Interview // Adidas’ Jon Wexler Discusses Kanye West, Yeezy Series & Facts

words & interview // Nick DePaula:

In his role as the brand’s Global Director of Entertainment & Influencer Marketing, adidas’ Jon Wexler has signed artists before. He’s brought countless musicians and creatives to the company in the near-decade he’s been charged with leading what is essentially the celebrity partnerships division of adidas Originals, and he’s seen the way in which some artists can move the needle more than others.

As we all saw throughout 2015, none have come even close to having the immediate impact and overt ability to shape culture the way that Kanye West has.

Jon Wexler, or “Wex,” as most call him, has long been aware of West’s resounding influence from afar. As he explains in this exclusive conversation ahead, eventually bringing Kanye to The Three Stripes was a process that took well over a year and a half, with their first discussions dating back to even before his Air Yeezy 2 released with Nike.

I recently caught up with Wexler for nearly an hour, just after his featured speech at Agenda Emerge in Long Beach, California at the start of the month. Among several topics, we discussed how the entire partnership with Kanye originally came about, the highlights of working on the Yeezy series together, being honored with the “Shoe of the Year,” and of course, where he was when he heard “FACTS” for the first time.

Read ahead for the full exclusive interview below…

Nick DePaula: I vividly remember you telling me about this. It was November 6th, 2013, at 4:14 pm, when you got the text from Kanye –

Jon Wexler: Yeah! It said, “The world changes now.”

NDP: Exactly. You get the text from him, and then right after, you got an email with a copy of his signed adidas contract. To go back even further, when was the first point of contact made, and when did those conversations first begin?

Wex: The first time we connected was May of 2012. There was a series of phone calls between people from his team, putting out feelers to various brands that he had an interest in partnering with. Just thinking in a forward way, in case the partnership that he was in at the time didn’t evolve, I guess. Not to put myself in their head, but that’s just good business, to always have your next move planned out.

You know, adidas and Reebok are partner brands, and a guy from his team called [Reebok VP of Sports & Entertainment Marketing] Todd Krinsky, and said, “We’re really interested in exploring opportunities [with adidas] to see what might happen down the road.”

Todd gave me a shout, and said, “We just got this call about this inquiry, what do you guys think?” We huddled up as a team, and obviously, you have to evaluate stuff when you’re talking about working with someone that’s with a competitor.

That’s always controversial, when people change sides. We put it through the evaluation filter, and I remember our CMO coming into the office and being like, “Based on all the factors we’ve laid out, we believe this is the right thing for us to do.” From that point on, that was the mission. To make sure that we were able to make it happen.

NDP: You guys obviously weren’t working on product during that time yet during the negotiations, but what were some of the overall big picture things that you guys had outlined him possibly impacting?

Wex: Everyone’s aware of Kanye’s creativity and his directness and determination. The thing that really came across in those first conversations, is he’s just truly a world builder. He didn’t want to build a shoe, he wanted to build Rome. He was thinking on such a big scale, that it was just inspiring to even be in a conversation.

One conversation led to the next and to the next, and we were just constantly going back and forth with, “Just what could the partnership look like? What could we, in a perfect world scenario, pull off?” There were many, many discussions, and a couple trips to Germany. He had meetings with some of our senior executives out there, and there was just a lot of rounds of back and forth from there.

NDP: So you guys get down that path, and then eventually agree to terms on everything. How did that all take shape?

Wex: So we were all in New York for Fashion Week [September 5-12, 2013], and I was out there to go to the [ASAP] Rocky and Jeremy Scott shoe unveil event. I remember texting him and saying, “Hey, I’m in New York, and some of our higher up people are here too. Are you available?” He sent back, “Oh my god, I just landed. Lets get together.”

We finally got together, and I remember, some of the guys from his team coming up to me and saying, “You will never, ever get him. Ever.” [laughs] But now, some of those same people are our biggest advocates for what we’re doing. It wasn’t just him that changed the paradigm, but his whole crew of very highly influential and disruptive people around him are behind it too now.

That entire weekend, we had a series of meetings with him where we talked through and agreed on creatively what we wanted to accomplish, and then also agreed on the terms around the agreement. All of that took place in the dressing room at Jimmy Fallon. [laughs]

I remember walking out of the dressing room, and Charlie Wilson, who sang the “Bound 2” sample hook, he was wearing an adidas tracksuit head to toe. It was a white tracksuit with black stripes. Our Creative Director and CMO were like, “Did he know we were coming?” I was like, “Guys, this is what he does.” When [Kanye] starts to go toward a brand and gravitate there, all of the people around him recognize that and they try to go that direction too. It was very evident from the beginning, that he was going to be a gamechanger for us.

“It was very evident from the beginning, that he was going to be a gamechanger for us.”

