For having such a huge presence in skateboarding, the behind-the-scenes at a corporation like Nike is a huge mystery to most. Whereas most other brands have been open to interviews regarding design & their process, Nike operates in secrecy. Granted, you wouldn’t expect a master chef to reveal his famous recipe, but putting on a demonstration isn’t out of the question, is it? Enter Shawn Baravetto, a Nike veteran of nine years and a key player in the development and production of some universally beloved skate shoes, including the Janoski, the P-Rod 3 and a slew of iconic Dunk colorways. We caught up with Baravetto on the eve of his departure from Nike to chat about working behind the curtains at a major corporation, the current state of skate shoe design, and more.
So first off, how did you get into designing skate footwear?
I worked in skateshops for about five years before I moved out (of retail.) My first industry, non-retail job was at Alphanumeric back when it started, so I started there doing in-house sales, and moved on as the years went by. I moved over to Circa and did some sales, marketing and team managing stuff. When I worked at DC, I was the transition guy between the designers and the pro skaters — it was kind of a PLM before we knew what a PLM was. That led into working on product full-time at Nike.
In comparison to your previous jobs, how is working for Nike SB different?
I was at DC for five years before Nike, and I was there before Quik and after Quik, and I think when I started at SB it was a really small crew, and it felt like they were actually down, you know? I got called up to Portland to interview for the job, as a recruitment thing, and I went in like “whatever, I don’t know much about Nike or their skate program.” I was friends with Kevin Imamura and Hunter, and that was about it. The interview was with eight people, and for the most part, it was like, “these guys are down for skate shit! That’s pretty cool.” That’s what it felt like back then, it was dope, it felt like we were fighting the good fight. But it was definitely different. It’s a machine, man, it’s a big place.
What did the interview process consist of? How does one go about conducting an interview with 8+ people?
It was a panel interview, so I got flown up and basically the original SB guys were all there, team, marketing, sales, etc and they just took turns asking me questions.
So, Nike was your first job designing?
Actually, I was a product manager at Nike — it’s PLM for short, part of the product creation team. You have your design guys, your product line guys, and your developers.
What, exactly, does a PLM do?
It stands for Product Line Manager. PLM is the person that’s sort of a bridge between sales, design and team. They are responsible for planning the business and putting the line together.
Sounds like there’s a lot of responsibility involved. Is it at all difficult to get your bearings in skate footwear, especially at Nike?
It wasn’t too bad. I think it’s one of those things that, as you do stuff over the years, if you pay attention to what’s going on around you — I was fortunate to work with a lot of good designers and I was able to pay attention to a lot of those guys. It was a good learning experience, working with a bunch of good people for a long time.
What was your first creation as a shoe designer?
As far as designing from the ground up? It’ll be this new stuff that’s coming out sometime next year. Closest thing I guess would be some color designs at Nike, where you color existing shoes. That’s the closest thing to creating footwear.
Sounds like you’re alluding to starting your own footwear brand. Interesting…but what was one of your first projects at Nike?
I went there in 2006, I know I colored up a couple of dunks — the griptape dunk mid was the first dunk I colored there. As far as getting into brand new shoes, I think the P-Rod 3 was the first thing I started working on there. I met up with Paul to get some feedback on what he was into, what he liked about his previous shoes, what he didn’t, that kind of thing. Price, colors, number of colors, some story ideas for brand. Shortly after that was when we started working on the Stefan. That was definitely the biggest project.
I heard that designing the Janoski was a two man process, any truth to that? And if so, who else did you work with in designing it?
It was really me, James Arizumi and Brian Linkfield (designer and developer). Not too many people knew, but there was supposed to be a Stefan that came out a year earlier. It was a cupsole, it got scrapped — we ended up not doing it at the last minute because he wanted to go back to looking at doing a real vulc shoe. So, at the time, it was Stefan, Linkfield, Arizumi, and myself. James worked on the designs, Stefan had a pretty solid sketch going into it, and we were showing that thing around and it had to be a little more expensive. Tons of people were claiming it looked too similar to a Vans, or it was too expensive, or it just wouldn’t work. It was like, well, we spent a lot of time making it as good as we can in conjunction with what Stefan wanted, and we were feeling pretty good about it — but there weren’t very many people at the beginning that were! Our old marketing guy, Gert, was super down to help us make it work.
Wow, I wonder how different things would be with an initial cupsole release of the Janoski instead of what we know it to be today. What were Arizumi’s duties against yours?
The way it breaks down in a product triad — I’m kinda like the in-between design and sales guy, I guess. So, when the design is actually drawing and using influences. We would spend a lot of time figuring out what kids are skating in, what they’re into, trends, figuring out what a kid needs — how much do they wanna pay? How much is too much to pay? Favorite materials? Favorite colors? It’s kind of this blend of the art and science of it. The developer is the straight-up science part, where they’re going to factories and working on shit. The design is the full on art part. The PLM is right in the middle.
