Never at a loss for words, Simon “Woody” Wood was perhaps one of easiest interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting. From his well detailed and articulate replies to actually submitting an edited transcript of our interview at then end, perhaps above all else it was our shared backgrounds as editors in sneaker relevant disciplines that made things click and flow with ease. Just celebrating his monumental fifteenth issue, we took the opportunity to chop it up over a number of different issues with the bubbly Australian. The insights of someone in the sneaker industry who has arguably been unrivaled in exposure to shoes from an un-biased non-brand point of view is sometimes a rarity as is his inside-out knowledge and understanding of sneakers. Some of many favorite topics throughout the interview included hybrids and the Air Yeezy to the magazine’s humble beginnings and on to more pressing issues regarding the future of print. As a leading sneaker-centric publication, things look pretty good for something started with hopes of getting a few free pairs of kicks.
Interview: Eugene Kan
Interview with Simon “Woody” Wood
What was the catalyst for starting a sneaker mag?
The catalyst was really just to make something fun for the hell of it. I figured I could get a load of free shoes as well! There was no business plan or idea of where it would lead and I wasn’t even sure there would be a second issue. It is a cliche, but things never turn out how you think they will. I certainly never thought I’d still be here writing about shoes all day, but once the global mainstream media got hold of this “crazy Imelda Marcos sneaker guy” story, I knew it was looking a lot bigger than I originally expected.
I definitely think I’m in a similar situation. You never expect something so relatively trivial in sneakers and fashion to become your mainstay. Did the name Sneaker Freaker immediately emerge as the proper title for the magazine? Did you consider any other potential names?
The name just rolls off the tongue and rhyming things are always nice. It’s also quite symmetrical, which you can see in our logo. I never really put a whole lot of thought into it to be honest, it just stuck and the domain was available. Over time your name just becomes you and you become your name. I remember the Arctic Monkeys saying that bands should have a silly name, but they would say that wouldn’t they? I wonder about The Edge, and if he thinks his name makes him look like a tit at 40? These things are cyclical anyway, look at how many bands start with THE right now. EMO bands are funny as well with their grandiose monikers, I guess it’s all part and parcel of the whole culture. I’m glad sneaker shops have stopped with the puns though, that was getting a bit much. Props to you guys though, HYPEBEAST is the best name ever. How did you think of that?
If I remember correctly I think the name was getting thrown around a lot right during the time HYPEBEAST (the blog) started, so it just stuck. When did the first issue of Sneaker Freaker come out? How long were you in the planning stages before the inaugural release?
Issue One was released in 2002. I’d say I put about, oh, maybe… three hours of planning into it, which consisted of emailing everyone I knew to find other dudes who were into sneaks. After seven years that’s one of the big differences – we are now a close-knit global community rather than a secret society of individuals. I definitely wrote Issue One and designed the whole thing in a week so it was a pretty quick turnaround. Raw is probably the best word for it. Anyone who has seen that first issue will understand but it is totally a fanzine in the true sense of the word. The printer did me a favor and we produced a few thousand which were all given away and now they are going for $200-$300 USD on eBay and I didn’t keep more than a few copies for myself! It’s funny to look back on some of the crap we used to get excited about. Remember when the NYC logos appeared on Air Force Ones? It was quite exciting times.
What has been some of the best opportunities and perks to emerge out of your job?
Ha! Perks include free sneakers – loads of free sneakers! But probably the biggest perk is that I travel a lot and it’s usually on someone else’s dime. Much like anyone in this industry, you build up a collection of good friends wherever you go and I value that over just about anything. Coming from Australia makes that so much more radical as nobody usually visits me (except Krink), so I have no choice but to get on my bike and pedal. I’ve been to some cracking parties as well such as the Air Force Anniversary in New York which was Gold Class all the way – mint Escalades and fancy hotels plus Nas, KRS One, Kanye and over 1700 Uptowns. Spending a week with the ACG guys in Moab was a stand-out as well – the hiking nearly killed me but it was a memorable week talking to Tinker around the campfire in Utah. But in terms of opportunities, the biggest one is working with brands to develop products that bear the Sneaker Freaker name. The PUMA Blaze of Glory shoe in particular was brilliant and I’m so grateful they supported the shark skin version we presented. That shoe will live for a long time. I could go on about how fortunate and blessed I am to be doing something I love but that would be corny and suck balls.
