I was a sophomore at the time, and told them I might be a good fit. I was very surprised she did that because I was pretty sure she didn’t like me, maybe I was wrong.
I went in for an interview not having a portfolio — I wasn’t even thinking about getting a job at that point in my schooling — I was just trying to keep up with my homework. I hadn’t taken any portfolio classes to prepare me so I didn’t have much of an idea what to bring or show. I brought a bunch of sketches, maybe some custom shoes I had done — I don’t know if I had any footwear sketches at the time. I interviewed with each owner separately on two different days. At both interviews they only looked at my work for maybe 10 to 15 minutes, then we spoke about shoes and why I wanted to design them for about an hour.
I was hired on the spot and the reason I was given for being hired was because I was obsessed with shoes and a good sketcher. I wouldn’t be the designer I am today if it weren’t for my first job. It was like a bootcamp for footwear design; we did a large variety of product from equipment to footwear to gloves to men’s, women’s, kids, etc. The learning I received was irreplaceable — it was definitely a godsend.
While at adidas you did some of my favorite PEs ever: the etched ‘Enter the Dragon’ Crazy Quick 2 Lows for Jeremy Lin. Did you ever get to link up with him and discuss the PEs?
Thanks, that was probably my favorite project at adidas. I never met with him face to face, but we exchanged emails. He sent over a few ideas of what he wanted and what he thought was cool. He is a Year of the Dragon baby, he loves tattoos and he is really into water — don’t ask me why. I sent him options with those elements as one option, which is what we ended up producing, along with a few other options inspired by water and some other ideas he asked for. He was blown away with the final product, which is always a great feeling.
What was the transition like from adidas to Reebok? How intertwined are the two companies?
It was like any other time you start a new job, lots of new and different ways of doing things. It was considered an internal transfer so I kept my tenure. We share a lot of the same suppliers, same testing standards; we share some factories, but the design process and seasonal direction are unique to each brand. Having an understanding of how adidas worked was very beneficial once I moved over to Reebok, especially when it came to development and testing.
Once at Reebok, what did the brand have you doing? Now, it seem like you only work on the dopest sh*t.
Haha thanks. I took a promotion when I moved over so I had a lot more responsibilities. I managed and set seasonal direction for graphic/story telling footwear for all categories — sport, lifestyle inline, and statement projects. My team was responsible for the story/concept, color, materials, graphics, logos, and any upper modifications. I worked on a few toolings for sport as well. I managed a few people, which equaled close to 200 projects a season, 50 of which were my personal projects. My personal projects were mostly Holiday and energy driving or story telling packs with some core stuff sprinkled in.
The right people started noticing what I was doing so I just started getting briefed on more and more cool projects like Cam’ron, Alien, Curren$y, etc. My first asset project was Cam’s Purple Haze shoe and that sold out in less then ten minutes. I don’t know if it’s true but I’ve been told that was the fastest selling shoe in Reebok history. That opened a lot of eyes and I started getting the majority of our asset projects.
Those started occupying all my time and a reorganization moved my team around so it worked out; now, my apprentice and I focus just on assets and statement projects. We still design everything from start to finish but packaging and custom hardware is thrown in there now, which is a lot of fun.
While at Reebok you’ve worked on some really unique and interesting projects — sneakers for Cam’ron, Kendrick Lamar, and soon, Amber Rose and Future. Tell me everything about Killa — what was it like working with him, creating sneakers for him? I saw a great pony hair sample of the second shoe.
Working with Cam was awesome and easy, he’s a really chill guy and very appreciative of what we’ve done for him. I’ve been a big Cam fan since the early 2000s and he’s why I started wearing pink head to toe. Because of my affinity for everything Cam’ron he was very easy to design for. I approached Cam like every other asset I design for; I speak with the asset when/if I can, do lots of research, listen to their music, watch music videos, read interviews, etc. so I can design the best and most authentic product possible for the asset as well as the fans. Authenticity is very important so I make it my business to embody the artist I’m designing for.
We sent over a few options and he loved all of them and said we’re the experts so he’ll go with what we think is best. The coolest part about designing for Cam was the fact I was doing it for real now. I painted a pair of AF1s for him back when Purple Haze released in ‘04 so it was surreal to design his first official collab.
How about working with Kendrick? The TDE Club C 85 got me to fall in love the lowtop silhouette — a Reebok model I had ignored for years. You absolutely bodied that one. How hands-on was Kendrick? Were there some interesting samples that just didn’t make the cut?
Haha, thanks again, you have great taste just like K Dot — this is his favorite drop. Working with Kendrick was cool. I can’t express what a dream come true it is to design for rappers all day, it’s f***ing nuts, I never imagined I’d get to do this for a living. Kendrick is very involved in the design process and very particular about what he wears and represents. His style is more on the simple side mixed with an abstract message, which makes him more challenging to design for.
I was told last minute I was flying to LA to meet with him about his next shoe. I’ve been anti-new rap for a while — I’m a big 80’s/90’s hip hop guy — so I didn’t give K Dot much of a listen at first. I listened to all of his albums on my flight from Boston to LA, fell in love with his music, and took down five pages of ideas.
I didn’t know when or where we were going to meet K Dot, it was shotgun wedding style. I got the call with the address where to be, and it was the set of Schoolboy Q and Kanye’s “That Part” music video. Mind blown, the coolest thing I’ve ever done. We spoke about ideas, I went home mocked them up, and he really liked the one that was released so we went with that one. This was a crash project so we didn’t have any wiggle room for multiple options. I do have an unreleased sample for something else I’ll have to show you some time…
When you’re working on these special projects, are you working on multiple projects concurrently or it’s one thing at a time?
I always have multiple projects at a time. I literally never have a slow time, it’s nonstop. I have less projects now that I’m not doing inline, but my projects are all much more intense and there is a lot more that goes into each project like new materials, custom hangtags, custom aglets, special boxes, etc. We look at every detail on the shoe as well as how can we present the product in the most impactful way. I’m thinking about two seasons worth or projects at a time with some promo stuff mixed in there so probably I am actually designing on 5 to 10 projects at a given time, but that stays consistent the entire year. We have some projects that have over 100 hours into them when everything is said and done. I’m also training an apprentice during all of this who helps out on a lot of my projects.
You’ve got a lot of interesting projects coming up. Can you talk about some of them?
I can’t say too much about what’s coming, a lot of what I work on is contract and license sensitive. This fall we have another Cam’ron shoe coming, which is pretty different then the first than — I think the box is even better then the pink camo one — Amber like you mentioned, and Teyana has a signature shoe coming. I have a good July 4th shoe for the ladies, a very polarizing pump Fury for LA, and a very cool Club C for Halloween. There is some good stuff coming for next All-Star Weekend too that I’m pretty excited about.
Finally, you have a talented understudy, Alejandra Bucco (@ieatsprinkles). What is that like? What will she be learning while under your tutelage, and how did that come about?
It’s terrible; it’s unbelievable how bad she sucks…just kidding. She’s great, very talented, driven, and I couldn’t bring the heat without her. She is a part of the Reebok apprentice program that rotates every year. I train her in everything from the conceptual process to creating graphics, specing materials, tech packs, designing boxes and so on. I take her to some of my meetings so she can see what I deal with on a daily basis, the business, development, and political side of design. She gets exposure to the entire design process from start to finish — working with marketing from the business side and development so she knows how to build a shoe that won’t fall apart. I try to give my apprentices a preview to everything that goes into design without overwhelming them so they can see what really goes into being a designer.