15 People Behind The Scenes Who Changed Sneakers Forever

There are plenty of individuals who have helped shaped the world of sneakers and we highlight 15 you may not be all too familiar with. From designers to executives to advertising/marketing wizards, the contributions these people are responsible for have no doubt left an indelible mark in the wide world of sneakers and hopefully detailing each individual's story a bit can help educate. What's the inspiration for Nike's "Just Do It." campaign? Tinker Hatfield has a brother who designs sneakers at Nike too? These questions are answered and more in this feature and we can be thankful for all of these people for help shaping sneaker history in their own way.

Bruce Kilgore

Significance: Designer, Nike

The name Bruce Kilgore may sound familiar to some of the older sneakerheads in our audience, as he most-famously designed the Air Jordan II. However, Kilgore wasn’t a one-hit-wonder. He also designed the Nike Air Force 1 and the Air Ship. And while nowadays the Air Force 1 is known primarily as a lifestyle shoe, back when the sneaker debuted in 1982, it was the definition of a game-changer. The first basketball sneaker to feature Nike’s revolutionary Air system, the AF1 became one of the most significant athletic shoes of the 1980s.

Now, back to the Air Ship. While many of us know the Air Ship as simply an old Nike hoops shoe that has yet to be retro’ed, a recent post from our friends over at Sole Collector sheds some very intriguing light on the legend of the silhouette. You see, that famous “Banned” Air Jordan I story we’re all familiar with? All evidence seems to indicate that the shoe the NBA actually banned was the Nike Air Ship, not the Jordan 1…GASP (we know!). The whole story is really worth a read, but it boils down to the fact that the NBA’s letter warning MJ about the violating shoes occurred in February 1985. However, the Jordan I (even the mythical “banned” black/red colorway) didn’t debut until March 1985. The sneaker the NBA actually banned was the black/red Air Ship MJ favored in the 84-85 preseason…crazy.

Carolyn Davidson

Significance: Graphic Designer / “Friend of Nike”

Well-studied Nike heads might know about the story of the iconic Nike Swoosh, but the general population would probably give you that thousand-yard-stare when you asked them who Carolyn Davidson is. Well, for those of you who don’t know, Davidson was a graphic design student at Portland State in 1971, where a certain young entrepreneur by the name of Phil Knight was an associate professor. Knight overheard Davidson talking about not having the money to enroll in a class that she’d wanted to take, which is when Uncle Phil offered her some cash to help with the design for his side-business. Well, the result of that contract work turned out to be one of the most recognized logos in the modern world. And, the price for said contract work? Davidson received a whopping $35.

Okay, so that’s not exactly the end of the story. After working for Nike for a few more years, Davidson went on to work freelance when, in 1983, when Nike really started picking up steam, the company’s founders wanted to do something to acknowledge her substantial contribution to their corporate identity. Their gift? A gold and diamond Nike swoosh ring and 500 shares of Nike stock, worth close to a million dollars nowadays.

Damany Weir

Significance: Founder, Flight Club

Look, we here at Kicks Deals know for certain; paying resale for kicks sucks. However, in a world where the most premium releases only go to campers, bots, or those with the fastest fingers, it’s nice to at least have options. That’s where Damany Weir comes in.

Back in the late ’90s, Damany was one of the top sneaker resellers on eBay, and pocketing a fair amount of change in the process. But, in 1998, he founded his own shop, Flight Club, that really changed the retail game. Now with two locations and a booming online presence, Flight Club is an empire. Sure, you might hate on FC’s prices, but if you’ve got the bread, it’s a nice option to have.

Edison Chen

Significance: Founder/Owner, CLOT

Edison Chen is more than just the Founder and Owner of CLOT. In addition to his success as a designer (Kiss of Death AM1s anyone?), he’s also a substantially famous actor/singer in his native Hong Kong. And with that combo, Chen has been able to leverage his notoriety into a position to act as something of an advisor or brand ambassador for clothing and sneaker companies looking to gain a foothold in the Far East. As we all know, every company wants a piece of China’s burgeoning market, and with that in mind, Edison Chen figures to be, and has been, a key figure in the future of the global sneaker game.

Gary Gilmore

Significance: Felon; Wieden+Kennedy (Ad Agency)

Three words: Just Do It. Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that can make the biggest impact. Widely considered the greatest advertising tag line of all time, the origins of that game-changing slogan may not be as widely known. Created in 1988 by the legendary ad firm Wieden+Kennedy, the origin phrase “Just Do It” came from an unexpected source: a murderer by the name of Gary Gilmore.

See, back in 1977, the year after the death penalty was officially re-instated, Gilmore was the first criminal executed under the new law. When faced with a Utah firing squad, and asked for any customary last words, Gilmore said simply “Let’s do it.” And with that, a legend was born. Being the first executed prisoner after reinstating, Gilmore’s death had tremendous cultural resonance, making it’s way into several television shows and movies of the time. And it was that resonance that brought it to the attention of W+K founder Dan Wieden. While it’s obviously not a direct dictation, Wieden himself credited those words as the inspiration for what became one of the most well known ad campaigns in history. Crazy.

