The chicken or the egg adage when it comes to sneaker-obsessed skaters is, what came first: your love of skating, or your love of sneakers? For 25-year-old Jenn Soto, who’s now sponsored by Adidas, it all started in sixth grade when she saw her cousin land a trick. She was burnt out from years of intensive gymnastics training and decided on the spot that she wanted to pick up a board herself. She was attracted to the autonomy of the sport; where gymnastics was rigid and “drill sergeant-y,” she says, skating was self-directed and hinged on community support.

Hitting the pavement with a new friend who was also a beginner, Soto recalls taking stock of one another’s small wins, like getting two feet on the board and learning how to kickflip along the way. “Those key moments can make or break, not your skating career, but just passion,” she tells Complex. While she’d go on to cultivate a massively successful career, in those days for Jenn it was just about watching skate videos and working on the next trick.

She was rocking Nikes and Jordans as a kid long before she got into skating, albeit thanks to her mom’s good taste. By the time she started skating she’d lost interest in all things fashion.

“I was just a skate rat learning my kickflips with fucking shoes with the biggest holes in them, my school pants all ripped because we had to wear a school uniform,” she says. 

But taking the train from New Jersey into the city and seeing stylish skaters, and hanging out around Classic Skate Shop a few years later, she got into sneaker culture on her own terms, bearing witness to the earnest enthusiasm around hyped drops––she remembers watching lines wrap around the block for SB Dunk releases. And before long she got her first taste of recognition as a skater through the sneaker world: an Adidas shop flow sponsorship at Classic.

At 18, Soto took a leap of faith and drove cross-country with a friend to Los Angeles, with no solid plans, zero savings, and a dream that skating might take her somewhere. She leaned on friends like fellow professional skaters Manny Santiago and Vanessa Torres and worked survival jobs until she was able to go pro herself. Since then she’s competed in Backyard Skate Battle––impressing herself with her performance in the Adidas Top Tens––made the inaugural USA Olympic Skateboarding Team (which she’s since decided not to continue pursuing), and has had a full-circle moment with Adidas. She’s sponsored by the brand again after a stint with Nike, and riding for the Adidas Pro Skateboarding Team. She’s come a long way since the shop flow hookup of a few pairs of Adidas a month. Now she’s collaborating alongside the brand’s team, designing apparel, dropping her own colorway of the Superstar ADVs, and traveling the world repping the Three Stripes. Most recently that looked like a homies trip to Barcelona to film some clips. And her favorite style on and off the board after 13 years in the game? The iconic Shell Toe—“That’s all I wear, to be honest.”

Complex caught up with Soto to hear about working with Adidas, how sneaker culture is changing, and branching out through skating, below.

What was your sneaker shop when you were in Jersey City that you were getting your sponsorships through?
That was Classic Skate Shop. They just closed, which is sad, but there was two shops I skated for, but when I got into my older years and the sneaker stuff meant something to me, that’s when I was at Classic. And that was cool because that’s when all the OG Dunks were coming out. I can’t even name any, man, but they were so cool. The lines would go around the block and just people camping out for shoes. Back when that culture was pretty… I know people still do it, but I feel like it’s different with the online raffles and this and that now. No one’s lining up no more. It was cool, though. In the winter, people just with their fucking blankets and stuff. I was a little gamer at the time, so I had camped out for video games back then before I camped out for shoes. Once I saw that that had the same hype, I was like, “Damn, that’s pretty cool. I can get into that.”

Yeah, what made you get into it? Was there a pair of shoes that you were super into or was it just your friends were super into it?
Well, growing up when I was super, super small, my mom would get us Nikes and Jordans and stuff, and I always thought those were sick. But then there was a moment where I just didn’t care about any of that shit. At that time, I was just a skate rat learning my kickflips with, fucking, shoes with the biggest holes in them, my school pants all ripped because we had to wear a school uniform. And, that was another thing. School uniform was middle school all through high school so you had those days where you paid $1 and you got to dress down, but whatever.

Jenn Soto at a skatepark
Image via Zander Takemoto

I think skating put me on, being at the shop and seeing all those things at the same time, while skating and watching skate videos, everyone was hella fashionable, so I was like, “Let’s do this.” And, we went through phases. We had the High Waters with the socks super exposed and the Janoskis on, and then we went into the baggier Dunk phase. I think skating, for me, I have to feel good. Look good, feel good, skate good is what I think, and that’s been for so much of my life. Even now, putting the fit on, it’s going to set the whole day.

