Sitting down with Matt Sleep, Converse’s global design director for footwear special projects, END. discuss design processes, respecting the heritage of iconic silhouettes and the joy of collaboration ahead of the release of the END. x Converse Blueprint pack.
Spearheading Converse's special projects, Matt Sleep has cultivated a unique perspective on the legendary American sporting footwear brand's classic silhouettes through working with a vast array of contemporary designers and collaborators.
Embodying the brand's directional approach to collaboration, Sleep serves as a guiding voice as the brand's varied selection of collaborators negotiate the ever-shifting landscape of footwear design. A nuanced role that commands an intense multi-disciplinary point of view, from defining original concepts to the final fruition of collaborative designs, his approach ensures that both the heritage of the brand is protected, while simultaneously nurturing the creativity and expressive voice of the partners Converse work with. Having worked closely with A-COLD-WALL*'s Samuel Ross, AMBUSH's Yoon Ahn and Tyler, The Creator's GOLF le FLEUR line, Sleep ensures that Converse's approach encompasses contemporary movements in footwear without forsaking the inherent charm of the historic brand's signature models, delivering an exceptional array of styles and variations on some of footwear's most beloved silhouettes.
Ahead of END.'s collaborative offering with Converse, we sat down with the brand's global design director for footwear special projects to discuss the influence of design processes on the END. x Converse 'Blueprint' pack, respecting footwear heritage and the joy of collaboration.
With the END. x Converse Blueprint pack, we’ve focussed on the Chuck 70 Hi and the Jack Purcell sneaker. Could you talk a little about the heritage of these sneakers?
Both are fantastic icons in the Converse canon but from two different backgrounds. These days the Chuck is embraced as a lifestyle shoe, but it has the important history of being the first ever real performance basketball shoe, originally released in 1917, which is crazy to think now. In a similar way, the Jack Purcell also has its roots in being a performance shoe for badminton, although it's been embraced as a court sports silhouette over the years. It was originally introduced in 1933, but Converse actually didn't originally own the Jack Purcell, acquiring the model in 1972. These sneakers are both some of the first signature models for professional sports people in the world, which is an amazing bit of history and an important story for us to tell. It's also great that we're able to tell future stories in a more lifestyle-oriented context through these sneakers even when they have both come from the sports performance background.
What is it about the Chuck 70 and the Jack Purcell that makes them so culturally important and relevant to this day?
It's going to sound kind of cheesy, but it's because they're a blank canvas, really. You've got everything you need and nothing you don't, and quite honestly, they’re ready to be manipulated, to be updated, to tell our partners’ stories through a different light. For me, that is what has really kept these two styles fresh, because everybody can come and tell a different story with them. It becomes this point of pride and almost a competition between our partners - which is what births amazing creativity and hopefully a lot of exciting different iterations of the shoes themselves. I also think it's the simplicity of the silhouettes - they aren't overworked, they're very considered and allow for any of our creative partners to take those foundations and run with it.
The creatives we work with can look at how they can cheekily break those rules and push the boundaries.
When developing special edition sneakers based on classic models, how do you approach ensuring the heritage of the brand is respected?
It's tough, but I think it's important to have a few ground rules, because then the creatives we work with can look at how they can cheekily break those rules and push the boundaries. Both the Chuck Taylor and the Jack Purcell have their iconic elements - the pinstripes, the toe bumper, the outsole, the medial patch, the double toe cap and the smile - with those aspects we make sure we protect our IP. We absolutely encourage creativity around those key details but as a brand custodian I have to try and make sure that you can still see the aesthetic of where the style came from in whatever the final result may be. I've been with the brand a long time now, about eleven years, and I spend a lot of time in the archive, so knowing what those original details were and why they were there is important. It means that whenever we work with a partner who wants that update or contemporize those aspects, my team and I try our best to give some soft guidelines to make sure we don't go too crazy, or if we do, there's an understandable narrative with the design details that could link back to the history of the shoe itself. But there's no hard and fast way of doing it - it's very much about trying to continue to instil the spirit of Converse and the aesthetic of the brand with any partner that we work with.