John Jay

Significance: Former Global Creative Director, Wieden+Kennedy (Currently Creative Director, UNIQLO)

Simply put, John Jay, Wieden+Kennedy’s former Global Creative Director, is one of the most influential marketing people in the history of advertising. Hyperbole aside, he headed up Nike’s go-to ad agency since the late ’80s, ushering in countless iconic campaigns along the way. Much of the nostalgia surrounding Nike’s brand itself is thanks to John Jay and the creative team at W+K. One of our favorite quotes about Jay, comes from Jeff Staple, “If Nike is a religion, than John Jay wrote the scripture.”

Marcus Tayui

Significance: Footwear Product Manager, Nike

It has been said that Nike would be a very different business if it weren’t for Marcus Tayui. The initiatives that Tayui has helped with in his time at the Swoosh have helped Nike maintain their stranglehold on the ever-evolving sneaker (and athletic wear) industry. As the personality behind co.jp (Nike Japan), it could be said that Nike might never have gotten involved with Hiroshi Fujiwara without Tayui. Which would’ve meant no HTM and, potentially, no Tier Zero program. Additionally, Marcus was instrumental in the development of Nike’s SB program which pretty much speaks for itself with regard to how it has changed the game as we know it. Thanks Marcus!

Nelson Cabral

Significance: Founder, NikeTalk

Nelson Cabral, the founder of the outrageously popular NikeTalk, is another entry on our list who probably elicits as much internet hatred as he does congratulations. While one half of us hate what has resulted in this grey-area marketplace for sneakers, where rip-offs and misinformation run rampant, the other half of us can see the bigger picture. NikeTalk also provides a place for sneakerheads to congregate, swap stories and info about sellers (both good and bad) and of course, sell and trade their kicks. It may not have been the first sneaker forum, but it may just be the most important online property in the sneaker world. Not only does NT provide the forum of sneakerheads everywhere, designers and marketers use it to gather organic reactions to their designs, making it doubly important for the direction of the industry.

Paul Fireman

Significance: Founder, Reebok

Who? Precisely. So, you might not know Paul Fireman by name, but you might have heard of a little company called Reebok, which he founded in 1979. See, back in ’79, Fireman attended a trade fair in Chicago, and was taken by a hand sewn leather shoe, called the Reebok, manufactured by an English company called J.W. Foster & Sons (which, interestingly claims to be the oldest athletic shoe company in the world). Shortly after, Fireman convinced the company to allow him to distribute the sneaker in the US, eventually buying out all the rights a few years down the line. And thus, Reebok International was born.

And, while they may not be the top-tier sneaker company they used to be, the effect Reebok has had on the sneaker industry has been monumental. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Nike, Converse and adidas dominated the sneaker game. When Reebok entered the market, they caught foothold in the enormous aerobics industry (hey, the ’80s and ’90s were a weird time). Nonetheless, Fireman helped build Reebok into a sneaker powerhouse capable of signing the world’s elite athletes like Shaq and Allen Iverson. Eventually, he’d go on to sell the company to adidas in 2006 for nearly $4 billion, pocketing nearly $800 million himself! Not too shabby.

Tobie Hatfield

Significance: Athlete Innovation Director, Nike

No, TOBIE, not Tinker. We’d venture a guess that it is not common knowledge that design legend Tinker Hatfield has a younger brother, who also designs kickass Nike’s. Sure, when you’re big bro’s resume is as illustrious as Tinker’s, you’re going to get overshadowed a little bit…that’s understandable. But, let’s take a minute and appreciate what the younger Hatfield has accomplished as Director of Athlete Innovation at Nike. Just like big brother and their father, Tobie was a track and field athlete (pole vaulter, actually), and joined Nike as a senior engineer in the materials department in 1990 (easiest interview ever). After a few years dabbling in design (undoubtedly bouncing ideas off big bro), Tobie got his shine, designing the iconic gold track spikes Michael Johnson broke records in during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

After that success, he moved on and eventually designed the legendary Nike Presto. But his biggest innovation came in 2004, when he helped develop Nike’s Free technology. After observing a track practice one day at Stanford University, Hatfield noticed the coach made the runners run sprints barefoot on the grass. The coach believed that running barefoot helped to build stabilizing muscles in the foot and lower leg, that would help prevent injury. And thus, the idea for Nike Free (and, potentially, the whole barefoot running craze) was born. Oh, and Tobie’s also designed the latest Tiger Woods silo, the TW14 as well. Man, what was in the water at the Hatfield house?!

Tony Bignell

Significance: Vice President of Footwear Innovation, Nike

Cool colorways, and iconic history will only get you so far in the world of bleeding-edge athletic equipment. This is why Nike has been so successful. Not only do they have the heritage, but they’re constantly looking for the next big thing…and they’re almost always the first to master it when they find it. And while Nike’s Vice President of Footwear Innovation, Tony Bignell, might not be a household name, the moves he’s making are very literally shaping the future of the footwear industry. Take Flyknit for instance, an incredibly difficult technology to master, Bignell helped Nike capitalize on the potential of Flyknit, and it’s significance to the future of sneakers. Same with their incredible Hyperfeel technology. Sure, we love the nostalgia of picking up the latest retros, but the reason we love Nike is the forward-thinking of folks like Tony Bignell.