Was Adidas on your radar at all when you were younger? Or, what was your connection to Adidas as a brand before you were so involved like now?
So, it’s funny because before I used to skate for Nike as well, but before that happened, I was … So there’s flow, am, and pro. Flow is when people have their eye on you. They’re like, “Damn, that’s sick. Have some shoes,” so they send some stuff to support. Am is when you’re getting money, and then pro is pro. Your name is on stuff. At the time, I was on shop flow for Adidas, which is a step under flow-flow. He would make his order for Adidas at the shop. They would send a couple pairs extra in there for me. That happened for about a year. And then, I did my thing with Nike and then it just came full circle. Adidas came back and they were like, “Yo, what’s up?” My heart was always with Adidas before Nike. I just saw that at the time there was no growing that so I was like, “All right.” And I knew it, man. I was like, watch. Watch. The moment fucking Adidas approaches, Nike’s going to make an offer. Which I was obviously honored. And I was like, “Now I have to pick.” I felt like I was playing 2K, like I was on my career, like, “Which team are you going to go to?”

So, we chose Adidas and it was a full circle moment, and I’ve been so stoked with them because they give me freedom to express my ideas. They’re just open to everything. You have an idea, let’s hear it. It might happen, it might not but what’s up? They keep you very involved, and I like that.

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How so? Where have you gotten to express some creative freedom with them?
They gave me and my homie Mariah [Duran] an opportunity to do a colorway on the Shell Toe, the Superstar. And, I’m hyped because that shoe is such a classic. It just looks so good. The all-white with the black stripes alone is just clean. So, when we got to put our touch on it, I was like, “Oh, damn. That’s sick.” That’s the only shoe I skate anyway, so I love when things connect like that. I would have obviously still been stoked if they handed me a slip-on and they’re like, “Do this.” But, the fact that it was a shoe that I skated all day, that I wanted to wear, it just meant more. And I got to put all my ideas in that, and I know that was a lot. You dream of that moment, so you try to put all your ideas ever into one shoe, but we figured it out and it was super hype. I tried to just pay my odes back home, and just the things that I believe in.

This is 3M, so on camera, it shines really bright. It’s pretty fun in skate footage at night. It’s just illuminating. We’ve got the signature in there.

It seems like you came to fashion through sneakers, that was the first thing that you were noticing when you were younger and you were like, “I want to start having nice fits and nice sneakers.”
Totally. I put myself in a box growing up as well as far as fashion. I was like, “I have to dress like a skater, which means I have to do skinny pants with some Vans on.” And, I went that route and I was like, “If you’re not dressing like that, you’re whack, you don’t get it.” But now that I’m older and I’ve chilled out, I’m like, “Dude, there’s so many avenues you could take and still look sick try different things.” It’s lame to put the same clothes on every day.

Jenn Soto Adidas Superstar
Soto’s version of the Superstar. Image via Adidas

Do you have any more design projects or anything that you’re working on right now in terms of sneakers with Adidas that are going to come out soon?
I worked on a shirt with Adidas last year and I was like, “Well, I don’t think it’s ever coming out,” but I got a sample from it. I’m excited for this because I got to design a shoe I like, but I love clothing too, and I saw a moment in time where the world needed some love and unity and I was like, “All right, that’s cool. Let’s try to do something with that.” And, I really love the way it came out. The concept is, on the back it says love and peace in all different languages. I like having stuff that I could have all different kinds of people walking behind me, but they will all find something to read on the shirt, if that makes sense. No matter what the language comes from, you’re walking behind me, hopefully you’ll find yours on the shirt and feel loved… is the plan.

I just want to be able to … I don’t know, I like seeing things that matter, man. Change the conversation a bit. We all talk about a lot of things a lot of the times, so it would be nice for us to incorporate love, that X factor that I think we’re missing out on.

Yeah, for sure. Tell me more. Keep talking. What do you want? What kind of change do you want to see? Where do you want to see this?
Oh my gosh. I want to put [my dog] on a shirt that says “love” and just bring people together. No, but I want more fashion that like, well, I guess it’s not fashion. Fashion’s not the problem. I want things that can just bring people together, man. I really like what Adidas is doing by doing the Unite Fit. No genders. It’s just like, that shirt is this size. Get a medium, small or whatever, and then they change the cut to them so that it fits everyone.

It’s like going back to the “women’s skateboarding” thing. Let’s cut that and just do “skateboarder.” I love that fashion’s breaking that mold of gender roles and this and that, and Adidas is doing a good job by not just dropping a pink shirt for the ladies. It’s starting to be cool. We get just sick stuff that everyone wants to wear. That’s what I like.

I feel like that’s a relatively new development that it’s not, like you said, just dropping a pink shirt for the ladies. It’s cool to hear from you because you are more on the inside, that you feel like things are changing a bit in a good way, actually moving forward.
Yeah, we’re in the direction. We’re moving. We’re starting to move. But, I’ll take that over a couple years ago where it was that. I feel like maybe it’s just the skateboarding thing, but a lot of brands back in the day didn’t know how to cater to women, so they would just drop the pink T-shirt or the pink shoes. Even I like pink, but I’m not going to just wear those because they’re wack. And then they wonder why it didn’t do well. It’s cool to see that they’re not just like, “Oh, girl means pink.” There’s more complex thought into what people want to wear.

