How to Get a Job in the Sneaker Industry Right Now

We spoke to sneaker designers, store owners, editors, and creative directors on how to get into the industry right now.

Shoe Pile
Image via Flickr
Shoe Pile

Ask anyone who obsesses over sneakers, and they’ll probably tell you that their dream job is working somewhere in the footwear industry. But actually getting that gig doesn’t come easy. It takes years of dedication, learning your craft, and finding the right place to fit in. One thing that helps, however, is talking to people who have been there before and soaking up game from them. To better educate aspiring sneaker moguls—and learn a thing or two ourselves—we spoke to people who work at sneaker stores, design shoes, and take photos. Here’s what they had to say about their come-up, their biggest challenges and more.

Steven Smith, sneaker designer

steven smith

Age: 52

Location: Portland, Oregon​

Education: BFA industrial design

Years in the footwear industry: 31

How did you get your start?

I ran high school track, and I liked New Balance. When I graduated school, New Balance was just starting to hire footwear designers. Before that, it was just shoemakers and development people. I interviewed, and they said, “Can you do blueprint drawings?” I minored in interior design and architecture, so I could draw blueprints all day long. We chatted a bit, and they said, “It’s lunch time, we’re about to go running. We go running everyday at lunch.” I was like, “Where do I sign?” I went home and they offered me a job. I was only the third designer that they hired. Me and Tinker [Hatfield] talked and we started around the same time when he transitioned from the company architect to actual footwear design. It was cool bringing the technical and footwear design into New Balance. I got to run in and test the product. That made me a better designer, knowing what I was designing and who I was designing it for. Kevin Brown did more of the court shoes, and I did the running shoes. So I did the 995, 996, 997, 574, 1500. In the ’80s, New Balance updated product that they hadn’t worked on in a while by changing the midsoles, and that’s how we did new shoes. When[I went to] Nike [and it] brought in the idea of seasonal introductions, it hastened the pace of things.

The corporate side of things with big brands like Nike or Adidas can be frustrating, because there are layers and layers. The big plus was the big corporate dollars that had the money to do things. During the early days at New Balance, I wanted to know how things were done. We had a factory below us, so I’d go down there and see how things were done and how we could do them better. So I have this weird hybridization of a designer and an engineer.

What's your day-to-day work like?

You spend time online looking for inspiration and keeping up to date on what’s going on. Part of creating new spaces is to zig when everyone else is zagging. With the big companies, they say, “Oh, I don’t know..” You’re always looking for new ideas and concepts. I like to stay in medical and aerospace, because that’s where new ideas and applications come from.

What's the hardest part of job?

One of the hardest thing is filtering fact versus opinion on people. I’ve seen so many good ideas get committee-ed to death and watered down. These are your children, these are your art. Then at some point you need to suck it up and say, “OK, I’m a designer, I’m not an artist. I’m answerable to other people, and I need other people to execute the final plan.” You’re still going to fight tooth and nail for it. People are paying you to create the magic. There are multiple people in this industry: Some are facilitators and some are complicators, and the complicators are the frustrating ones.

What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the industry?

Study some politics, because that’s what ruins all good design and relationships eventually. I grew up in Boston, so we have no time for bullshit. But too many other are all about the bullshit. With innovation, we’re trying to go to the moon. You can’t tell people, “We can’t really do that. Why would you go to the moon? Why don’t we build a balloon and just go to the top of the atmosphere. Why do you want to build a rocket?” Well, because no one else can. I’m the type of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. I want to find out why. My best advice for kids is don’t make it the same, make it better. In the early days, I’d see Nike do things, and I’d say, “Son of a bitch! How’d they do that? I want to know how they do that.” I haven’t seen much product in the past five years where I have to cut it apart and see how it was made.

Deon Point, Creative Director, Concepts

Deon Point

Age: Mid-30s

Location: Boston

Education: High school diploma. “Just high school. I barely made it through. I was a terrible kid. I didn’t even look at college. It was my upbringing and outlook at the time.”

