Behind Reebok latest sneakers designs with Evan Belforti

Amidst a significant transition phase marked by the acquisition by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) in 2021 and its subsequent transfer to New Guards Group, Reebok is seeking new pillars upon which to build the foundation of its future.

While the European market is under the control of the holding company owned by Farfetch, specifically within the NGG++ division, Reebok’s design is in the hands of a new generation of creatives who, while respecting the brand’s history, continue to push the boundaries of the footwear industry with their inventive ideas.

Simultaneously with the unveiling of Reebok LTD – LEARN. TEST. DESIGN., the new premium line from Reebok aimed at redefining sport and style through a focus on innovation and the development of exclusive collaborations and special projects, we had the opportunity to interview Evan Belforti. Evan serves as the Senior Footwear Designer at Reebok LTD and has been involved in some of the brand’s most significant collaborations over the years, ranging from Cottweiler to Pyer Moss to Maison Margiela, and beyond.

Evan is not only responsible for conceiving some of Reebok’s most captivating recent silhouettes, including the Floatride Energy Argus X, the Premier Road Modern, and the brand-new Club C LTD, but he also offered us a glimpse into the creative process that fuels his designs.

Can you tell us more about your early career and what initially sparked your interest in footwear?

Well, to be honest, I wasn’t a huge sneakerhead growing up. I mean, I liked shoes, but I never really considered a career in footwear design. For a long time, I thought I would be an illustrator. I majored in Industrial Design, which is a pretty broad major, I enjoyed solving problems with design, but it was really my friends and the people I gravitated towards that ended up bringing me to the fashion space specifically. My senior year I took a traditional footwear-making course, crafting my first pair of sneakers by laser-cutting patterns, 3D printing the soles, and hand making the shoes. It was the perfect combination of working with the processes I had come to love but alongside the people I was closest to, it felt like a natural transition.

So, how did you end up at Reebok? Could you share more about your early days at the company?

After I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in footwear design. I was living at my mom’s place and working as a welder and machinist, commuting an hour each day, while sending out job applications exclusively to footwear design roles. Finally, after months of persistence, I got a call from Reebok, offering a temporary position in materials, which was primarily an organizational role. I accepted the offer and came in for the interview.

During the interview, I was way over-prepared, bringing sketches and shoe designs. However, they were quick to remind me it was not a design role and more interested in getting to know me, they offered me the job the same day. So, that’s how I started at Reebok. My first week I found a footwear designer and asked if he would mentor me. I designed my first shoe for Reebok while I was still a temporary employee. After that I was brought on as an apprentice footwear designer for the technical style team and 5 months into my apprenticeship I was brought on as a full-time designer. I showed an interest in fashion footwear specifically, and the fashion team didn’t have an exclusive designer. I was given a single assignment and was quickly “stolen away” to the fashion team.

Sketches of the Cottweiler x Reebok Loafer

Can you tell us more about the first project you followed as part of the Special Projects member?

The first shoe I designed after being officially brought on to the Special Projects (now called LTD) team was the Cottweiler Sneaker Loafer. Cottweiler, the collaborators, had a clear vision of introducing traditional construction into the sneaker space. They wanted their show to feel like a nightclub that was engulfed by natural elements, creating this humid and mossy climate that could be found in both nature and nightlife. This inspired us to begin solving for the creation of a gradual blend from a sporty midsole up to a more traditional loafer upper.

For this particular collaboration, we invited them into our office and immersed them in our archive, exploring a lot of our outdoor footwear, specifically our outdoor DMX sneakers from the early 2000s.

We developed a new midsole inspired by a combination of DMX outdoor references as well as some running midsoles that were more commonly found London clubs. The upper was almost designed as though it were moss bleeding onto the modern bottom. We had to create a gradual blend from traditional execution and materials on the upper to the contemporary midsole, this was achieved with different molded pieces. These molded parts were modern but also somewhat grotesque and obscure, imitating natural elements they had pulled as inspiration.

Our collaboration was an iterative process. I sketched right in front of them, and it was a truly collaborative effort. This approach is characteristic of all our collaborations, and I think back fondly on the one that started it all.

It’s clear that the Reebok archive played a significant role in your design process. Could you elaborate on how the archive influences your work and how you blend older aesthetics with new ones?

The archive holds a central role in our creative process, serving as our initial point of exploration. It’s fascinating how many layers of inspiration can be uncovered within the archive. Beyond just the era, aesthetics, or function, it allows us to delve into the mindset of the designers of that time and consider what they might have been thinking.

A lot of the process when pulling reference from the archive, as seen in examples like the Premier Road Modern and the DMX Run 6 Modern, involves transforming historical processes into contemporary innovations.

For instance, bulky running shoes of the past, specifically from the “Premier” line of footwear,  prioritized foot support rather than weight reduction, incorporating a multitude of techniques into a single shoe such as molded synthetic, reflective welds, and molded TPU parts. Our challenge was to modernize these processes by condensing them into a single, more efficient method. The Premier Road Modern features a single TPU piece that is molded directly to the upper, this one piece makes up most of the shoe and recreates the aesthetics found in the large range of steps taken to create the archival references this design was inspired from.

Is it a flow you followed also within the creation of the Reebok Floatride Energy Argus X?

The Argus X project is particularly intriguing as it encompasses various creative elements. It all began with a running midsole designed by the highly talented performance designer Sylvian. When my colleague Ryan Forsyth, who was my product marketer at the time, and I first laid eyes on this midsole, we were both instantly captivated by its exceptional design and quality. It sparked our enthusiasm, and we knew we had to embark on a project involving it.

Reebok Floatride Energy Argus X tape up

This one was the first time you were actually working on a performance shoe right?

