â€œI would say that pound for pound, Melbourne has the best scene in the world.â€ says Simon Wood. A textbook sneakophile, Simon – also known as Woody, also known as the founder and editor of the worldâ€™s favorite shoe bible, Sneaker Freaker â€“ is one of the few people with the chops to make such a claim. An Aussie to the heart, Woody has no qualms running his big time magazine from his (comparably) small time city â€“ and if his words on Melbourne are true, then there might be no better place for a sneakerhead to call home.
We chatted with Woody about the magazine, the city in which itâ€™s produced, and how it is that he came to be more fashion-forward than a Hilton sister.
Oh… and we also talked about shoes. A lot of shoes.
â€œthere’s no way that general release – or even Tier Zero or Combust or whatever you wanna call it – can compete with the fertile mind of someone who has been given their one shot at immortality.â€
Format: What made you decide to turn your sneaker obsession into a print magazine?
Woody: Well it was simple really; I really thought I could just get a load of free shoes! There was no business plan, no grand scheme, and no idea that I could see into the future or imagine that I’d still be doing it five years later on a global scale. I’ve done a lot of projects and jobs over the years and the mag was a good idea at the right time! You never know how true that is until you’ve already done it.
Format: Why have you kept Sneaker Freaker bi-annual as opposed to quarterly or monthly?
Woody: I just didn’t have the resources in the first few years. I actually did nearly everything on those first five issues, and I didn’t have the ability to hire any staff until a couple of years ago. We made money, but I always had other jobs and there was no way or time to go out, sell ads, and get the money rolling in to fund the expansion – so it just evolved slowly. In 2008 we’ll be doing three issues. Quality is the most important consideration; I don’t ever wanna be accused of doing a shitty, lazy issue with a bunch of rewritten press releases. I think three magazines per annum will cover everything and not leave us scratching to come up with enough to keep the fans happy.
Format: You’ve seen thousands of sneakers over the years. What developments, or consistencies, in the sneaker scene have kept you so interested year after year?
Woody: I relate shoes to music; just when you think you’ve heard it all before, along comes some nutty new shit that just pops off into a new realm. I’m keeping my peepers on Alife this year; I think they’re about to take it to a new level. I’ve only heard gossip, but their colabs sound insane. It’s no secret, there’s so much product about right now. The biggest problem is that the bar is set pretty high, so you have to have some pretty fucking fly shit to rise to the top. I remember when Nike put a NYC embroidery on an Air Force back in the late nineties and we went bananas! So you gotta put things into their historical perspective. I loved the Nike vintage story last year – that was a breath of fresh air – and we had the scoop on that project with Junya Watanabe in Issue 9. People find it hard to hand out compliments and say something is good – human nature I suppose – but all the negativity gets boring and stale after a while.
Format: Sneaker Freaker has been beautifully art directed since its first issue. Is this an extension of your overall feelings towards shoe design?
Woody: Well I’m glad for the compliment, thanks for that, I often wonder if anyone notices. I go to a lot of trouble to make each story and issue have its own ‘thing.’ SF does have a distinctive visual identity, but it’s not so much an extension of how I feel about shoe design, but more a reflection of my background as a designer and how I like to organize clutter. I’ve been using Macs since I was introduced by my old friend Bert Brailsford. Kids have no idea what it was like. I remember seeing the first scanner and it blew my mind! Even before that, I co-edited a university newspaper where we had a bromide camera and we did color work with bloody fingers and a scalpel squinting over a light box! I get asked why SF is so small (A5 size we call it). The reason is that it was supposed to slot into the counter of a small sneaker store. Being small makes it really hard to design, so I make the type small, the headings big, and I cram as much shit onto each page as I can. It’s funny how these little things you do right at the start become defining moments. I mean, Issue #1 was a giveaway and it’s pretty shit when you look back at it, but it’s now worth about $150 on the Bay – and I’m the idiot who gave all mine away!
Format: You recently dropped, “2007: The Best of the Best” on the Sneaker Freaker site. How did you go about deciding which shoes made the final cut?
Woody: Well that was easy; we just picked out a bunch of friends and professional acquaintances and asked them to tell us what they liked the most. There was no editing or instructions. We work hard to select some interesting people, and we expect interesting answers. It seems to me you’d get a completely different result if you just did a straw poll of average customers instead of industry folk. Perhaps that’s because we are all of a certain age, but it’s also because if you’re in the industry, you consider yourself immune to the hype and marketing.