Years in the footwear industry: 10-plus

How did you get your start?
I was up to no good. I was in the streets doing things I shouldn't have been doing. I landed a job in the labor union and became a foreman. I was spending feverishly: going out, jewelry and sneakers because I didn’t have them growing up. I started to get a massive sneaker collection. I found Concepts around 2001. I used to go there and spend a ton of money. I was viewed as a “platinum client.” I was still missing shoes, though: Nike SBs and things like that. I told them, “Let me work for free on the weekends. I don’t need the money, I just don’t want to miss anymore shoes.” I started working on the weekends, picking up shifts. The guys who were there —Spungie and Aleko—they went to create Laced [another sneaker boutique in Boston] around 2006, so Concepts offered me a job. I didn’t want to give up the money I was making in the union, Because I had a baby on the way. Then I said, “Fuck it, I hate construction.” At the time, ALIFE and Supreme were popping off. I knew Concepts had the ability to be like them, but they were a hidden gem; they didn’t have the ability to think in the future like them, with the Web and everything. But they had everything else, and that was my vision.

What’s your day-to-day like?
I’ve shifted from manager/buyer to creative director. Nobody knows what I do. I’m not in the store whatsoever. I’m the filter for everything. I work on all the shoe projects, which I have [done] for quite some time, but I’m more behind the scenes. I’ve always been one of the dudes who develops the sneaker collabs. I oversee the clothing, critique it, and give my spin. Everything that has Concepts’ name on it filters through me.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
A few years back I’d say it was about differentiating who I am personally from what I want the Concepts brand to be. Nowadays, I’d say, trying to keep the name relevant with everything we do. There’s so much that encompasses what we do as a brand. Look at Supreme, Ronnie [Fieg]—there’s a lot of big guys doing a lot of big things. It’s taken on a whole new life. Back then you could get away with doing a few collaborations. Now it has everything to do with the packaging, the buildouts, the rollouts, and even who gets our product. Keeping us among the elites is the hardest part of my day.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about working in the sneaker industry?
Kids who are immersed in this culture think that they have everything that they need right now—[that] they have all the skills and equipment they need to compete at this level, and they couldn’t be more wrong. For a kid on the outside looking in, he needs to find his niche and what he can do to differentiate himself from what already exists. It’s so saturated because of kids with the same like-minded processes. It’s about finding what’s missing and filling that void. There’s always a void somewhere, but people don’t look hard enough. For the kid who wants to emulate what we do, I say, “Don’t. Make it your own path and trust your gut and I think you’ll get there.”


Dan "Mache" Gamache, sneaker customizer


Age: 37

Location: Danbury, Connecticut

Education: College graduate, fine arts major and graphic design

Years in the footwear industry: 15

How’d you get your start?

I was always an art guy. My grandmother was an art teacher. We didn’t have a lot of money, so sneakers were my way of fitting in without having a nice outfit. I saw someone doing custom shoes in an issue of Complex. I had a pair of all-white Nike Air Max 90s. I had some paint in my mom’s basement, and I did some Dipset-themed sneakers that were all shades of purple. They were so bad, and I wore them to the barber shop. I got a reaction from the barbers like, “When did Nike make those?” After a while, all the barbers in the shop were wearing my shoes. They were telling everyone, “The white boy down the road made them.” This was before social media, so it was all word of mouth. Then I discovered the Internet and shoe forums. I started to feel more comfortable, so I started to charge money. I got into Instagram, Myspace, and getting international attention. Getting co-signs from Wale, LeBron James, and Pharrell really helped to get my name out there early. I went to sneaker shows; I’d seek out Fat Joe at Funkmaster Flex’s car show and give him a pair of shoes. I had a lot of face-to-face interactions, which is a lost art nowadays. Then when more people started to make custom shoes, it raised the bar for me, because I’m a competitive person.

What’s your day-to-day work routine?

I usually get to the studio at 10 a.m. I could be there anywhere from eight to 15 hours, depending what project is going on. There might be a last-minute project for cool things, which always is the case. So I’ll stay all night and finish those. The business aspect is 30 percent of my day. I’ll have my wife help out and answer emails. I’ll take calls, too.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Learning to have thick skin. Art is a very subjective thing. If everyone likes what you’re doing, you’re not taking the right risks. For a while I was consumed with appeasing people and doing what everyone likes. What happened was I started to follow trends, and I lost my identity. I was known as the guy who takes risks and does things differently. Once I put the blinders on, I started to do things differently. In the end, you need to make money. If you do a custom on a Yeezy, you’re going to get attention, but I stopped doing work for the attention and did it for the quality.

