The term sneaker royalty is thrown around a little too often these days, but when it comes to designer Steven Smith, the term could not be more fitting.
Your favourite sneaker designers favourite sneaker designer; Smith boasts a back catalogue of some of the most influential shoes over the last thirty-five years. He was crafting insane pieces long before some of us sneakerheads were even born—a true OG within the industry. As a sneaker fanatic and collector, it is important to understand the history behind some of our favourite silhouettes. We all know and love Tinker Hatfield for the work he has done for Nike and Jordan, but just how much recognition does Steven Smith receive?
He has worked for absolutely everybody. New Balance, Adidas, Reebok, Fila, Nike, Yeezy. If you think about all the brands that have made waves in the sneaker industry, you can pretty much guarantee Smith has worked there at one point in his illustrious career.
This article is going to take a closer look at the highs, mids and lows of Steven Smith’s career, and hopefully educate many of us on just how crucial he was/is to the sneaker culture we know and love today.
Where did it all begin?
Smith’s career began at dad shoe extraordinaire New Balance back in 1986. When Smith started at New Balance, their focus was on comfort rather than style, hence them being the go-to shoes for tech guys rather than fashionistas, all that was about to change once Smith began designing for NB.
Amongst his creations were the 574, 997 and 1500. These silhouettes may not have gained the notoriety they have today for quite some time, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Smith produced them.
These three designs have since been recreated many times, with some collaborations demanding hundreds of pounds on the resale marketplace. Ronnie Fieg, the founder of KITH, has made no secret of his love for New Balance. We have seen many KITH x New Balance collabs over the years.
Fashion and lifestyle brand Aime Leon Dore recently brought out their interpretation of the 997. A minimalist sneaker with pops of colour, perfectly reflecting the brand’s identity. This particular model now demands around the £400 mark on the resale marketplace. Once unheard of, New Balance can now be spoken of in the same breath as Adidas and Nike with the hype they have built.
Sneaker boutiques such as END, Foot Patrol & Sneakernstuff have all tried their hand at creating the perfect NB1500 colourway. Anybody that appreciates the design aspects of a sneaker always has a soft spot for New Balance.
Please make no mistake about it. Steven Smith is the person we should be thanking for some of New Balance’s recent success with these models he designed.
A cup of coffee at Adidas
Smith would leave New Balance after creating a handful of iconic silhouettes for Adidas in 1988. He would take on the role of Senior Designer for just one year.
Despite only working there for a year, Smith still managed to produce an industry-defining high-top, the Adidas Artillery. Much like his work for New Balance, this sneaker would really push the boundaries and open the doors for other companies to produce similar pieces. Sure the Jordan High came first, but it wasn’t until the release of Smith’s Artillery that people would take a high-top seriously (OK, Michael Jordan may have helped with this cause too…)
Innovation at its finest with the Instapump
Smith would leave Adidas after just one year, making a move over to Reebok as the Director of Innovation Design. Finally, a job title that perfectly matched what it is that Smith does. Innovation. All the designs that we have seen from Steven Smith changed the face of sneaker design as we once knew it.
Despite the success of his New Balance silhouettes today, they were classed simply as dad shoes once upon a time. But the body of work Smith produced at Reebok could not have been more the opposite of this.
We bring you the Reebok Instapump Fury. As the name suggests, the shoe did cause fury when released. Like any design way before its time, many people questioned what Smith was doing with this shoe. But fans that could understand the process realised the sneaker could elevate their style. Smith drew inspiration from the aerospace industry for the design of the shoe. Smith was quoted as saying he wanted it to look like ‘somebody’s foot was on fire’. Something I think we can all agree on when looking at the Instapump Fury.
The now infamous ‘chunky’ design was groundbreaking when the OG sneaker released back in ’94. As was the fact that there was no lace system, instead a revolutionary pump-secured upper featured. Today we see multiple companies trying to create auto-lacing designs through technology, but Smith was the first to try and do this by merely pumping the sneaker up to fit your foot. How much more innovative can you get?!
The pump technology has been reimagined and recreated many times since, and to this day is one of Reeboks most successful sneakers.
Bringing the innovation station to FILA
After what can only be referred to as a colossal eight years at Reebok, Smith decided it was time for a change. Sticking with the method of taking over the innovation at struggling sportswear lines, Smith joined FILA.
Smith went in a slightly different direction with his FILA creations, joining forces with NBA superstar Grant Hill for a signature shoe. Smith designed a new 2A cushioning system for FILA to support Hill’s style of play. The sneaker was designed for superior support and speed whilst playing in them.
