One of the best sneakers of the year may not even be a sneaker at all. Kanye West, who's had a tumultuous time in the public eye as of late, is also at the center of one of the most interesting and daring footwear designs in recent memory. His latest work, the Adidas Yeezy Foam Runner, is a foam-based slip-on shoe that's made from algae in the United States, and its design is as airy as it is weird.
West’s oldest child, North, debuted the shoe in June 2019 before it was unveiled at a Fast Company summit with Yeezy's design director, Steven Smith, in November 2019. The duo would show off the new product in the same way that Steve Jobs would present a new iPhone or Elon Musk would roll out a Tesla Cybertruck, save for the shattered glass.
"That's what it was like in the '90s," Smith says about showing the world the Foam Runner for the first time. "I think back to those days, and that's what it's like working with Kanye. Together we create these things that are like resets of where the business is at."
This feeling matters to Smith, a design veteran who’s worked in the industry since the ‘80s across brands such as New Balance, Reebok, Adidas, Nike, and now Yeezy.
Smith says the aesthetic for the Foam Runner, which retails for $75 as the cheapest-ever Yeezy, comes from a "series of mockups" that he had done a year ago, but says the final product was finished by a young Adidas designer.
"It's hard to describe how the [design] process works," says Smith.
In an earlier interview with Complex during All-Star Weekend, he referred to his job as a sort of “special ops” for West, where he completes his mission and gets out.
When the shoe was first previewed, many compared it to a Croc, which is understandable. They're both made from foam, both slip-on, and both have holes. The question doesn't offend Smith, although he doesn't see them as one and the same.
"It's understandable. I mean, similar process," Smith says. "It looks nothing like anything before it. Why do things have to be ugly or not?"
Smith says he can see the idea of the Foam Runner growing in the Yeezy line. "I would say it becomes part of Yeezy DNA. That's [Kanye’s] vision." he says. "The roots of it were just something new, a different aesthetic than where things were at."
Smith's largest role in the Foam Runner, aside from helping create the concept for the shoe, was contributing to its American-made manufacturing process. It’s something he's familiar with through his earlier work with New Balance, who’s currently the only major footwear brand aside from Yeezy that makes product in the USA.
Smith describes building the American manufacturing infrastructure as "pretty epic." He goes on to say, "I was excited to get some manufacturing here, so it worked out well. My projects through my career, it's always a battle, you know, 'cause people would like to take the easy route."
Past projects in Smith's career include designing Reebok's Instapump Fury, a shoe that the brand notoriously dismissed before it came to market, as well as working on the idea of VaporMax technology for nearly two decades before it became a reality.
Smith says the most difficult part about the American-made process was getting people to believe in it. "I would say just getting people to finally commit [was the hardest part], and I don't mean Ye, because he was empowering me to do it for years."
This isn't the first left-of-center shoe that Smith has had a hand in with West. Although many people know him for his work on the Adidas Yeezy 700 Boost "Waverunner," he also created a lesser-known pair of shoes for West that has never been released to the public, and one that many know nothing about: the Yeezy Scuba Shoes.
Last year, West wore the Scuba shoes to his Sunday Service gatherings, and they left many people bewildered. Was it a Yeezy? Would it release? What the hell was it?
"It was literally something he wanted," Smith says. "You can see that the Sunday Service Bootie led to the 380, in that simplicity—granted, it got tall. It was ultimate comfort, and that's what the Sunday Service Bootie represented."
Smith laughs, and says no when asked if this is the oddest request West has given him. "There's no such thing. We're there to make his vision come to life. It's pretty simple and clear."
Another storyline for the Yeezy Foam Runner is that the inaugural colorway was named "Ararat," for Kim Kardashian's Armenian heritage. Mount Ararat, a volcanic mountain located in the Armenian Highlands, is the largest national symbol in Armenian culture and where Noah's Ark is said to be located. The shoe's white colorway represents the snowcaps of Ararat, and the sneaker itself caused a fervor within the Armenian community. It even prompted the official Twitter account of Armenia to tweet about the shoes.
Representatives of the Twitter account declined to comment for the story, as the topic of sneakers wasn't in their wheelhouse. The reporting occurred at the same time of escalations on the border with Azerbaijan that have resulted in deaths.
Some Armenian-Americans were able to get their hands on the shoes, which sold out instantly with the relaunch of West's Yeezy Supply website and resold for upwards of $700.
"I couldn't believe there was a shoe named after something Armenian. I would never in a million years think we would see that but I was wrong," says Haig Abnous, an Armenian-American who works as an NFL agent. "I knew the moment they were announced I had to buy a pair. The only reason I bought them was because they were named Ararat."
Abnous admits that he wouldn't have gone for the shoe if there wasn't the Armenian connection, although he says they are comfortable.
Smith didn't necessarily expect a familiar reaction to the shoe, and that's sort of the work he has done with Yeezy. "It breaks the paradigm of what the expected is," he says. "[It has the] combinations of groundbreaking things: the eco foam, the one-piece injected shoe, the aesthetic that looks like nothing else. Just good combinations of things help to create iconic product."