In every industry, there are those figures who challenge the status quo and push the limits of design and functionality. While basketball and Jordan enthusiast alike have Tinker Hatfield to praise for his incredible contribution to Nike’s footwear designs, skateboarding will indeed have its own. It’s in our humble opinion that Franck Boistel is skateboarding’s most iconic shoe designer.
While he might not have created some of your favorite shoes as of recent, he essentially took his passion for skateboarding, with no proper footwear design background, and contributed immensely to Sole Tech’s takeover during their peak of the early 2000’s. Hit after hit, Franck’s shoes were selling out with no signs of stopping. His inspirations are gathered throughout infinite categories, even to the extent of creating some of your favorite outsoles based off of sewer caps and upper’s based off of amphibians natural texture. His thought process is unlike most and having his point of view gives him an advantage most can’t learn, even with many years of industrial design study. It’s Franck’s distinct eye that has created some of the best selling skate shoes of all-time and we’ve been meaning to document and thank him since the site’s inception. His list of skate shoes designs are far too long to reference in this article but if you’re interested, here they are.
If you were ever looking for info on how to become a skate shoe designer, absorb some knowledge from an individual who never had intentions of creating many of the shoes you store in your closet today and cherish with your childhood memories.
Okay Franck, let’s get into it. With your iconic catalog of shoes and savvy of the industry, what do you think about the current state of skate shoe design? Do you have any favorite designers in skate footwear today?
Skate shoe design has evolved naturally. When I came on board to Sole Tech, Skateboard footwear was at the start of an exploration. Years after years, as we became better designers, trend forecasters and better at business. We also realized that footwear was dependent of trends in the streets. So, naturally, we started evolving with the consumer, not always successfully, but sometimes ahead of the curve. Currently, skateboarding footwear design is still surfing on the big cleaning trend that emerged in 2007-2008. As Vans became the reference for look and pricing. All the skate shoe companies started to revolve around that look, Vulcanized was everywhere. I see brands trying to get away from it and trying to bring innovation back into skateboard shoes again. Nike SB, HUF, Adidas, Converse, all are trying to bring something else onto the table and I think we will see some great skateboarding shoes coming soon to our feet. As for a favorite designer, I know a few young designers that are going to kill it in the future. I follow what the Pensole Academy is doing and I see a lot of young guys and girls that are coming up with innovation, new styles and a renewed aesthetic that is promising. Good product is coming out of Sole Tech today. The Etnies Marana is a great skate shoe, I felt honored when they launched the Scout MT which is an update of the Etnies Cyprus I designed back in 1998. I like the Emerica Reynolds Lo Vulc. Rick Marmolijo, Chief designer at Etnies, seems to be doing a good job. The HUF Dylan looks like the direction I wanted éS to go into around 2002- slicker, leather, tech minimalism. I think the HUF Classic Lo is a perfect hybrid between a classic sneaker simple look and a functional shoe made for skate.
What companies are you impressed with and which companies aren’t putting their best effort forward?
I think in general, all the companies could be a bit more innovative, but skateboarding is skateboarding. We know that a simple shoe either vulc or cupsole, with basic cushioning, good traction and materials and some protection is all you need. Lightweight is a big trend and is going somewhere interesting I think. We went around this, created some crazy tech stuff when in reality, something simple is all you need. This is why companies like Vans are thriving. I believe we now know the perfect recipe to make a good skate shoe. As we forecasted back in 2000-2001, the future of tech skateboarding footwear will be hidden tech into a simple looking sneaker style. It is what it is now. It’s a normal evolution.
Let’s talk about how you began working for Sole Tech. How’d that all come about?
I got on board the Sole Tech ship after I had lunch with Pierre-Andre one Friday afternoon in Newport Beach, California. I was on vacation and I thought I would give it a shot at calling Pierre, who I hadn’t met but I knew from reputation in France. I was hired in France in 1988 as the first art director for the newborn Etnies brand, from the mind of a French shoe maker. I was an active skateboarder in the skate club of Cholet and grew connected to Etnies as they sponsored the construction of a great ramp in our town. That is how I got to know Pierre a few years later as I was traveling through the American Southwest. During lunch, I asked him if he had the need for a graphic designer or art director, and he replied to me that he had two great guys for that but that he desperately needed a shoe designer. I told him that I could give it a shot over the weekend, and he asked to see me again with some designs the following Monday. I went back to my hotel room with a few Etnies, éS, Emerica, Sheep and 32 catalogs, (the brands at the time) along with some serious flu-like symptoms. I stopped to buy a dozen oranges and a sketch pad, and spent the weekend studying the catalogs, eating oranges and sketching ideas for all the brands. On Monday, I met with him and Alex Wise. They looked at the sketch pad and after a moment commenting on each one, they asked me when I could start. I was hired as the first official footwear designer for Sole Technology; the rest is history.
