Justin Son didn’t name his brand after the phrase “sorry not sorry” to be sarcastic. He did it because it’s a reflection of his unapologetic personality. Through his burgeoning streetwear label ESENES Worldwide, Son has expressed his whimsical taste through Cubone-inspired “Boneheads” clogs, Dunk-esque Wildfire sneakers and fitted caps embellished with distorted, MLB-inspired logos.
Son is also a footwear fanatic, with a closet composed of everything from retro Jordans and lifestyle running installments to boots, but one model that he’s constantly been working into his rotation is the Acne Studios Derby boot, a model he appreciates for its bold aesthetic and long-lasting quality.
We caught up with Son to discuss how the lowbrow art scene has influenced his designs, his favorite ways of styling the Derby Boot and how ESENES Worldwide is a creative medium to express his younger self.
Who or what got you into sneakers?
Growing up in the Bay Area, my peers were the ones who put me onto sneakers. The culture is so strong out there that sneakers were a status symbol and people would envy you if you had a good pair of Nikes or Jordans on. I remember noticing it because a lot of people I knew camped out and waited in line for hours just to get fly.
Can you remember the first silhouettes you were into?
I was into skateboarding silhouettes and remember rocking brands like Osiris and Vans. I was the weird art kid that was influenced by the lowbrow scene, and that influenced me to be more playful with my sneakers. I’d always switch out the laces to neon colors or graffiti over them. One time a kid gave me a dollar just because he liked the way I styled my laces. People used to roast me for wearing Vans before they were hot, then “Vans” by The Pack came out and everyone started hopping on them.
That’s the nature of fashion, especially in streetwear. A niche group will gravitate towards an obscure item, make it hot and then people will catch on later
Exactly. It happens in art as well. As a businessperson, I have to find a balance between making things that I know will sell in the present and be patient with items that I know may take a little longer for people to wrap their heads around. When I first made my Wildfire Dunks, they were sitting for a long time. Six months later, my DMs were flooded and I had to make more colorways.
“Anyone can go out and buy $800 USD Louis Vuitton sneakers, but paying for a product that’s versatile and functional with durable leather is a better investment.”
You grew up in Oakland, CA, but have lived in New York for a majority of your adult years. How has sneaker culture in these two cities influenced you?
New York definitely elevated my personal style beyond just streetwear. The fashion culture is so strong out here and taught me how to mix high and low together. It’s also where I learned how to make shoes since I interned at Vida Shoes International, where I learned how to make tech packs and design shoes from start to finish.
The Bay encouraged me to be creative. Going back to the Vans thing, I just remember always picking up a pair of white Slip-Ons and drawing my own designs over them because airbrushed graphics and cartoons were a huge part of my life. And tapping into my younger self has always been part of the ethos of ESENES.
When did you first adopt the Acne Derby Boot into your rotation?
Two years ago. They’ve never left my rotation and now I’m trying to preserve them. I prefer the aged look when it comes to sneakers because for one, I wear my sneakers, and two, they give the shoes more of a story as opposed to just being a status symbol. Anyone can go out and buy $800 USD Louis Vuitton sneakers, but paying for a product that’s versatile and functional with durable leather is a better investment.
You mentioned how you love that the Derby is crafted with real leather. What do you enjoy most about this aspect?
Real leather will help a shoe’s longevity, and that’s something that I really want others to value. I hope people adopt the “quality over quantity” mentality, because it’s sustainable and will end up saving you money. I understand that the youth will keep feeding into the sneaker game and collecting, but I’ve tried to be more thoughtful about what I purchase ever since my taste matured.
What’re your favorite ways of styling the Derby?
Lately, I’ve been loving rocking these with baggy jeans and a soccer jersey. However, I do own plenty of gorp clothes since I often take hiking trips upstate, so I love pairing them with utility-focused outfits too.
Do any fond memories come to mind when you look at these Derbys?
They remind me of the past couple of summers and just being able to walk around all day in them and having my feet not hurt. I’m also training to compete in boxing right now and I remember rocking these to one of my friend’s amateur matches six months ago to support him and see what I would be getting myself into.
ESENES recently posted a forthcoming boot silhouette that is going to be released down the road. Did the Acne Derby inspire this design?
Hell yeah. A lot of the footwear that I buy nowadays is because I’m inspired by it or want to adopt it in some capacity. What I do like about the Acne Derby is that it has a diamond toe shape and so I’m going to incorporate that into that silhouette. We might call them the Derby Mustang. They’re dressy but have whimsical details like curvy overlays that are true to ESENES’ playful nature.
“Sneakers are a medium for me to express myself, as they allow me to continue building my identity as an artist and designer.”
Does the Derby show a different side of your style since ESENES is a light-hearted and whimsical brand?
They reflect the evolution of my style. There’s a part of me that still loves loud graphics and wild colors because that reflects the Bay Area in me. But you could say that the Derby mirrors how my style has changed in New York and has been inspired by my peers and culture out here.
Leather boots are such a pain to break in. Do you have a secret method of breaking them in, or do you have to muscle through the blisters?
Thug it out. All boots require time to break in, but that’s part of enjoying them. Once they’re worn in, they become super comfortable.
Why are sneakers and their stories important to you?
They represent so many aspects of my life whether it be where I grew up, my design taste or my personality. I rarely wear Jordans anymore, but I remember when the Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” retro’d a few years ago, I had to pick up a pair because of the sentimental value those had to me. Sneakers are a medium for me to express myself, as they allow me to continue building my identity as an artist and designer. Everyone needs a pair of sneakers to walk out of the house and I’m happy that I can get to play a role in influencing that functional aspect of people’s lives.