Rich Tu: It's Gotta Be The Shoes
By Brett McKenzie on Aug 26, 2019
New York designer and YG8 winner collaborates with Nike in the name of immigrants
For all the shoes I possess — and for those that know me, it's more than a sane person should have — I've never owned a pair of Nike sneakers. This probably stems from the fact that my dad steadfastly refused to shell out $150 for Air Jordans when I was a kid. Whatever it is, I just never thought to add a swoosh next to my million pairs of trefoils.
That might be about to change, as New York-based designer and Young Guns 8 winner Rich Tu has collaborated with the sports apparel giant's Cultivator platform and their NYC By You initiative to drop a limited-run sneaker — an Air Max 270 React — with a message close to the artist's heart. The shoe is only available until September 1, and Rich is giving his cut of the proceeds to a good cause, so cop yours while you can. In the meantime, I had a chance to chat with the designer about the project and his bigger mission to tell a truly American story.
I know you’re a sneakerhead, so I don't have to ask why you'd want to do a project like this, but how did it all come about?
(laughs) I'm definitely a sneakerhead — I actually still have the first pair of Nikes I ever bought, sitting in a box. But this was a co-created effort with Nike and Cultivator, which is a great program they have that allows talented creators to tell personal stories through sneakers. I told them that I was interested in telling a First Generation story, and they were interested in my podcast "First Generation Burden", so it all clicked. I was really grateful to have an opportunity.
You used to be a designer for Nike. How did that experience — intimately knowing the behind-the-scenes of sneaker design — guide your hand in making this shoe?
It was a dream come true to work at the Swoosh, and I still think about it every day. What I loved about being there was that I gained insight into what it takes to create a high-level product with a lot of stakeholders. In terms of the specific sneaker-creation process, that insight definitely helped me with my storytelling and the overall vision. It was like riding a bike, and I got to flex those creative muscles again.
Walk us through the design process. It has a pretty unique color scheme for a sneaker…
The sneaker aesthetic itself was inspired by oxidized metal, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is a common sight in developing nations. Depending on the kind of metal, you can see beautiful patinas of oranges, teals, and blacks, all beautifully aged by time and nature. Using that as inspiration, I chose these colors and applied a Statue of Liberty icon on the tongue top. Of course, the statue itself is also made of oxidized metal, a gorgeous green-blue copper, so I wanted to connect the dots between a homeland phenomenon and a symbol that represents the very best that our country can be.
"...I wanted to connect the dots between a homeland phenomenon and a symbol that represents the very best that our country can be."
How much different is designing a sneaker than, say, a poster, a mural, an animation or any of your other more usual projects?
It's different in the sense that it's a more involved process, and doesn't often have a fully singular vision. I'm a good visual thinker and problem-solver, but I'm not well versed in engineering per se. So, for me, sneaker design involves more inspiration-based narrative thinking, where I interpret inspiration directly into sneaker details. For instance, on the Mac & Cheese Kyrie 3s I worked on at Nike, we used a metal Swoosh to signify a metal spoon. In a lot of ways, sneaker design is very literal, but that's only because the sneaker itself is a canvas that takes creativity in a different way.
Of course, this isn’t just a sneaker, but an extension of your podcast project. For those who are unaware, can you shed a little light on it?
First Generation Burden is a podcast I've been hosting for about three years now. It's a series of conversations with immigrants and the children of immigrants, and it's a passion project that has allowed me to speak to some amazingly creative individuals from all over the world. It's long-form and fully conversational. Nothing is off-limits and for the most part, it's a way for me to give back to an underserved community, as well as display "Immigrant Excellence."
Of course, being a first-generation American myself, coming from Filipino immigrants, I can relate to a lot of the experiences shared on my podcast. And if there is one thing that I find common amongst all of my guests is that every single one of them is hard-working, immensely generous, and really wants to be here in the US. The problem right now with the immigrant narrative in this country is that it's a love story gone wrong. Imagine being so much in love with a person, and then one day that person doesn't love you back and utterly rejects you. It's emotionally painful, and I don't wish that pain on anybody.
You're donating your proceeds from these shoes to the ACLU. What made you choose that cause in particular?
After the unfortunate situation in Mississippi recently, where ICE raided a chicken plant, I was completely disheartened, and I spent a good part of my time feeling helpless. And the American Civil Liberties Union is a great organization that helps fight for immigrants' rights. It just felt like the right thing for me to do.
What’s next for your First Generation Burden?
I wrap up Season 4 with the 32nd episode that drops on September 2. Then I have a live event that I'm producing with guest Benjamin Evans, who's the Inclusion Design Director at Airbnb. After a short break, I hope to get two more seasons out ahead of the 2020 election.
What other projects of yours should we be keeping an eye out for?
Well, I'm the VP of Digital Design at MTV, so I'm gonna say check out our content! (laughs) But I also have a few other creative endeavors here and there that I do in my spare time — technically I don't have spare time, but somehow I make it work. Check out my Instagram because I usually drop it all there.
Finally, the shoes... are they available in size 9½?
(laughs) HELL YES!
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