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Reebok Classics: Provocateurs of Newness

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The term “celebrity designer” usually is the end result of a well-oiled marketing machine, where dozens upon dozens of artisans sketch, color, and shape designs that a single individual gets the credit for. So pardon the good dose skepticism when Reebok Classics announced the involvement of hip-hop artist Swizz Beatz as its new global creative director.  We found out quickly that Swizz is not just another figurehead.

Reebok’s background and name stems from the rhebok, a nimble antelope found in Africa. The British footwear company J.W. Foster and Sons inspired the Union Jack logo on their early designs. But the modern reiteration of the Reebok we all know today is the product of one man, Paul Fireman, an American sport goods distributor who purchased all the rights to the name during the early 80s.  Seeing the brand’s potential, Fireman soon altered its name to Reebok International.  Industrious from the get-go, the small, yet astute company soon found itself on par with its main competitors, adidas and Nike. The brand also enriched the sport technologies category with features like Hexalite, DMX, and of course, the Pump.  However, Reebok never fully capitalized on its popularity.  Soon, it was relegated to follow its rivals in both market share and brand recognition.  In August of 2005, adidas made an offer to acquire Reebok.  The price was a whopping $3.8 billion dollars, and the deal was finalized during January of the following year.

Swizz Beatz pitched in late last year to jump-start the brand.  Though greeted initially by fans like the writers here at Freshness with hints of apprehension, Beatz quickly made good on his new title and kicked off the new venture with the future-forward Reebok Kamikaze.  Unlike the other “celebrity designers” and their creations, the Reebok Kamikaze, as well as subsequent designs, isn’t just another gloss-over celebrity edition. Instead, Beatz followed the creative process closely, down to the new Reethym of Lite global campaign.   Beatz characterizes his role at Reebok Classics, not as a mere spokesperson, but instead as a creative director.  Now with the ever-stylized Japanese influencer VERBAL as its new Creative Director for Asia Pacific, the company will hasten its strides in the active lifestyle market it helped to create.  During the a recent introduction of Reethym of Life campaign in Japan, we had the opportunity to speak with both men about their new roles in Reebok Classics and the new dynamic shifts they will bring to label.

A Conversation with Swizz Beatz

When Reebok first approached you about the position as Reebok Classics Creative Director, what were your first thoughts?

I thought of how to make people love the brand again.  There were things I wasn’t happy with when I arrived. But instead of running away from the issues, I thought for a moment about how I could fix them and be part of this history in the making.

Though it was certainly not the most familiar edition in Reebok Classics product portfolio , you made the Reebok Kamikaze become the launch pad for the new venture. What was the reasoning behind the decision?

I felt the Kamikaze was the most innovative product we had on the runway at the time.  I wanted to let people see us launch it with something new and innovative so that they would understand the vibe we have and the new and fresh concepts I could bring to the table.

Talking about innovation, you are a student of art and art history. One of the most important figures to you was Jean-Michel Basquiat. What was it about him and his art that provides you inspiration?

Basquiat was just an amazing individual. I am impressed with the way he did things and the multiple languages he spoke, but one  of the most important things about him was that he lived his dreams and didn’t care if he had to sleep on the streets or make other sacrifices.  When people came to purchase Basquiat’s works, or tried to, some would ask him to change something in the work.  He would kick them out of his studio.  I keep that in mind when I tell people that the sky is not the limit and to not let others tell you what you can’t do by showing them what you can do. 

What are the plans you have for the Reebok Basquiat Collection?

We are working on a few things. We are taking the apparel from the Basquiat Collection to a very high-end level. The same update will be visible on the Basquiat Collection footwear as well. But most importantly, we will be educating people about him and his art as part of the Basquiat campaign.

You are well known for your musical endeavors. But you are also a talented visual artist. Will you ever host your own solo exhibition?

Actually, we are currently in the process of organizing my solo exhibition right now.  I am working with Jeffrey Deitch on a couple of cool things.

Will it be in New York or Los Angeles?

I twill probably be an international event. I think when a lot of people finally know about it, they should have the chance to see it.  It shouldn’t just be something regional. All my friends and fans will have the opportunity to experience it.

Since the art world is an ever changing one, which new artists have caught your attention?

Man… so many people. I actually just bought a piece before I came here. The list is very, very, very long. But I’m inspired by all new artists since there is no wrong way to do art. At the end of the day, art is an expression. If you can’t relate to it, then that artwork isn’t the right one for you.  Going back to Basquiat, his works might just be some doodle on canvas.  But those paintings have meanings which are very deep if you look at them closely. 

You’re currently a lecturer at New York University about the business of music. Share with us some of the pitfalls that people face in the music business today.

The pitfalls many young musicians face today is that they don’t understand this is  a music business. They only hear the music part and kind of ignore the business aspect of it. When I teach my class at NYU, I tell them that if they don’t maximize the business part, then the music they made really doesn’t make sense.  I tell them to ask themselves why they are in the music business. If an executive from a music label comes along and asks how much you want to charge for your song, the answer I get most of the time is any price, as long as they can get their foot in the industry. But in the end, you get no payment, no credit, and no recognition.  If that’s your answer, are you really in the business of music?

We asked Verbal about this earlier but want to hear a perspective from a non-Japanese. In your opinion, what is unique about Tokyo’s vibrancy?

