Jae Tips on His First Sneaker Collab: 'I Want to Break People's Necks'

We spoke with Jae Tips about designing his first-ever sneaker collab, the importance of in-store releases, what's next with Saucony, and more.

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000 Lead Image
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Jae Tips poses with his Saucony Grid Azura 2000 at his NYC pop-up. Image via Jae Tips

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000 Lead Image

Before he could probably even tie his shoes, John “Jae Tips” Cotton realized how important it was to wear a fresh pair of sneakers when he and one of his classmates in kindergarten both arrived to school in Air Jordan 11s. 

“It was real early, understanding that I had on something that was cool that people would look at,” he says over FaceTime. That understanding stayed with him. “I always go back to that moment of walking into middle school or walking into high school and people looking at your feet before they look at anything else. People wanna know if you had the new shoes before they even wanna know your name.”

As many sneakerheads do, Jae Tips stayed intertwined with the streetwear community from there on. He had a stint working at Foot Locker, frequented boutiques in New York City like Atrium and Nike’s 21 Mercer location (sadly, both are now closed), and acted as a middle man for his friends in the city to help them secure certain pairs on the aftermarket years before reselling was its own economy.

Along the way he released numerous rap mixtapes and albums (yes, he raps too). The merch releases to promote his music morphed into his clothing brand Savior, which still operates today. Perhaps he is best known for his contributions in the fitted hat community, which include various high-profile collaborations with Hat Club and New Era since 2020. 

Fast forward to 2023 and Jae Tips is releasing his first official sneaker collaboration, a colorful take on the Saucony Grid Azura 2000 ($160). It borrows various elements from a Bespoke Air Force 1 he designed in 2019, a one-of-one that was not an official collaboration with Nike but was picked up by sneaker blogs at the time like it was. His Saucony features similar details like zebra print branding, floral panels, and a checkerboard heel as a tribute to his favorite musician, the late Nipsey Hussle. 

“The Bespoke has been like the chip on my shoulder,” says Jae Tips. “I felt like I needed to prove something to myself that I can be successful and not have to dumb down a colorway. Everyone can’t wear it and pull it off, but if you start putting yourself in a box then people put you in a box too. No matter what sneaker company I worked with, the first shoe would’ve had to be a tribute to the Bespoke.”

Jae Tips’ Grid Azura 2000 receives its widest launch to date today through saucony.com and boutiques across the globe including Extra Butter, Sneaker Politics, Foot District, and End Clothing. Leading up to the launch, he hosted one-day pop-ups at Lower East Side flower shop Joy Flower Pot, Oneness in Louisville, and Leaders in Chicago. The final pop-up will take place today at Wish in Atlanta. The inclusion of in-person launches to the rollout of his first sneaker collab was important.

“I’ve been to too many sneaker releases and Supreme drops to not understand the importance of how it feels to have a community in the line showing up like they’re waiting for J. Cole tickets or something,” says Jae Tips. “When you drop online, you may run up the sales, but you don’t have that impact.”

Check out our full conversation with Jae Tips below.

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000

So what initially got you into sneakers growing up?

It may sound super duper storyboard, but I remember being in kindergarten and it was the first time I realized that the person across from me had on the same shoes. I had on the “Concord” 11s and this girl had on the “Bred” 11s. That’s what sparked my interest. I was like 4 or 5. It was real early, understanding that I had on something that was cool that people would look at. 

Eventually, not in the same way people do it today, but you became a pretty serious reseller at one point, right?

Yes. I wasn’t a serial reseller. I just always looked at it as a way for me to promote my music. I would offer people in the DMs like, “Yo, if you ever need a plug, I got homies at Foot Locker.” [Laughs.] I was trying to find ways to connect with people aside from just shooting an email. That was like early 2013, 2012. It was important for you to have a plug. Access was important. The reselling platforms didn’t come around til like 2016. It was just like Flight Club, and that was super premium prices. You had to have a plug. I was using it as a tool at that point to just make connections or help someone sell something. I was like a middleman, just to get my name out there. I went from working in retail at Foot Locker to being the person that was helping backdoor shit out of Foot Locker. [Laughs.]

How much did NikeID and going to 21 Mercer for Bespokes prepare you for this moment to design your own official collab?