Format: In your opinion, how has the prevalence of collaborations affected the sneaker scene?
Woody: There’s no doubt in my mind that it makes the scene far more compelling. The shoes are nearly always good! Look at the last 20 hyped-to-death shoes â€“ all of them would be colabs. It’s still a risky business and a magic formula that’s hard to bottle, except to say that they nearly always produce the goods. You get some guys in a store who put their heart and sole into their one big chance at doing a shoe, and you just know it’s gonna be nuts and they’re gonna worry about every last detail. Now imagine some nine-to-fiver sitting in a veal fattening pen at one of the big company offices with a bunch of materials and color swatches trying to come up with 25 shoes a week?
Which of the scenarios will produce an iconic result? Of course, I am simplifying the process, but there’s no way that general release – or even Tier Zero or Combust or whatever you wanna call it – can compete with the fertile mind of someone who has been given their one shot at immortality. So, I guess you could say I’m all in favor of the future of collaborative product development. But really, you could also say it just shows what can be done when you put enormous creative energy into a compact unit. You get heat!
Format: What elements combine to create an unsuccessful collaboration?
Woody: A lack of imagination, mostly. There have been a few where I feel that the artist’s work simply didn’t translate into a wearable and desirable shoe. This has partly to do with the product developer’s ability to offer direction and handle the technical side of things as much as it has to do with selecting the right partner. Not everyone who is handy with a paintbrush or a sewing machine should be allowed to do a shoe. This is a nightmare for companies who are trying to reach out and work with people they admire. Unfortunately for them, they’re never quite sure of the end result until it’s done, and what do they do if it’s crap? Sorry, Mr. Picasso, but your shoe is shit and we’re not gonna release it!
At the same time, I’m sure a lot of the stuff I consider rubbish sells like hot cakes, and at the end of the day, there’s more than one way to gauge a project’s success. And sometimes, like all great works of art, it takes years for a project’s true reputation or influence to emerge.
Format: What elements combine to make a great one?
Woody: There’s probably a mathematical formula: Hype + Ideas + Demand â€“ Distribution = Success or something, but it’s impossible to say, really. Nike was on the money with Claw Money; it was well overdue for someone to push up for the ladies. Allow me to toot toot on our own trumpet a little but I think one of the most successful collab shoes was the Missouri 85 we did with Lacoste a few years ago. People thought we had lost our mind, but when they saw the shoe they gave us kudos for showing some balls. It proved that people will go with you if you show the way. Since then, their shoes have got better and better, their colabs have been on the money and their cachet has gone through the roof. The Missouri is now established as one of their best shoes, so I call that a major success. It’s not all about our shoe, but it did open people’s eyes to the brand. Mark from Lacoste has done an amazing job of turning the croc around in a market that is cluttered with competing bit-players, and I wouldn’t have worked with them if I didn’t have confidence in him as a righteous dude.
Format: How would you compare the sneaker scene in Melbourne to a few other major world cities?
Woody: Our entire population is only 22 million, of which Melbourne claims about 4 million, but I would say that pound for pound, Melbourne has the best scene in the world. We have a great mix of stores and the product ratio is just about right. We can get just about anything we desire right here, and we don’t usually have to queue round the block or sell our left nuts into slavery to get on the waiting list. It certainly ainâ€™t as combative as the UK or the US where you really need to hustle. You try getting an SB in London!
Format: What difficulties have you faced being an international magazine based in Australia?
Woody: Oh yeah – there’s a few. We may as well be on the moon sometimes. Our sense of humour doesn’t really translate at all; I often wonder what some people think of the jokes and piss-taking. The major hurdle is contact; it’s impossible for me to see everything with my own eyes, but I travel a hell of a lot. It’s funny; I’ve been in meetings where people can’t believe we are based in Australia, as they know how influential the magazine is. They’re probably stuck thinking Australia is all about Crocodile Dundee and dangerous animals, but look at Hollywood and see how many Australians are ripping up the business over there. Like I was saying about the size of the magazine, being based here is just one of the things that defines us. It has both negatives and positives. We don’t do page numbers or have people on the cover or use conventional distribution or any of the normal things you are supposed to do to make money in this game. We do everything the wrong way, because we don’t know any other way.