How long did you worked for Sole Tech?
I stayed at Sole Technology for nine years as the Senior Footwear Designer. For a couple of years I was the only one, with the help of Alex Wise. Eventually, we started hiring more designers.
What was popular at the time when you started and when you left, fashion-wise?
When I joined, Alex Wise was the Art Director for éS and Etnies, and he shared the task of designing ads and marketing material with Yogi Proctor. I remember him taking me to the Ross in Newport Beach and showing me some great deals for clothing. It wasn’t the end of the baggy era quite yet, but wearing oversized baggy denims and tees was starting to fade a bit. Nike was an influence on me and Alex, as we always were looking for innovation and style. Skateboarding footwear was on a rebirth and was looking for itself. We were all coming from skateboarding and we were not shoe designers. I believe this was a blessing as we had no preconceptions on footwear. Instead, we had the freedom to create skateboarding footwear. We were skateboarders learning to make shoes.
And how did you alter your designs and approach during that time period?
Alex and I would spend our lunch time at Nike Town in Costa Mesa, trying to learn from the best, and figuring out what materials and features could be useful for skateboarding. Skateboarding shoes were in an early stage of exploration when I came in and, without knowing it, we ended up designing the next 10 years of skateboard footwear in all freedom, enthusiasm and fun.
With the ability to go in any direction, what was one of the first projects you started working on?
Pierre had started exploring with PU (polyurethane, commonly found under and above toe caps) and my first assignment was to design Chad Muska’s first pro shoe on éS. Chad was a very nice, energetic guy and we worked well together. The discussion with Chad focused on rubber lace pull loops, PU midsole, a rubber toe cap, mad comfort and a certain hidden stash pocket. When it came out a year later or so, the first shoe I designed became an instant best seller. In the meantime, I designed the Etnies Czar, the Emerica MJ, the Sheep Templeton and more that all became best sellers. I was at the right place at the right time.
Because you weren’t trained to be a shoe designer, how did you go about designing the first of many shoes for Sole Tech?
Yes, I had never been trained to be a shoe designer. My background was in graphics and advertising. I believe I had been taught and mentored by my early advertising peers very well. My mind was opened and my eye educated in a way that I was able to take on this great challenge of designing skate shoes, even if I never did before. If you are creative and work hard as I did, then you can design anything for any market. My first sketches were made with sharpies on photocopy paper. I would scan my drawings and use streamline to work the details and colorways. For almost the full nine years, I proceeded this way. Drawing the lines with pencil first, and inking it with Sharpies was a way for me to explore all the possibilities of a design. It was important for me not to look at what the other shoe companies were doing. Alex, Pierre and I were trendsetters and we were pushing tech and style. We would go on trips to New York City, Paris or Tokyo and look at shoe stores, art galleries, and museums. We spent hours in book stores looking at architecture and product design, and returned with tons of ideas and photos of what was happening in the streets. The streets of the cities of the world were our playground, as well as the playground for all our riders and the skateboarders in general. Street skateboarding was at an all-time high and Andrew Reynolds, Mike V, Chad, Eric Koston, Marc Johnson and all the others were having a blast. So were we, we were innovating.
What were the official differences between the three companies (éS, Etnies & Emerica), in terms of image and style? For sister companies, they seemed remarkably separate.
Emerica riders wanted the more simple shoes. They were our core riders, and their skateboarding style was dictating the distribution of the brand to core skate shops around the world.
Eric Koston, Chad Muska, Rick McCrank, and Bob Burnquist were the guys that wanted the tech and the stylish stuff. They also were a bit more interested in fashion and trends, and more open to explore footwear. éS naturally became the tech/style skateboarding footwear brand. We were looking for new materials during our trips in Asia and how to make a better skate shoe, incorporating technology seen on cross trainers, joggers and basketball shoes. This is how an airbag ended up on the Koston One. Eric was always into Nike. He’s a stylist, an educated and stylish man, and we were influenced by his and other rider’s visions of what an éS shoe should be. Eric would always show up with a new shoe design 97% finished and the way he wanted it, so my only task was to make an accurate sample of his vision. Other riders were more open and trusted us to come up with the shoe they had trouble envisioning, so we would work together on drawings until we felt we had something that they liked. Then, when the first sample would come in, we would sit down and revise the samples until we got a confirmed one. Then there was more testing before we launched the shoe on the market. We were a great team and things went well.