Upon creating the Janoski, what are the next steps in terms of getting that design approved and ready for production? Do you have to pass it by a marketing/production team for approval, or was it sent to the factory right off the bat?
Once it made it through the product team, it goes to the brand guys. Getting them to Stefan, getting him to skate for catalogs or whatever, ads leading up to the launch, pretty standard for anywhere. We spent a lot of time with shops back in the day. We’d go in there, meet with everyone, show them the new shoe, and talk about it so they could get the info from us. It kinda got away from us later, but that’s what we used to do. We would take samples early and show them to shops that were down from the beginning, so that was pretty cool.
Were there any additional design lines or changes on the Janoski in comparison to what we know it as today?
No, not really. James spent a lot of time on the details, such as the x inside the box stitching. I think for the most part, it was making sure the shape was spot-on. A lot of it was internals, as well. I know that Stefan wanted to be able to wear it without socks on, so we spent a lot of time covering up the seams on the inside and making sure everything is really smooth in there. That’s why, when you put it on now without socks on, it feels nice.
That attention to detail probably explains why it’s one of the best selling models of all time, amongst other factors. With the debut release, who’s idea was it to us the cork insole?
I think it was Stefan’s. There’s a winery in his hometown that his parents lived on, or have, and we thought it’d be a cool detail.
Do you ever nail a shoe design, first try?
I mean, the Stefan was pretty dead-on at the beginning. A lot of it was messing with the shape to make sure the shape was right, but nothing changed a whole lot from when we first started. Usually you gotta step back for a little bit and make some changes. It can be tricky, but it depends on the type of shoe. Usually anything is gonna need some love, it’s like editing a skate part. You get it to a spot you’re pretty happy with, then step back, take a look, and make any changes.
That makes total sense and really humanizes the design process. Do you have a favorite shoe that you worked on?
The Stefan was always a favorite, obviously. The Koston 1 was a fun one. It was really cool working on the Project BA, because Brian was super interested in learning how to make shoes in general. Anything with the pros is always good, you know? But a lot of that stuff is classic shoes that already exist, like Dunks, Bruins, Blazers. They’re such legendary models that it makes it fun to work with.
Did you have a least favorite shoe?
We had a couple that we definitely swung and missed on! Remember that shoe, the Veloce? It was a little before it’s time. We were trying to do some version of a skate runner, but it ended up being kind of a mess.
Who was awesome to work with, pro-wise?
Most of them are pretty rad. Stefan is sweet, he’s opinionated and he knows what he wants. Eric, same way. He’s super shoe nerd about stuff. One year I flew to Tampa to work on colors with Grant, Cory and Ishod and it fucking ruled. We had drinks at The Bricks and colored up shoes on my laptop all afternoon. Working on the Dunk with Ishod was amazing, just because that dude is my favorite skater anyways and he was so into working on the shoe and making it work right. He’s just a rad dude to work with and skate with.
Okay, now we have to ask, was there anyone who sucked to work with?
This was before I was doing design or PLM stuff, but way back in the day with Stevie Williams at DC, trying to figure out what he wanted. It was kinda hard to translate what he wanted until we went skating together. We went to a couple of meetings with designers to figure out what he wanted for his shoe, and all he told us was that he “wanted something fucking sick that he could skate in.” When that’s your feedback, it’s a little challenging [laughs]. Sometimes you gotta hangout with someone for a little bit to figure out what they really want. That’s part of what a product line manager does — you gotta translate those needs for a skate kid or a pro into a real thing. It gets a little tricky.
What are your thoughts on the Koston 3?
I was there for part of it, it’s not my favorite thing. That’s pretty much all I have to say about it.
We heard you left Nike, any particular reason?
I actually got let go. The first seven years were some of the best times ever at that place, made some lifelong friends, got to go on some amazing trips, skate with some of the best people in the world at fun spots. We got to travel around, do cool stuff, meet a bunch of kids, skate with dudes on the team and work with guys like Ishod, Grant, Cory, it was fucking rad. But when I think about, “man, skateboarding is what got me here” it makes me super thankful. But SB got bigger, we expanded, new bosses, all that stuff. Nike’s Nike, man. They do what they do, and they’re good at it, and that’s cool for certain people, but I didn’t really have any interest in going to the running department, or moving over to a different category. So the last couple years were different, which is fine, and I’m sure my bosses were sick of fighting with me. We just had different priorities, I get it, and it’s working out because it’s nice to be out of the rat race and just working on skateboarding. To be able to step away from it and really try to put what it’s given me back into it somehow and do the right thing for skateboarders feels rad. It’s different — there’s no salary, so there’s a lot more work for probably less pay, but it just feels good to work on some good shit for people that skate.