The blueprint pattern of the END. x Converse pays homage to the process of design – tying architectural design to footwear design, deconstructing this process and revealing the similarities. Which stage of footwear design excites you the most?
Quite honestly, through my career, it's changed. If you look at footwear design like a book, you have your start, middle and end – it’s very simple. At different points in my career, different chapters of that process have been the most exciting - but really if I boil it down, now, it’s the beginning. The introduction and the communication excites me the most. For me, design is a communication tool, first and foremost. I might communicate through a Chuck Taylor or a Jack Purcell, but a brand designer might do it through a poster or a commercial or something else. Either way you're communicating something, so for me that's the most interesting part because it's creating that dialogue - it's that moment of blue skies where anything is possible. We know there are certain limitations in manufacturing and in materialization these days, but when you have that moment of pure ideation and creative freedom before you actually then have to make everything feasible and you're just thinking about the purity of the idea - that's the most exciting part of the process because it comes back to communication between people. It’s about myself and my team being able to understand other perspectives and also being empathetic to the mood of where a collaborator is coming from, channelling that into the vision of what the end product will be.
Why do you think the deconstructed sneaker aesthetic has become so prevalent in modern footwear design?
It’s an interesting time looking back at the last couple of years, certainly from a creative and a designer's point of view, because I think we've moved from a designer's world to a maker’s world, to a certain extent, and there's a huge amount of beauty in that. It used to be enough, and it still is in in some ways, to be able to draw something beautifully. The difficult thing is taking a beautiful drawing and making it into a real product. Traditionally, none of the process to go from A to Z have ever really been shown until the last few years - it's not necessarily always beautiful but it is interesting and especially important for creative youth culture today, they're now completely invested in the making part. You can't move on Instagram or the internet without seeing another footwear or apparel designer who is building, rebuilding and reconstructing. That’s amazing because there's now a creative lane that wasn't necessarily open professionally to these people five years ago, they couldn't make a living out of that and they are now. With that, there are definitely a lot of pros and cons, a lot of people can also glue something together and say “hey I'm a designer, I’m a creative”. A lot of this can be attributed to Virgil Abloh and he has been a great proponent for moving this maker’s culture forward and exposing how things are constructed, even if it's something as obvious as printing a big word that tells you what that thing is. It sounds like a simple concept but nobody was doing it or at least doing to the same scale. Whether you like Virgil’s style or not, and it doesn't really matter I think, it's a testament to the work that he's managed to do to help bring this new group of creative people and a new creative discipline to the forefront of footwear design. It's interesting for me to also think where it might go next, because it has not only changed how consumers view footwear, but how the people building sneakers look at how a product is made. That's the interesting thing because you start to analyse all the bare bones of a design and you can really start to work out how to change or evolve a product.
How does this approach to sneaker design help us understand these two classic silhouettes further?
It works as an education process for our consumer - I spend a lot of time with these shoes, so it’s second nature to me, but it's not always second nature to everybody else. Even something relatively simple, like what specific parts of the shoe are called, can be isolating. We could spend all day talking about details on a shoe and you realise that you’re talking with all this verbiage, and some people kind of look at you blankly and you’ve got to say “oh yeah, sorry for my apologies, this word means this, a last is this”. You start to break these bits down and that's one of the things I love about the designs that we have together is that we have this beautiful nod to the blueprint and construction of the shoe. Just like in architecture, we've got to start with blueprint, we have to build a shoe from certain technical files but with these sneakers we have storytelling that comes from the annotations and the box. That's another additive element that helps tell the story of the shoes even further to our consumer base.
END. x Converse Chuck Taylor Hi 'Blueprint'
END. x Converse Jack Purcell Ox 'Blueprint'