Etnies was the more mainstream, wider distributed brand. We designed and built Etnies shoes the exact same way as the other brands of Sole Tech; the only difference is that we would be a bit more adventurous designing Etnies, as far as styling and footwear shapes went, since the brand was distributed more widely around the world. Etnies fans in Europe didn’t necessarily want the same designs the US did. European taste for shoes was molded around Adidas and narrower shapes for decades, so at Etnies we were designing with the world in mind. That inspired us to create more categories within Etnies with the outdoor, the surf, and the style category. Then BMX followed. The Etnies girl and the Etnies plus line were designed for pricier and more “stylish” footwear boutiques. It was all about market explorations and possibilities. During my time there, pretty much all the brands grew equally stronger until I left. I believe the distribution had been very well thought out by my colleagues in charge. We had a great crew of professionals in all areas of the company. However, in 2002 we already felt like the price range of $130 – $140 bucks for a tech skate shoe was starting to hurt. Emerica has always been fine because they were well-priced in the market, but the trend was slightly shifting and consolidating towards that price range.
Isn’t it remarkable that we’re returning back to that price range since 2002… Did any brands start to suffer as a result of this inflation?
éS started to suffer first. The brand was still surfing on the popularity of the Scheme and other tech styles, and our sales guys were pushing us to keep at it, when in truth, as designers, we were already forecasting the return to less tech, simpler designs, and less expensive shoes, influenced by what we were seeing in footwear stores. In American high schools, kids were wearing a lot of Converse and Vans. We felt it, and we were trying to take a turn, just to be contradicted by sales peoples that didn’t see the same thing. Of course, we were not looking in the same direction…
Did any singular company hold popularity over the others during your time there? I’m sure éS sold a bunch during the Menikmati era, but I’m equally as sure that everyone had a pair of Ellington’s or Reynold’s after Baker 3. And then there’s the Etnies Callicut’s, still mandatory for every middle schooler and mall rat…
You forgot the Etnies Arto, but you pretty much said it all. For me there were a few standout moments in those nine years: the Muska, The Czar, the MJ, the Reynolds, the Scheme, all the Koston’s, the Callicut and the aforementioned Etnies Arto. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t recall a company being more popular than the other except Etnies, as it was more widely distributed as the other brands, but for me as a designer, I put the exact same creativity, research, and work into all the brands. At marketing, they did the same. We had such great, energetic people who dedicated their livelihoods and creativity to Sole Tech, and all the brands reflected that. All the brands had their stars, like the Koston shoes, the Erik Ellington’s, the MJ’s, the Templeton’s, the Scheme, the Tilt, the Arto’s, the Czar, the Callicut’s, and many more. They kept coming in numbers, colors, materials and updates. We were strong, we had a great team inside and out and it showed. I recall the Callicut was originally thought out by Jason Smith, at the time my product manager for Etnies. He felt we should design something along the lines of the Adidas Stan Smith, something that high schoolers would want to wear besides their Vans and Cons. So I started drawing and we created the Callicut. The name comes from “Calligae,” the Roman name for sandals, and the “lo-cut,” a heritage style of Etnies. I used to name pretty much everything I designed during my time at Sole Tech, as I believe the name has a power over a product. I believe giving a real name to something gives it life, another reason why I would never name a shoe after a number (as I see regularly in team sports). I cannot memorize numbers, but I always remember a name.
How did you differentiate designs between the three companies? Would a higher-up approach you and tell you to make an “etnies-style” shoe, or would you just pitch designs and let others decide what company would manufacture them?
Before designing any new line, we would go on an inspiration trip around the world. This is, or was, common practice for a designer in order to get a feel for what people were wearing in the streets and what was selling in the stores in different counties. During those trips, we would go to art exhibits and museums as well, and we would get our artistic mind refreshed, re-inspired, and we would fill our bags full of books, photographs, objects and footwear. We would get back to the office and start putting all our ideas together into mood boards and inspiration points, in order to design a new collection complete with new styles, new colorways, materials and design features.
The product managers would work closely with us to determine the briefs for each new and carry-over styles, and then we would start designing multiple rounds of drawings that we would review with management, marketing and sales. After those meetings we would prepare the tech specs and color specs and send it to our factories to make the first round of samples. When samples came at the office we would review each one of them, and change what we had to change into a new sample. It took about three rounds of samples to get a confirmed one. Pro shoes could take more or less. éS footwear was mostly inspired from high tech footwear and product designs, such as race cars, modern watches, Marc Newson, architecture and product design, but mostly by the riders. Emerica was inspired by street elements, like curves, walls, rails, concrete, but mostly street skateboarding and the riders. I got my ideas for Etnies looking at organic life and textures, street elements from around the world (I got a collection of sewage plates designs from all over the world that helped me design some Etnies outsole tread patterns), Japanese art, and more traditional costumes and patterns. I always tried to find a unique look and materials that would make a shoe stand out on the shelves of footwear stores. When you do that, you succeed and you fail. Some designs were good, some were bad. As they say, you don’t make an omelet without breaking an egg…
At what point did you realize that Sole Tech was running the industry? What model represents their golden years best for you?
