Independent product designer Dan Bailey, aka Mr. Bailey, is known for his innovations in footwear. He invests in what’s different — and he wants you to start thinking that way too. For him, the days of the same sneakers re-releasing in colorway after colorway are over. Instead, it’s time to make way for silhouettes that are changing the industry as we know it, such as the Nike ISPA Road Warrior.
In a way, the Road Warrior is a physical representation of Bailey’s attitude — or as he puts it, that “not-giving-a-f*ck-ness.” His work aims to push the boundaries and expectations of the culture because he’s not designing products to fit in. Think of the shoes he designed for Takashi Murakami, or his take on the classic Superstar. They’re wearable, real-life sneakers, but not as you know them.
Yet his love for the extreme isn’t a newfound experiment in order to gain clout. He has an ability to find beauty where others wouldn’t even think to look — just take his inspiration from the inside of a sculpture’s mouth for his “The Simple Things” sneakers for example. It’s this that makes Bailey a designer of the future, and certainly one that shouldn’t be underestimated. He’s a trendsetter, even if you don’t know it yet — which can be said, too, of sneakers like the ISPA Road Warrior. In this issue of Sole Mates, HYPEBEAST speaks with Mr. Bailey about his love for basketball, what’s wrong with the mainstream sneaker industry, and why he’s only ever trying to better himself, design after design.
HYPEBEAST: What got you into sneakers?
Mr. Bailey: Basketball was a major focus for me from a very young age, and basketball and sneakers go hand in hand. I remember the first pair of Jordans that I was amazed by — I got into the whole footwear thing a lot later than other people — but the first Jordans were the 13s. There was this kid, the best basketball player on our team, so he was automatically cool. He had the 13s in his bag and I just flipped out, I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life.
I didn’t have the money to buy the 13s back then. The first shoe that I saw that I loved, that I was able to go out and get, was the AND1 Tai Chi Mid. Vince Carter wore them during the Dunk Contest and I lost my mind. They have an asymmetrical split of color, the lateral comes over the medial and over the toe, I thought they were the most beautiful things. But I wore them outside in the rain and they were suede so they cracked. It wasn’t great.
What got you into designing sneakers?
I’d always been drawing since I was little. My auntie was an architect and my mum was very artsy as well, so my auntie would always give me these two and three-point perspective drawing challenges when I was young. I always had my own imaginary sneaker brand growing up with my friends. My basketball dreams clearly weren’t going to become a reality — I went to America to play, I was dead-set on becoming a pro, but very early on in my amateur basketball career I realized that it wasn’t going to be for me.
I went to Montclair State University just outside of New York City, and I applied to Nike for a design internship, but they weren’t taking anybody apart from industrial designers. I’d never heard of that term before. But I got immersed into this world of product design and I was amazed by all the things these super talented designers were doing — I changed my major from graphic design to industrial design that week.
The timing worked out really well, and then I just got lost being so close to New York, which is a very big product design place.
Did you get the job at Nike?
I actually didn’t. I had to start studying, but I got lost in a bunch of different things. I started designing automobiles, random products really. I didn’t get back into footwear until I met one of my very good buddies now — he was independent for a while, but he is the director of YEEZY Lab now — he’s the reason why I got back into footwear.
I was learning that industrial design was a thing and learning that independent freelance designing was a thing as well. It was these kinds of lucky moments that happened in a very serendipitous timeline.
Alongside your concepts, do you also make wearables for brands?
It’s a mixture. Predominantly, since I left university, I’ve tried to make a name for myself as a designer and a design studio. I don’t really share a lot of my stuff as it’s client stuff and really wearable. That’s not a knock to it, it just doesn’t always represent my taste as I’m designing for someone else.
It was only the past two or three years, basically, because of the shoe I did for Takashi. [Brings out a pair of “Sneakers for Breakfast”] everything has to be wearable — if it can’t be wearable, I don’t want anything to do with it. I love conceptual stuff, but if there isn’t a function there I guess you could just do anything, right?
How do you battle unconventional designs with wearability?
I’ve worked with clients and brands, but I’ve never worked for a large brand. One thing I realized about being independent is that you can be a great designer, but you really need a great network to make things happen. By leveraging the niche following that I have and the projects that I’ve done in the past, to make something like this [Nike ISPA Road Warrior] or the [Murakami] Octopus shoe, or the Ammonite shoe, it took so many people and I had to pull strings in so many ways to pull it off in the timeframe. I want to show younger designers — not necessarily just age — but independents, that you can do crazy sh*t. There’s a mixture of product design and art.
What attracts you to forward-thinking designs?
I’m fascinated by trying to be creative and finding new ways of processes, whether that’s in construction or more sustainably minded. Even as a designer, the one thing I realized is that product design is an overall encompassing field.
You know it’s sick, but who’s going to be the person to wear it? That’s what I see when I see YEEZY stuff and the ISPA. That for me is special.