NDP: As you guys were working through the 750 and 350, were there any highlights that really stick out from the time you guys spent working together during that first year?

Wex: I remember so many phone calls, and those phone calls come at a variety of times [laughs], and weren’t just related to the shoe. We’d be talking about all of the different motivations that go behind the way he creates, and in music too. All of those things. It was really funny, because early on, I flew out to Germany, and he had just come there for a meeting with us. We had been speaking for like a year, but we had never met yet, face to face. Of course, like every meeting, he showed up like two hours early, because the dude is always early or on time. He’s totally, amazingly professional like that.

There was this Mercedes out front of the building, but it had tinted windows. I remember walking out there, with a colleague of mine, and I was like, “I don’t know if this is him or not, so just come out there with me. If it’s not, then I won’t look like a fool knocking on the window.” [laughs] As we walk up, I still couldn’t see in, and he opens up the window, and he goes, “I recognized you from your Twitter!” [laughs] I just went, “That’s hilarious.”

It was just one of those things, where we had this crazy relationship through phone and email, text and whatever, but when we went into the meeting, our CMO started talking about how people are really close with eachother, and they don’t even have to know eachother in real life. It can just be all from those social media platforms.

Kanye was like, “Yeah, like me and Jon!” We had built so much together, without actually doing anything yet. There was a relationship there. Then, we didn’t actually get the deal done. We just couldn’t put it together. Then, later on, we had the big meeting in the Fallon dressing room, and took a trip to Germany again that changed it all, and got it done.

NDP: I’m going to give you a scenario. There’s a Yeezy releasing on a Saturday, and it’s the Monday of that week. How many combined emails, texts and tweets will you get that week or that month?

Wex: [laughs] It’s unreal, man. [laughs] The emails are crazy. It’s not just that. People have gone to such lengths. I got an email from someone fake, and they had created four different Cortez Bryant email accounts. Cortez Bryant manages Lil Wayne, and a bunch of other artists. They’re like “Dear Jon, I want to get some of these shoes for Lil Wayne. I need 3 pairs in this size. Please send them to this address.” [His deal with] Maverick had just been announced, and he cc’d a new Maverick email account and everything. I was like, “Wow, people are getting really creative.”

NDP: That’s been one of the funniest things to watch from afar. Just how many people are relentless in hitting you up for pairs.

Wex: People are reaching out, and typically, yeah, our team would be responsible for seeding those pairs out. That said, there would be a priority level within that. But, with this process, it’s all Kanye and Kim. We give them the product, and they’re gifting it and seeding it. The truth is, I can’t give any out like that. I got like 72,000 emails in February for the first launch. I just stopped reading emails, and the only way that people could get ahold of me was text or phone. It’s crazy. To really answer your question, between 70 and 80,000. That’s just email. [laughs] The Twitter stuff is just impossible to even keep up.

“I got like 72,000 emails in February for the first Yeezy launch.”

NDP: So each launch throughout the year, there’s a crazy frenzy, and the year ends with you guys getting “Shoe of the Year” at the Footwear News event. From a broad sense, how did that award encapsulate the whole process?

Wex: For everyone involved, and for the whole brand, it was just validation for all of the energy and effort that had gone into it. That word effort. Everyone fought so hard – his team, our team, the factories, all of senior management, finance and sales – everyone was on the same page about what this could be. It was just this crazy unified wedge of people really locked in arms and all going the same direction.

That moment at Footwear News was just the culmination of all of that. It just felt wildly amazing, and I remember that night afterward, we went to his place and had a quick meeting. He played us the song “Real Friends” and told us that it was going to be coming out.

Then, we went to dinner, and my face hurt because I was laughing so hard. He was so happy. His whole team was on cloud nine, and everybody was just elated. Then, he took us to the studio and played us even more songs. It was just this real coming together. Honestly, I’ve never seen him in that state of happiness. It was just great to know that we played a role in that.

He sees our appreciation every day, because we’re constantly effusive with our appreciation, because we’re so thankful. [laughs] Obviously, all of our collaboration partners just really kill it and are super determined to help us and be successful. There’s just something about the way that he is able to message things and create energy for them that is unique, and we’re very fortunate.

NDP: I thought his speech was great. It was almost twenty minutes long, but it was this great timeline of his creative process in footwear. One line that he said, and I quote, “Jon basically saved my life.” [laughs] You’re standing behind him on stage at that point. What were you thinking when he said that? I assume you weren’t expecting him to say that.

Wex: [laughs] I didn’t know if that was going to come up. [laughs] But, it was definitely an honor to get a shout out like that. It was incredible. Kanye is just such a creative person, and I think that he felt like if he was unable to get his ideas out there, it was going to drive him insane. He definitely gives me a ton of credit for helping him to get his ideas out there, but in all honesty, and you know, at somewhere as big as adidas, I’m happy to be able to facilitate that, and there’s so many people involved and fighting their ass off.

