Since 1906 Mizuno has become a household name known to many across the globe by producing top quality products to help improve all-round lifestyle and sporting performance. From baseball to athletics, the Japanese outfit prides itself on quality. Getting to know the story behind a particular piece of footwear is something we love to find out at Footpatrol. From the initial concept, through to the development stages and finally the finished article… But how is this achieved? Recently, we chopped it up with the man behind the legendary Mizuno Wave Rider, Tuan Le and took a dive into his life and career as a design specialist within an ever changing, fast paced industry.
Footpatrol: Tuan we want to thank you for giving us the time to speak to you! How are you?
Tuan Le: I’m good thank you, I am also very honoured to be able to speak to you guys. You are my type of people, all we want to do is talk about shoes!
FP: Before we talk about your career let’s kick things with a bit of an introduction on yourself, who you are and you found yourself getting into footwear design?
TL: I was born during the craziest time of the Vietnam war of which we lost, I later moved to America when I was 15 years old when the war ended. My communication to the war around that time was through drawing, I am really good at drawing and it became my way of expression to anyone around me.
I went to college to study and after a little bit got asked to join Reebok for about 8 years. I joined at just the right time too, it became hugely successful off the back of the little thing called Aerobics! It even became bigger than Nike at the time. [However], my career at the time wasn’t in line with what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to be a fashion designer as such, but more of a function/practical designer where what I produce has purpose. On the back of [my early successes] I received many recruitment phone calls from many brands but, one brand stood out for me and that was Mizuno. Mizuno were known for their technical product and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to help come up with comfortable and technical cushioning devices to avoid injury etc… Mizuno asked me to move to San Francisco and strangely enough it snowed in Boston that winter. That snowfall was the defining moment that I packed my things and moved over the West Coast.
It ended up being a 30 year partnership between me and Mizuno and to this day I love to work with them! I absolutely love what I do, it turned into a career of which I could have never imagined. I hope I will get to this forever even if it’s just through my love for drawing.
FP: I love that whole story! One thing I love about Mizuno is that they have dominated nearly every sport since they were founded in 1906, the best part about it is that they never feel the need to rave about the success because they know what they do works.
TL: I agree!
FP: Just to talk about your role itself. How has the job developed over the years? We read that once upon a time you were known as a graphic designer as sneaker design roles weren’t really a thing.
TL: [When I started my career] you had a factory, the shoe maker and a pattern cutter who designed the uppers for the shoe, so there was never a need for shoe designers as such within the industry, it was like they never heard of it. It was a whole thing of a foreign office working with far away factories. I would sit in the office and make a design with input from the marketing and sales teams, that would then go to the factory to be made, the sample returned, I’d make the corrections and then send it back to the factory again. What I didn’t realise at the time 30 years ago, is that this way of work would become the way we design shoes today. No one in the offices ever goes to the factories, we sit at our far away desks, draw a beautiful drawing and then email it over to the factory.
FP: You are known at Mizuno for designing the legendary Wave Rider 1 and also the lesser known Wave Rider 2 model. How did you conceptualise the Wave Rider 1?
TL: It was around the late 80s when Nike dropped the first Air Max trainer with the big Air unit. Mizunos shoes at the time were going downhill from the back of it and were struggling with sales. Mr. Mizuno himself even said to me, you got one more chance or we may have to close the whole shoe department! So we went away and had a think and came up with the idea of rather than having a really big air bag like Nike, why not create a super thin piece of mechanical that goes down as its compressed and springs back as its released, so we then drew the Wave plate into the midsole, I felt it was the perfect shape to create this effect. When we sent the ideas to the factory to try, they had never even attempted anything like that before so it took many attempts before we got it right. By the time we released Wave Rider 1 it ended up being a big failure and no one cared about it! When you put EVA and plastic together you need to create enough open space for the Wave plate to be able to contract and expand as it’s worn to create that energy return. At the time it was something our factory couldn’t quite get. By the time we released the Wave Rider 2, we figured it out, the Wave Rider 2 was really the groundbreaking model for Mizuno Running. Even Mr. Mizuno came up to us and said you guys got it, I’m not going to close the shoe department anymore!
FP: Knowing that you are a very keen runner. Is the running part of that your mental prep for the day?
TL: For many years I found a certain kind of click that makes my mind work. Every morning I go out for a run and whilst my mind thinks about living and eating healthy, I think to myself about how I am not here to train for a marathon but here for a lifelong marathon, I want to be able to do it for 50/60 years. So when someone comes up to me and says I have the crazy idea, can you help me, I always say yes because I am constantly mentally prepared for these things.
FP: Speaking of pens actually! As the industry has developed, have you joined the paperless world or stuck to the classic pen and paper?
