Sole Mates: Jared Blake and Ed Be on the Clarks Wallabee and Air Jordan 9

The Lichen co-founders riff on the parallels between footwear and furniture, problem solving through design and more.

Footwear 
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Jared Blake and Ed Be are all about problem solving through design. As the co-founders of Lichen, Brooklyn’s buzziest interior design shop, Blake and Be do everything from sourcing rare secondhand furniture to crafting custom coffee tables that can be nestled into the confines of a New York City apartment.

Design can be full of pretentiousness and elitism, yet Blake and Be keep a streetwise sensibility in their practice. “When we started Lichen, we wanted it to work its way into streetwear culture because nothing like that had really been done before,” Blake tells HYPEBEAST. “We were like ‘there are so many more ways to flex than what’s on your person.’” Blake and Be are fully aware of the parallels between sneakers, streetwear, and interior design, which enable them to meet the needs of their diverse clientele and provide a unique atmosphere, one where you’ll be able to purchase everything from Eames chairs to Knoll desks while hearing hip-hop on the store’s speakers and seeing fresh sneakers on the employees’ feet.

Blake enjoys the casual, do-anything nature of the Clarks Wallabee while Be is fond of the Air Jordan 9‘s classic sportswear style. However, both have a deep appreciation for the stories behind iconic silhouettes — and the parallels they present with the world of interior design, all of which they share in this installment of Sole Mates.

HYPEBEAST: What got you into sneakers?

Ed Be: I went to high school in Brooklyn, but a lot of my friends lived in Queens so I’d often wind up hanging out at the Queens Center Mall. That’s where my inkling for sneakers started. Everyone was into the SB Dunk at the time, and the SB Dunk Low “Pigeon” really caught my eye. Since then, I’ve been hooked.

Jared Blake: It started in school for me too. I remember laying my outfit out before the first day of school and being like “this is my statement, this is how I want to present myself.” When you’re younger, your parents essentially dictate your taste because they’re buying your shoes for you. The first pair I recall selecting for myself was the Reebok Classic. I got a white pair and a black pair before school started one year.

“Honestly, I think getting roasted for the first time defines your footwear taste.”

One for fall, one for summer?

JB: Yeah, one for the navy polo and one for the white polo [laughs]. When I got those Reeboks I was a little older and at a school that had uniforms so footwear was the only real way to express yourself. I liked those Reeboks, but don’t think I had a spiritual connection to any specific model as a kid. Honestly, I think getting roasted for the first time defines your footwear taste [laughs]. Classics weren’t the “cool” shoe then, but they’re definitely back around now. I’d usually wear the Classic and the Air Force 1 when I was in high school.

Ed, what about the Air Jordan 9 speaks to you?

EB: I always liked sneakers that looked like boots, and the Air Jordan 9 is in that vein for me, especially the Air Jordan 9 “Olive.” On a personal level, there was this kid I went to high school with — I don’t want to call him my arch-nemesis, but he’d always beat me on the basketball court and he’d always be wearing the Air Jordan 9 “Space Jam,” which I couldn’t afford at the time.

Tell me a bit more about why you like the “Olive.” It’s such a unique colorway in the Jordan lexicon — when it debuted in the first half of the ’90s, Jordan Brand wasn’t really making colorways for lifestyle wear.

EB: I think that’s exactly what drew me to it. I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to the “Olive” too. I don’t like the Air Jordan 9 Fusion “Olive” or the Air Jordan 9 Boot “Olive” either, the latter takes its inspiration a bit too literally.

“I’d be wearing a gingham shirt with a knit tie and tie clip, special cufflinks, cuffed selvage denim and Alden wingtips. Everyone in the [Club Monaco] office dressed like that — it was just the way it was. Aaron [Levine] would often show up real casual in a beat pair of Wallys, and I looked down at my wingtips one day and was like “what the f*ck am I doing? Why am I trying so hard?” [laughs].