It was a thrill, and I actually remember the phone call that he’s referencing, which was hilarious. I don’t know that I can share all of the details from it, but what happened was, our first deal didn’t happen. So, we went from talking quite a bit, to trying to figure things out for awhile for over a year, to just not being in contact.

Then, randomly one day, he called me and just basically went in – “I have all this in my head, and you guys are the people. The designers that you work with. Raf and everybody. You guys know how to work with someone like me. Give me that shot!” He wasn’t begging or anything, he was more just passionate.

I was like, “Great, lets get together.” That next week was Fashion Week, and then the Fallon meeting, and that was it. We re-engaged and got it done. These deals don’t just happen in a very quick time. People are very considerate and thoughtful about, “Is this right for me and my career?” Then, from our side of things, we also go through a series of decisions and discussions internally where we debate the partnership. Fortunately, it turned out the way that it did.

NDP: One of my favorite things in his speech was how he said, “You need the right person, to get the right person.” I thought that was a really cool way that he framed it, and there’s always sports and entertainment marketing people that identify talent, but that was a really cool way to validate what it is that your role is in the whole big picture of it.

Wex: I’m super humbled that he said that, and I was super touched, obviously, but that part did stick out to me too. My mind was blown, because I never think of those things in those terms. I’m just a dot connector. I don’t think of myself as any different or any other guy. So “the right guy” was sort of like, “Whoa!” [laughs] That’s quite a nice compliment, you know. And he knows that I genuinely appreciate everything that he does to give me shine and everything that he does for the brand.

All of that stuff always comes as a surprise. Like the song a week ago, or those types of moments on stage last year. I remember, there was this horrible snow storm when All-Star Weekend was in New Orleans. Rachel Muscat, who manages the product side of the Kanye project, she got snowed in in New York. She was in a meeting with him, and couldn’t come to New Orleans. She sent me a video clip of him on stage during the Yeezus tour, doing one of those spontaneous, stream of consciousness type speeches.

NDP: Oh, I remember. [laughs]

Wex: Definitely! [laughs] He was talking about people he was displeased with that weren’t supporting him, and then he gave me this amazing shout out. And I just knew, that life had just turned into something different. [laughs] That was a very surreal moment, and it’s been a whirlwind since.

NDP: So we get to New Years Eve a couple weeks ago, and he drops “FACTS.” Where were you, and what was your initial reaction off the first listen?

Wex: So, I found out on Twitter. [laughs] I saw Kim’s tweet within a minute, and I saw what she wrote. The thing is, after that Footwear News award, Rachel [Muscat] and I had gone to the studio with him and he played some of his new songs for us, but I was like, “Hmm, I never heard that lyric or name in any of those songs.” Then, you listen to the lyrics in it, and it clearly was made in a very timely period, because of the Steve Harvey reference or whatever.

So I hit play like everyone else. And then I was like, “Oh!” [laughs] I was speechless, and I remember going to my wife, and being like, “Look!” Then, I played it for my 10 year-old and my 13 year-old. It was just a real sign of an amazing partnership. We’ve been blessed with working with artists and other collaboration partners, and I don’t want to say they bleed adidas, but they kind of do. He definitely carries that flag. We didn’t ask him to do that. Nobody in our company had any visibility to it. That was just a true and fun thing. I think a lot of people got very – “Well, these are the facts…and this and this.” [laughs] It’s art. That’s what rap is.

“I hit play like everyone else. And then I was like, ‘Oh!’

I found it very interesting how that got covered. At the MTV Awards, when he was wearing the other brand, and he talked about Yeezy jumping over the Jumpman, it was very celebrated by the sneaker community. But when he said it in the song last week, those same blogs, in a very overt way, made sure to go the other way. And I noticed all of it, and I remembered all of it. I’m like, “Wow, ok. So their PR is working overtime now. Ok.” [laughs]

But I like it, man. I like taking the fight to the fight. I like that Kanye is not afraid to show that. I think that’s something that he and adidas really get. We’re the challenger brand, and he’s the challenger right now, and he wants to really break through. That song was a true blessing.

NDP: And if you’ve followed Kanye for any period of time, that’s who he’s always been. He’ll say bold things. [laughs] That’s nothing new, and that’s one of my favorite things about him.

Wex: And it also showed a sense of humor. I always see that side of him, but that’s what I love about all of these speeches and interviews that he’s been doing. He’s very much the guy fighting for all of the other artists to put more creativity into the world. He’s also using his sense of humor, which is very strong, to get his point across now. Before, it was more of just the hammer. [laughs]

That is the part of the song that gets lost, when people get caught up in the numbers. I see people quoting all of these numbers, and I’m like, “Well, is that just Originals, or are you including all of our portfolio brands too?” What’s being compared? Adidas Originals is bigger than Under Armour as a brand.

