words & interview // Nick DePaula:
Recently, China-based footwear brand Peak Sports officially introduced Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard as its newest endorser, in a grand celebratory “signing ceremony” in Beijing with brand execs and fans alike all on hand. As one of the country’s premier athletic companies, Peak has been a longtime official league sponsor of the NBA in China, and has featured on-court endorsers through the years like Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, George Hill and many, many others.
Adding Dwight Howard to the fold not only gives the company hope that his personality and presence can resonate with the hoops frenzied fans across China, but it also gives Peak a leading player on one of the country’s most favorite and followed teams, the Houston Rockets.
In order to sign a player of Howard’s stature to a shoe deal, Peak had to be talking “signature shoe deal” from the start. The plan was to give Dwight his own sneaker for Day 1 of the 2015 NBA season, and Peak turned to its Los Angeles-based lead basketball designer, Quintin Williams, to craft and create a potential first signature shoe option for Howard.
A 6’7″ former high-level basketball player himself, Williams looked to blend his inherent on-court performance insights with an organic and flowing style that would embody Dwight’s freak of nature size and frame. As a student at former Jordan Design Director D’Wayne Edwards’ acclaimed Pensole Footwear Design Academy, Williams learned about the importance of storytelling and layered design cues, an approach he was eager to bring to Dwight’s product.
To hear all about his aerospace inspired DH1 design, I recently caught up with Quintin Williams over the phone. Check out our full conversation below, as Williams shares insights into his quick rise through the design world and the detailed backstory behind his Dwight Howard signature concept. The brand is letting consumers decide between Quintin’s and a Beijing-produced design that will eventually become Dwight’s debut sneaker, and you can place your vote for the first Peak DH1 shoe here.
Nick DePaula: Can you first share a bit about your design background and how you landed at Peak?
Quintin Williams: My story has been a little obscure and all over the place. [laughs] I’m from a small town in Georgia, and I graduated from SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design, in 2011 with an Industrial Design Bachelors degree. Before I graduated, I had my first internship in Brooklyn, New York. This was at the beginning of my junior year, and I was there designing private label boots for different European companies. They were models based off of construction boots, hiking boots and trail boots, and that was my first foot in the door in the industry.
I was there for approximately five months, and then I flew directly from New York to Pensole in Portland. D’Wayne invited me out to take the class, and he thought I had some talent. Back then, it was more of a hand-picked student base, and it wasn’t as open, so it was really flattering for me. I still remember getting the email, and it meant a lot to me. Being there, and being in the midst of so many great, great designers like E. Scott Morris, D’Wayne and some other people at local brands there, it was a great experience to be in that environment. I learned a lot, and more and more about storytelling. A lot of what we do in design is about storytelling, and sometimes designers have trouble leaving the story behind in the product. That was my main takeaway from Pensole, and it was awesome.
I went back to school for two quarters, and then that same internship I did in Brooklyn wanted me to come back for a paid project, and this time, I would be living in China. [laughs] So I lived in Dongguan, China for two months at the factory! It was definitely a culture shock, and that was my first time out of the states. I’m out there with the senior designer, and I had to finish a whole line of athletic boots in two months and get the job done. It was dope to be there and see all the manufacturing processes and how everything works. Once I finished that project, then I went back to school and finished my degree at SCAD, and I won a national design competition by Power Force Apparel. It was a start-up brand out of Birmingham, Alabama, and they were looking for an in-house footwear designer. I got 1st place, and they asked me to move to Birmingham, so I said, “Awesome!”
That was my first full-time job, and I was the only designer there, so I learned a lot in that environment. Being the only designer, I didn’t have anybody to lean on, and I would reach out to people like D’Wayne and my fellow designers that I worked with in Brooklyn. After a year of being there, I had a lot of offers from a lot of big companies: Nike, New Balance, adidas Originals and Puma.
I turned all of those down and decided to go with Peak Sports, because I wanted to be with an underdog. Peak isn’t as known in the states, so I can grow with the brand, and at that time, we were the #3 basketball brand in terms of on-court sponsored athletes in the league. It was Nike Inc., adidas and then Peak for on-court visibility, and I saw an opportunity there to be joining the brand specifically as a lead basketball designer. I’ve been here for two years now, and that’s been my journey.
NDP: That’s an amazing story, and a nice progression for you as you learned about the different aspects of design and the footwear business. What were some of the shoes that you’ve done at Peak along the way?
QW: One of the athletes that I work closely with is George Hill from the Pacers. He’s had his own shoe for awhile now, but it’s more of a PE of an existing model that we modified for him. So I’ve been getting to know him and getting information from him to piece that together. I came up with a concept for him, and it was based off of his favorite hero, which is Flash.
I took some characteristics from that and incorporated it into the story of the shoe. It didn’t get produced yet, but it’s still one of my favorite concepts to this day. Before that, I did a concept called Project Mako [seen above], which was all about the first-step for the 1 and 2 guard, and it’s all about speed. That was actually a project that I did to get the job here at Peak.
NDP: When did it first come up that signing Dwight was going to be a real possibility?
QW: Honestly, it kind of came from nowhere. We first were getting word that we were really trying to scout him closely around two to three months ago. There wasn’t anything solid at that time, and it was just the beginning of the conversations. Then, about a month later, everyone began saying, “Hey, we think we’re going to be able to sign him.”