Performance footwear has always been a significant focus for me, and I consider this project to be just as much performance-oriented as the other shoes I’ve worked on. All of my designs draw inspiration from the functional aspects of performance footwear, but they don’t necessarily aim to reach the pinnacle of these functions.

Instead, I’m passionate about translating this functionality into aesthetics and weaving compelling stories through the functional elements inherent in these performance-inspired shoes.

Our journey with this particular project began when we stumbled upon a unique sole design. No one had requested a new upper for it in fashion; we simply took the initiative to explore its potential. Reflecting on the mid-2000s, an era when support trumped lightweight considerations, we envisioned a shoe that prioritized a level of security that was paramount back then but designed with the sleek aesthetics found in running silhouettes of today. It was like resurrecting a functional ethos from a bygone era and reimagining it for the modern world.

Our design process delved into various enclosures and drew inspiration from different shoes in the archive. The “Lock and Sock” concept, along with a snowshoe design, the Winter Runner III, fueled our creativity. We embarked on the ambitious journey of creating an extravagant and captivating way to secure a foot within a shoe, intentionally pushing the boundaries. The result was an entirely novel aesthetic – a modern interpretation of foot security.

Reebok Winter Runner III

Our approach to performance in this project was multifaceted. While the sole was undeniably performance-driven, the upper ventured into the realms of a unique narrative, creating a fictional world where foot support for running footwear remained paramount, all within the context of a striking aesthetic that was fun to interact with.

The upper part and the locking system is something like exceptional that also went viral. Did you expect that?

I don’t dwell on those thoughts much, to be honest. But it’s nice to know people are gravitating towards it because my hope is that everyone can naturally absorb the underlying story. However, when you’re in the process of creating a product, it isn’t always straightforward to convey the narrative behind it. You know what I mean? It’s not always easy to communicate that there’s a rich backstory to the object you’re introducing. What I truly appreciate is when people are drawn to things, whether or not they’re aware of the intended narrative. They can sense it, feel its presence, and recognize that it has roots somewhere. This connection transcends any planned narrative for the product, and I find it incredibly rewarding.

Your design approach seems to involve a deep narrative component. How important is storytelling in your design process, and how do you balance it with creating a functional product?

Storytelling is at the core of my design process. When I started at Reebok, we had limited marketing and PR resources, which compelled us to use our design to convey narratives. We wanted our shoes to tell their stories independently, even without extensive marketing campaigns. This limitation pushed us to develop designs that spoke for themselves and conveyed the narratives we envisioned. Have a look at @vector_language for example.

Our lack of resources also drove us to find inspiration in more niche subcultures or activities or sports that were maybe less focused on but had passionate followings. This connection allowed us to create footwear that represented those subcultures’ narratives and stories. As a result, storytelling became a vital aspect of our design philosophy.

Going back to the Reebok Floatride Energy Argus X, you’ve created footwear with unconventional lacing systems. What do you think about the classic lacing system? It’s something that in nowadays footwear industry has always been the same and hardly evolved.

I’m a big fan of the traditional lacing system. It’s efficient and straightforward, not much room for technological innovation there. The footwear industry, in general, tends to plateau at a fundamental level, and making functional improvements is often minimal. That’s why I enjoy playing with the aesthetics of function more than the actual functionality itself. Lacing systems, in particular, offer a canvas for creativity.

Upper part of the Reebok Floatride Energy Argus X

Another aspect I really love to focus on in footwear design is how the shoe looks from the toe down perspective. Considering this angle so often has led me to playing with interactions  between the lacing and the rest of the upper. 

And what about Ryan Forsyth, Reebok Global Product Manager at the time? What was your relationship as a colleagues and friends? How did he help you out during your first time at Rebook?

Ryan and I both joined Reebok around the same time. He was already a product marketer for the Special Projects Team, working closely with Anastasia when I came on board. Our team consisted of Ana, Ryan, and me, with a developer who changed a few times before we found Winnie, who was incredible. Ryan and I had a unique working relationship. Unlike the typical dynamic where the product marketer creates the design brief and the designer follows it, we collaborated closely. While Ryan handled the product marketing aspects, and I was responsible for design, our process was highly collaborative. Ryan’s expertise lay in curating and archiving, and he brought a wealth of resources and narrative elements to our projects.

Our process usually began with us brainstorming a concept together, discussing what we liked and didn’t like. Then, we would jointly develop a design brief, with Ryan taking the lead. When it came to the design phase, I would take the lead, sketching and creating various iterations. We would review them together, selecting the elements we liked and discarding the ones we didn’t. Working with Ryan was my first significant collaboration, especially given my relative newness to the industry. Our roles in the process were quite different, but they meshed seamlessly, and we achieved great results.

The footwear industry has seen various trends, from chunky sneakers to sleek silhouettes. Where do you see the industry heading in the coming years, and what impact do you anticipate on design and innovation?

Footwear possesses a fascinating ability to contradict itself in the fashion world. We’ve seen the rise of super chunky shoes countered by the popularity of sleek, slim designs. The ubiquity of classics like Sambas coexists with the emergence of avant-garde, almost alien-like shoe styles flooding Instagram feeds. This dynamic tension among different shoe aesthetics has given birth to diverse subcultures, each passionately tied to its preferred footwear style.

Recently, we witnessed a significant shift with the resale market taking a nosedive. This decline has allowed retailers to curate their selections more authentically, choosing shoes based on their vision rather than mere resale value. As a result, the footwear industry has the potential to showcase a wider array of styles simultaneously. This shift might serve as a catalyst, encouraging the market to embrace the multitude of trends coexisting in footwear.

For every trend in footwear, there’s a counter-trend, and this paradoxical interplay makes the fashion world endlessly intriguing. With the reduced focus on investment and a greater emphasis on personal expression, I hope to see the industry continue to expose and celebrate its diverse facets.