With the release of his second Li-Ning colorway, the Ellington Sunrise, we reached out to Erik to find out more about his relationship with the brand, his hands on approach, and the future plans for the project.
How did the partnership with Li-Ning come about?
Li-Ning reached out to me in the summer of 2019. They were starting to make skate shoes and they wanted someone to help - to be an ambassador and help with creative direction.
You've been very hands on with the distribution, design and working with stores, how has that experience been?
It's been good, it's exciting. With Li-Ning, starting something new allows me to share a vision from the beginning, whereas with a lot of the other major brands they already have something in place. Working with them in Beijing, on something that's a new programme for them, allows me to interpret it to them based on my experience over the last 20 years in the industry.
Then as far as the distribution, Li-Ning doesn't have it set up yet in the US, so I also work with shops here that I've known for years, and am able to do special releases and eventually work on projects with them. It's been a blessing.
"You’d walk into a store and see that everything looks like a Vans shoe or a knockoff"
What's your take on the current landscape of skate footwear? The past five years or so has seen a return of more technical paneled silhouettes for many brands, reminiscent of the Axion shoes you wore back in the day
I've welcomed that, it's a refreshing take, because there was a point during the early 2000s where the more technical bigger shoes kind of trended out. It was just the natural cycle of things. People wanted to have more board feel, or they wanted something that was way slimmer. Alongside the trends of pants slimming down and all that, it was cool that was where it went at the time because it was different. I think that I've always been in the mindset that I would rather have something that's a little bit different to what’s popular, rather than just copy what the current trend is in order to make something that sells.
I've complained about this over the years, you’d walk into a store and you'd see that everything sort of looks like a Vans shoe or a knockoff of this or that. Maybe that’s what people wanted, but at the same time when you’re designing a shoe I don’t want it to look the same as everything else. It's been cool over the last few years to see how people have started to like a more technical skate shoe. Maybe it’s with pants getting a little baggier, where that actually looks better with a little bit of a bigger shoe. Who knows where it goes from here. But it's been nice to see and be a part of that and to have the resources through Li-Ning to be able to work with designers who are pushing the envelope.
"100%, I think every single skateboarder is influenced by fashion."
You've seemingly been inspired by fashion and sports brands from early on. Your Emerica shoe being influenced by the Allen Iverson Reebok for example.
100%, I think almost every skateboarder is influenced by fashion in some way. As skaters we are individuals, we aren't part of a sports team, we don't have to wear uniforms. From the beginning for me, from 12 or 13 years old, I always wore whatever I wanted to skate in. Back in the day you cut your jeans and things like that, where you were customizing your own look.
Some of my first memories of skate shoes were the hightop Cabs and cutting them down because I saw some of my favorite skaters doing that. That was my introduction to the customization of my shoes. Sean Sheffey would cut down Cabs and then put stickers around them to close off the area where the foam was. Then putting double tongues in your shoes when you wanted fatter tongues to puff them out a little bit. I used to take Clorox and bleach my black shoes and turn them brown so they looked like hiking boots. A lot of these qualities were just ingrained in us, I don't mean to speak for everybody that skates, but for the most part we care about what we look like because it's part of our individuality as a skateboarder. You don't have to look like everybody else, it’s not required. If you feel good you're gonna go out and skate well. It's the same reason one skate spot can feel more comfortable than another spot. A skatepark versus the streets, it’s a different energy.
As skateboarders we have a natural understanding of fashion and architecture, a lot of skaters are designers and architects without really knowing it. Almost any skater has the ability to design a skatepark, a shoe, or a piece of clothing - not just any average person can take to design, it just doesn't run in their blood like it does for us.
Can you explain the design process and inspiration behind this shoe?
When I flew out to Beijing in 2019 I knew that we would be going into something where they wanted to see what I was about. I had brought some of my older shoe designs and photos of what I was interested in. I've had maybe eight or ten shoes I’ve designed, so I took a variety of those and I also took a selection of things that have inspired me over the years. I knew that I was going to be working with a really creative team. So I just showed them and said this is the framework I would like to design within. They gave me something back and we made some adjustments based on that. Essentially I submitted those ideas and what I got back was close to complete.
