25.02.2016

Nic Galway Interview

Meet the man behind the Yeezy Boost, the Tubular and adidas’ latest coup the NMD

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Design: Jade Williams

Growing up in the UK during the 70s and 80s, Nic Galway remembers wearing classics such as the adidas Torsion and purchasing a pair of Superstars from Japan in a secondhand store in London. Sneaker culture wasn’t a thing back then, and Galway trained as a car designer, something that has allowed him to step back from how things are traditionally done in the sneaker game and look for alternative solutions. The result? Some of adidas’ most popular sneakers, namely: the Yeezy Boost, Qasa Racer, Tubular, Pure Boost and, most recently, the NMD. 

The NMD references three different sneakers from the 80s, namely: the Micropacer, Boston Super and Rising Star, but with the added benefits of a Boost midsole and Primeknit upper. Forging a new path for the brand with the three stripes it’s an exercise in the past informing the future. We spoke to adidas Originals vice president of global design about cars, kicks and Kanye.

You trained as a car designer, how does that skill transfer to sneakers?

I think in a fundamental sense, design is an act of problem solving. You need to design with purpose. I often say to my design teams that you shouldn’t think about how to make something but rather why you are making it. Without a clear purpose or idea you can get lost in the details and I think this approach is something that comes from my design background. I also think it helps that my background was not in footwear as it allows me to step back from how things are traditionally done and look for alternative solutions from outside of the industry.

Your sneaker designs are well documented, but what car designs were you responsible for?

That’s a good question and actually one of the key reasons why I moved into the footwear industry. After I finished my studies in automotive design I worked in a multidiscipline consultancy. We worked on many interesting projects from cars to trains, medical equipment and consumer products. In this role you get to touch many projects but you never have the chance to own the whole process and the lead times are very long. What I love in the footwear industry is that you can have an idea and see it realized very quickly and on the consumer.

Which is more important to you – innovation or heritage?

At adidas we really see these sitting hand in hand. One is not more important than the other – they really are connected so strongly within our DNA. We have a massive archive that is very impressive and rivals any in the industry, but what I find interesting is the ideas behind the shoes. You will find that every one of those products in our archive was at the height of innovation for its time. Innovation is our legacy as a brand. Our past really does empower our future.

If you can pick only one, is it better to design an object of desire, add value, or to create something succesful?

Well, ideally you achieve all three! But essentially if you create something that adds value to someone’s life, it becomes adopted into culture and the other two factors are also achieved.

What’s your take on controversial design?

I don’t really see our approach as controvesial but rather disruptive and thought provoking. I see my role as creative director – together with my team – to contiue adidas’ legacy of pioneering and innovating. By its very nature pioneering requires new thinking and being confident to push bondaries, we then use our heritage to balance this and provide cultural context.

Essentially you’re a sculptor, do you work on anything outside of adidas?

Creativity has always been a huge part of my life, when I’m not designing for adidas I spend a lot of time making things. I have renovated a number of houses and see them as living projects to try ideas, and currently I am re-trimming the interior of my Landrover Defender which is pushing my sewing skills.

Is it important for you to do non-commercial work, stuff that’s purely about artistic expression as a creative outlet, type of thing?

I definitely see myself as a designer rather than an artist. I am interested in the way consumers adopt the products we make into their lives, in that way I see the ultimate challege as being able to create something that has great artistic impression but that also connects with a wider consumer.  

A lot of design work is a case of ‘designers propose and the suits dispose’. Have you ever had to stop something you truly believed in, or on the flipside do work that you hated?

I feel very priveledged to work in a brand like adidas. We as creatives are given great freedom and there is a very open culture where I belive the opportunity exists to create product we truly belive in, that really cuts through with the consumer. Recent releases from Originals such as the NMD and Tubular are great examples of this approach. Of course not every product can achieve this but that is always my aim and the spirit I ask of my creative teams.

What about the materials that go into the bits we look at - do you do much of the R&D into things like neoprene uppers and Boost soles?

We have amazing innovation teams within adidas who come up with materials such as BOOST and Primeknit, I see the role of my creative teams is to look at these innovations and find ways to take them into new contexts. So for example, with the NMD I think the team did a great job in understanding the role BOOST could play in a modern lifestyle of always being on the move. They took this insight and made a product that connected the best innovations of today with the collective memory of our past. This is where I believe through design we can bring cultural relevance and connection to innovations.

You’ve collaborated with plenty of big names, what’s the secret to working with other creatives?