Touching back on something you brought up regarding the travel perks of Sneaker Freaker, that is another point I can relate to in some aspects.The ability to meet great people (although we seem to not travel all that much here) is among one of the defining points of the job and being on-site can only help your cause. Do your preferences in footwear reside more in iconic retros and shoes from the past or more in-line with contemporary styles?
As far as my personal taste goes, it’s easy to say I’ve had my share of retros, but I’ll still be amped if I see something I love like the Kazuki x adidas project. There’s always retro shoes that are brilliant to see brought back from the grave, such as the Agassi Cross Trainers. I used to be a mad AF-1 collector when I was a civilian, but they slipped off the radar for me a while back. I don’t generally wear basketball shoes and I’m holding out on the geography teacher shoe thing so far… so what am I left with? The Max 90 Current, Moire Current, the Proper x Vans boat shoes and the Goodfoot A-ZX were cool. I slept on Solebox’s PUMAs and might regret that one later. I’m also trying to wear some performance stuff like the Reebok Omni Hexride, ASICS Busseltons and FREE Everyday just to shock the youngsters. I’m not sure they’re feeling it like I am but the idea used to be to make people look at your feet so what do I know? There’s quite a few upcoming shoes that I need such as the ACG Salbis and Morizabi, the NB 991s (JPE) are really nice and the new Varsity pack from Saucony is a must have. Their Shadow 6000 is one sweet ride. I dig the Livestrong stuff as well and the Prestos that are about to drop again as well! That’s more than enough for me to be happy!
But in general, I guess I’m like a lot of guys from my generation who were brought up on a diet of unexpected new designs every month. We just came to expect it really and that’s what makes this retro fascination potentially so dreary. Saying that, during this era, I would only find maybe six pairs of shoes a year that were worth getting my knickers twisted, so it’s all relative. It’s brilliant now, there’s so much effort put into materials and development, not to mention entertainment and events and collab models.. there’s no comparison. I don’t think the quality of the product is the issue. I am also acutely aware of not being stuck in a self-induced timewarp. I can certainly see why CLAE and Pointer and brands like that are doing so well – the product looks neat, it’s really well made and I think we’re all looking to dress a little more grown up. I’ve been looking at the Kanye x Vuittons closely as well. I really like them… do you think that is a worry? They’ll be going for $800 – $1200 USD. What do you guys make of them?
When I looked at Kanye’s LV shoe, I really didn’t bat an eye at the price. Not because I had intentions of buying but at the end of the day, the base product is in fact a high-fashion house in Louis Vuitton who are producing and offering the design reins to Yeezy. Replace LV with Nike and of course we’d all be up in arms, but even then the $215 price tag is pretty hefty for the Air Yeezy in my opinion.
The Yeezy tag is a little hefty, but I think they need to put a price on it. It’s a big shoe, it glows like a mofo and I’m sure it wasn’t cheap to make – I wonder what they paid old Westy for his time? Kanye did say they made 9000 pairs or something, so you can’t say Nike did the usual trick of putting out 24 pairs here and there to make kids lose their shit. I think it’s great they made that many pairs as it’ll really test out the strength of supply and demand, which is after all, what this game is all about. The $215 price is still affordable for most American kids and whilst you can accuse Nike of many things, I don’t think they ever gouged their prices even when SB was at its peak. Some stores on the other hand couldn’t help themselves…
Now, given kids have been dropping a grand on super-reseller Nikes for years, the prices for the LV shoes are still ridiculous, but not without precedent. The timing is also perfect and I think kids are ready to buy into something at this level. It’s new, it’s exciting and it wouldn’t be the first time that the hood has lusted after luxury brands. From a design point of view, and this might be heretical, but I really like the Vuittons I have seen so far. Whoever designed the shoe did a nice job. (laughs) I mean, I doubt I would pay that much myself, but I would wear the less fruity ones. I think there’s a certain inherent comic value in them as well, which is also what you buy into if you do the fake Rolex/Gucci/LV thing. It’s fun to inhabit a world that you are never meant to be a part of. I’m positive LV is counting on sneaker kids to front for them – why else would they do it?
On a personal level, we’ve felt that the start of 2009 has yielded a number of solid footwear offerings relative to last year. What are your thoughts on the current batch of releases early into 2009? Is the footwear industry currently in a healthy state?
It’d be a big call to say the industry is in a healthy state. I think it’s fair to say we are in a transition phase between an old model that was really successful and a new one that is only just emerging, especially in regards to product direction. I wouldn’t really know how the big companies are doing at the bottom line but I know a lot of friends have been laid off in the industry and I doubt many independent stores are laughing all the way to the bank.
