In Conversation with Bryce Wong
What might happen if you locked a shoe in a subterranean, mutated laboratory for five decades? How could it evolve? Would it change at all? These were the questions that Bryce “The Sandman” Wong asked himself when designing Nike SB’s newest offering, the Nike BRSB.
The shoe is a reimagining of a Nike classic, the Cortez, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year. One of the brand’s most iconic models, the Cortez has been immortalised in popular culture through films, television, and music. The vintage running shoe, which is very basic in nature, required many design iterations before a skate-friendly version could come to be.
However, Wong was up for that challenge. After conceptualising some of Nike SB’s most memorable silhouettes over the past five years, he enthusiastically approached the task of restructuring the Cortez for skating from the sole up. We caught up with Wong to discuss the historical significance of the Cortez, the BRSB’s technical features, and his premonitions about the future of skateboarding footwear design.
Text: Elliott Wright
Flatspot: What is your role at Nike? Can you provide a little background to better understand your position at Nike SB?
Bryce Wong: For full transparency, I’m not in [Nike] SB anymore, which is crazy. I recently just moved out of the department in the last couple months. [However], I was able to take the BRSB all the way to the end.
I did five great years in SB. I started off as a “Designer 1” working on some of the more accessible skate shoes. I was learning the ins and outs of skate footwear and helping provide the community with some of the more democratic models, which was really fun.
Eventually I made my way into the Quickstrike and collaboration space. I was working with shops, athletes, and any partnerships that you have seen in the last five years. Some projects range from the Grateful Dead Dunks, to some of the Halloween stuff, to all the 4/20 shoes for the last couple years.
Flatspot: When I interviewed Elissa Steamer she told me that she looked to the Grateful Dead Dunks as an inspiration for her Gnarhunters Dunk. She said she wanted something as wild as those!
Bryce: There is that iconic photo of Elissa with the Grateful Dead Dunks and I thought, Whoa, there’s a legend holding my shoe! The Gnarhunters Dunk also turned out amazing. It was cool to see it come together with the materials that she picked.
Flatspot: In terms of the Cortez, can you explain its historical and cultural significance a bit?
Bryce: I had two avenues of familiarity with it. Of course it’s a classic Forrest Gump reference. The other foundational thing is that I grew up in Southern California, so there were lots of Cortezes around in the Latino and Hispanic cultures. My dad and his family grew up in South Central Los Angeles, so we’d see it and I knew it was part of the culture down here.
It’s such a foundational piece of our origins. That was something that you gotta know a little bit about, especially being at Nike. With some of the early running shoes, adding the foam in and turning it from a running cleat to a jogging shoe was a big unlock.
We thought there were some really fun story elements there that kind of shows that performance is from an underfoot feel. It’s really cool to bring it back. We had done a few retro “bring-backs” and to do it in this more innovative way was really fun, and challenging, for sure.
Flatspot: In terms of other significance, I feel like I need to mention Seinfeld. The character George Costanza wears Cortezes exclusively in some of the earlier seasons. On a side note, Jerry Seinfeld also contributed to the Nike Huarache exploding in popularity in the 1990s.
Bryce: That’s like a seasonal Story Pack just waiting to be done. The Jerry Seinfeld Huarache and the George Costanza Cortez. That could be a pitch!
Flatspot: Also, is there any truth to the rumour that Paul Rodriguez has wanted a skateable Cortez for years?
Bryce: Well, I mean, there is a lot of truth for that. Paul had been asking for that for a long time, like before I was even at Nike. At the time when the requests were coming in, people thought, Will a skateable Cortez hit? Do people understand it? We really wanted to do something for Paul, but from the business side of it, it was difficult to get it into the line.
Flatspot: So what was the initial spark that started the development of the BRSB?
Bryce: We are planning to celebrate 50 years of Nike and there was talk about how we could think about heritage again. A bunch of different designers got plucked from different categories and we got brought into a workshop where we took a classic model and had to turn it into something that was right for whatever category we work in. It was purely an exercise to see where it could go. At the time making the physical shoes was not really even on the table.
Once I finished that challenge, we presented it to leadership and some of the people in SB thought that it could be a good fit for a product. As a designer, that was music to my ears. I thought, ‘Sweet, let’s run it’!
I had the opportunity to tweak it a bit. Earlier versions were extra crazy. We modelled it down once we got it in the right spot. We wanted to make sure that it was not too polarizing for skaters but also pushing [the boundaries] a little bit.
Flatspot: Did you run into any difficulties during the design process?
Bryce: This shoe was being designed at the same time as the Ishod and Nyjah 2. The Ishod ended up coming out before this shoe, but the order was supposed to be reversed. When I was doing the exploration of the vulcanized cupsole, it was kind of an experiment for a signature model vs. the BRSB in-line shoe. It was fun to do simultaneously and work with the athletes to get insights that I could carry over to the BRSB.
