A Designer Of Interest – Hue Vo

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On an early Sunday morning recently, I waited at the hinted location – at the World Trade Center reconstruction site, for further instruction. The scene is straight from a spy novel – a brisk wintery day, a clandestine location, and enigmatic person of interest. A shorten text appeared on my phone, no name, no number, just a message “I’m at Flight Club”…

The person of interest I’m about to meet goes by one name only – Hue Vo. There is nothing striking about his appearance. In fact, you could easily passed by him on a crowded New York sidewalk. Then again, read enough spy thrillers and you know that a person of interest always appear unassuming till their secret is out. So why the secrecy? Why all the pretense? Perhaps it made better reading from yours truly, but it is also to strike a point – just how much we all know about the kicks we wear daily?

Raised around the greater Los Angeles area with a brief outing in France, Hue practically grew up with the street wear culture on the West Coast. He dealt with the likes of Fred Segal, the one time Blue Ribbon Project from Nike to the most recent PUMP 20 of Reebok, which promptly featured him on its video. Yet, there was no formal education or training on fashion merchandising or designs in his background. Or as he puts it,

“EIther you learn on the run or you’re out”. It was this rapid pace working environment, a double sided exposure to both retailing and designing, that honed Hue’s skill set in becoming the “go to person” when it comes to sneaker design. Throw him a theme and a model. He could come up with a finalized design within a few days, with several other preliminary designs to boot. However, it is not just about patching up colors and materials. Each comes with a story, a trail of inspirations, and technical specifications. In fact, push him a bit and he could easily tell you which production facility to use and the rough cost.

So when all was said and done, I asked him about all the secrecy surrounded him. Looked a bit a puzzled at first before with a reply “I guess it was professional courtesy to do so”. And with that kicked off our conversation with this person of interest, or better phrased as a designer of interest – Hue.

READ OUR CONVERSATION WITH HUE VO »

You have a very prolific product portfolio. Just a brief glimpse for our readers’ references, could you tell us some of the designs you have worked?

I’ve been in the apparel/footwear industry since the mid 90’s and that translates to “just too many” projects to mention off hand. However, the more familiar projects I have worked were for retailers UNDFTD, Union, Stussy, and labels like Nike, Reebok and New Balance…

I also designed a lot of SMU projects on the side. To name a few, a new SUPPLY CIRCUIT by Karmaloop x Casio G-Shock collaboration timepiece that is to come out in early 2010, another Karmaloop project with my friends at Mighty Healthy and STARTER, INVINCIBLE (in Taipei) x New Balance, INVINCIBLE x MEDICOM TOY – BEARBRICK and much more…. So look out for all this “heat” dropping at a retailer near you!

With all these different products come with separate sets of design challenges. What are they, to name a few, especially those with sneakers?

I would say that there’s definitely different challenges depending on which model, say Nike Air Force 1 versus Reebok Pump, and etc… Each shoe style is different, so some concepts might not work for certain style. One example, if the style is very technical, you need to simplify it with either plain colorways or fabrication to give it a different visual cue. So I would say that we have to use the right judgment call on each project.

Address a little about sneaker design. You have helped in creating some of the most notable sneaker editions. What are the few things most people don’t know about designing footwear?

People think that designing a sneaker is simple…when in fact it’s far from that. Yes, you could have a concept, a sketch, but does it translate to the streets? Meaning, just because it looks good on paper doesn’t always mean it’s going to look right on your feet. For a sneaker design to come out right, you must have a GOOD concept – call out the right fabric & Pantone coded colors.

Once you have the technician packed the mock up, you also have to follow through with it all the way to the end…usually the factory will have questions in regard to your specs, that’s when the “real works” begin.

Pretty much anyone can design sneakers. The most important part, however, is ALL in the follow up and details! Without that, nothing will come out right!

What was the most challenging project (or sneaker) you have worked on to date?

I would have to say the most difficult sneaker project up to date has to be one of the UNDFTD x Nike project. There were so many variable that we had to go back & forth with the concept then fabrication several times. Too many changes and its still did not come out the way we wanted. Fortunately, most people will not know the difference…

Within the industry, you are known to have worked on most of the sneakers to come out of UNDFTD. How did the partnership started at first?

I’ve been very fortunate to worked closely with Eddie Cruz and UNDFTD for many years on several of their exclusive sneaker collaborations. Personally, I’ve known Eddie since mid 90’s but didn’t start collaborating with him until a few years ago. Basically, I ran into him at the store and he just asked, “You still design sneakers?” I answered “Yes, of course!” Not long afterwards, he gave me my first UNDFTD x New Balance project. It was that simple. The sneaker became a hit and we’ve been working on projects ever since.

You have quite an interesting background. Unlike most designers in the industry, you had no formal training in art and design. Thus, it gives you an unique perspective on the creativity process. A curious start at the beginning, you were instrumental in creating the urban lifestyle department at Fred Segal.