"The Li-Ning designers are amazing"
As far as the design process - usually you'll sketch something up submit it and go from there. With this it was more about showing what I like that has stood the test of time, what has inspired me and using those as reference points. The designers there are amazing so it worked out well.
It's rare to have something come back and you're like, oh, yeah, this is it!
I know, it’s rare. I didn't have the standard limitations that are common because of pricing and materials etc. I was given the freedom to take things a little further, which for me is huge.
How was the visit to their factory? It must have been exciting to see the resources that are available to you.
It was incredible. Their main office is in Beijing, it's like an Olympic facility… courts, tracks, pools, I was blown away.
I got to hang out with the designers and get to know what they were all about and how they approached design with their level of resources. They have a young team that is encouraged to think outside the box, it felt good being around that energy.
How do the shoes feel to skate in? What is it that you look for in a skate shoe?
What I like about a more technical shoe is that there are less limitations to coloring and materials. That's what is cool about this shoe - functionally it's great, it's comfortable, light - all things which Li-Ning has the capabilities to do as well as can be done. But things that I like to look at aside from that is making it so you never get bored of coloring it up. One thing that I noticed from some of the initial prototypes was the shoe can transform from what looks like a runner, to a basketball sneaker, to a hiking boot, to a straight up skate shoe, all depending on the way you color it up. That's what's really exciting to me. If you've got a simple shoe there are only so many ways you can go with that, there’s only so many color options. But with this you have an almost infinite amount of ways you can make it look. I like change, one day I can like a tech runner and then another day having a simple all black or white sneaker.
"This shoe can transform from what looks like a runner, to a basketball sneaker, to a hiking boot, to a straight up skate shoe"
It must be exciting to have a fair amount of autonomy in regards to running the skate programme, picking riders, how are you finding it and who's on the team?
It's been really exciting, unless you start your own brand you don't have that kind of autonomy. I hope to create something that represents skateboarding in a positive way that feels good to me and to the people that are involved in the project.
Zach Allen, Davey Sales and Tinga Johnson are all very unique in their own way. They are gravitating to this because they want something that’s a little different. They also are more conscious when it comes to what they like to wear. Skateboarding has never been simply about what trick you're doing, it's more about how you're doing it.
Getting people together who are inspiring and make you want to skate. The whole process of building the team, I don't even like to look at it in that way really either, it's more like having friends that you’re comfortable with skating and hanging out. The freedom to do that has been rewarding.
How much influence do the riders have when it comes to production of colorways?
The first colorway of my shoe was released a year ago, so the stuff they're having input on hasn't fully come out yet. Zach is working on a shoe and we'll start working on the different colorways together as well. Certain things that I like are going to be different to what the others like. I enjoy being able to bring what I can to it, getting their feedback is crucial. When they're super hyped on something that I may not be into, it's cool, I’m far from knowing everything, a critical part of this is them being able to have that contribution, to empower them and for them to be able to learn the process.
One of the biggest things is that since COVID we've not been able to go to Beijing. When I am able to take them to the factory they can see first hand how this thing is working. This is something I was given the opportunity to do when we started Supra back in 2006, I travelled to the factory and I fell in love with the process - you can do this, you can do that, you see the materials. I want to be able to introduce them to that and have them go for it. Once they get to do that I think it will be groundbreaking for them, not only for their careers in skateboarding but what they do outside of it too.
"Skateboarding has never been simply about what you're doing, it's how you're doing it"
What can we expect from you and Li-Ning in the near future?
Well, I have about 8 new colors we’re developing right now, so we’re planning those releases this winter into early next year. We're starting to design a second Ellington shoe, Zach Allen is also starting to work on his shoe, so we’ll be seeing both of those soon. I’m working on a few collaborations that are really exciting!
Hopefully in the near future I will be able to bring the crew to Beijing to skate and see where it goes.
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