Hill enjoyed 18 successful years in the league, whilst FILA enjoyed many years of success with the shoe Smith had designed. FILA recently re-released the silhouette due to the popularity of it. The Steven Smith x Grant Hill FILA shoe even made it into the top 100 NBA sneakers of all time. No small feat in an industry dominated by Nike and Jordan Brand.
Taking the swoosh by storm
After many years at the top, innovating for the smaller brands and helping them to blow up, Smith finally took his impressive talent to Nike. During this time he bounced between creating some of the craziest designs yet. The Nike Shox Monster was one of the most daring shoes to date. The sneaker initially started as a sprint spike. Olympian Shawn Crawford used the Nike Mosterfly at the Olympics and took home the gold medal. The running spikes success prompted Nike to ask Smith to create a trainer version. Thus, the Nike Shox Monster was born. The Shox Master would go on to sell over a million and a half pairs worldwide.
Steven Smith had done it again. Nike continued to use the Shox technology after Smith’s departure and has even seen UK MC Skepta create a pair of Shox as part of his collaboration with Nike.
We also have Smith to thank for the superb Nike Air Streak Spectrum Plus and the Nike Air Spiridon Cage 2. Both silhouettes have seen a recent resurgence; Supreme took over the Air Streak Spectrum back in 2018. The Air Spiridon Cage 2 has seen a far more significant surge in popularity in recent months though. Stussy collaborated on the silhouette in three colourways; all were massive hits. Size? have since collaborated on the shoe whilst an array on general release colourways fill the shelves of stores worldwide. These two silhouettes go to show that great design can be timeless.
Stepping away from the top
Smith had a remarkable reign at Nike, managing the design team for a little over ten years. He left the so-called big leagues of sneaker design in 2009. Stepping away from designing sneakers for the likes of Nike, Smith took a role at U.S.D as a lead consultant for design and innovation.
This role eventually leads back to Adidas. However, this time Smith would be designing wearable sports electronics. Four years of designing sports electronics seemed to be enough for the OG of the dad shoes though, eventually opting to take a role as Innovation Director at American footwear company Keen in 2014. Keen was founded in Portland, Oregon in 2003 and needed to step up their product to survive in the footwear industry. Smith would be the perfect candidate to become the Director of innovation for the brand.
It looked like Smiths reign as king of sneaker design had come to a premature end. After creating both the craziest yet most iconic designs for every prominent sportswear brand that comes to mind, it looked as if it was all over.
That was until Kanye West signed to Adidas from Nike and remembered who the designer of his favourite sneakers growing up was.
Adidas x YZY x Smith
When Kanye West left Nike and went to Adidas, he sighted that he wanted creative freedom. This ideology resonated with Smith, who had declared that company politics had stood in his way many times during his artistic process. Smith started with West in 2016 and has been there ever since. He has likened his job with Ye as being special forces, given missions to complete. Despite the impressive CV Smith has accumulated, he classes his time working with West as ‘the most epic’ time of his life.
The invention of the Yeezy Boost 700 Wave Runner had Smith heading the design aspects of the sneaker. The sneaker almost looks like a throwback to the glory years of Smith’s design career at New Balance. Although with a modern twist. A new generations answer to the ‘dad shoe’ craze that has taken over the industry.
Although yet to be officially released, the Yeezy 451 is perhaps somehow Smith’s most audacious design however, going in a completely different direction to whatever dad shoes he had previously devised. The 451 is yet another feather in the cap for the industries most qualified creative.
This particular silhouette really personifies what Kanye West and Steven Smith meant when they said they wanted creative freedom. I can not see any other sneaker brand allowing them to do what they are currently doing at Adidas.
So there you have it.
It is no coincidence that anything Steven Smith turned to gold. Perhaps some of his boundary-pushing designs were frowned upon when they first dropped. But if the last few years have proved these creations have stood the test of time.
Many of Smith’s creations were simply too good for the time he released them. That’s why streetwear powerhouses like Stussy and Supreme are still adapting Smith’s products and re-releasing them. Hence why New Balance’s 997 and 1500 are still to this day some of their best sellers.
We all knew that Kanye West could move product. But do we really think the Yeezy collections would be quite as daring without the helping hand from innovation extraordinaire Steven Smith?
Here’s to the Grandfather of dad shoe. A true OG of the sneaker game.