Introducing The Nike X John Elliott Vandal
John Elliott Thumper Denim Jacket Coming soon (throughout)Mr John Elliott in the Blue Ribbon design studio at Nike’s Beaverton headquarters
The LA designer fulfills a childhood dream by rebooting a limited edition of his signature sneaker.
As our car pulls into Nike’s global HQ in Beaverton near Portland, Oregon, a broad smile lights up Mr John Elliott’s face. The Los Angeles-based menswear designer is recalling his first visit here back in 2013. “It was like going to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory combined with Nasa,” says the avowed sneakerhead and Nike obsessive. “That adrenaline rush was something I will never forget. They had to kick me out of there. I did not want to leave.”
He doesn’t have to leave anymore. He’s officially part of the extended family. Today, as Mr Elliott launches his first official Nike collaboration – two limited-edition Vandal sneakers re-engineered in suede, with MR PORTER as the exclusive global online retail partner – he reflects on the fulfilment of a childhood dream. When he was eight years old, growing up in a town outside San Francisco, Mr Elliott sent Nike some shoe designs for his idol Mr Bo Jackson, considered to be one of the greatest sporting all-rounders. (Mr Jackson is the only player to be named an All-Star in both American football and baseball.)
A poster of Mr Elliott's idol, Mr Bo Jackson, the only sportsman to be named an All-Star in both baseball and football
Mr Elliott at Nike's Oregon headquarters
“It’s so funny to think that, at eight, I was trying to solve problems for Swoosh,” says Mr Elliott, now 34. “Bo Jackson played football for the Oakland Raiders [then the Los Angeles Raiders] and baseball for the Kansas City Royals. I could not believe a human could do that. It was mind-blowing. But I thought he was a little bit overshadowed by Michael Jordan, just in terms of how they were marketed and how, in my opinion, I felt like their shoes were received culturally. Hey, guys, MJ is cool, but this guy is more incredible. So, at the age of eight, I felt like it was worth extending to them my thoughts.”
His mother kept Nike’s response – a somewhat formal thanks-but-no-thanks, given they were writing back to a little kid – but the subliminal message came through via the company tagline stamped onto the envelope: Just Do It. So he did, albeit 26 years later. “We were going through some stuff yesterday and I hadn’t looked at this for probably two or three years,” says Mr Elliott, unfolding the letter on the very table where he designed these sneakers in collaboration with Nike design director Mr Al Baik. “I read the letter back and it’s like, God, I cannot believe that that’s real. I can’t believe that’s actually happened. But it’s nice to have that reminder and be like, Wow! I feel lucky to work with them. The amazing thing that I can say about working with Nike is that it’s exceeded my wildest expectations.”
The letter from Nike that an eight-year-old Mr Elliott received in response to his suggestions of sneaker designs
We’re in Blue Ribbon Studio, Nike’s creative innovation lab, named after Blue Ribbon Sports, the original name for the company started in 1964 by Messrs Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman before it became Nike in 1971. The workshop is filled with cutting tables and sewing machines, the walls are lined with a rainbow of spools of thread, rolls of fabric and various tools of the craft. There’s a 3D printer, a laser cutter, a silk-screen printer and custom-built machines that we are not allowed to photograph. It’s a restricted area; cameras are not normally allowed. “I love it in here,” says Mr Elliott.
While being “extremely dyslexic” held Mr Elliott back academically, he’s always had a flair for design and an ability to think creatively. He’s also inherently competitive and entrepreneurial. At the age of 10, he tried to start a skateboard company called One Way “because it was something you see all the time, one-way signs”. He designed decks and shoes, he made skate videos. “The problem was we were kids and didn’t skate well enough for people to take it seriously,” he says. “But I still have those designs. I look back and I’m like, Dude, these aren’t bad!”
At school, he struggled with the stigma of being hoiked out of classes to receive special tuition. “That was kind of a social handicap, and I probably tried to compensate for it through skating and basketball,” he says. He found acceptance through sports and sneakers. “I was absolutely a sneakerhead – always Nikes and Jordans – and I was really good at finding stuff I felt was cool. The reason that all kids from my generation grew up obsessing and loving Swoosh so much was because there was this aspirational component to the brand that was associated with winning and championships and competing at the highest level, also relevant off-court.”
“I just love the Vandal’s silhouette. Of all Nike’s basketball shoes, it lends itself to fashion the best”
The Vandal became his signature shoe through his teenage years and into college. “No one else at my school had Vandals,” he says. “They were hard to find. I just love the silhouette. It’s a slender last, a slimmer toe, a bit asymmetrical. Of all Nike’s basketball shoes, it lends itself to fashion the best.”
Mr Elliott with Mr Al Baik, design director, Nike sportswear basketball footwear
Mr Elliott and his lifelong best friend and business partner Mr Aaron Lavee have had opportunities to work with other sportswear brands, but they made the decision to hold out for Nike. “The first day we sat down to develop a business plan, a Nike collaboration was part of it,” says Mr Elliott. “I know that sounds insane, but it was all about creating the opportunities to make that dream come true.”
Mr Elliott first went to Nike HQ to pitch to executives what was, in retrospect, a madcap concept he had for one of his early John Elliott runway shows. They didn’t go for that, but it opened up the lines of communication and he eventually plucked up the courage to ask if he could rework the Vandal for his AW17 collection.
Nike design director Mr Al Baik
The Vandal is a shoe that comes in and out of Nike’s rotation, but has been off the radar for a number of years. “There are certain shoes that are classic, which we do every season, and others that are more on and off ,” says Mr Baik. “They have their moment and then, like Disney, we put them back in the vault until we bring them out again.”
“The OG version of the Vandal was in nylon or canvas. It was wrinkled,” adds Mr Baik, picking up a vintage metallic silver Vandal to compare it with Mr Elliott’s design. “John has elevated it by using a premium suede, switching out the piping for blind stitching, and changing some of the padding. It’s a very clean, modern shoe.” Blind stitching is a premium construction technique, which, in this case, means the suede is stitched from the inside so you don’t see any thread.
Each pair comes with three interchangeable ankle straps, which allows for an element of customisation as well as being a throwback to Mr Elliott’s days trading baseball cards and attending sneaker swap-meets. “John really geeked out on the process and there was a lot of trying on the shoes with his clothes to make sure they worked with his aesthetic,” says Mr Baik.
We can’t reveal specific details, but Mr Elliott is now in the process of redesigning another iconic sneaker silhouette. And while Nike didn’t take him up on his ideas for Mr Bo Jackson, it has now enlisted him to design a range for one of its highest-profile athletes. Nice work if you can get it. “I don’t want to make this interview rah-rah-American-dream corny,” says Mr Elliott. “But I can’t help but think back to that kid and just be like, man, this is really cool. If you’re super-passionate and relentless, and never give up, then you can do it.”