Steven Smith: The Guru Helping Kanye West Design His Yeezy Empire

We caught up with sneaker designer Steven Smith to talk about designing at Yeezy, working with Kanye West and the term 'dad shoe.'

Kanye West Steven Smith
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Kanye West Steven Smith

Kanye West is the face of the Adidas Yeezy brand. When West left Nike for the Three Stripes, it was in search of creative freedom and a brand that he could call his own and make in his own image. Since West formed his Adidas sub-brand, he has been one of the true mainstays and influencers in the world of sneakers. But he isn’t doing it alone. 

Alongside West is sneaker industry legend Steven Smith. Smith has been virtually everywhere in the industry, creating iconic silhouettes at each stop along the way. He has been pegged as the “grandfather of the dad shoe,” responsible for sneakers like the New Balance 576, 1500, and 997 as well as other classics like the Reebok Instapump Fury, Vapormax technology, and the Nike Zoom Streak Spectrum—a shoe Nike chose to re-work with Supreme just last year. 

Until an interview with Fast Company in November 2019 with Kanye next to him, Smith had not been able to speak publicly about his involvement in Yeezy.

Much like West, Smith’s decision to join the Yeezy brand stemmed from the freedom that comes with it. While the designer found incredible success on his earlier ventures, he said that politics would always get in the way. Thus far he hasn’t had that issue with West. When I asked Smith exactly what his job with Yeezy was, he had one simple thing to say: 

“My job is special forces, black ops for Kanye. I get my mission, I parachute in. I get in, I get out.”

At first glance, that quote might be confusing when referencing a designer that works for a brand. But as Smith explains, that is just what it’s like working with Kanye West. Smith lives with his family in Portland, Oregon, but spends three to four days a week working with West in Cody, Wyoming. His schedule isn’t consistent, his itinerary can change last minute, and he has to have the flexibility to adapt to nearly anything thrown his way. 

Naturally, that type of volatility takes a toll on Smith’s family and personal life, but he knows that it’s worth it. At first, he wasn’t sure if the lifestyle change was right for him at the time, but after spending multiple hours with West on the phone over consecutive days, he was convinced. And he hasn’t turned back since. 

“Epic” was a word that came up a lot in my conversation with Steven. Even after the recorder was off, he kept calling this phase of his life “the most epic.” He works side-by-side with Kanye West as one of the rapper’s most trusted confidants, and he gets to create projects from scratch and see them come to life under the high standards of West’s Yeezy label. 

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities continue to arise for Smith. Ahead of All-Star Weekend, he wasn’t sure if it was the right time for him to make the trip to Chicago. It was during Valentine’s Day as well as his daughter’s birthday. As any good husband does, Smith asked his wife for advice on whether or not he should go. “When will you ever have the chance to ride through the streets of Chicago in a Sherp, handing out free Yeezys to the city of Chicago?” His answer was simple, “Never.” So, he hopped on a flight and headed to West’s hometown to go on another “epic” Yeezy journey. 

Before Smith and I sat down, he mentioned a quick story to me about being in his hotel lobby with a pair of the new YZY QNTMs on. He said that a group of Adidas employees walked past him and were shocked to a see a guy like him wearing an unreleased shoe of that stature. He explained that they were so surprised because Smith “is just some old white guy.” But he loves being some old, innocuous white guy, because that is authentically who he is and who Kanye wanted on his team. 

One thing that West told Smith upon his hire, “You stay you bro, that's the sauce you add.”

We caught up with Smith on the Saturday of All-Star Weekend in Chicago, one day removed from his ride through the Windy City on West’s Sherp trucks.

Steven Smith Kanye West

What's it like working with Kanye?
I mean, it's pretty amazing. He sets your creative force into being part of it. He's the creative director of all of it, so he's orchestrating everything that we're doing, and inspiring and helping us create. It's like nothing else I've ever done. You know, the way I can describe it, it's like the vibe is like Andy Warhol on The Factory in those early days and just this amazing, powerful, creative collective, and out of it comes to the magic that we make.