Aside from that, it seems to me that price is the biggest issue at the moment. We are all still happy to keep buying but we’re fussier than previously and the mad hunger to buy any old crap has abated. What I’ve particularly noticed lately is that the quality of materials has really been compromised to keep costs at the same level. That’s what retailers are demanding and that’s why there’s a lot of cheapness floating around. But I think we all need to be realistic about that fact and have a look at ourselves. Shoes haven’t gone up in price for years. Do we want to pay more or would you rather buy two pairs in ‘pleather’? There’s also no doubt there’s too much product – I wonder who is buying it all and if not, where it ends up? As far as quality goes, it’s subjective of course and hard even for me to judge one year from the next. I think it’s basically an irrelevant question as the answer doesn’t prove anything. As I was saying about the AF-1s with the NYC logo on them, everything needs to be put in context of what came before it and right now, there’s been so much water under the bridge, it’s much harder to land a decent punch. Plus, there’s so much spoiling going on that when one brand does well, everyone else jumps on their steez, which is why you have copies of copies of copies that dilute the impact of the original. It’s tough out there. Saying that, I do know there’s more than enough good looking shoes for me to fill a magazine three times a year. I just wish kids in general would support all-new models more. At the moment, the level of investment needed to create new designs from scratch is hard to justify for many brands. It’s a lot of money…
Regarding all new footwear creations, what are your thoughts on hybrids? Are they something that are an appropriate gap between vintage and contemporary? A necessary tool for designers?
This is a highly subjective topic and one I have written about before in Sneaker Freaker 10. We even dug up some way-old hybrids such as a BW with a 180 sole, an Air Max 1 with an AM90 sole and a Pegasus crossed with an Alpha amongst others, so they’ve been around for years! There used to be a lot more tut-tutting about how ICONIC shoes cannot be tampered with as if they were some holy relic that deserved to be sacrosanct. The Spiz’ike copped that one bad from Jordanheads but I think the novelty of that allegation has worn off. I dunno if anyone cares now. It was also thought by many that it was a sign Nike had run out of ideas, which is clearly incorrect, even if some hybrids are rather lazily assembled. From my perspective, I don’t see any reason not to embrace hybrids as long as they look dope and there’s a reason for doing it.
Some hybrid models have not been that successful, primarily because I don’t think they were radical enough. The 360 sole looked fresh and futuristic with a woven upper, but I’m sure many people agree with me that the 360 sole is simply uncomfortable on the foot, even though, like any fashion victim, I still wear mine and then complain every single time. Some of the ones I did really like were the Trainer Dunk Low which originally came out as a Stussy collab. Nice and chunky and looked like a whole new DNA at work rather than a shocking potato-head as they are sometimes called. I’m even more of a fan of the Max 90 Current. The FREE forefoot is cool but it’s the flexibility and overall weight reduction that makes it such a killer. I didn’t think it was really necessary to bring the Current into the equation because it’s a pretty long bow to draw, but that’s a minor quibble. I think you’re right, the general idea of these hybrids can lead kids from one of their favorite silhouettes into a new design category, which might just open their eyes a little.
With new methods of manufacturing and materials, it’s also cool to revisit some of the shoes and make them better than ever. Then there’s the Yeezy I guess.
Hybrids are dope dependent on the re-appropriation and context. If they offer a visual link to the past (which is obviously at the base a good design to be relevant for so long) rather than mashing up select characteristics alongside incorporating modern-day technology, the design of aesthetics meets function comes full circle. I think that the slip-ups of most recent times of big companies has allowed smaller ones to firmly get their foot in the door. As well, I definitely feel that fashion icons that resonate most with the youth, the likes of Kanye and Pharrell among others each have an interesting and diverse style which allows for both your traditional streetwear drab of traditional sneaker formats alongside putting yourself together in a more refined light.
I’d love to know how much capital you need to start a shoe brand. It’s obviously cheaper and easier than ever before from a production point of view, and China and Korea are now much more open to foreign manufacturing.
But at the same time, I think the way commerce is geared right now makes it hard to come with something new. Stores are refining their choices which means less brands and a more conservative outlook. They aren’t in the mood for anything that isn’t guaranteed. From a trend point of view, there’s no doubt we are at terminal velocity. Aside from big shifts, such as the move to simpleness, micro-trends are coming and going so quickly it’s impossible for any brand to catch them consistently which is another reason there are so many shoes in the market – brands need to appeal to every consumer all at once to keep the ship afloat.