Man, I feel like it prepared me 100%. I have homies that worked at 21 Mercer and let me learn more about the Bespoke and the ID stuff. I stopped trying to design just to match a Polo shirt, BBC jacket, or Bape jacket. I started to try and design something that people may be like, “Yo bro, I want a pair of those,” and maybe I could NikeID like 20 pairs of them and try to flip them. I was never able to do anything like that, but I did a few IDs that did get featured on the SNKRS app. I made a Bespoke Air Force 1 and promoted it like a real release, almost like a social experiment. I reached out to this photographer I know, Jordan Keyser. He was shooting for Packer at the time and I know he shot for Kith. I knew if he shot my shoe, everybody’s gonna think it’s like a real release. I did merch. It just blew up online. 

Did that lead you into starting your brand Savior?

Yeah. Savior was the name of my most recent mixtape at the time. I was just slapping Savior on T-shirts. I was embroidering it on hats. It just created a kind of storm online. I tried to strike while the iron was hot and keep building off of it. I feel like I’m still on the rollercoaster with that shit. 

You called it merch. At this point, would you call it a clothing brand? Are you a designer? How do you categorize yourself at this point now that the brand’s grown a bit more?

Yeah, I do think that I’ve crossed over. I’ve reached a certain plateau where I should be called a brand owner/designer or a creative.

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000

What initially intrigued you about collaborating with Saucony?

What intrigued me the most about Saucony was just being able to have free range. It was like Air. They were like, “We’re not the big brands. We’re not the big box companies. But we’d love to work with you if you’d love to work with us.” They’re owned by the same company that distributes the materials to New Balance and stuff like that. It definitely intrigued me to know that the quality would be there. And they were just responsive to everything man. They let me pick through models and me pick through textiles. They let me do pretty much anything I wanted to do. They were behind me. 

Of course, everybody has a childhood dream of wanting to work with Nike or Adidas, but I got a real chance to be in stores. I got a real chance to get some marketing money and be able to do things the way I wanted to do them [with Saucony]. What intrigued me the most was just the opportunity to grow with a company. 

I feel like Saucony is catching a bit of momentum right now.

Yeah. And that was definitely the part that I felt would work in my favor too. How often do you get a chance to make people make their first ever Saucony purchase? People who lined up to cop my shoe, this may be their first Saucony. And then you’ve got the enthusiast that’s gonna tell me they’ve been copping since they were a kid. But like you said, just catching the momentum. It’s very similar to what happened to me with the hat stuff. I was at the peak of people feeling like fitted hats were getting cool and then, boom, look at resale, look at lines, look at the hype. 

The bright colors have always been part of your brand identity. Can you just talk about making sure that translated properly to this shoe?

I’m a very nostalgic person, especially when it comes to me making a mood board for how I want to design something. I always go back to that moment of walking into middle school or walking into high school and people looking at your feet before they look at anything else. People wanna know if you had the new shoes before they even wanna know your name. So before I even selected the model or anything, it was figuring out how to make a statement. Whether you love them or hate them, look at those shoes. 

I feel like that’s something that’s been very lost in shoe culture, especially from a design aspect. There’s a lot of safe earth tones. It’s a lot of safe grays and blacks. But I want to break people’s necks. I want people to say, “Did you see what that person’s wearing?” That was my vision before I even got to anything else. How can we accomplish that, while at the same time making something we’re gonna want to wear? And then how do we create something that’s going to be known for Saucony? People may see that shoe in different colorways now and because of mine be like, “Oh that’s that Saucony,” because they recognize the shape. 

The colors come from telling myself that I want to be known as like the flower that grew out the concrete, being from the Bronx, the rough neighborhoods, the rough school system. Sometimes having material things was the only thing that made you have a better day. You could be going through a shitstorm at home, but you’d go outside and get a nice look. That’s what I wanted to accomplish. And I think I did.

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000 Design

Did you have a previous relationship with Saucony at all?

So, I got fired from Foot Locker June 2013. I was going to Summer Jam in New Jersey. I just needed something to wear. There was this reseller that I knew that had a bunch of Bodega Sauconys. They had some cheetah print. [Ed. Note: the shoe was the Bodega x Saucony G9 Shadow 6 from 2013]. That shoe had a lot of people like, “What are those?” I wore them to Summer Jam and literally I got fired from Foot Locker the next day. So, that was really my only relationship with Saucony. But that was like my only reference I had for my shoe. That shoe was chaotic and I don’t see anything else that Saucony has ever done that’s been that chaotic but also that fashionable that I wanted to put it on with a Pyrex 23 shirt. I wanted to create that moment. I didn’t want just people who are brand enthusiasts to wear it. I want people to get fly. I want you to walk through SneakerCon and see people wearing my shoe. I didn’t want it to just be people walking their dog in Washington Square Park.