I believe that my designs were unique. Some were bad, some good, but they were always pushing the limits, and never dull. Every season, we had best sellers, thanks to our amazing sales force, and we were on a roll. I realized that we were doing a good job when we moved from Costa Mesa to multiple buildings in Lake Forest; when we went from me as a designer to six or seven; when I received a raise regularly every year without asking for it. I knew we were all doing something well. My golden years model might have been the éS Scheme, the Tribo and the Vireo, and the Etnies Callicut but I did a few things before and after that made me proud of myself as a designer, like the éS Rocket, the Etnies Moog, the Genji, and the Cyprus, as well as the Etnies Outdoor shoes and the Etnies Plus line. What I’m most proud of is that I never stopped being creative and I never stopped pushing the limits.
How hands-on were the riders when designing shoes? Any anecdotes or horror stories about some of the team riders? I remember reading in Skateboarder that Tom Penny wanted his first éS shoe to be modeled off a Timberland hiking boot. Any supported truth to that or is it just an urban myth?
All the riders were different and they all had their style. Eric Koston was a focused and naturally stylish guy that knew exactly what he wanted from the start. Andrew Reynolds and Mike Vallely were similar, in that regard. Erik Ellington was a really nice guy that was just a pleasure to work with all the time. Rick McCrank was a really cool guy, a bit introverted except when he was skateboarding, some of best skateboarding I’ve seen. Arto had an impressive personality, super nice but sometime hard to read. Regardless, he was precise about what he wanted if I recall correctly. Ed Templeton was fun, focused, super creative and open. The only times I felt I didn’t connect well was with Marc Johnson and Heath Kirchart. Marc had the same fire inside that I had, and I think we were both too strongly minded. His second Marc Johnson pro model was not what he wanted. Heath had trouble expressing really what he wanted in his shoes, so it was harder for me to design something that he liked. Sometime, it works, sometime it doesn’t.
The Penny story is true, except that he sent us a Columbia boot, not a Timberland boot.
It looked like the elusive Tom Penny was living in France at the time and basically skateboarding in anything. That triggered some crazy brainstorming sessions between Don Brown and us as to what to design for him. We eventually settled on some designs remotely inspired by the boot. It ended up being a cool looking and comfy shoe. For his Etnies pro model, Arto Saari picked a shoe I drew on paper originally for the line. He got a good feel for it, and it became one of the best selling pro shoes ever for the brand. The Koston 2 was based on a Nike baseball shoe that Eric brought to us, if I remember correctly. The Koston 3’s design was based on an original drawing by Alex Wise that he sent us from France. Eric liked the design a lot and decided to make this his shoe with a few tweaks. I just wanted to say that working with pro skateboarders, pro BMX riders, and pro snowboarders was an experience of a lifetime. I did my best to try to read their minds for some, and to execute their visions for others. Thanks to all for the great times.
Legend has it that Dave Mayhew was late to a meeting to pick his pro shoe, and ended up getting stuck with the D3. Sales floundered for a few years, but skyrocketed right when they were about to pull it. Any good stories like that? Are there any classic Sole Tech shoes that almost never saw the light of day?
When the Etnies Czar sample ended up on the table sometime in 1998, Don Brown and everyone else laughed at it. The shoe ended up on the line and became a solid sale for years, as well as the icon for a new era. I still think everyone at Sole Tech hated it, but it made money and I believe that there was a few hundred thousands of people out there that liked it. Same with the éS Scheme and the éS Sword: Sole Tech made it and made dough. No excuses, no shame, no regrets, I’ve seen far worse stuff in skateboarding shoes at the time and after.
We all did stupid shit carried away by the wave of DVS, the D3, etc. I designed the éS Eclipse, probably the worst shoe I designed for the brand….hit and miss, who doesn’t? Savier was bad in my opinion. All the brands had their achilles…
What shoe did you expect to bomb, but ended up being super popular? Also, vice-versa: what shoe did you expect to be far more popular than it ended up being?