NDP: And sometimes you see people only comparing the adidas Performance silo against Under Armour, or Skechers even.

Wex: I think the quickest way to confuse people, is just throw a bunch of numbers at ’em. Everyone runs with those numbers, and it’s like an unsubstantiated story. It’s the classic, “This is what they’re doing next year,” and then everyone else runs with it. Someone texted me a picture of a pink 350 the other day, and I had to have a fifteen text back and forth, to say, “That doesn’t exist.” He’s still like, “But, my 10 year-old wants it.” [laughs] But it doesn’t exist!

NDP: Last year was a huge success in terms of excitement for the models, but there was also this overarching feedback all year long that, “Hey, there aren’t enough pairs.” Can we expect the availability to be ramped up at all as we get into the new year here?

Wex: We definitely see the potential of what this partnership can be. I think the key though, is sustainable business. That’s why, in year 1, even though we released hundreds of thousands of pairs of them, the demand was just so much greater. Obviously, there’s this whole resale world that, yeah sure, I think we’d all love to increase volume and take the bottom out of that.

But, I think that the beauty of this partnership is that there really is no ceiling now. I think we’re all exploring different ways that we can maximize it. Knowing that we want this partnership to last forever, we don’t want it to be one of those flashes in the pan. We want to manage it responsibly.

“We’re the challenger brand, and he’s the challenger right now, and he wants to really break through.”

NDP: And of course, the Yeezy franchise just having Boost in it helps to elevate the Ultra Boost and a model like the NMD too. I like to use the word “consideration” when looking at shoes like those. Maybe three years ago, people wouldn’t consider those models, but now, with Kanye wearing Ultra Boost so much and with the equity in the Boost platform, people are giving those other models a blind shot of consideration and there’s a trust that you’re building up.

Wex: Globally, we launched Boost three years ago.

NDP: Yeah, it was right before Houston All-Star, in 2013.

Wex: So we launched Boost three years ago, and I love Boost and wear it every day. First it was the Energy Boost, then it was the Ultra Boost, and now I’m like an Ultra Boost guy 24/7. Now, with NMD coming out, I’m in those too.

Once you experience that comfort, it’s hard to go to an alternative. Of all the moments of Boost trajectory, you can definitely notice that the switch was flipped the day he wore the [Energy Boost ESM] and performed at the United Center.

I remember that Monday, the day after. When you look at the emails and our customer service team – forget it. [laughs] It was like someone took a blowtorch to the phone lines. It was just on fire. So that game gives the model the recognition that it needs, and we didn’t have any visibility that he was even going to wear those.

The reality is, we give Kanye all of our Boost shoes, because he’s like a mad scientist creator. He was cutting them open, and investigating how we built them and all of those things. Obviously, we were hoping he’d adopt them.

That was the first thing he gravitated towards when he came to Germany for the first time. His whole thing is, “I need to have Boost in everything that I do, because Boost is the best technology.” I remember when those images leaked of him playing basketball in the Pure Boost. I was like, “Please don’t do that. We have basketball shoes and shoes that can deliver on your needs to play in.”

He goes, “Jon, the shit’s just so comfortable. I can’t take it off my feet.” We were in Mexico when he said that, and I was just like, “Ok, but can I please still send you some basketball shoes.” [laughs] For the US as a market, it was always a niche thing, but when he wore that shoe, it took a whole different direction. Hopefully, there’s no looking back.

“There’s no question the halo effect that he’s had on everything for us.”

NDP: Not to say it was awhile before he started to be seen in multiple different models, but I think early on, he was definitely selective about getting comfortable and deciding on which models he was going to wear consistently. That’s been the best part about the partnership, I think. You aren’t saying, “Hey, we have this key silhouette for Spring 2015, please wear it on these dates.” To all of us and to our readers, it comes across that he’s selective and picks out the models he truly, really likes. What that does, it elevates those models and you know he’s really behind it. We’ve seen the impact that can have for things like Ultra Boost since.

Wex: If you go back in time, he was walking around in Stans at Paris Fashion Week, then he was in black / black Fluxes, and you fast forward to the following year and he was wearing SL Loop occasionally and Ultra Boosts. He’s really diversified his mix with us, and he does that out of the spirit of partnership. That’s all just love, that he does that.

Every time I see him in something, I shoot him a note to say how appreciative we are. The GM from Originals is constantly shooting him notes, and Rachel and Nic as well. We’re super thankful whenever that happens, because we know the impact that it’ll have. There’s no question the halo effect that he’s had on everything for us.

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