I think this is just the beginning for Tokyo as far as really expressing themselves boldly as a culture. They are all ready for something big to happen, especially with the tragedy earlier this year.  Now, every individual wants an opportunity to express how he or she feels. There is no better time to do that than now.  Look, changes are happening, not just here but the throughout the whole world. Changes are taking place every minute, right in front of us. With changes, there are new opportunities too. So if not now, then when?

What made Verbal the ideal candidate to be the new Reebok Classics’ creative director for Asia Pacific?

Did you see the jacket Verbal had on yesterday? That is what I’m talking about! He’s someone who’s not afraid of taking risks, someone who’s willing to push the envelope. I think those are the types of people you want to be in business with. I’m sitting here and I’m analyzing a lot of things Verbal can do for the culture, like empowering artists, musicians, and others to express themselves.  He serves as a perfect conduit for their expressions.

Finally, back to Reebok Classics.  As 2011 comes to a close, what can we expect to see?

Well, I’m bringing gum bottoms back.  I had an all-red pair with gum bottom last night. I just think gum bottom has a cool story to tell.  But I’m not trying to bring back everything.  I think too many brands now want to live off from their past designs.  I want to push forward with Reebok. I want people to come see the brand and not to know what to expect from us.  

A Conversation with VERBAL

How has the tragedy which struck Japan earlier this year affected you personally?

First of all, my condolences to everybody in the affected region. For me, it definitely was an eye-opener.  It kind of brought my attention to the important things in life. Obviously, that includes loved ones, family, and friends. I guess it’s the same for everyone else who went through such a frightening event.  When people experienced such a situation full of impact, they look inward to focus on the important things. On the artistic side, it was strange because I just launched a new album around the time. I’m not promoting it or anything, but up until that point in time, my thoughts on music were set in a certain way. Now looking back, I think of my music quite differently.

You think the 3-11 tragedy will alter the art, fashion, and trend landscapes of Tokyo? If so, how?

The landscapes definitely changed. Already, many corporations have left Tokyo and are now operating in regions just outside of Tokyo. Its natural process for them, since they have a lot of risks. But with the moves, there are plenty of open real estate opportunities within Tokyo.  One good thing, if there is any, to come out of this tragedy, like a flower growing out of concrete, is that a number of young, up-and-coming designers have been more energetic and active.  More than ever, that D.I.Y. spirit is catching on in the fashion scene with even bolder designs.

But like any ultra modern metropolis, there is so much happening here in Tokyo. How do you keep a pulse on all the trends here?

I would not say I’m really trendy because I don’t know what’s the latest or hottest now on the market.  Just like anyone else who connects with people on the Internet, I have a lot of friends and fun people who are into the different trends not just here in Tokyo but elsewhere.  So I just keep up with them.

You’re just named the Creative Director of Reebok Classics in Asia Pacific.  How did it all come about?

Making a long story short, I was having a few drinks with some really cool folks at Reebok.  The conversation turned into the Reebok Pump and how I played basketball in them. Those were the very first pair of sneakers I remembered. Then we talked about the paper I wrote on Reebok during my college years for a business course. They all knew my history with Reebok. They also knew what I do with music, art, and design.  They just thought it would be fun for me to come on board.

Given your love for the brand, what was it about Reebok that made its sneakers a must have for sneaker heads out there?

Well, I grew up during the time when all the sneaker “technologies” came up. Nike had a pump too around the time, except they had a capsule and external parts.  It was a renaissance when all these things came out. The ERS soles, Hexalite, Pump, and so on were all so mind blowing for me around the time.  I thought to myself then, “How anyone could come up with ideas like these?”   I would definitely think Reebok added more to that “technology race” on sneakers.  Even now, no one can duplicate some of its iconic designs.

As you mentioned before, this collaboration between you and Reebok is more than just you taking on the role of a spokesperson.  In fact, you will be on-hand for every aspect of the project.  Tell us a bit about your new role.

There are many functions to a Creative Director’s job title. Yes, I will be working on some apparel and footwear designs, though I think my most important role is to bring the culture back to Reebok. With the saturation you see now in the sneaker market, it is safe to say people are kind of bored right now with sneakers.  I’m trying to bring that excitement and energy back to the scene, similar to when you first saw that pair of must-haves.

Your role will be quite different than that of Swizz Beatz, who is the Global Creative Director for Reebok Classics.  But just how different is the Asia Pacific market when you compare it to the rest of the world?

Take Japan itself, which became quite influential in the fashion world. It would have a dosage of foreign influence at first. But then, Japanese made it their own and pushed against the boundaries of possibilities.  That push permeated throughout the rest of Asia.  China is another great example. When I went to China, I noticed that it’s quite secluded still. Censorship and government bans are everywhere. Yet, businesses there are thriving.  People are finding loopholes to get things they can’t get otherwise.  Asia in general has been quite independent in certain areas and that’s why the market is so unique.  I feel that uniqueness will be interpreted in the upcoming Reebok product too.

Then will you have your own signature collection too?

Well, I can’t tell you so much in detail at this time, but I will be working on the designs. In fact, an ad campaign has started and it will show all the designs I have worked on.  The process is an ongoing one, so you will see more of that edgy Japanese desigs within the product line in the coming months.