We thought that the Elissa Steamer was a great shoe and I don’t think it did well. I think it has to do with the popularity of the pro and how his or her image is managed. Some are managed better than others, I don’t know, this is just speculation…
Nobody believed in the Czar, nor the Cyprus, when the samples came in, but they ended up being super popular. Same with the éS Scheme. I didn’t think the Koston 4 was a great shoe, but it ended up doing ok. The Etnies Vallely had a sort of clunky looking outsole and a lot of rubber, but it did amazing. BMX riders adopted it, and it ended up being one of the best BMX shoes ever.
Anything that never made it off the design table, but should have, in your opinion?
I designed a travel shoe for Etnies, inspired by the same idea from Adidas, back in 2004-2005. It was something that had not been done in action sports yet. In reality, it was a shoe for all our riders, which they could fold or twist and pack in their backpacks when they travel. It made sense that after snowboarding or skateboarding, they would want to relax their feet in something light, breathable and comfy. The shoe was made of mesh, with limited upper patterns and an EVA outsole, so it was super light. We had some good samples made, but the shoe didn’t come out in 2006. It came out about 8 years later, under a new design, as the Scout on Etnies. Same concept, different design, now it is a best seller. I believe I had a vision, but I was too early, I guess. Also, just before I left in 2005, I was working on a top tech project for éS footwear. I believe the timing was wrong, as the brand was already starting to find a new identity and a new simplicity. The éS 2% was a project intended to push to design of the ultimate skate shoe, making a champion of comfort, traction, and breathability. I based all the ideas of the shoe after an outsole design created by Alexander McQueen I had seen in a magazine. I pushed this design to the ultimate replication of the foot itself and the texture we have on our skin for traction tread, then I designed a slick upper double lasted with a super breathable tongue. The shoe was well thought out and could have worked. I’m not sure about the double lasting though, since it was already something of the past.
With the idea of the Etnies Scout in your mind years ago, if it comes out today, do you get any royalties from it or anything?
If I did, I wouldn’t be speaking to you right now. I would be traveling the world with no internet, living on a pile of cash. Royalties are not offered to designers except the ones that are partners in a company…sometimes.
From Chad Muska’s stash pockets to Ed Templeton’s cheetah print shoes, Sole Tech was no stranger to some unorthodox designs. What was the craziest idea a rider approached you with? Or that you came up with?
I am sure Ed Templeton asked us at a time to design a full veggie made or fully recyclable shoe, but I don’t recall anything specifically outrageous on this matter. I’m not saying it didn’t occur, but Don Brown is probably the one with all the anecdotes, as he was at the forefront of all the crazy shit that happened back then.
What been your favorite shoe you designed? Past and Present.
éS – Vireo, Tribo, Rocket, Muska, Eperon, Sabre, Scheme, and Koston 2.
Etnies – Plus, Cyprus, Calliga, Arto, Tron, Genji, Moog, and the Etnies outdoor range.
Emerica – MJ, Reynolds, Ellington, Ratio, Templetons.
It was good also to work for iPath after Sole Tech, as it had another DNA to work with. I am really proud of the Centennial, Dayak, Darius, and the Wharf I designed on this brand.
Were you surprised to hear that Sole Tech pulled the plug on éS in 2011? What do you think of their current comeback?
Looking at the entire éS timeline, you can clearly see that it evolved through the years, following the riders, designers, consumers and sales people feedback and in turn, it had an influence on the line. There is time where you see a complete lack of focus and times where the line looks solid. Unfortunately, it is completely normal as the company change, the market change, the people change, it is happening to the best shoe companies out there. There is no magic recipe to create a solid line season after season, it evolves for bad or good. The best you can do is to be in tune with your consumer and team riders….and even that doesn’t work sometimes. The base line of Ads for éS in 1997 was “the future of footwear”, in 1998 it was: “Sophisticated Skateboard footwear”, in 1999 it was “Innovation”. I believe you have the DNA of the brand right there and the quality of its team riders. In Action sports, the team riders make the product and forged the brand…They are the advocates….I think the actual éS design and marketing team is taking it slow as they should and is aware and listening.
Finally, you’ve designed iconic shoes that nearly every post-2000s skateboarder has worn. How do you feel about your place in skateboarding history?
I receive e-mails and messages on social media regularly, thanking me for some shoes I designed for Sole Tech and other companies. I just feel honored and thankful, I must have created some good stuff in the mix with good memories attached to it.
Coming from France, from graphic design and skateboarding, I got a chance to learn a new trade that became a part of my life. Designing shoes is now part of my DNA forever. The question is, will I make it to the big guys: the Athletic footwear market? I believe I already did. Peace!
Interview done by: Andrew Murrell & Jeremy Lugo.
Remind them of which questions they forgot to ask: here & here.
Special thanks to Franck for his contributions to skate footwear and beyond. Follow his work & talk to him on Instagram.