Jared, what drew you to the Wallabee?

JB: It’s a shoe that blends a lot of things together for me. I used to work in fashion and retail at places like J. Crew, Jack Spade and JackThreads, and felt that I had a lot of sartorial Venn diagrams back then: what I wore when I went into work, what I wore when I left work and what blended in between the two. The Wallabee worked in all of those sectors, was a menswear staple and also touched on my love for hip-hop. Every time I wore it, I couldn’t help but think about the Wu-Tang Clan or Raekwon’s “Glaciers of Ice” skit on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. My mom’s from England by way of Jamaica too, so the Wallabee also serves as a nod to a very specific part of my past.

Funny story: I interned at Club Monaco when Aaron Levine worked there. This was at the height of the #menswear movement, and I was trying the hardest. I’d be wearing a gingham shirt with a knit tie and tie clip, special cufflinks, cuffed selvage denim and Alden wingtips. Everyone in the office dressed like that — it was just the way it was. Aaron would often show up real casual in a beat pair of Wallys, and I looked down at my wingtips one day and was like “what the f*ck am I doing? Why am I trying so hard?” [laughs]. That was a really eye-opening experience and the first time I recall properly appreciating the Wallabee.

Why do you think the Wallabee has been able to become a staple in so many divergent subcultures?

JB: From a material standpoint, I just think the suede they use is really timeless. It almost doesn’t matter what form or color it’s in. I honestly view it the same way I do furniture, in that I’ll focus on the texture instead of the color. The crepe sole is really great as well.

Ed, you’ve told me before that you like to beat your shoes into the ground. Is that a conscious decision, or just something that you’ve always done?

EB: Honestly, it’s how I’ve always been. There was a short stretch where I’d try to keep my kicks clean, but in New York, we’re just out here in the elements too much to really be bothered with it. Especially now, working with furniture, there’s gonna be creasing, sawdust, grease, everything you can imagine. I don’t keep multiple pairs of the same shoe around either, so I’ll beat a pair down and buy it again if I really want to.

The wear tells a story too. I’m sure you can remember everything you’ve done in those 9s.

EB: Oh yeah. I’ve worn a suit with these, unfortunately [all laugh]. Played basketball outdoors in these, carried couches up seven flights of stairs in these. All-purpose.

Jared, I read that when you and Ed first met, part of the reason you felt a connection was of the way he was dressed — specifically the checkerboard Vans he had on. Why were those such a signifier to you?

JB: For sure. It was the Vans, the blue oxford shirt and the cap. An outfit is like an equation, and Ed’s added up, especially because he was buying an Eames chair from me. I remember thinking “you must speak the same language I do.” Being into vintage Eames chairs was more niche back then too — now, everyone is a “design head” to some degree — so it was essentially like a lightbulb clicking.

“I think a lot of people realized that their cribs weren’t on par with the way they dressed, so they wanted to elevate their home and showcase that the lifestyle they live at home is the same lifestyle they live out in the streets.”

It seems like a lot of sneaker and streetwear people have dipped their toes into the world of design since the pandemic started. Is that a natural evolution and progression of taste, a byproduct of spending more time at home, a little bit of both?

EB: When people couldn’t go out and do anything during the pandemic, they’d just take photos around their crib. I think a lot of people realized that their cribs weren’t on par with the way they dressed, so they wanted to elevate their home and showcase that the lifestyle they live at home is the same lifestyle they live out in the streets.

“There are so many more ways to flex than what’s on your person.”

JB: When we started Lichen, we wanted it to work its way into streetwear culture because nothing like that had really been done before. We were like “there are so many more ways to flex than what’s on your person.” The two worlds hadn’t met yet when we started, but the last year and change was the culmination of the vision we had. There’s not a lot of diversity in design. Frankly, there’s not a lot of anything in design that’s not very elitist, very “if you know you know” and we wanted to change that. Sneaker culture is one of the first ways for a kid to be an entrepreneur, and what we’re doing now is definitely an adjacent experience to that. We’re still just trying to flex.

