GQ - John Elliott on His New Nike Shoe and Talking Married Life With Justin Bieber
John Elliott on His New Nike Shoe and Talking Married Life With Justin Bieber
GQ October 16, 2018
A Q&A with the designer returning to the Vandal, his favorite Swoosh silhouette.
John Elliott is having the kind of year where good news is followed almost immediately by more good news. For starters, there’s Elliott’s current hot streak with Nike: so far this year he’s released a shoe made in collaboration with the Swoosh and his pal and NBA superstar LeBron James, and then his redesign of the iconic Air Force 1. Then he put on fashion week’s most fun show: Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin were there, along with James. They were joined by Pete Davidson, Ben Simmons, and Whoopi Goldberg in the front row. (“The truth is I don't know how [Goldberg got there].”) Now, Elliott is teaming up with Nike again.
The Nike Vandal is an Elliott favorite—a sneaker designed for basketball that he skated in as a kid growing up in Northern California, and initially put his spin on in early 2017. While the Vandal, first unveiled in 1984, is a classic silhouette, it’s not necessarily a hot shoe in a landscape dominated by sleek runners and chunky dad shoes. Vandals, he explains, “were cool in 1984 and they're still cool now,” Elliott says.
This is all of a piece with the larger JE project: the designer makes clothes that guys, like Bieber, but also all the dudes who claim Scott Disick as their one true style icon, want to wear. And Elliott is doing something slightly revolutionary in 2018 with these Vandals, too: he’s making shoes not to be bought and flipped to the highest bidder or kept somewhere on a shelf, but to be worn. Elliott spoke to GQ about his new shoe, his big fans, and his wild year.
GQ: You’ve reworked the Vandal before. What made you want to return to again?
John Elliott: For me the thing about the Vandal is that it's definitely nostalgic and very much authentic to my personal style. When I first sat down with [Nike's senior director of influencer marketing] Fraser Cooke in Tokyo, that was the first shoe that I really wanted to work on. And it's because as a teen I really made that silhouette my own and I incorporated it into my own wardrobe. Fast forward 15, 20 years later it was just a no-brainer. I was dying to take what our brand is about, which is typically materials and clean lines, and try to incorporate that into my favorite silhouette.
I want to get your take on where you feel it fits in in today's sneaker landscape because a lot of what we see, especially coming out of Nike are these sleek runner—something like a Vapormax or a React Element 87—and then on the other side of the spectrum there are these crazy Balenciaga Triple S’s so I wonder where you see the Vandal.
Those are sneakers of the moment and that's fine. The most challenging element of working on the Air Force 1 [that Elliott recently released] was convincing myself that we should actually do that. Because the Air Force One is as close to a perfect shoe as there is. It's so culturally iconic. My mom knows an Air Force 1. So to me the Air Force 1 and the Vandal, similar to the Air Jordan 1s, these are classic silhouettes that are not really of the moment. It's more something that if you were going to, say, I am gonna invest in a silhouette and I'm not gonna look at a picture of myself in 10 years and really regret the way I was dressing. You can bet on an Air Force 1. You can bet on a Vandal. You can bet on a Jordan 1. They're staples. They are classic. They were cool in 1984 and they're still cool now.
Are you saying people who are wearing Triple S's are gonna look back in 10 years and be like, "What was I thinking?"
I think it's possible. Look, I think we all go through phases where the way we dress is a reflection of a particular moment, and I think it's fine to tap into something that makes you feel like the best version of you. So if you find those shoes to be fun and they make you feel confident and you love the way that they look and you even are able to go a little bit deeper, and you can understand where they're coming from and how they're actually a little ironic, then that's great. That's cool. Hopefully, you won't look back and be like, "Dang, I look a little strange."
That's a very diplomatic response.
You mentioned going into the Air Force 1 project with these hang-ups. I imagine that that wasn't the case when you were tackling the Vandal.
Honestly, in the big projects that I've done with Nike, the Vandal was probably the most effortless because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. Just because of how familiar I am with the silhouette and because I grew up wearing it, skating in it. The silhouette really works with our aesthetic. Not so much what we send down the runway, but for how our customer dresses on a daily basis, the Vandal is the perfect shoe to start.
Do you still skate in them?
Man, I actually skated for the first time, I wanna say 2 weeks ago with my little cousin and it was just because he was in LA and I was like, "Alright, yeah, let's go." We went to a local school and I hadn't skated in probably a year and a half, 2 years. I did not skate in a Vandal that day.
Did it go alright, though?
It was fine. It's just like playing basketball. Skating and hooping are young men's games. Falling as a 35-year-old man is something that's like, "Okay, I don't need to be doing this right now." And it's a little bit embarrassing to have a conversation with [an executive] at Barneys and you have a giant cut on the palm of your hand, and they’re like, "How'd you do that?" And you're like, "Oh, skating."
I wanted to get you to reflect on this year. You've done one Nike collaboration after the other and then you had this huge fashion show that you did here in New York. How do you explain all your recent success?