Did you get to pick the model you worked on?

They walked me into a room. I went to the campus when it was still the pandemic. It was like the end of 2020 or early 2021. The collaboration director Jason [Faustino] was still working from home. He was like, “Let me know when you want to come up because that’ll be the day that I come to the office.” That’s how dead it was. He walked me into a room and they still had like 2019 notes on the wall. But he was like, “All of this stuff is what’s currently in production,” to spark my interest. I already took the shoes off the wall that I was a fan of and took pictures on the ground and was trying to do color-ups on my iPad in Photoshop. Before he even told me what was possible, I’d already told him color palettes and themes. 

He was kind of confused to be honest. He was like, “You know, [the Grid Azura 2000] is not a shoe that sells the best. Would you want to do a Jazz?” which is what Frank Cooke and Trinidad James did. I was like, “Nah, I want to make something I know I would wear.” To this day, people are saying this is a model that stores don’t want anymore. But this is the only shoe that I knew genuinely I would feel good about. Everything else would just be, “Oh, I did a collab with Saucony.” This shoe had enough panels. If you look at 10 colorways in a row, there’s so many different variations. I feel like Saucony works really hard and gets under-noticed. If you look at a shoe like the Air Jordan 1, it’s only altered when it’s a collaboration. Saucony has all this stuff in line. If they work with the right people, I don’t see how some of these models can’t get a little bit more respect.

That’s interesting. The Grid Azura 2000 is one of the Saucony models I’m personally drawn to.

I’ve spent so much time being the test subject for focus groups and being the consumer. I worked in Foot Locker. I resold. I consulted. I’ve started my own brand. So, when people start talking about analytics and what sells and what doesn’t sell, no. You have to be outside. You have to know that this is the one that people would wear. I don’t care if Europe only wants to buy this model or Asia doesn’t really buy this one, so they won’t let us mass produce it. I can’t talk to you if that’s the way you speak. And I think they got that. I think that’s the reason that they believed in me. I wasn’t speaking to a metric. I was speaking from my passion for shoes. I got to the blogs with a Bespoke. Imagine if I can get this into people’s hands?

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000 Design Process

Was the Bespoke in the back of your head when creating this one? I feel like there’s a lot of similar colors and materials.

The Bespoke has been like the chip on my shoulder, man. When it came to the Bespoke, it was tough to hit events because everybody thought my Air Force 1 was coming out. To keep telling people “maybe one day,” it became hard. When I would ask a person at a brand about it, they would be like, “The materials would be too expensive,” or “The GR version wouldn’t look the same.” I felt like I needed to prove something to myself that I can be successful and not have to dumb down a colorway. Everyone can’t wear it and pull it off, but if you start putting yourself in a box then people put you in a box too. No matter what sneaker company I worked with, the first shoe would’ve had to be a tribute to the Bespoke. 

What are some of your favorite details on the shoe?

The checkerboard heel. It’s not just a pattern. It’s carbon fiber. My favorite artist, one of my biggest inspirations, is Nipsey Hussle. The checkerboard is a tribute to him. 

We couldn’t find the perfect Liberty floral print for the mudguard. They had to find a company to sublimate the floral print onto leather. 

My third favorite is the mesh that I have on my shoe. I looked through the book of meshes and found one that I’d never seen before that had really big holes and really big square shapes. It almost doesn’t look like it’s just mesh. It looks like this is a special feature on the shoe. 

How many samples were there?

They made three samples at one time with different materials in different places just so I could see them come to life. One sample was a home run. The only thing that I changed was putting “Made by Jae Tips” on the liner and making it green instead of white. Now, it kind of bounces off of your sock. 

That was something that they were pretty impressed by too. When you look through Pantone books, there’s a good chance the color may not come back how you want it. I kind of learned that from making hats with New Era and Hat Club. There’s a big difference between beetroot pink and hot pink. I could assume what certain colors would actually look like. It saved them some trouble. They were happy with that.

At any point, did they try to steer you away from making something so loud and colorful?

To be honest, that was the part that I actually struggled with. There was no pushback. It was almost like, “I need some help here.” [Laughs.] The only thing that they gave me pushback on is that I wanted certain laces, but you wouldn’t have been able to pull them through the holes. 