How has it been different for you now that you're out in the public as one of the brains behind this operation?
It's interesting, because it's like the old days of starting out, companies did make a big deal about you— although a few times in my career they would hide you because they didn't want you getting stolen from a competitor. But having worked at most of the main competitors, I'm having fun doing what I want to do, on my terms with Kanye. It's a lot of fun. We didn't have social media in the old days. So it's actually been fun because people didn't know who created the famous shoes that they loved, but Kanye knew, and that's how he found me. So it's pretty cool. It's a lot of fun and he's fun.

So I don't know how you feel about the term “dad shoe,” but you've created quite a few sneakers now that fit under the umbrella of “dad shoe.” Was Kanye looking for that? Because the “Wave Runner” kind of brought the “dad shoe” back into the forefront. 
You know, it was funny when he first called me up, he was like, "Bro, you designed all the shoes I wanted as a kid." I'm like, "Well that's cool." But it was one of those articles that called me out as that, that kind of the…

Adidas Yeezy Boost 700 'Wave Runner' B75571 (Lateral)

The “grandfather of the dad shoe,” I think it was.
Yeah, that bubbled it all up into light. And then when I started with him, I didn't exactly know what he was asking me to design because the market was way over here in 350 land, and Roshe, and simple, and cheap, minimal parts, all seamless, and here we were designing this thing that's going to be a bazillion pieces stitch backed together. I'm like, "This thing's going to cost a fortune." And he's like, "Don't worry about price, bro. We'll just make it and we'll figure it out." I'm like, "OK.”  I didn't realize what he was doing to me. I was like, "Why does he ask me to do that?" I'd send him a bunch of sketches, he'd send them back, modified and changed, and I'd send them back to him redrawn, he'd send it back to me. And we went through like 48 hours straight of that, and then out of it came the shoe. And then after that, later, it was like, he's just making you do what you'd have done if you still worked at New Balance 30 years later. And I'm like, "Well, yeah, you kind of did. That's cool." You know? And then when it came out, I mean that's what's amazing about all of this, we reset the entire focus and direction of the industry. To me, that's awesome. It's not an egotistical thing, but I've created all these icons for every company I've been at. It just was another one with him. He's [the] creative director of all of it, we've worked together as a collective. So it's very different than what people understand how things operate in a traditional environment.

Suede is something that ended up on your sneakers a lot, going back to New Balance and especially now with Yeezy. Is that another thing that Kanye wanted to hone in on, Or is that an idea that you brought in?
As someone who's truly rooted in their love for design, Ye is very tactile. You know, fit, form, and function, but feel is a big part of it—the materials, the quality of it. I mean, you notice we use pretty amazing quality materials. That's a big part of it. And that carries through from a fashion side, to the equipment, to the footwear, everything; it's hand, it's feel. I mean, it's got to be quality, it's got to be nice to deserve to be Yeezy. It's just one of those classic materials that you can modernize and update, integrate into new styles.

Specifically what has it been like working in Wyoming? It's not exactly a place that people think of when they think, that's the home of Yeezy.
It's just another influence on what we do. It's actually really cool, because, again, similar to the way we were in Calabasas, it's a combination of all the disciplines in one space and all hands are involved. But there you're even more focused because you're in the middle of nothing. There is a refreshing part to that, an escape, the fresh air, the outdoors, you know, we have all the vehicles and fun stuff to do. You're out with cows and horses and sheep, and it's a heck of a lot different than Calabasas. That's a lot of fun. Adventure awaits, influences what you do. The terrain could influence the aesthetic or the color palette. That's what's great about him. He puts you in situations and environments that are absolutely inspirational. This is just another page in that book.

What is he like out there?
It's great. You know, again, it's that focus. He's focused on what we do, we're total immersion. And again, everybody's there from the apparel side, the footwear side, to the music side. You know, there's chefs and our foods provided. I mean, it's a lifestyle. And that's what's cool is, he's 100 percent focused and it's great. Because when you're in L.A., there's all sorts of distractions, celebrities and paparazzi—that's all removed. So you're 100 percent, and he's 100 percent, and it's epic.