TL: Pen and paper always! I read a study from some scientists once, that as you draw and the outer part of your palm touches the paper as you’re resting your hand it sends signals to your brain and gets your ideas following! I never want to give that feeling up.
FP: Tuan What is the perfect shoe for you?
TL: I don’t know if there is one yet. I tend to spend the winter time in my house in Florida and usually only take one pair of shoes. Within one month I will throw them out because I am always running. I need shoes to be light, simple and last longer than a month, I need them to last at least 6 months!
After a while of wearing EVA although it has its benefits, after a while it gets so compressed that it loses those benefits. So as for the perfect shoe we haven’t made it yet but we are always striving with the industry to produce it.
FP: Something I wanted to ask you that I saw on your website was the Mizuno car design you had. Did that ever become a real thing?
TL: Back in 1990, Mr. Mizuno said we have sponsored a Porsche for the 24hr Le Mans race, can you draw up a graphic. I said with so much excitement yes! I did the design and they ended up placing 8th on the day. I think there is even plenty of footage out there if you want to see it.
FP: We’ve heard you had or have a Mustang too. Have motor sports had an influence on your designs?
TL: I do yes, I have a 1966 Mustang red with 2 racing stripes down the middle. A friend of mine sadly passed away and his family sold it to me after his passing to look after it, so I have a duty to make sure the car is maintained. I’ve always been a big fan of motorsports, the history of car design on how they have got to where they are now fascinates me, my favourite example of this is the Porsche 911. The way they have kept refining it over the years is what makes it the best car in the world to me, it looks the same as it did when it first came out. Same with aeroplanes, there are lots of planes that are produced but like cars they look the same but they make adjustment after adjustment to make it perform better. I can’t help but appreciate the thought process these designers go through to be able to do that.
FP: Now the real focus of this interview is actually Mizuno Mujin TL. The upper that you once designed and never came out. Could you tell us the story of how it all came about and why it got held back until now?
TL: If you ever find yourself in Portland, Oregon I will show you. One of the easiest conversations I had with our guys in Japan was about a bunch of drawings that I have stacked up in boxes. When I say boxes I mean boxes! You could stack them up and they would be taller than me. They asked me if they could come over and see them. So the team from Japan flew over, we laid out all the drawings everywhere and they all took a stack each. Some of these drawings I believe will be coming out in the not too distant future!
FP: Did you intend for it to be a trail based shoe? I know the sole unit is from a Mujin 8.
TL: So the idea actually came from Saito-san, when he came over to go through the drawings, he saw the upper and thought this would be cool to do on a trail shoe. I naturally agreed simply because I always run on trails. When I first designed the upper years ago though I don’t think we planned for it to be a trail based shoe though.
FP: If you had to do a special edition Tuan Le colourway how would that look to you? What would be your ideal look for it?
TL: As long as it looks fast I don’t mind. Fast and bright colours!
FP: Take a little side step now. In your opinion, how would you compare the past, present and future of Mizuno?
TL: The way I was attracted to the brand is the true sense of what Mizuno does best. Functional, well made product that doesn’t need much marketing because of how good they are. There have been times over the years where Mizuno have tried to take a different direction and failed. So we felt that for Mizuno things need to stay the way they always are because it works and it’s what they do so well at. The times where they have tried to compete with brands like Nike and try to be them and later realised we are just too different and need to stay in our own lane. We need to focus on providing functional footwear in the best materials and the best technology. That’s why I love it here because Mizuno still does just that.
FP: What about the concept of 3D printing shoes? Giving consumers a space to see their purchase come to life in front of them.
TL: I love the idea! I think it’s amazing, we had a few products in the works aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which would have allowed the customer to see the shoes made whilst they were waiting. Unfortunately that never happened due to the circumstances for the Olympics. I would like to do more of that, I think it would really help out with the sampling process too in design saving the wait from the factory.
FP: Tuan just out of interest did you have any influence on the Mizuno Right Here Right Now releases?
TL: No, I wasn’t a part of that project. I have been working with the Advance Concepts team in Osaka though and some of the things we did in that got passed down to that project.
FP: Tuan I want to reiterate our thanks for sparing us some time to speak to you. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to the man behind some of Mizunos best shoes. Before we let you go, are there any words of advice you can give to any young enthusiasts trying to make their way into the industry?
TL: Your own personality is key. If you are a designer, find who you are as a person, maybe you are special, that will naturally pass through into your designs and drawings. You will be able to continue this for the next 30/40 years because you are being who you truly are. Throughout my career I genuinely feel that because I have stayed true to myself, and because of that has given me a truly amazing career.