It sounds like an eye-opening experience at SB. With your experience there and having a good eye for foresight, where do you see the current landscape of skate footwear going in, let’s say, the next 10 years?
I think we’re kind of at that spot that happens every few years, where the up-and-coming kids in skating start beating up their feet a little bit more. It’ll start turning into shoes that can be better for you without being super expensive or over-the-top, design-wise. A good example is the Lunarlon in new Chucks. It’s a simple thing to do, but it helps your foot out a little bit. As people start learning how jacked your feet can get if you don’t take care of them, it’ll allow footwear to change into something that works out for people. It’s that cycle, we may not reach full tech, but we’ll reach some different designs. We’ll see. I think taking a look at the progression of everything that happens — skateboarding is weird because I feel like it’s one of the most endlessly progressive things to do. You go out and you do it and it doesn’t matter if you walk out your front door and you live in the middle of nowhere and you’re skating flat ground you can still learn and learn and learn. We all are trying to progress and learn new tricks, try shit no one has done, etc, but at the same time, as a culture, it can clamp down and be resistant to change. It’s weird, it’s this blend of super-progressive and super-stubborn at the same time.
Beautifully said Shawn. So, what are your post Nike plans?
I’m starting a shoe company with some partners from LA. After thinking about it and considering working for other companies I figured after about 20 years of working in skateboarding and half of that working on shoes, now’s the time. I’ve learned a lot over the years and have had the privilege to work with some amazing people so I want to turn that into something for skateboarding. We are going to focus on what feels good, looks good and lasts at an honest price. Footwear that works.
A lot of stuff right now tends to be lifestyle based, like, ‘will it work for a certain account that’s not necessarily a skateshop?’ I’m trying to move away that, and really focus what you can benefit from, which is what will make you feel better skating. You don’t need a shoe that’ll make you win whatever gold medal, just have a shoe that works better for you on a skateboard — looks cool, feels good, and is built by people that care about it. That’s the biggest thing we can do. The industry is in a weird spot, I feel like we could use more sense of ‘skate community’ and less ‘industry’ and that’s something we need to take back. That’s the goal, I think, start doing some good for skateboarding itself.
What’s your motivation for starting a new brand from scratch? What will make it stand out on the shoe wall?
I think there’s a couple things that we can bring to the table that aren’t being covered by any of the current companies while adding to the skateboarding community. Stay tuned on that…
Outside of skateboarding, which designers inspire you?
I just try to pay attention to what’s around me, and stuff that I like, I research a bit. I love guitar stuff and band stuff, so I’ll pay attention to lines on that. Motorcycles, choppers, that kind of stuff is always good. Other than that, I just try to see what I can get out of skateboarding, as opposed to hauling it from somewhere else. That’s something I think kind of happened for a long time. When you look at DC and éS, and all of those guys that came up in the mid-nineties, they were literally copying Nike catalogs and making them a little bit skateable. Nike at the time had no idea that was going on. But now, skateboarding has become its own thing enough that you can take inspiration just from what skateboarding does, and it’s that beauty of how you make something functional that looks good, as well. It’s probably because my whole life has been skateboarding, but I try to equate everything to it. Like, anyone can back tail a ledge, but when you see a magic one, like that Suciu clip at Pulaski, that kind of shit is the sickest! How do you translate THAT into a product? We want something to come back to that gives you a good feeling, like “whoever made this thing understands what I’m into and they probably do what I’m into.” That’s the way we want it to work. If you can’t go out your door and what you’re putting on your feet makes you happy to push down the street, you’re doing it wrong.
What about in skateboarding? Do you have any colleagues that you really admire?
Most of the dudes who I worked with on the OG crew. Sandy, Kevin, Hunter, Dobbs, John Martin. Keating, Tufty, Bob, Scuba, Sissi. Todd Jordan for helping me get in hella trouble. Mickey Reyes, Staba, we got to do some fun collabs. The shop dudes that we used to do prelines with like Steve from Alive & Well, Dom at Brooklyn Projects, Nieratko and Steve out at NJ. I mean, it’s a known fact that you can trust people from New Jersey with your life so on that alone… Too many good people in skateboarding, I could go on and on…
Okay, well in classic fashion, I have to ask…Top 5 favorite shoes of all time? In no particular order, can be skate or non skate.
The Rick Howard 1s on DC, with the gummy thing, those thing were the sickest. The Lynx, the Bruin, the Rudy 2, with the big-ass DC logo on the side, and the Sal 23’s.