How important is having a passion for sneakers?

It’s big for me, because I try to make sneakers that work with the shoe. We never thought custom shoes would take off as big as it has. I thought it was going to be a hobby. I think people can notice the difference between someone who has a passion for shoes and someone who slaps some patches on a sneaker and calls it a custom.

What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the industry?

The best advice is be patient. We’re in a society that wants instant gratification. Expect to mess up and expect to learn from it. I could probably put a kid through junior college with all the shoes I’ve destroyed figuring out how to make things work. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I was struggling for 10 of them. I was living off the Dollar Menu. It doesn’t come easy. It sounds cocky, but there’s a reason why I’m where I’m at.

Holger von Krosigk, Editor-in-Chief, Sneakers Magazine


Oscar Castillo, photographer, Adidas Basketball

Oscar Castillo

Mike Packer, store owner, Packer Shoes

Mike Packer

Age: 47

Location: Teaneck, New Jersey

Education: College graduate, law school graduate

Years in the footwear industry: 40

How did you get your start?

Packer Shoes has been in the making since my grandfather started it way back. I was lucky enough to start at a young age working at the original store in Yonkers, since I was seven years old. Everything was always family-run. You got to do everything: unpack boxes, help customers. I got to grow into the business. Luckily, I grew up in the “golden era” of sneakers. Your taste is skewed because of the things you grew up in and around. You can’t trade that for any business school course in the world. For 15 years we’ve been at our Teaneck, New Jersey, location and it’s been a complete outgrowth. It was something that we thought was going to bubble up on a global level, but also here in the U.S.

What’s your day-to-day work like?

It’s gotten easier, but harder over time. When we first opened our store in Teaneck, I was dealing with customers, staff, and the back end. I did everything that store owner does, but things have progressed. You can’t be in this business if you can’t look at product, trends, stories, or get your own ideas. We’ve always seen what the product is, and we’ve seen the bigger stories. It’s being creative and thinking about how you can push things forward. It’s a 24/7 thing. There are tasks that need to be done day to day, but some of the oddest and best ideas we’ve come up with don’t come up after thinking for an hour.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Making everyone happy. But the hardest thing these days is showing how much we can give to the market, but also keeping that niche. We know there’s a customer base for what we do. In the business that we’re in, our customer base is a pimple on the global numbers of all these sneaker brands. What we do is bring energy, and it’s a real business. It’s not a hobby. You need to balance business and buzz, and we’ve proven we’ve been able to do it over time.

How important is having a passion for sneakers?

With everything that goes on with the day to day, there are so many times you can say, “Screw this, I’m not doing this.” But if you have the creativity, passion, and [confidence] that something can succeed, even if there’s going to be road bumps along the way, the [passion] has to be there. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll never be able to replicate everything that I’ve gone through. Has it slanted the way I view things? Absolutely. I’ve seen fashion trends and business trends and the way things ebb and flow, but I know things will come out the right way. When the word “sneakerhead” gets put in The Wall Street Journal and mass media, you get people coming out of the woodwork and wanting to open sneaker stores, because it’s the thing to do. God bless people who want to do that, but you can look at the stores who are in the same realm as we are, you can see that they’re people who are in it for the right reasons and have been around for a long time.

What’s your advice for someone looking to break into the industry?

Keep your eyes open, be humble, have opinions, but do it in a respectful way. Today with social media, a kid can go out and buy 20 pairs of sneakers, but it doesn’t mean shit. We’ve been able to grow, and we’ve had staff that’s worked with us for a long time. We treat it as a family and people you care about. We value their opinions. Some people will think they know everything. They’ll read a blog or read a history or look at Flight Club, but that’s not the business itself. Social media is a blessing and a curse. In my opinion, it gives young people a self worth that they think they have. But when they come into an employment position, they think they’re on an even playing level as people who have been doing this for a long time.

Aneesha Dewshi, PR, Gung Ho

Aneesha Dewshi