I think the most important part of any collaboration is really taking the time to get to know one another. Only then can you ensure you have a shared vision. We also like to spend time making things, really getting our hands dirty and spending some time figuring out how the partner creates. We always approach working with partners with an open mind and a mutual respect.

Can you tell us something about working with each of the people you’ve collaborated with?

-        Yohji Yamamoto

Yohji has been the single biggest influence on me as a designer, he opened my eyes to a whole new world that I did not know existed before I joined adidas. Without that original meeting back in 2000 my path may have been very different.

-        Stella McCartney

Stella taught me the importance of thinking differently not just with the product we create but also the way we work. She really showed the importance of research and understanding colour and fabric and having a much more hands on aproach with actual product, this is something I have aways bought back into the way I work with my teams in adidas,

-        Rick Owens

I’m a huge Rick Owens fan. My wife wore Rick Owens at our wedding before I had the chance to work with him so it was a great honour to be part of the collaboration. Rick is such an open and inviting person which you might not at first expect, but what I really admire is that he has such a clear vision and is not swayed by passing trends. I think there is a lot to learn from that approach.

-        Pharrell Williams

I have spent much of the last two years meeting Pharrell and his amazing team at various locations around the world. Pharrell once told me he sees adidas as a “people’s brand” and that is very true in his own approach to life. He is the kind of person who can make everyone in the room feel special and wants to give everthing to the project.

-        Kanye West

Kanye has really shown me what it means to 100% believe that anything is possible and that we all compromise far too easily in life. He is very extreme in this approach but we really learnt as a team that when we pull together and challenge our ways of working we can really start to push the boundaries of what is possible.

adidas has cornered the market in the music and fashion worlds, how much more fun is it to work in these spaces than, say, sports?

Well, sport is always at the heart of what we do as a brand. Even in the worlds of music and fashion many of the same elements of creativity, confidence, taking risks and challenging the status quo apply. As Kanye says, he sells out Madison Squae Garden, so when he’s on stage he’s a “performance athlete”. So we really see them as related in culture and not at odds with one another.

Adi Dassler wanted people to be able to identify his shoes from a distance, and so adidas was the first brand to employ a logo. Why are we now seeing a lot more designs sans the 3-stripes?

Like I said earlier, at adidas we have such a rich history and archive, we like to talk about something we call ‘collective memory’. Essentially it is our design DNA, and what makes adidas adidas. The three stripes you mention is just one of many innovative design elements adidas has employed throughout history. There are so many visual elements that people now associate with the brand, even if it is just subconciously. The EVA plugs in the BOOST midsole in the NMD for instance, echo those that originally featured in 80s runners such as the Boston Super and Rising Star. It’s these details that speak to our history that can make a contemporary silhouette like the NMD feel familiar and accessible which is a nice accompaniement to the innovations of today that is also contains.

Describe your studio.

The most important part of the studio is without doubt the people in it. My team is made up of fantastic young designers from all over the world who love the brand and share my vision for where we are heading. Without them, the studio would just be a space. We are constantly growing and evolving as a brand and what is really exciting is that much of what we have learnt through working with external partners is informing the way our studios evolve. So for example, we are moving away from designers constantly sitting infront of computers and introducing maker labs where designers can be hands on and make and explore their ideas.

How often do you get to design at work, and when not designing what’s your typical work day look like?

I try to always find a good balance. I lead a large team of creatives and it is important that every one feels ownership of where we are going and that they have a clear understanding of the creative vision of originals. These days I prefer to work more on studies with the team for discussion rather than actual products. I like to be able to spark discussion and understand the viewpoints of others. This collaborative approach I belive allows us to understand each other better and build a creative language for the brand rather than individual products.

How did you settle on the NMD name?

When I’m designing with my teams, we try to not set anything too rigidly in their minds. We wanted to ensure was that the name wasn’t too descriptive, so we came up with the code of NMD as the shoe was inspired by travel and a nomadic lifestyle. We like that the code was a little like airport codes also. Everybody just started to referring to it like that, and it seemed right so we kept it.

What’s really exciting for you in street wear right now?

I follow blogs and social media but for me it is more to get an idea of the status quo. We try not to let it impact or inform the design process too much. I will say that I enjoy seeing how culture adopts our designs, and seeing how people wear and style our products is always interesting. If I were to pick one movement I am seeing, it is that there is a real desire to challenge the status quo and that brands who are prepared to step up are the ones who are capturing the consumers attention. I like to believe adidas are playing a key role there in sport and culture.

As a designer how do you feel when something you’ve made has people camping out in the street waiting to buy it?

It’s very humbling.