Format: How has the proliferation of sneaker blogs affected Sneaker Freaker?
Woody: I don’t know if it has affected us, per se. We were one of the first, but we also give credit to Fatlace, Crooked, Fixins and a few others who went before us. I don’t place us in the blog category anymore, and it’s not just because blog is a four-letter word. We changed our site a year or two ago, and we now publish in a different way than anyone else. You can’t compete with our sneaker content. We have shoes that no one else has and we have dozens of insane stories and features. I am of the view that it no longer matters who is first, so we now prefer to work with brands rather than just piss everyone off with photos of samples or fakes and who knows what the fuck else gets posted these days as news. Having worked with people on projects for years, I understand the mental friction when news gets out about a project that is not complete.
Format: Sneaker Freaker is entering its sixth year. This is huge for any magazine, let alone a niche publication like yours. What are some important lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Woody: I’ve learned a lot about international freight and how to get a good deal! Like anything, you learn from your mistakes. We just bumble along and worry about what we’re trying to do rather than what everyone else may or may not be doing, which is all you can do in this world. If I spend a day online looking at shit I get depressed and yearn for the days when you felt you could keep an eye on everything. The fact is you can’t anymore; it’s just coming at you every minute, every day, 24-7. We own just a little piece of the jungle out there, and when I think of it like that, I feel better and can relax.
Format: What have been some of your favorite articles published in Sneaker Freaker, and why?
Woody: There have been some absolute crackers. I’m really proud of the content and I constantly worry about making each issue invigorating in its own way. My favorites are the longest pieces, stuff that no other magazine would ever print, such as the interview I did with Sinisa Egelja who was one of the first employees of Airwalk. That was colossal, something like 10,000 words. Jason Le did an amazing job with Steve Van Doren whose father started Vans; that was a huge piece and gives you the whole company history in one hilarious slab. Other favourites are the piece called Tropical Heat in Issue 11, where Thomas from Overkill in Berlin went to Trinidad and took photos of all the girls wearing sneakers. We also did the most insane story on cleaning shoes, which was written by Hans DC. I don’t think anyone has ever written this down in so much detail. We also just published online the first ever Price Guide to collectible shoes that I’m sure will come in handy for lots of kids.
Format: You’re a bit of a trendsetter â€“ one publication even credited you with “bringing trucker hats back, years before Paris Hilton ever learned to play the skin flute.” What things do you see as becoming hyped in 2008?
Woody: Yeah, I had a brand called Wankuss which satired what we call ‘bogan’ culture (what the rest of the world might know as ‘rednecks’). This was during a time when dance/rave music was dominant and I had started using suburban rock as my muse instead of images of headphones on tee shirts for twatted mongers in fluoro pants. Funny how things change. I don’t see to many changes in 2008 that we haven’t already seen glimpses of already. Adidas has their Consortium range, which is getting better and better, and Nike has their hybrids which are my favourite shoes right now. New Balance keeps moving, and the UK and Japan always set the mark for quality in manufacturing.
It will be interesting to see how the other brands decide how to keep up with the big boys, but the most surprising thing for me is that Reebok looks the freshest this year. I know it’s hard to believe as they almost disappeared, but you wait and see – their shit is very ‘now’ and I think kids will go nuts for it. Mad color will continue (but we’re already seeing signs of its demise, so that’s a curly one). I like brands that carve out their own direction, such as Pointer in the UK. I’d like to see some bold shit, but of course it’s not that easy to keep stores buying ‘new’ stories. Not everyone truly, madly, deeply, wants to be an individual.
Format: What sneakers are you most looking forward to this year?
Woody: In all honesty, the one shoe I am looking forward to is our collab with Puma. It’s out in April and I can’t wait, it’s been over 18 months in the making. The model is called ‘Blaze of Glory’ and it’s a techie looking nineties runner. I think people will spazz when they see it. It’s actually based on the Disc Blaze, so it has the Trinomic chunky sole, but it ditches the massive Disc system in favour of laces. It will cause a lot of discussion that’s for sure. The model hasn’t really been seen before, and that’s one of the major reasons we chose it. We only want to associate Sneaker Freaker with progressive directions, and this is definitely one of those. Aside from that, Provider, (which is the best store in Melbourne) has done a 1500 with New Balance and it looks the biz as well, really cool. Check our site and you can see that one.