Yes, no formal training what so ever. Unlike most designers, I got started on the retail side first at the Fred Segal warehouse in Santa Monica. At the time, I worked for Sharon Segal, daughter of the famed trendsetter Fred Segal. That was back in 1995. In the Los Angeles region, the only retailer focus on streetwear and urban trends was Union. Needless to say, nothing was on the mainstream market or on the radar of major retailers.

As I quickly rose through the ranks to sales, manager, and finally buyer, Fred Segal linked up with MECCA (when Tony Shellman was still there) and Phat Farm with Sharon Segal’s help. That was also when I told her we needed to create a section within the store solely for streetwear. She agreed and I started to sign orders for PNB, Stussy, Modern Amusement, and more… While I was in the midst of it all, I didn’t realize back then. But now looking back, you could say I was partly responsible for creating the urban trend section at Fred Segal.

After the experience at the retail front, your transition to the creative side begin…

The job of a buyer is not as easy as most people think. You are actually a trend forecaster for the store. So I had to do my homework on both the industry aspect and the consumer aspect of the market. Over a period of time, I wanted to learn more about the designing process. That was when I left Fred Segal. I had a brief stint at Modern Amusement, also created my own apparel label in Japan that was carried by the SHIPS retail chain for a few years. Simultaneously, I dabbled with sneakers with another company I established called KUSTOM KIX. Then Nike came calling. They assigned me to a new project called Nike Blue Haus. I had a very unique responsibility there – to “paint” kicks for celebrity clients, especially those in the Hip-Hop industry. I customized pairs for Jadakiss, P-Diddy, Chris Brown, and T-Pain. It was during those sessions that set my interest off, that I LOVE designing sneakers.

Most recently, you were involved with the Reebok PUMP 20th Anniversary Project. The project really started in Fall of 2008 and gradually built momentum in both concepts and the final designs. Could you share with us the process from start to finish?

Basically I got the call from Matt Ting one day stating that he had a great new project coming up to help Re-Launch the Original PUMP. What entailed was trying to get 20 long-time Reebok partners involved in the process; each will have their own SMU’s. He also wanted to see if I could get Eddie (UNDFTD) onboard with the project. Eddie gave it the go ahead for UNDFTD to collaborate on the project. Not long afterwards, Reebok flew all the partners to Boston for a weekend pow-wow.

Reebok stipulated that each of the 20 camps needed to have 2 representatives at Beantown to conceptualize their own version of the PUMP. So, Eddie designated me and KB to the project. Eddie and KB came up with the concept of Rain Check, along with the colorway. Naturally, the concept of Rain Check invoked a weatherproof element to the design. That is where I come in. Instead of exploring Reebok’s footwear material library at its campus, I went to the company’s apparel section. So while everyone else was going to right, KB & I were going to the left!

The first fabric that came to mind was Gore-Tex or Schoeller’s 3XDry. But with the budget constraints we had, I went with a weatherproof material with similar quality that Reebok used for it Rockport label. Because the design was boot inspired, I wanted a real comfortable material for collar lining. It was only natural to ask for memory foam, the same foam that’s in the Temper-Pedic mattresses. The memory foam suppose to extend to the insole but that didn’t make the cut. A few other things didn’t make the cut, including a Gusset tongue and hiking boots lacing. However, we were all very happy of the end result. Can’t wait to rock them in the rain!!!!

You are also working on the re-launch of Greedy Genius?

In the process of that right now, I helped them launch the first 2 seasons a few years back. But we parted ways after differences of opinions. The last few months, we were able to work out on some of the issues. Currently, I’m creating 14 brand new uppers, 3 new molds, and a brand new logo. The packaging will be different too. Overall, I believe it will be a much better brand, in quality, design, and price point for the current market.

You just mentioned the current market. It is obvious sneaker trends have shifted from 2 years ago, when sneakers were wildly colored. Now, the focus is more monotone, core colorways, with simple silhouette. Since we are at the end of 2009, care to make any prediction on the trends for 2010 sneaker designs?

Though the current sneakers out on the market are more monotone or subtle in colorways, for the most part, due to the fact consumers are growing up faster, thus they want a more mature look. Still don’t count the colors out yet. They are here to stay. People are still wearing funky colors, but it has to make sense. A little coordination and maybe some use of black/white/grey…with a little pop at the end!

For 2010, I believe it all really comes down to giving consumers what they want. It was true then and it is true now, give the consumer dope products at a good value! Keep up with the latest trends but don’t forget the classic designs You also have to educate your customers, let them know why your products are unique.

If I was an aspiring sneaker designer…

One thing I would say is the footwear market, be it sneaker or slip-on, is quite different from the rest of the industry. You have to sell a lot more units than apparel, because of the initial investments in molds, raw materials, production line, and etc… Honestly, the footwear industry is a BEAST! So you have to find ways to tame IT.