Honestly, it's a couple things. I think that in this fashion landscape, you have to have doors that get opened in order for your ideas to be looked at. I feel lucky that we're in the conversation. Because being in the conversation is not a given. The second part of that is you have to deliver and you have to push yourself to combine challenging concepts with craft. I think as a brand the success that we've seen monetarily has allowed us to make good decisions with hiring and we've been able to really stack the brand up with a bunch of A-plus players.
This is the version of John Elliot where all the wheels are greased.
Yeah, I think the brand has grown. In the past we've had to be scrappy—there's that video of me driving my grandmother's car with fabric rolls in back. Now we have more resources and we have, honestly, more talented people. Not that we didn't have talented people before, we just didn't have very many. I remember the first fashion show we did—the show that Kanye came to—we literally had seven people in the company when we pulled that show off. Now it's five times that, six times that.
Can you explain that feeling to me—when you're at your most recent show and coming out for the bow, and it's Lebron, Justin Bieber, Pete Davidson, Ben Simmons, and Whoopi Goldberg in the front row?
I was nervous, honestly. My heart was in my throat for that show. First of all, to anybody who was at that show, I would like to personally apologize for how brutally hot it was, ‘cause it was scorching at that skate park. The front row was one of those things where, as the show was coming together, we started to hear bits and pieces of who was interested in coming and how real it was starting to become. I remember when we got the call that Justin and Hailey were probably going to come. Probably 15 minutes later we got the call that LeBron was definitely going to come. Everybody was basically reduced to who they were as children. People were skipping. The music just got turned up to the max.
I saw that Bieber came up after the show. What did he say to you?
He's such a good person. He congratulated me on the collection. I think he had heard that I had just gotten married and he was just congratulating me on that. I was congratulating him on [his and Baldwin's] engagement. For the scale of the moment and the fact that LeBron was standing with us, it was a very, very normal conversation. It was just a really cool, down-to-earth conversation about life, getting married, and what it was like, and what life has been like since. The only difference was probably that my heart rate was probably at 145.
But a very domestic sort of conversation happening between you guys.
Yeah. Well, obviously started out with some highlights from the show and stuff that he wanted—that was a no brainer.
What was he into?
I basically repurposed a blanket—it’s like a tapestry blanket that I did in basketball shorts. Justin, he loved those shorts. I don't think he ever got the all-white [Nike LeBron] Icon. He wanted to know if I had a pair with me right then because I think he wanted that. He wanted to take them, and I think he wanted to have LeBron sign them. If I was wearing them, I would have literally given them to him, but yeah. We missed on that one.
How does someone like Whoopi Goldberg end up at your show?
That's a great question. God, I wish I had an answer that was probably better than the one that I'm going to give you. The truth is I don't know how. Honestly, I don't.
When I look back on the photos of that show, there are photos that are shocking, where you're like, "I cannot fucking believe we pulled this off." There's a photo of Pete Davidson sitting on the bowl with his feet hanging down with his shirt off. You're like, "That's a black-and-white photograph of Pete Davidson sweating his ass off with his shirt off in a skate park. It literally looks like he just jumped out of the bowl."
Then you look at the next photo and it's the same deal. You see the contours and the shadows of the skate park, but it's LeBron James with his arm around Whoopi Goldberg. You can't help but just smile and think, "God, this is pop culture." It felt like it really cracked several walls, several boundaries into culture. It was something that was really, really meaningful. You have Pete Davidson with his shirt off, because you have Whoopi Goldberg, because you have Ben Simmons sitting next to Justin Bieber. You have, of course, the King there. You have LeBron James in the building. When he walked in, several people told me, it was just a collective gasp because he's the nucleus right now.
What does someone like your mom say when Whoopi Goldberg shows up at your show?
Oh, man. My mom is so awesome. Every single time I talk to her, she's asking me when she's going to be able to meet LeBron. She desperately wants to meet LeBron. Literally, every time. But after that show, Whoopi Goldberg was actually a huge topic of conversation. My mom had a similar reaction to you, which is, "Wait, John, how did that happen?"
It's like, "Mom, genuinely, I don't know. I hope she's a fan." The other thing that was really strange...not strange, but cool: Lindsay Lohan's mom was at the show. She came backstage and introduced herself. She was there with Lindsay Lohan's brother.
You mentioned you were up on Saturday at 5:00 a.m., to see if the Air Force 1 was going to sell out. Are you going to do the same for the Vandal?
Yeah, definitely. The Vandal for me is one of those things where I don't worry about it as much because it's so wearable that I'm almost like, if it sells out, amazing. If it doesn't sell out immediately, then that's fine too because I want the right people to have the opportunity to wear this because, to me, this shoe is not so much about resale value.It's more about having it in your wardrobe as a Swiss army knife. It's a problem-solver, and it shouldn't necessarily be something that is resold on the secondary market.
Selling a shoe that people are actually going to wear is actually a revolutionary concept in 2018.
It's not a gimmick. This shoe is for you to wear and for you to look really, really fucking good in.