(Aside: Current global recessions have created a downward shift in footwear production and shipping costs, albeit temporarily. Source: WWD )
With talks of paradigm shifts away from print to online, how do you find Sneaker Freaker re-inventing and re-positioning itself?
Funnily enough, the general shift away from print to online has only strengthened the case for Sneaker Freaker. Brands love the magazine because amongst all our positive attributes, it’s a tangible product with a long shelf-life. We make product look good and it stimulates desire. Since we only produce three magazines a year, it’s also an event each time it comes out, all of which means the mag is still in a very strong position, touch wood. Given there are thousands of blogs out there looking to break sneaker/streetwear news every day, we have to work closely with brands to stay one huge step ahead. I’m committed to delivering not just exclusive stories which we do on the regular but also supporting new ideas and what is right. At the end of the day, Sneaker Freaker is the conduit between brands and kids, so I feel like we’re trying to keep things honest at some level. We keep the magazine pure. There’s no detours into film and music or gaming stuff just so we could diversify our advertisers. I also love the fact that we have consistently given women a chance to shine in a very male dominated industry, and I have to thank Mafia on staff here who has really pushed this along. The massive feature is another area that we excel at, which means telling a story in the most comprehensive way. It’s self indulgent in some ways but it means we are unlike any other magazine out there which is what we need to be to survive and prosper. The feature on ACG, the Steve Van Doren interview and the history of Airwalk were a few pieces that really stand out. Nobody reads 10,000 words online, but they do in traditional print, which is one of the reasons why Vanity Fair is my favorite magazine.
Extensive online reading is something that few will ever get accustomed to or else it just won’t be all that convenient for the time being. I usually disagree with many who ask me if the Internet is the death of print. Clearly we aren’t putting enough weight into the positives of print, albeit, print has seen its better days behind hit. The whole shift from print to online has gotten pretty messy for some especially those occupied by traditionalists of the old guard. While the likes of you and I seem well-equipped, I’m not so sure about the others which is a topic in itself.
If you look at how newspapers are adapting to the digital world, the progression is rather depressing, as they immediately head downmarket and slut it out with celeb gossip and fluffy pap. They know they need to move with the times but from what I’ve seen, the immediate reaction by most traditional media is to slash costs by replacing senior writers with standard information lifted from a wire service. I think that logic is flawed. There is still a demand for traditional print, but the problem is that they are so thin and lame now that people resent buying them as they’re a shadow of their former selves. I also think magazines are making a terrible mistake whittling down their content as if they were writing a 50 word blog. I don’t want 50 abbreviated words on why someone is cool. I want an opinion and a substantial conversation and that’s why magazines are struggling with this change in the way information is compressed. You never learn anything reading some magazines anymore, and some only take about half an hour to go from cover to cover.
In regards to Issue 15 which is hitting newsstands as we speak, could you tell us a little more about your upcoming issue? What sort of things can we expect? I hear there’s some crazy stuff going on with the cover.
The cover looks cool! We made a few hundred with the Yeezy soles on them and then screen printed them with a glow-in-the-dark ink. They’ve almost sold out now but we have a few left for internet customers. I couldn’t really compete with Complex’s awesome Yeezy feature so I decided to devote a nice chunk of Issue 15 to the world of luxury kicks including Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Pierre Hardy and Lanvin, not to mention SLVR, McQueen and Jeremy Scott. These brands are not known for their extroverted marketing, but with a lot of help from Lady Claw Money, Gabriella from Mama, Tee at Trashbags and Black Rainbow in Paris, we were able to put together a pretty strong feature on the top end of town. If we’d done that two or three years ago, it might have seemed absurd and elitist to our core audience, but with Kanye and everything, this topic deserved serious examination.
With Sneaker Freaker launching in Spanish a while back, any other plans for other languages and formats? Any final things you’d like to say?
Yeah, we have a great partner in Spain who is translating the magazine and doing a great job. It’s a hoot to get the Spanish version back and see how it looks but I haven’t the foggiest what they make of my jokes and sneaker banter. Whilst I would love to add another language to our portfolio, we shall see how things progress and there are no plans afoot at this point. We are the first Australian magazine to be translated into a foreign language and it’s just one of the many things that have happened along the way that is rather odd about Sneaker Freaker. Sometimes you just have to laugh. I love the reaction when I tell people what I do for a job.