The usual timeline is almost two years. This one ended up being almost three years. Partially because of some design changes, partially the pandemic. There were a ton of different aspects that needed to change. It wasn’t that people didn't like the shoe. Ultimately it gave us more time to refine it and make it what it is now, which I’m super happy with.
Flatspot: What were some of the specific features you focused on, structurally?
Bryce: The classic running shoes did not have a lot of protection; sometimes they were made with nylon and only a little bit of suede, which does not hold up in the skate world. After having a background in skating, being around skaters, and designing for the skate community, there are a few things you start to realize. One of the main things is that the higher the side wall, the less the upper is exposed, and the more containment and protection you can have.
When the Cortez was introduced, they popped that little wedge in the heel, which had not been done before. That was a visual to show that there was cushioning, and there was something [aesthetically] different.
I wanted to take that approach because a lot of these underfoot studies that we were doing at Nike measure compression. We are accounting for heel bruising, for example. There is a fine balance between getting that board feel but also making sure that you are protected.
We have Dunks with the Zoom bags, but we wanted to do something different with the drop-in. We wanted to visualize that; in the Ishod, you don’t see it, but it's in there. We wanted to make sure that the kid who did not necessarily want a signature shoe could have that in an in-line shoe.
Flatspot: What was the process of testing it? I feel like they couldn’t be seen out in a public skatepark, for example.
Bryce: That process was interesting, because it was a completely new build. In the past when we have used the remastered soles, the ones we have used time and time again, those always provide a level of security. We know that it works, so we just need to test for the upper.
This one, we had to go through rounds of testing. We tested multiple foam compounds; we had to make sure that it was durable and not bagging out too quickly. It went through a pretty extensive wear test process.
I mean, if people were paying attention, we actually did have them out in the streets. They looked very different - all blacked out, no Swoosh, no branding. We had people up here in the SB park testing it and a bunch of people in LA. It was a super sciencey process.
Flatspot: In terms of the testing process, what was the general feedback?
Bryce: One thing we learned [from the testers] was that it was different. It’s something we haven’t done, especially vintage runner silhouettes. I think that was something people thought was fresh, instead of just seeing Blazers, Dunks and Janoskis all day, every day.
It was nice to hear, because the Nyjah 2, the Ishod, and BRSB were all being tested together. The feedback for all three was, ‘Wow you guys are really starting to change some aesthetics and offer a little bit more’.
I’m sure you have noticed that in the last few years, skating has blown up. Mens, womens, kids - everyone has been skating, especially during the pandemic. We are always a smaller category in SB compared to the rest of Nike and our offering was always a bit more narrow. So because everything has blown up and there is a little bit more demand out there, we can make more shoes, which is great.
Flatspot: It shows that you are investing the time and effort to think outside the box and be ahead of the curve.
Bryce: That's kind of the name of the game. Like, why be at Nike if we aren’t trying to push the performance side? When you have the product testing and manufacturing capabilities on our side, it's like, why not do that kind of stuff?
Flatspot: What do you think the future of skate footwear might look like?
Bryce: That's a really great, tough question. On the design side, we are asking ourselves that all the time. What do people actually want? Things are going kind of crazy right now, with bigger shoes. Honestly it's kind of feeling like we are back in the early-2000s, which I love because it's kind of nostalgic.
I do think that the cool thing is that footwear is changing so rapidly. You have guys and girls who will skate Blazers and Janoskis and want that cleaner look. Then you got the people who are wearing strictly Dunks, and then people who want to wear [something like] the Grateful Dead Dunks that have fur all over them.
Maybe this is a political answer but it's becoming super wide [open], which is great. I think that everyone can find their style, their niche, and their performance needs. Before it used to be, ‘Here is this one “cool” shoe; if you don’t wear this, then you are not “cool”.’ Now there are so many options both inside and outside of Nike.
Flatspot: With skating’s popularity, I feel like it's exciting because there will be more resources available.
Bryce: Absolutely, yeah. It's a whole new world, especially with Instagram and TikTok. It's not about parts as much; it's about the clips. You can make every clip look steezy and get a million views on it. That can be the thing for now, and you can do it however you want. Everyone has their own platform to speak out.
[For example], I fit in with this crew here. And we look like this. It might not necessarily be what is known as how a skater looks. That’s been a fun part of following the LGBTQ groups and women’s groups in skating–it’s just exploding. It was definitely not like that when I was growing up.
Flatspot: Thanks for taking the time, Bryce. As we wind down, what other non-skate silhouettes would you like to see adapted for Nike SB in the future?
Bryce: I have my own personal opinions, and the brand might differ. At the tail end of my time with SB we were working with the team at ACG (All Conditions Gear). Maybe selfishly I thought, ‘Yo, let’s merge some ACG with some SB stuff!’ That would be super fresh. After looking through the archives, I realized ACG stuff is built to be beat up and that is what we do in skateboarding. So we need to do that for sure. But I'm not on the team anymore! I’ll have to let that one be!
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