Jenn Soto Adidas Jonah Hill
Soto on the set of Jonah Hill’s “Change Is a Team Sport” ad for Adidas. Image via Adidas

It brings me back to a question I had about obviously the skate world at one time was pretty homogenous, and I imagine that the sneaker culture was like that too. Do you feel like you’re seeing changes in terms of just it not being a monolith?
Yes, especially in skating. I feel there was a time where I think that when someone says the “girl style,” have you ever heard of that in skateboarding?

I haven’t. What does that mean?
Someone will say, like, “She has a girl style.” It’s when you’re like popping your butt out a little bit when you squat to do a trick, but what comes with that is the fit, is what I think. It’s usually really tight jeans on, maybe a couple rips, Vans, tank-top. Classic just girly girl style. And now, I feel like we are getting those girls that are like, “Nah, I want to put the baggy camo pants on with the oversized T-shirt on.” I love that because no one’s calling them a girl when they’re doing that. When you’re wearing that fit, no one’s like, “Oh, you skate like a girl. You’ve got that girl style.” And, the conversation switches very fast.

Unfortunately, that’s where we’re at when people are so not open-minded that that’s what it takes. But, at least it’s a step in the right direction to feel more welcomed, I guess. No one wants to be shit on, “No, you have a girl style.” That already makes me not want to skate. If I’m just trying to, that sucks.

Jenn Soto grinding
Image via Zander Takemoto

It’s cool from the outside, I feel like skate culture just seems pretty queer. It’s cool that people can come into their style that might be more androgynous, and maybe that’s because they don’t want to be identified as “girl style.” It seems like it brings people to their authenticity a bit.
Totally. Yeah, because skateboarders are skaters, but we’re so many things within skating, which I think we get a lot of influence on. There’s so many skateboarders that make music, there’s so many skateboarders that graffiti and do art. There’s so many skaters that create clothing, so I just think that when you step into the skateboarding world, you’re stepping into a lot of worlds, where at first, you didn’t know. You’re like, “Ah, I just came to learn an ollie,” but the homie helping you at the fucking skate park has so many other hobbies that help his style on his skateboard. It’s all connected, which I think is sick. It’s my favorite part of watching. Watching a skateboarder who surfs is one style. Watching a dude that makes music is another style. You can tell in people’s skating, which is so sick. There’s no styles alike.

Are you doing any other Adidas fashion collabs or that’s the main thing you have coming up?
Maybe there’s something in the works already happening. I won’t find out until quite a bit from now. I want to do my part not with them in the sense of signing up for a sewing class and shit so when they do approach me, I have a little bit more knowledge. Yeah, I just want to show them that I’m equipped with some skills so I can produce. Skateboarding is my fucking heart, but it’s also my vehicle to get somewhere else. It’s the same way I started. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know this skateboard is my vehicle to get there, so I do want to show them that I have it in me to design more stuff. And, I would love to be doing that more frequently with them. Or, any company that’s interested, really. That, with modeling and all that stuff, too, I don’t know, I think it goes hand in hand with skateboarding. And, I think more people are seeing that.

It’s a multi-hyphenate type of vibe. You do one thing and you do everything else from that platform.
I’m trying to, first and foremost, keep skating every day because, my brain, I need that. Growing up when you fantasize or romanticize your dreams and shit, you have a picture in your head but it’s not colored in. You just have this vague outline, so I [had] no idea what came with being a full-time skateboarder. I have so much time on my hands. I’m not 12 years old. I can’t skate all day every day like I used to, so with that I have to find the balance of not working myself or breaking myself off because I’m tired.

I have all this time before that I didn’t have, because before when I wasn’t skating, I was clocking in to work. So, how do I fill that space productively to set myself up for later? And, I think that’s where the wanting to take a sewing class, that’s where that’s stemming from. I just bought 50 pounds of clay because I used to take ceramics in high school, and I just love that shit. I love working with my hands. So, make little coffee cups and stuff. I don’t know, I got time.

What do you like about working with Primitive?
Oh, man. The team. I’ve been on there for a long time through my shop back in Jersey, but now meeting the team, going on a trip with them, they’re all my favorite skaters before I even got … really cool to meet them and skate with them finally. And then, they’re all so cool and they’re my teammates and shit. 

Sneakers and stuff like that, bigger companies, you can see how the money is, do all that stuff, but as far as a board brand, that’s where you want to make sure you’re compatible. If you guys have to get in a van and drive six hours to San Francisco, you guys want to get along. I’m pretty good with the family I have, and to be next to fucking P-Rod just skating, my [inner] 12-year-old is always like, “Damn, I’m just tripping out.”