Jared, you just said that the world of design can be very closed off and elitist. There’s an element of that in sneaker culture too, but there’s also a large community aspect to sneakers. How important is community when you’re collecting, learning and growing, no matter if it’s furniture or sneakers?

JB: You have to have people around who can appreciate your flexes. You can have the best furniture, wear the rarest Off-White™ collaboration, but if you’re around people that don’t know what the thing that you have is, they’re just going to be like …

You’d be shouting into the void.

JB: Exactly. But if you’re around the right people, you’ll be on the street and someone will see what you have and be like “yo!” You’ll respond in kind, and then next thing you know you’ve got a new friend and your community has grown. We’re grateful to be in a space where we have a really strong community.

One thing that I don’t think comes up enough in conversations and articles about community is the music. If you come into Lichen and you get a feeling of like-mindedness, it’s probably because of what’s playing on the Sonos. Without the cultural context set by the music, nothing in our store makes sense.

Why hasn’t anyone made any dope sneaker storage options yet? Some sneakerheads might disagree with me on this, but drop-front plastic boxes are not the wave.

JB: Yeah, there’s definitely a disconnect. The people who have the ability and the resources to create something like that don’t understand the people who don’t have the ability and resources but have the taste. A Herman Miller employee might not “get it” — a person there who’d be tasked with making sneaker storage probably doesn’t wear sneakers, or sneakers are not a big part of their life.

However, I think that gap is closing. Virgil Abloh and IKEA may have been the first example of those worlds trying to understand one another, but I wish that collaboration was approached with a little more passion and a little less marketing. When you have that much reach, you have a responsibility to inform. People were lining up to buy the chair from that collaboration and had no idea that it was essentially a Paul McCobb design. That was a travesty because if anyone in that line knew they were buying something inspired by McCobb, they’d walk away with some more context — and even a potential source of income one day, like the one we have.

Circling back to your question about sneaker storage, everything we design everything at Lichen is essentially crowd-sourced because it’s all about solving problems like the one we’re discussing. I know Christine [Espinal, spatial designer at Lichen] is working on something that will address this specific need. People like Christine, Eric [Mayes, designer at Lichen] and Alvaro [Ucha Rodriguez, designer at Lichen] are really tapped in with things like this, and I’m really excited to see how they approach modern design problems.

As the worlds of sneakers and design continue to merge, what do you hope to see?

JB: Home is becoming more important as we all spend more time cooped up indoors, and we’re keeping a keen eye on how brands are reacting to that. The proliferation of mules has been really interesting to us. Mules are styles that solve a functional design need: they’re easier to wear than a regular shoe, but sturdier than a plain sandal. We’re always like “if we did a Birkenstock, if we did a Beatnik, if we did a pair of Crocs, what would that look like?”

From a collaboration standpoint, we’ve been really excited by the Stüssy x Tekla stuff. I know that’s not sneakers, but it’s really ahead of its time. We’re used to streetwear offering things like collaborative Modernica chairs and BAPE rugs, but a lot of design people see things like those as cheap tricks. Stüssy x Tekla and Stüssy x Birkenstock were both a bit more refined. We’re working on something with Adsum, and want it to be as forward-thinking as those collaborations were.

Our life is really specific — we can only wear Carhartt and Dickies for the most part because of the physical nature of our work. Everyone’s thinking about how to bridge those gaps between form and function. The onus is on the brands to dig a bit deeper.

Why are sneakers important to you guys?

JB: They’re a part of your identity. A signature piece of your outfit. T-shirts and pants can be broad, but a shoe is where you have the most ability to communicate who you are. It’s your voice, your first impression.

EB: Sneakers are essential equipment for your everyday life. Every activity you partake in gives you a different opportunity to wear what you’re wearing properly.

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