It’s hard to explain it to people, it sounds like if someone asks you what you do, you could say “Oh I can design anything.” Clearly, you can’t design anything, but it’s not that you can design anything, it’s that you create a process that you can apply to a lot of different things.
Because I studied it and I find it so fascinating, I always [want to know] the new materials out there, new construction processes, how do I keep adding? Even the people around me are doing incredible things, so it’s this sort of leveling up and friendly competition. It’s a combination of all those kinds of things.
With that in mind, is that why you chose the Nike ISPA Road Warrior, because of its design innovations?
Yeah. I know quite a few members of the team that worked on it, but for me, there are two major brands right now that I would consider are pushing forward the taste level — from a technicality product design and style element. Those would be YEEZY and Nike, like ISPA.
When I saw the shoes, it’s rare. There’s only been a couple of moments this year  when I thought, “F*ck, I need that thing right now.” It’s weird, people automatically think I’m a massive sneaker collector — I do happen to have a lot of shoes, but that’s because I’m very, very lucky and happen to know the people that worked on it — but I’m not huge on buying stuff. I know when I see something I absolutely need to have. [For me,] it’s the Road Warrior and this jacket that Nigo did that can blow up.
Even Kanye had to come out and say how good this shoe was. I think it’s really good, in a sea of brands re-releasing the same sh*t in different colorways, stagnating the sneaker enthusiast’s taste level as this is all that’s out there… but with this, you have to be brave enough to wear this. You know it’s sick, but who’s going to be the person to wear it? That’s what I see when I see YEEZY stuff and the ISPA. That for me is special, especially with the kind of styles that I do, and it’s promising to see.
What particularly stands out for you?
For a lack of a better term, I think it’s the level of not-giving-a-f*ck-ness. I feel like there was no guy at the top saying it needed to be more commercial, this was like, “Let’s put a split toe on this sh*t.” The way they did the closure with the zip tie, it’s the little things.
There are so many little details, even the way the heel comes away and back over — there’s a level of thought. They didn’t tack this on as an afterthought, it was on there first, then they had to figure out how to make it work. There are so many technical things.
The outsole is crazy, to be able to engineer that and put it out commercially, I can’t imagine what they had to go through.
Do you want to get your hands on it, to do something with it?
I’d love to. You can only imagine how far you can push this concept. I’m sure they already have 15 iterations of this planned out. There’s so much you can do with this.
Do you think sneaker tech and design can work cohesively?
It’s a really hard balance. You go through these ebbs and flows through time. You can see it in the design of the shoes, there was a lot of forward momentum in product innovation and technologies, in the way the shoe was constructed. You have this moment of trying to do as much as you can to these shoes, but the shoes end up looking like [something from] Transformers. Which is great, for on-court performance, but not necessarily for off-court.
Then you start to see people harmoniously have these technological advances, balancing it with proportionality and style elements that brings these two worlds together. But it takes time. We’re in a time right now where there are a lot of technological advancements, people and brands are doing a great job of balancing it (maybe some aren’t doing as great), but, part of me loves the ISPA in particular because of the level of not giving a sh*t.
Even with YEEZY, with what it’s doing with the all-over EVA constructions that allow you to control the proportions and shape of shoes that you can’t do any other way. It also allows you to produce more locally, and less hands are needed to make the shoe which I think is very smart.
There are so many elements that people often associate with exclusivity or creating wild sh*t, but it goes much deeper than that. How can you creatively make a shoe so that it can be easily made?
Was it divisive for Nike to include a split toe on the ISPA Road Warrior?
I love tabi toes, but I’ve come to understand that my appreciation of things doesn’t necessarily represent the mainstream. A lot of stuff that I love doesn’t do very well commercially.
What is the mainstream’s level of appreciation?
It’s tailored by brands re-releasing safe stuff. If you wear this, no one is going to make fun of you. It’s a safe bet. As soon as you start putting a split in the toe, are people going to look at you like you’re a bit weird or trying to do something else?
In an industry where there are a lot of similar products, this stands out. For that to sell out in, what, and hour? It says a lot about the state of the culture.
Whereas, if you’re in fashion week or in a crowd where people want to do that, want to stand out and do their own thing, split toes… well, people don’t give as much of a f*ck I suppose.
From a design level, it’s a really interesting way to design. It’s definitely interesting putting these on, because you have to have the split sock. But I love it. But I’m also a big fan of Japanese culture anyway, I’ve been involved in it — I’ve been doing martial arts since I was four years old, so I’ve always appreciated it. It’s undeniable what they bring to the culture in general.
If Nike makes the ISPA Road Warrior the mainstream, how will that change the culture?
I think it’s going to be nothing but good for the culture, moving forward. To embrace uniqueness and people trying different stuff. That’s a big reason why I was excited about it. In an industry where there are a lot of similar products, this stands out. For that to sell out in, what, and hour? It says a lot about the state of the culture.
For me, I think it’s positive. It shows that people are willing to invest in something that’s different.