Continuing our Discussions series, this week we look towards a brand that’s steeped in history, Converse. For this, we sit down with Matt Sleep who is the Global Footwear and Apparel Design Director for Converse’s special projects and collaborations.
With an extensive range of brands continuously wanting to collaborate with Converse, we discuss what it’s like to receive that first sample of a product, to managing all these collaborations and most importantly, just how a project goes from conversation to a final product.
Footpatrol: Hey Matt, great to have you talking to us today! To begin would you be able to give the readers an insight into who you are and a bit of your backstory before working with Converse?
Matt Sleep: Hi there! I’m Matt Sleep, Global Footwear & Apparel Design Director for Special Projects & collaborations here at Converse in Boston, MA.I’ve been with Converse & in Boston coming up on 12 years now, but prior to that I had spent about 4 years living in Nürnberg, Germany working in Colour & Graphic Design for Footwear at Adidas Originals. I’m from the suburbs of London originally and have always been passionate about art & design as well as sneaker & clothing culture. Growing up with close access to everything thatthe city of London has to offer really provided me the opportunity from an early age to get involved in the heart of the culture that I am now very fortunate to work within.
FP: You have been working in the footwear industry for almost 16 years, with 12 of them being at Converse, which is quite a long time! In those 12 years you must have seen so many trends, technologies etc come and go in the market! How was that journey for you to where you are today and how have things changed over time?
MS: I mean so much has happened in the last 12 months let alone the last 16 years- this is the crazy but exciting thing about where we stand today!The journey has been very fun and filled with a lot of learnings. I have been very fortunate tohave worked with and around some of the best people this industry has known and for that I am immensely grateful and try not to take lightly.The way product and in particular sneakers have evolved over this time is amazing as well, not only from the aspect of innovation and technology but also in terms of what people look to for style choices.I’m also very pleased that sustainability has finally become a core topic of most Brand’s conversations and actions now as well, as not only is this critical to all of our futures, but it also provides exciting design challenges for us and the next generation of designers to cometo tackle.
FP: Being originally from London and an avid fan of Crook Tongues back in the day! What was it like travelling into soho, being active on the forums, seeing all this product for the first time! How did this help fuel your interest into sneakers?
MS: It was fundamental to say the least. If it wasn’t for the community that Crooked Tongues created I likely wouldn’t be doing what I am today and certainly wouldn’t have some of the friends that I am lucky enough to know now! The culture around sneakers and ‘Streetwear’ then wasn’t what it is today. Being into and obsessing these types of products was far from what most people knew (or were into) and as such one looked for any tangible way of connecting with like-minded people. CT helped be the hub/conduit for this, for me and many others. Through this very international community I was exposed to a multitude of other sneakers, experiences, art influences- you name it- and this drove my natural curiosity as to whether itwould be possible for me to be able to influence the creation of any of these things as a profession.
FP: Fast forward to today and your role at Converse, working on the special projects, the collaborations, the artist partnerships. These are the shoes that often send people crazy, the type of product you would be getting excited over all those years ago. Do you still get the same feeling now when you see that first sample or the first marketing images come in?
MS: Honestly, yes AND no! What I mean by this, is that of course I still get that rush of excitement and adrenaline when I see a first sample but it is a different type of excitement that I feel now then when I first started- I think this comes with experience, maturation and an extra pinch of patience or at least I hope that it does! At the beginning of my career, I would build myself up with excitement and honestly tension, as I anticipated what the sample would come back looking like. When it came back looking great, there’s no better feeling, but conversely when it comes back not looking close to the vision, that can be a bit of a knock to the confidence- aside from the mood.Over the years, I’ve learnt to derive more of my excitement & enjoyment from the ENTIRE sampling process- looking at it more like a journey to reach ‘perfection’ rather than expecting it straight out of the gate. I think also as a whole a project feels more ‘fulfilling’ when you have had to take that journeyto get there.
FP: Over the past few years the roster of partners and collaborators for Converse has been so strong, how do you manage working on simultaneous products? For example the introduction of a new silhouette with the GOLF le FLEUR* Gianno to the rubberized construction of the AMBUSH Chuck 70.
