How Sneakers, One of This Year's Coolest Books, Came to Be

Credit: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Talk with any devoted fan of sneakers and odds are they’ve probably got an amazing story to tell you about how they snagged each of their favorite pairs. That passion is at the heart of a new book, simply called SNEAKERS. Written by Alex French and Howie Kahn, with design by Rodrigo Corral, the book is full of stunning imagery and dozens of incredible tales that knit together every aspect of modern sneaker culture.

The team of three spoke with Men’s Journal about the importance of those personal narratives, how the book came together, their earliest sneaker memories, and what it was like to talk with Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant, and the other boldface names who helped the book come alive.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching the book?

HOWIE KAHN: The thrill of writing this was how many surprises and moments of extreme interest came up along the way. They happened daily. To learn that one of the most accomplished sneakers designers in the world, Tiffany Beers (at left), got her start designing lids for Pringles potato chip canisters was a fascinating moment. It speaks to coming of age and personal development and how far people can get when they truly activate their talents. Tiffany recently took a job at Tesla, so now we're seeing people from footwear really getting a crack at shaping the future outside of what's on your feet. That will happen more. And NASA figures into the book in two different places. The idea that designing footwear can exist in the same category as the space program shows how ambitious this world really is.

You guys have spoken about how your approach to writing the book shifted and changed throughout, ultimately deciding to really focus on personal stories. Was there a specific person or story that was the catalyst to move the rest of the project in this direction?

KAHN: What changed, which is what should and must change while writing on a topic for a couple of years, is the overall depth of understanding. We really came to internalize the idea that every shoe, or every part of every shoe, is connected to a series of decisions, to the tension surrounding those decisions and ultimately to a story that resolves it. The greatest sneakers solve a problem—they're an object lesson in resolving tension. Their essence is narrative. So, the deeper we got into it, the more and more we sure we became about the idea of SNEAKERS being about people first and foremost.

You were able to get some really interesting people, from Bruce Kilgore (the creator of the Air Force 1s), all the way to Kobe Bryant and Serena Williams. Who were you most surprised to get and who did you want to speak with that you couldn't?

KAHN: It's not that there was an element of surprise. Celebration, sure. It's amazing when you get a "yes" back from Serena Williams, but Serena is also one of the kindest and most generous people around, so she's just sticking to form. Overall, we got a great response. We proposed to all the people in the book that we were out to write the greatest sneaker book ever, one focusing on their stories and one coming from a place of respecting their creative, technical and personal contributions to this world. We wanted it to be emotional for them; we also recognized that people wanted to be in this book. In large, sneaker stories exist online. But, at their core, sneaker people are people who care deeply about objects. It's one thing to be on an Instagram feed, even with a million followers. It's another thing, and maybe a deeper one, to be in a book like this. People in the book have now been asking for an extra copy for their mother, so they're proud to be in SNEAKERS. All that said, wrangling interviews is a craft. Each one took plenty of time to land, especially because we targeted subjects with huge careers and packed schedules. But, all in all, we got who we wanted. We do have a list in development, though, in case there's enough interest for SNEAKERS 2.

Rodrigo, how did the book's overall design came together?

RODRIGO CORRAL: As the contributors content started coming into the studio, we quickly realized that the shoes they talked about and the stories they told were too important to live inside a rigid template. Instead, we approached each chapter and contributor individually, giving each one custom art, photography and illustrations for readers to explore.

Can you describe the collaboration process between you, Alex and Howie?

CORRAL: Alex and Howie drove a lot of the access and provided amazing content. They made intros so we could work directly with the contributors. We would take those relationships and fly out to Portland for private photo shoots with Nike execs. Howie and Alex's content came in flurries, and it acted as an amazing springboard to keep us inspired and creating strong visuals.

What was the hardest part of the book to design for you?

CORRAL: It was a lot of work. We were very ambitious and wanted every contributor to have unique illustrations, art, or photography. We also had to locate, travel and shoot many of the sneakers they talk about. As the chapters started coming in and we were climbing to 300 plus pages, it started to feel like we were crazy for trying to make each chapter so custom.

The cover is instantly striking. How did you land on that particular design?

CORRAL: Sneakers means so many things to so many different people. I don't want to explain SNEAKERS away visually, but it also can't be too conceptual. It needs to grab your attention and then let you make it personal. You know which shoes are inside the white box, I'm don't want to fill that space for you.

What's your earliest sneaker memory?

HOWIE: Not being able to fit into the earliest Jordans because I was in kids’ sizes and they weren't making them in my size, at least not where I could find them. So, I'd buy the smallest size I could find. My feet would be lost in them, but I felt like I could dunk.

ALEX FRENCH: Walter Payton’s signature shoe. I was probably seven when they came out and I had to have them.

CORRAL: I was a basketball kid and I wanted a pair of Air Jordan 1s. Of course my Colombian parents wouldn't spend the cash, so they bought me a pair of JOXS instead, super embarrassing. It's also my earliest memory of knowing I was going to have to work hard to get what I wanted in life.

What sneaker do you covet the most?

KAHN: I'm going to stick to my conviction here that, for me, it's about the stories first. I love my Mars Yards. Tom Sachs, the prolific contemporary artists worked with the scientists who worked on the Mars Rover to make them. They’re amazing-looking shoes and I feel lucky to have a pair, but I feel that way because the story behind them is so resonant to me. It's Chapter 24 in the book and it's about exploration and deep research and going into the field to find answers. It's about the risk in creativity and it's also about making mistakes. And learning from them. These are human themes. You don't need to be a sneakerhead to be pulled in. The whole book reads like that. Whether or not you care about shoes, the stories will speak to you.

FRENCH: Daniel Bailey’s NASA shoe. The one he made with Android Homme. I am also deeply in love with a small LA-based company called No.One. Their shoes are so beautiful. I will also very likely lose my mind in February when Nike re-releases the Jordan 3 in black!

CORRAL: That's always changing. I still want the Mars Yards 2.0, but couldn't make the Governors Island event happen. Tom, if you're reading - I'm size 10.5!

What is it about sneakers that has made them so prolific?

KAHN: Sneakers are powerful because they're so personal to people. They're both accessible and cool. They're sophisticated, but they maintain a kind of innocence. It's hard to think of another object that resonates that much with its audience. The closest comparison is maybe the iPhone, but people who love their iPhones won't buy a new one every week. Sneakers are perpetual.

FRENCH: And the Internet. There are so many daily sneaker resources and so many releases. It’s so easy to get sucked in.

CORRAL: Most everyone wears sneakers at some point and with so much great design, it's become an opportunity to reflect your identity or even how you're feeling that day.

Sneakers is now available for purchase online or in a bookstore near you.