How many months out of the year do you spend in Wyoming?
I've been going almost every other week for three to four days at a time. So quite a significant part. And it depends on where he is, or where he goes, or where he wants me to go. Sometimes I can stay at home, which is good, so my family, and I work out of the Adidas facilities when I need to. So yeah, it's pretty fluid. That's the beauty of him and his lifestyle; you're able to participate and focus on that, too. Part of being at Yeezy is being immersed in Kanye, so you capture Kanye and what he represents and that goes forth into what I'm going to create. So, as much time as I can spend is best.

Do you remember the first sneaker conversation you ever had with Kanye?
Oh yeah. There was a lot—we spoke for an hour and a half the first night he called and asked me to go over it with him. We hit so many different topics. We were talking about art, design, architecture. The sneakers popped into it, you know, and again, part of it was that, those early New Balances, and the Reebok shoes, and then we got to Nike. I told him Nike wasn't nice to me. And he's like, "Yeah, I can vibe with that.” So we had a common thread on that.

I heard a story about you and Kanye being in Berlin and him introducing you to Dave Chappelle. What was that like?
Yeah, it was pretty cool. We were driving around in a van and Dave was there, and I kind of suspected who he was. We were with a lot of people that night running around, jumping into places, going here and there. Turned around and he got out, Chappelle's like, "So you must be the alien design god Kanye talked about." I said, "Yeah." He goes, "Hi, I'm Dave." I'm like, "Nice to meet you." So it was pretty cool that we had like a 45 minute conversation about sneakers and designers, and Dave's a huge sneakerhead, so that was really cool. You never know what people say about you until you find out. But it's actually really humbling.

Steven Smith

So the brands that you worked at, New Balance, Reebok, I feel like you kind of worked with them because they gave you that creative freedom that you were looking for?
At moments in time, each company had its great points, even Nike; I did some amazing stuff there. It keeps bubbling back into the market with the Spectrum and the Max 2009. I hear the Caged Zoom Spiridon is going to appear in 2020, so they're trolling my old work. So that's kind of cool. But each company had a moment where it was like freedom and sometimes it degenerates into politics and you're cogs sitting at a desk in a big machine. At Nike, I had great experiences. I got to go spend a week with Bill Bowerman and sketch with him right there, watching what you do. "What are you drawing? Make the Swoosh bigger if it's a Nike, son." I'm like, "OK, sure, Bill." And then when you had the successes, like the gold medal shoes at the Olympics, you know, you're able to go hand deliver them to Phil Knight yourself, which was really cool. And you felt like you were Phil's guys—you delivered the gold. But then at times politics get in the way. And the same with Reebok, politics gets in the way eventually. And people like us, the eccentrics and the freaks, they want you because you bring in a new perspective, but then they want to make you like everybody else. You know, I'm an old punk rocker, and you know G.F.Y.,  at the end of the day—I've got no tolerance for it. It's like, "You asked me to do this and I'm doing it, what's wrong?" You have to be polite, or you have to be nice. And I'm like, "Well, I can't do what I do best. Do you want my best or do you want mediocrity?" I can be a tool and give you mediocrity, but I prefer to give you my best. That's what I do, it’s in your face. And Kanye gives you total freedom to be you and unchained. That's the way I can describe it. And total freedom. It's nice to be respected for that. And then there's obviously no pushback or conflict because he's welcoming to your creativity. So yeah, each place has had its moments. New Balance was a lot of fun. As a kid out of school, like I always say in a lot of the interviews, I never sat down and went, "Today I'm going to create the next icon in the industry." I just did the best I could at that moment in time with the ingredients that I had, and out of it came this magic and created all these icons. It wasn't my intention.

It just happened.
And that's the thing that fits great with working with Kanye. I'm not there to make my place in the world—I've done it. I'm there to help him make his dreams a reality. That's the way I view it. I'm like, "I'm his helper." That's the way I look at it. Tell me what you want, and let's make it together.