Rick Telander

Significance: Senior Sports Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times

Unless you live outside the Chicago media area, you might not have heard basketball writer Rick Telander’s name much lately. But, if you’re old enough, you’re almost certainly familiar with his most famous work, a 1990 cover story for Sports Illustrated titled “Your Sneakers or Your Life.” Unfortunately, in 2014, people getting ratchet over some kicks is barely newsworthy any more. But back in 1990, when Telander’s story hit SI’s cover, this was huge news. Though muggings and murder over sneakers was hardly a new thing (even in 1990), the SI story was the first time the subject had been breached, in such a high-profile, and matter of fact way. And, while the article was ground breaking, the reason we remember it so vividly, is because of social ripples it caused. The story shed light on a world that many SI readers didn’t even have the slightest clue about, and in doing so, opened a discussion of society, economics and race that elevated the discourse like never before. It’s just too bad that, nearly 25 years later, we’re still hearing these types of stories.

Rob Strasser

Significance: Executive, Nike/adidas

How much of Nike’s modern day success would you attribute to them creating the Jordan Brand division? We’ll obviously never know definitively. But keep in mind that the Nike we know today – if it were even still around – would be much different without Rob Strasser. So much so that Phil Knight himself dubbed Strasser as the “Man Who Saved Nike.”

You see, back in the early ’80s, Nike was far from being the top dog they are today, and particularly in their basketball division. But, with stock prices floundering, Strasser and his team pursued the courting of a young shooting guard out of North Carolina named Michael Jordan. As many of you may know, MJ actually didn’t want to sign with Nike. He’d worn adidas nearly all of his life, save for his tenure at UNC, who carried a Converse sponsorship. In fact, Jordan has said that, until he signed with the company, he’d never even worn a pair of Nikes. Strasser was instrumental in convincing MJ to sign with Nike. Aside from giving him a crazy deal (for the time), Strasser demonstrated that the company would design the product around his needs (back then, sneaker companies usually just gave an athlete a signature sneaker, without any input from the player themselves).

After leaving Nike in 1987, he signed with adidas (along with Peter Moore), and headed up their adidas America division until his passing in 1993. But even though his time in the sneaker world was cut short, his impact continues to be felt to this day. It’s safe to say that the sneaker world would never have been the same without Rob Strasser.

Kevin Imamura

Significance: Global Product Line Manager, Nike

A lot of newer sneakerheads won’t ever understand the true significance of the Nike SB line. Sure, they might know of the iconic collabs and colorways that SB has given us over the years, but the context will have been lost. When Nike decided to break into action sports, they did it BIG and spun up the Nike SB brand in 2002. Back then, Kevin Imamura was their Global Communications Manager. Along with Marcus Tayui and a small circle of others, they were instrumental in building Nike SB into what we know it to be today.

While Kevin may not have been designing the iconic skate shoes himself, he was essentially the marketing face of the budding SB division, and helped to connect the dots for many of the brand’s most indelible collabs. Nowadays, Imamura has moved on up, and is now serving as the Global Product Line Manager for Nike SB. And he’s also been responsible for the consistently dominant happenings we’ve seen with the brand in recent years like the signing of Eric Koston and the development of game-changing silhouettes like the versatile Nike SB Janoski.

Paul Litchfield

Significance: Head of Advanced Concepts, Reebok

Every major athletic company has one or two guys who weren’t just important, but paramount to the company’s success. In Reebok’s case, aside from bossman Paul Fireman, Paul Litchfield was that guy (and to some extent, still is). It might not look like it today, but during the mid-to-late 1980s, Reebok was the biggest athletic footwear company in the world. Dominating the aerobic world with the Freestyle (hey, it was the ’80s), and ERS technology, Litchfield joined team Reebok as a product engineer/developer in 1985 and managed the success of the Freestyle, development of the Energy Return System (ERS), as well as helping to establish Reebok’s Advanced Concepts division.

And while Litchfield is often attributed as the creator of The Pump technology, he’ll be the first to admit that that’s not entirely accurate. While the Reebok Pump is the most significant shoe he’s worked on, he didn’t create the idea. In fact, according to the patent documentation, the first mention of an inflatable, customized-fit shoe was in 1892! But, when Paul Fireman bought athletic company Ellesse, they produced a pump-to-fit ski boot, which became the inspiration to apply the technology to a sneaker. After being given the directive, Litchfield and his team embarked on a crazy development journey that, in 1989, resulted in Reebok’s most successful sneaker to-date.

With a sneaker phenomenon like the Pump on your resume, it’s hard to be remembered for much else, but keep in mind that Litchfield didn’t stop after the Pump. He also helped develop DMX Moving Air, Easytone, Zig, Realflex, SkyScape and CHECKLIGHT technologies for Reebok.

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