Overall, maybe they just thought the New York pop-up and ComplexCon and stuff was a pipe dream and I wouldn’t be able to do it. Other collaborators let stores take leads. They’ll have a drop at Concepts or Atmos or something. They were like, “You wanna do this on your own? You don’t wanna find a partner for budget?” So maybe I was a bit too nonchalant about that, but that was the only part they really gave me pushback on. 

On the heel of the midsole, it says “remember who fronted.” Could you explain why you wanted that message on there?

Man, we send a lot of emails that don’t get answered. We work a lot of years on career paths and then maybe have to go do something else. People exchange numbers and maybe you never hear from them. I just think that’s been a chip that I’ve had on my shoulder for a long time, wanting to prove people wrong that just ignored me. Example, when the hat stuff was popping off I approached Bape and had a full deck about how Bape was important to the culture and everywhere is going to start making fitteds, so making fitteds with someone that’s big in the community could be a good intro for them. They told me straight up I just wasn’t big enough. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I just wanted to say you don’t have to wait to speak to me until I have a big co-sign or one million followers.

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000 NYC Pop Up

Can you talk about how the idea for the flower shop pop-up in New York came together?

I had these big ideas to rent out a store and have all these flower arrangements, and had to figure it out with a tight budget. I wasn’t trying to host a pop-up at a sneaker boutique. So I found somewhere that let me take over for the day. My first idea was a music venue to tie back into my musician roots, but settled on a flower shop to play off the flowers. I searched flower shops in LES. I searched one on Instagram and the first picture I saw was the owner wearing a pair of Sauconys with a bouquet in her hand. What’s more perfect than that? It came from left field, but we made the most of it.

Why was it important for you to do the first launch of the shoe in person instead of just doing it online?

You only get a first once. Even the box says, “Jae Tips’ first shoe.” It was important for me because, man, I’m a student of the culture. Even if I attended drops and didn’t get the shoes, I retained the information of how it was run. I’ve been to too many ComplexCons before I was a designer. I’ve been to too many sneaker releases and Supreme drops to not understand the importance of how it feels to have a community in the line showing up like they’re waiting for J. Cole tickets or something. I feel like that’s what I was able to do for people. I learned that from hats too. When you drop online, you may run up the sales, but you don’t have that impact. I may sell 1,000 hats and nobody even knows. So, I just really wanted to make that impact because at the end of the day, these are the moments that make people talk about you in shoe of the year conversations and stuff. I just really wanted to make sure that nobody could say, “I wish they would’ve done this.”

What was the significance of the location in the campaign photos?

When I used to participate in these Nike focus groups and things I would get invited to, I would always say that New York is five boroughs and we have another state. How come y’all only want to shoot at MSG or Yankee Stadium, and only want to make Knicks and Yankees colorways? There’s so much more life to New York City and there’s so much more to the Bronx than Big Pun and Yankees. I grew up under the 2 train. I felt like that would be something that people would identify with a lot. I just wanted to do something that was super Bronx, but you don’t usually get through product because product is so safe. They’d rather shoot at botanical gardens than shoot like at the 2 train. I just really wanted to tell the organic Jae Tips story. I’m a train baby. 

Jae Tips x Saucony Grid Azura 2000

Is there anything you can say about the next project you have in the works with Saucony?

I was on a trip to the office and saw these shoes on the table. I asked them for the CAD and I sent over my mockups. They made samples of all three colorways that I made. We’re only going to drop two of them. They feel like the next ones are going to really shake things up. 

They’re sort of inspired by the “Forever” series that I released for Hat Club. I just wanted to kind of play off some of my favorite colorways. I wanted to show my range. My designs aren’t all just chaotic. They can be super wearable but still have my identity.

As both a customer and now as a collaborator creating your own shoes, what are your thoughts on the sneakers space right now?

I feel like we all fell in love with shoes the same way, but we’re falling out of love with shoes the same way too. The stories aren’t relatable. Everything is so wrapped around sport and not really wrapped around culture all the time. What’s the reason why I want to have something? I feel like a lot of people have lost that. It’s tough because that’s my first love, the love for shoes. 

What I do like, we’re in this space where these other brands are making movements and these other brands are able to exist in a space that maybe were neglected for a long time. A lot of Nikes and these retro silhouettes told the story themselves. No one needed to make dope art direction videos and photoshoots because people are going to line up for Jordans no matter what. So I do think we’re in a space where people are appreciating the brands and people who tell genuine stories.