Once we felt like it was close to happening, the China leadership team challenged everyone and said, “US team, you come up with a concept! Beijing team, you come up with a concept!” It was a competition internally for us to give Dwight potentially up to three options, to see what he thinks. They’re also now asking the audience and consumers to pick his signature shoe for the season. It’s been a whirlwind, and this project from our side has been really quick.
NDP: So you basically started a month and a half ago once you realized you had a real shot to sign him. What were some of the things that you were looking to incorporate into the shoe from a broad sense of what he wanted?
QW: I haven’t had a chance to sit down with him yet actually, but we were able to get some feedback and insights into the types of things he likes from his agent. The collar height was important, and most of his signature shoes with adidas have been around a mid cut and more supportive. He didn’t want anything lower than that. As far as mobility, he wanted the shoe to be more low to the ground. He didn’t want anything too high off the ground. We thought a lot about placement of the outsole and the millimeters not being too high, so he could get some good court feel. Outside of that, he just relayed, “Yo, give me something fresh!” [laughs] “Something new.” The adidas thing was good for him, and he just said he wanted a little more spice to it. We ran from there and came up with a concept.
NDP: Once you had those parameters and starting points from him, can you walk me through the specific inspiration you came up with for your DH1 design?
QW: It was a no brainer, seeing that he’s a Rocket, and you’re already thinking about space automatically. But the whole space man, rocket boot and galaxy thing has already been done, so we wanted to take it a different direction when it comes to space. We looked at space and what it’s composed of, and it’s composed of matter. The four foundation states in matter are solid, liquids, gas and plasma. We’re all familiar with solid, liquids and gas, but plasma is this obscure element that maybe not everyone is familiar with.
It’s a powerful element, but it doesn’t have a definite shape and it doesn’t have a definite volume. It’s a freak of nature, which goes back to who Dwight is. He’s a beast. When you look at his stature and you look at his build, you haven’t really seen anything like him since Shaq. He’s a freak of nature in his own right. Moving forward, I liked that as a starting point, and it became about how can we get that free flowing and organic aesthetic into the upper and outsole.
Going through some sketch ideations, I worked on how to get that across and be visible. Also, I wanted to make sure it was everything he wanted in terms of performance. The final design turned out great, because it’s giving support, and it has the organic cage and the organic aesthetic that we wanted. The molded synthetic that we’re using is rigid for support but also flexible enough that it moves with your foot. On the outsole sculpting, we wanted it to feel like it was molded to his foot, so it’s really anatomic. The cage and support of the shoe was the main highlight through the upper.
It has all of the performance aspects that Dwight wanted. We have our “Foothold” technology, which is a midfoot system that provides excellent support to the midsole and prevents excessive stress to the arch. The cushioning is “Aerofoam,” which is a lightweight compression molded foam that offers great impact protection, support and durability. We have design cues of that organic story through the outsole and the upper. The upper is also high gloss and drafts off of electromagnetic fields, which is another aspect of plasma. It embodies everything that he wanted, and it embodies him as a person, being this freak of nature.
NDP: That’s all really cool. There’s all kinds of great details and layering there, and I’m sure D’Wayne would be proud. [laughs] I always would tell D’Wayne, ‘There’s two ways to look at it. For somebody that has no idea what the story is, you want them to be captivated and like the look of the shoe regardless. And then if you do know the backstory, that is going to add so much to it and take it over the top.’ He does such a great job of emphasizing the importance of storytelling and meaningful details.
Like you said, there’s definitely been galaxy stuff that’s been done in the past, and other elements of space out there, so I like the direction you guys took it to make it more unique here. Now that he’s officially with the brand, have you gotten a chance to speak with the Beijing team to hear how the signing ceremony went and what his feedback has been?
QW: I’m actually flying to China on Friday. I’m excited to hear all of the feedback I can from the team there, and then hopefully consumers prefer my design too, since the public will decide which one will get released. [laughs]
NDP: Since they decided to do a vote out of it, has that created a fun competition of sorts between yourself and the Beijing design center?
QW: Oh yeah! No doubt. I’m an ex-ballplayer, and competition is what I love. Ever since I’ve been at Peak, it’s always been a fun battle between me and the design center there. We have a small satellite office here, and it’s just our CEO, our Brand Director and then me as footwear design, athlete relations and photographer. It’s pretty small, and it’s always me against twelve other people. [laughs] Which is cool, and it drives me to try and put out good product. It’s been fun.
NDP: With working at Peak and also since you’ve been to China, you know how crazy the fans are there for the NBA. Can you help to give a sense of how much bigger it is for the brand to sign Dwight Howard, given that the Rockets are one of the most popular teams throughout the country?
QW: With him signing to Peak, the international exposure that the brand is going to get now is going to be great. It’s already an international brand of course, but Dwight being such a personable guy, and the cues of Superman and being this bigger than life person, it’s going to go over so well in China. I’m 6’7” and played college ball, and just walking the streets, people go crazy and think I’m an NBA player. [laughs] For Dwight, the fans go so crazy for him, and he’s going to do so much for the brand. We’ve been looking for that face from the league for our brand in China, and he’s that. I can’t wait to get there this week and see the excitement over there.