You might not know his name yet, but you will. Nigel Langley is set for a bright future in the field of sneaker design. At only 20 years young, he's already working with some of the biggest brands in the business (Puma and adidas to name a couple) and has also founded his own design consultancy agency. All this while simultaneously still working towards his degree at the prestigious Parsons School of Design.
Stadium Goods had the pleasure of sitting with Langley to talk abut his journey and what black history means to him. After our chat, it's clear that Langley has a passion for his career, as well as a strong drive to make sure his presence as a black man in the industry is felt and paid forward in positive ways.
Find the video clip and full interview below.
Just a brief introduction. Tell us your name, where you're from, and what you do.
Nigel Langley: I'm Nigel Langley. I'm from Jersey, originally. I'm a footwear design consultant. I run my own consultancy with one of my partners.
And your age?
NL: I’m 20.
What's your background? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey that brought you to where you are today.
NL: I've been drawing for most of my life. A couple years ago I started interning for adidas. I was working at the Brooklyn Farm, and it was really my first professional introduction to working in sneakers, and the business of it. And after that I started school at Parsons, and that's been an experience. But in the meantime, just working for a couple of different companies and just having a lot of experiences, different exposures to different things. Not too long ago, I started my own consultancy, and I'm just getting that off the ground and just taking on a whole bunch of different projects, expanding horizons.
Can you go back to the Brooklyn Farm and tell us how old you were, where you were in your life when you started?
NL: I might've been a junior in high school, so I was 16, and then I ended up working there a year or so later. I was in my senior year of high school. I (spent) half my time in high school and half my time in work. So it was this crazy commute going back and forth from Jersey to Brooklyn. But, that was my first introduction and that was when I was 17. And fast forward a few years, everybody still thinks I'm 17. I'm like that was a few years ago (laughs).
What does black history mean to you?
NL: I feel you can't really have a conversation about the history in any aspect without talking about black history, especially when you talk about within the context of sneakers, streetwear and just the overall "culture." It is a black cultural innovation and it's definitely spread across the world and combined and become one with all these other cultural phenomenons. But I think black history is...I think it's history overall.
What about the new black history?
NL: I think as time goes on and you have more and more black creatives now finally having control of our own narratives and really being able to speak more freely on our own experiences, the new black history is essentially limitless. Especially in comparison to the past. I think the new black history is something that's still being written. Hopefully I get to make a couple footnotes in it, but I think the new black history is something really exciting.
Do you feel like within your industry, are you seeing more of a black presence in your line of work?
NL: (As far as) creative black people within the space of footwear, design, and things like that, I feel that a lot of us do exist and we're out there, but it's just a matter of being validated through brands. Honestly, the industry does have a massive diversity problem. But diversity isn't, "let's hire a black person here or there and put them in any position." I feel diversity is pointless unless you're putting these people in positions of actual influence, actually being able to make a difference inside of whatever industry you're in.
When you go to these companies and you see what their talent acquisition process is, a lot of times it's just cherry picking from these elitist, basically private art institutions that, because of their extreme cost and other factors, you already don't have a lot of black students in these schools. In turn, it affects the workforce and affects how many black designers you have in these studios. I feel that's definitely an issue that I've observed over the past couple of years. I feel as long as these companies keep going to the same four, five, six schools and recruiting the same people from the same product design departments, you're going to end up with the same work demographics.
Working in these spaces is why you saw the business early to build your own consultancy, so going forward you wouldn't have to deal with some of these things?
NL: Yeah. One thing you see these companies do, a lot of the product that's released, a lot of branding and everything, is directly influenced by things that are coming out of black cultures—out of black and brown urban colleges. You see the influence, but then when you are in the spaces that are creating the product, you don't see the people. So it's basically, “All right, how much of your culture can I extract without actually integrating you into it?” That's what you get a lot of times.
Can you talk about how you're trying to flip that narrative?
NL: Basically, having control over your narrative. Also, I don't want to bore anyone with the financial aspect of it, but having agency over your own narratives and being able to exist freely as a black creative, that's something that's massively important to me. Something that I figured out very early on is that I needed the space to really create authentically and not be constantly trying to fit into a corporate box of, "Okay, this is what the black guy does." Basically, trying to get out of a space of tokenism.
What inspires you and what is your process? Who are you creating for?
NL: They say never design for yourself and for the most part I don't. But I do, of course. There's no way to design something without your own sensibilities. But basically, I design for the same markets that these brands are trying to reach, but under my own lens of what I feel would be more relevant. And also you relate these things to what's going on in the world right now with climate change and things like that. A lot of these shoes and a lot of these products that are being thrown out into the market, if we're not thinking about them, it's just more shit to put into a landfill.
And shoes don't have an extremely long life. The turnaround is crazy from factory to landfill, (usually) less than two years. So, if we don't think about who we're designing this product for or if we're not accurately communicating to the target demographics, then we're just enhancing the problem that we already have with today's climate.
I feel we can't afford to keep putting out random product that's not well thought out or things that are culturally not landing properly. I feel that's massively important. I'm definitely designing to a lot of the demographics that brands are trying to reach, but definitely taking my time and thinking about it. Not to say that (other) designers aren't thinking about it, but sometimes when you have this fascination with a certain culture but it's not represented—you're trying to sell this culture but you don't have anybody there that understands it—you are going to create a product that falls on deaf ears. And, the consequence of that is massive. Especially now, we don't have time to be putting out product that's irrelevant in six months or going straight to clearance in four weeks.
Maybe instead of having 20 releases a month, make it 10 good ones.
Earlier you mentioned culture. What does “the culture” mean to you?
NL: It's interesting because it's something that everybody wants a piece of but not everybody necessarily wants to deal with the people responsible for creating it. So I feel the culture started as something very much underground and sort of counter-culture. Everybody wasn't wearing sneakers, everybody wasn't doing their own thing with that. It's definitely changed a lot in the past 30 to 40 years. The culture sort of grew with these companies that were making these products. Now the culture is something you can definitely buy into. Before, the culture was more something that you lived.
Do you feel like you're part of black history, helping create or shape it in any way?
NL: I feel it’s kind of early to say, but ideally I would like to be a part of it. I would like to be the person that uses what experiences I have to be there and create a space I wish (had) existed for me when I first got started. And even now, a space where black creatives have space to exist, on their own and actually have some sort of agency or ownership over their own creativity. That's something I would like to create and that is the goal and the things that I do.