The Brain Behind the Kicks

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An exclusive Q&A with in-house designer Jon Tang on the inspiration behind this season’s hottest looks.

We recently sat down with PUMA designer Jon Tang to get to the bottom of how exactly three of this season's more inspired PUMA creations - the Terai, Trinomic Trail, and Westdale - were born. What we found was that he may just have the greatest job out there - a globe-trotting, full-time champion for chasing creative sparks and pushing the PUMA legacy forward. Need more proof? Just look at these sketches. Here's our Q&A with Jon Tang…

How does the whole process start for you when you are looking at a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen?

With any design, you are trying to say something. For the winter line, we've put out the idea of the urban outsider, embodying what the outdoors is but in a city environment. This idea is like a scope or lens, and the more specific you are the more you can make your designs that much more successful. And we have 60-something years of heritage here, so usually we start there. It all comes from heritage first with what we do and then how can we begin to evolve it outside of that to give a fresh new light on things.

How many iterations does it usually take?

With each it's different. I would say the right answer is just the right amount because some may take three, some may take an infinite amount.

How would you summarize the creative inspiration for the three latest shoes you’ve designed – the Terai, Trinomic Trail, and Westdale? 

With the Terai, we wanted to build a boot that was like no other boot before. It is an evolution of what a boot should be. But something like you've never seen before. Normally boots are very heavy, very protected, very overly constructed to give out that kind of protective feel. Well, when someone camps, they layer on all these things and it's the same process; layering up boots, layering up jackets. The world of camping has evolved; everything's lighter. So, that was the main source of inspiration for the Terai. Can we do all that we can do, but make it lightweight? 

The Trinomic has been in our heritage since the 90s, and we all wanted to take something from what we've done in our heritage and evolve into the city dweller theme. I go back to these backpacks that have evolved, using a lot of webbing details and straps as function pieces, so I began to take a lot of that and replace a lot of the quarter paneling on the shoes that are normally used to grab laces. Instead I'd use it as quick lacing systems for webbing straps. And then I grabbed the upper material from shell jackets. The beauty of a shell jacket is that you can wear it and it takes all the elements but it's not as heavy, it's not as big, and I liked that aspect of lightweight as well, so I sourced the material that mimicked outdoor shells that was water repellant, but also very light, very thin. 

The Westdale took a different kind of route. It was really about finding the PUMA take for brogue dress shoes. How can we take dress shoes to another level? The Westdale was an integration of mixing one of our icons - the Suede - and giving it a twist with wingtip brogue and putting these two features together. 

All these inspirations/idea of city dweller: Do you have a soundtrack that you listen to/playlist?

Some projects are a little bit more music driven or based in a certain era of shoes, so I find myself listening to a lot of heritage music. I also work on a lot of our street wear, which is rooted at hip-hop, so listening to hip-hop gives me almost a realm to kind of work with.

What is the coolest thing about your job?

Traveling the world. I have been to so many places that I would never have dreamed I'd get to visit. My job is to be inspired, and you go and just get inspired and do the coolest things that you could possibly do in the city. 

What are some of your favorite places that you have been?

The number one place I would say is Tokyo. It’s one of the most inspiring places in the world. 

What are some of your off-the-clock inspirations or hobbies? 

I think I am a natural consumer. I don't "shop" but I sure browse a lot. I think being a designer, I find myself always trying to find solutions for things in this world through some kind of other perspective that I can give.

 So who are your core team members?

Ron Perkins is our archive guy. You could ask him anything and he pretty much knows it, so he is the wise man of the group. Then we have Esther. She is the materials girl and she adds the energy to the group. Kelly is our color/materials girl, moderately new to the brand but has such a long experience in the industry that helps us. We have two developers on the men's side - Steve and Orlando - and these guys are two gurus. They have been building shoes since men have been wearing shoes. And we have our Creative Director Yoshi, who is kind of like our dad. He helps out for the most part in keeping all of the designers together. And then we have Katie Lau who is our Product Line Manager, and she is basically the mom. She keeps us organized and grounded. Mark and Rachel are like the captains of the team because they have the overall say in all things. Rachel is the Creative Director for all of lifestyle footwear and Mark is product and footwear. And Brook is the other Product Manager; he has amazing insight on street wear and sneakers and culture.

Is it difficult to balance Lifestyle and Performance pillars when designing a new shoe?

Design is familiarity. If you're designing something that has no connection to the way the world is, then people wont be able to connect.

It’s like a perfect blend of art and science.

I think that's what design is really. Its just blending art and science. Design is really about you telling a message. Art is all about doing something about how you feel and its up to the reader or the audience to see if they can feel what you feel.

Do you think of your end result, the shoes, being almost a piece of art?

I think aspects of it. Every piece I feel like there's an emotional connection to why its there. Especially in lifestyle. I find myself being very emotionally connected with my pieces. As designers, any one of us begins to kind of know who did it, because there's like a handwriting, and there's a style that everybody has as a designer.

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