MS: Very simple- by having an amazing team to work alongside!It’s always a challenge to strike the right balance, especially as there’s always lots of equallyamazing projects to be working on. I won’t lie also, that it does require a certain type of ‘flexibility’ in one’s mindset as well as creative approach to be able to handle jumping between different types of creative projects, while executing to a high standard always.That’s why I must shout out my team as they are experts in doing this and without us all pulling together as one family, none of this would be even close to possible!
FP: And for the collaboration itself, can you share a bit of insight into who the process goes from initial conversation with a collaborator through to the end product?
MS: Really this is all based on high levels of communication and starts by getting to know the people you are working with!Every project starts out from a place of mutual respect. For a partnership to work, you must build off a strong foundation and this is a great place to start from.Once we kick off a project we always want to know what ideas a partner has. We’re working with that partner for a reason- we like & respect what they do- so if we didn’t listen to how they want to tell their story with Converse then there isn’t really much point in working together in the first place!From this point we ideally like to have the partner visit our HQ in Boston so we can talk themthrough the creation process, show them our executional and material capabilities as well astaking them to our Archive, so they can see the context of where we have come from. Hopefully (and quite often) the combination of these experiences help drive new or evolved ideas as well as being moments where we can get to know each other better.This of course isn’t always possible with people’s schedules (or in a pandemic) so we try to do our best in digital communications when in-person is simply just not possible.From here, we go back and forth and finesse the designs until the partner is happy and from there myself and the team translate the designs to techpacks that we use to communicate our creative intent to our development & manufacturing partners.We then go through a sampling process, where we again work continually with the partner tohelp finesse the design until we can get it confirmed for production.
FP: Most recently we have seen the return of the Converse Pro Leather, a shoe with so much history! How was the decision made to bring this back from the archives and can we expect to see the return of any more silhouettes in the coming months?
MS: The Pro Leather is an icon of the Converse portfolio, having been worn by many revered athletes such as Julius ‘DR.J’ Erving and for a hot second Michael Jordan. When you have a silhouette that has been so beloved, it’s usually an easy call to decide to bring it back for future generations to re-discover as well as hopefully enjoy! Unsurprisingly with a history as long and as rich as ours, the Pro Leather isn’t the only gem that we have waiting in our archive. The Brand will always look for key moments where we can re-introduce one of these gems tothe current market and in doing so help to educate a little about our history as well as make improvements to the way that shoe is now being made. Keep your eyes peeled as there will be more to come!
FP: The Renew programme is an amazing initiative from Converse and in the last few weeks have seen the launch of the partnership with Carhartt. For those that are not aware can you share a little more about Renew and is it something we are going to see more collaborative partners get involved with?
MS: Renew essentially stands as a key pillar for us in our continual goal to improve upon the sustainability of our manufacturing process and materialisation in our product. We continue to strive to create products that have a lower impact on our environment as well as, of course, looking and feeling good on your feet or body. The Carhartt W.I.P Chuck 70 was our first project with a collaborative partner where the textile we used for the exterior build of the shoe was all upcycled from old Carhartt garments that otherwise may have become waste. Not only does this product help create a positive impact but it stays true to the Look & feel of the Carhartt W.I.P brand as well as looking great on feet. We hope that in the future we can continue to create such projects but as for what’s next, I’m afraid that i’m not allowed to tell you right now!
FP: To close out the conversation today, what would you say to young Matt browsing Crooked Tongues with a passion for sneakers and design. How would you keep him and all other young creatives who are working towards a career within the footwear industry?
MS: To anyone young or old, I would say pursue your passion! I never thought it would be possible to be on ‘the other side of the sneaker’, shall we say. To go from obsessing and collecting them to being responsible for creating them is still a bit crazy to me, but with all the resources that are now available in the world, the dream is a lot more of a tangible reality.What I will say is it’s important to do your best to do something that you truly love in life. It’snot always possible and certainly not easy, which means you have to work hard and seize every opportunity possible.If you do this then one’s potential can be limitless.
FP: And given its trainers that brought us all together originally and we are all spending a lot of time indoors lately. We would like to know what your go to is for the below:
Working out – Nike Pegasus Turbo
Casual every day – Chuck 70 of course!
Impressing someone –It’s still likely a Chuck 70!
Staying at home –NIke Benassi & Visvim Christo
FP: Thank you for your time today Matt!.
Do you have any final words for the readers?
MS: Thank you also! I hope everyone reading is staying safe & well!