I feel like it's well-documented at this point that one of the main reasons he left Nike and started his own brand with Adidas was for that search of creative freedom as well. Is that something that you guys can kind of bond over?
Yeah, absolutely. Again, it's like we're both kind of stream-of-consciousness thinkers. He's creatively insatiable, and I'm creatively explosive. I've always been that, "Oh, you don't like that one? Hold my beer, let's design this." You know? I see a lot of other designers that become one hit wonders. They get stuck in a rut and draw the same shoe over and over again for five years. I'll draw you the next shoe in five seconds. What do you want it to be? You don't like that one? Let's come up with something else. You know? It just flows. And at any point in time, I took them up to like 1,700 complete designs I have in my iPad that I've done for him, and at any point in time he's got 500, 600 unreleased songs in his laptop. So it's like there's a lot of parallels between us. It's really cool to have someone that you bond so well with creatively, and a huge mutual respect, because the guy's a creative genius. There's no doubt in my mind—anything he touches is magic. And the way he has you think about things is just mind expanding. It's great.

You're a car guy. What's it like being in a Sherp?
Oh god, I love the Sherps. I drive him at the ranch all the time.

What's it like bringing them from Wyoming and having them in the streets of Chicago? How epic was that?
It was epic. Because we're on the ranch, it's just freedom, you just roll wherever—you can't really wreck anything with them because they've got the big balloon tires, they float on water. They're slow, but having them here was really cool because you're in the city environment, like urban assault. We had the police with us so it's like we had free reign to go anywhere in them and it was just cool. We just didn't know if we were going to get down certain side streets and things because they're so wide, [they might] take off somebody's mirrors or something like, "Oops, sorry." But yeah, they're so much fun. And it was cool being able to deliver something back to Chicago and Kanye's hometown, and just do something special. It was all last minute planning and we just show up and go, people are like, "Where are you going to be next?" I'm like, "I don't know. I just go along for the ride." I was asked if I wanted to go, and I'm like, "Absolutely, that'd be cool." So the Sherps are fun. And then, I like the Ripsaw tank. I think that's my favorite, because it'll go 80 miles an hour and it's borderline frightening because you can die at it, which I like. I like that thrill. But yeah, Kanye has got the best toys for us. That keeps you inspired.

What was the coolest part of [being in Chicago for All-Star Weekend?
I think going on the Southside and just giving away shoes to people, you know, having them see these things rolling through town. Everyone took a picture, cars just stopping on the road. And it's like, "What is going on? What is it?" They're terrifying yet funny, because of their goofy proportions. People would just laugh at him when they see the Sherps rolling through. And again, it was just wild to see these urban assault vehicles rolling down the streets. And then the kids figured out where we were, trying to figure out our next move, and it was pretty amazing. And then when Quavo came out it was just over the top.

FaceTiming Offset.
Oh, so many people. It was fun.

So it feels like we've been waiting for this shoe for years now. Why is it ready now?
Kanye is the only one who knows that—he decides. Again, if you look at the Forbes cover, he would dump hundreds and hundreds of prototypes of everything, and he just decides the time is right. And time was right. It was ready. He's very particular that things are a certain way, and are the way he wants them. And if it's not 100 percent, we wait until it's right. And so it's right.

What's so special about this shoe here?
After wearing them around the last couple of weeks, they're super comfortable, they're supportive, they're modern—it's going to be a great hoop shoe. And it's Kanye. It's got just enough Yeezy DNA involved in all of it, yet it's still a playable basketball shoe. The previous shoes, people are like, "Oh, they’re lifestyle” or whatever. But you could go running in them. You know, you can go and do six miles. And I ran six miles in 350s and sent him the video. I'm like, "Look bro, you can run in these." You know, that's the cool thing about the Yeezy, is this. We've kind of ruined the industry by creating a non-categorical shoe. What is it for? I don't know. But you can run in it, you can go to the gym in it, you can play ball in it. That's what's kind of cool—everything is about reinventing, breaking down the barriers, creating the new. And that's pretty much what we've done. Then this one is definitely more focused as a basketball shoe, but that's kind of what we're about. Basketball's dear to his heart, so he wanted it authentic. That's part of why myself and Christian Tresser [former Nike designer responsible for the Air Max 97 and more] and people like that are involved, because we are authenticity. We've created some of the biggest performance products in the industry. So that's part of the sauce we add to it all.

Can you give us any insight on what's to come?
There's been teases and glimpses of “made in America” already. My whole career, I started out at New Balance watching it being done in a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and ever since, people are like, "It can't be done, it can't be done." Again, like I said, and much like Kanye, "Hold my beer, people.” Oh yeah, watch this. Get ready. It's coming.