Pony x Yong Bae Seok: A sneaker design demigod talks value, youth and desire
I've a confession to make: I don't own a pair of sneakers. I do have a pair of well-worn sports shoes I run and cycle in, but those fly off my feet as soon as the cardio stops and never, ever appear in public. In my shoe closet, one will instead find quite a number of brogues, ballet flats and sensible kitten heels. Safe to say, sneakers and streetwear in general aren't really my thing.
To then be tasked with interviewing sneaker designer and consultant Yong Bae Seok felt like casting pearls before (figurative, the real ones are lovely) swine. The man originally trained in industrial design and had worked with Dolce & Gabbana, Bally, Cesare Paciotti, Fila, Superga, Diesel, and Geox before taking on his current role as Tod's head of men's footwear. He also runs his own label and continues to pursue projects with other brands. One assumes, naturally, that Seok's parents live in daily shame of their underachieving son.
The designer's latest undertaking, and the reason behind his visit to Singapore, is the pre-launch of his capsule for the American sport shoe maker Pony. The line debuted at Pitti Uomo in June, and Seok's revamp of Pony's brand classics were extremely well-received; the laces of the brand's signature City Wings, for example, had been replaced by very 2018 elastic bands and came in geometrically color-blocked leather, a nod to Zaha Hadid's Vitra Fire Station.
When I arrived at the unventilated, very warm Street Superior venue — a former power station that probably didn't consider layered-up hypebeasts' comfort a priority during its building phase in the early 1950s — I found my quarry dressed, rather intimidatingly, in a suit jacket and sunglasses. As I melted under the Pony booth's lights, Seok remained remarkably unfazed by the heat, and graciously shared his passion for sneakers from his dual perspective as maker and consumer.
Let's start at the beginning: what's your earliest footwear memory?
When I was younger I was obsessed with basketball shoes, because to me they represented American culture and the NBA stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. I remember collecting a lot of Reeboks and Nike Jordans. My interest led me to extensively research sneaker brands like Nike and Pony, the latter of which is especially retro and emblematic of that early American streetwear heritage. That's where it all began for me, really.
Sneakers have been touted as the symbol of affordable and democratic fashion. With the massive hype, exclusivity and hefty price tag surrounding many of today's popular launches, is that perception still accurate?
Years ago, luxury fashion and streetwear were worlds apart. Now fashion has come around on sports gear and shoes, and in some cases have shifted their entire business model towards the streetwear category. Prices have increased as a result, but the core market for them remains teenaged; kids these days are willing to drop more than 500 euros on designer sneakers, and that's just not right.
I work for a lot of legacy fashion brands like Bally and Tod's, but their materials and quality craftsmanship justify the price tags. It's honest pricing. But when it's a hyped-up collaboration, I feel people are paying far more than what the actual product's worth. It doesn't sit well with me. I hope at some point the industry reverts to pricing according to the real value of a shoe, and not the marketing around it. The younger consumer has always more susceptible to hype, but as they mature they'll begin to focus on quality. That's just the way it is.
As symbols of modernity, what do smart phones and sneakers share in terms of the design principles behind them?
Shoes are a transportation product, and as such, a lot of tiny details need to be just so. Smart phones similarly require precise specs to "work". A smart phone keypad and a sneaker are the same to me. One millimetre too wide or too narrow, and the user instinctively won't like it. It's all about function and comfort.
Fashion in the 2010s has become a lot more accessories-driven than ever before. Why do you think footwear, particularly sneakers, are such a big focus?
I've been in the shoe trade for over 18 years. You wouldn't know it from how footwear-focused fashion is today, but their popularity really does come and go. I think the current sneaker moment reflects a culture which values comfort and mobility. Modern life moves fast, and sneakers embody that.
A lot of people treat shoes as an afterthought, but for me they are the finishing touch to getting dressed. Having said that, I don't think this sporty/casual sneaker moment is going away anytime soon. Dress shoes simply aren't as comfy for an active, day-to-day working life, nor are they the preferred choice for relaxing on the weekends. Again, it all comes back to comfort and how the shoes make you feel.
You have a well-documented interest in innovative footwear materials and manufacturing processes. What do you think is going to be the next game-changer in sneaker design?
Nowadays, knit, neoprene or technical fabric uppers are super important for the sneaker category, primarily because they're low-cost, and maybe slightly more eco-friendly because they're easier to dye. I think knit will continue to grow and supplant more traditional footwear textiles like leather.
What kind of product do you think is most challenging or impossible to design successfully for?
All design demands time for research and development. That's true of everything, whether it's cars or mobile phones or sneakers. It's not as much a question of which category is more challenging, as much as it is a question of the time and resources given for R&D.
Car manufacturers, for example, invest far more in it than footwear brands, because there are more considerations like safety. Imagine if a car that cost a billion euros to develop didn't sell. It's a far higher risk, and if designing automobiles seems more challenging than designing a sneaker, that probably explains why.
How does it feel to have been born in Korea — where Seoul is one of the world's fastest-growing fashion capitals — and to work in Italy, where Milan's influence as a fashion capital seems to be in slow decline?
Europe is under a lot of economic strain right now, and Asia by comparison is doing alright. The world's attention turns to wherever the money is. But I still think Milan is influential, and a lot of brands are finally reshoring. Traditional Italian craftsmanship is unparalleled, and fortunately for all of us it is undergoing a revival. As a Korean working in Italy, I think I bridge that gap between a nascent and a very developed fashion culture. It's helped me a lot to have an understanding of both markets.
You've said in the past that as a designer, the process of selling and promoting your product is just as important as designing it. Does it ever feel strange to be a 'star designer' at events like these, and to witness first-hand the responses to your work?
I think a designer has a responsibility to sell. And I don't want to rely entirely on marketing and sales departments. A good designer should have a hand in every step of the journey, from concept to consumer. To me sales has always been another part of the design process. It has to be.
You've expressed a desire to expand into new categories for your label Seok. What non-fashion category would you most like to add to your offering?
I'm an industrial designer whose native habitat isn't fashion. I've done a lot of work outside of footwear, a fair bit within the realm of interior design (luxury ceramic tiles with Ornamenta and wallpaper with Glamora) where I got to indulge my slightly more poetic and sensitive sides. It's fun to step outside the footwear bubble sometimes. I'm definitely keen to expand into to home décor at some point, with lamps and chairs and such. I want Seok to be a lifestyle brand.
Check out all the styles from the Pony x Yong Bae Seok capsule collection below:
PONY x Yong Bae Seok will be available from November 15, at Robinsons The Heeren and Tang Plaza.