When Jeff Staple's name comes up, talk inevitably turns to the Pigeon Dunk. In 2005, Staple collaborated with Nike SB on a Dunk Low whose design was inspired by the omnipresent New York City bird. After that, nothing was the same. When the sneaker released at Staple's Lower East Side boutique Reed Space, it sparked a frenzy, as customers scuffled to try and secure a pair. The incident was reported on the front page of the New York Post. In many ways, the moment signaled a sea change, not just for Staple, but for sneakers in general, as they transitioned from a niche subculture into something much larger.
But while Staple is closely identified with the Pigeon Dunk (a black version of which was released in 2017), he is much more than a one-shoe wonder. Staple has been contributing designs to brands such as Nike since before the era of "collaboration" even began. The "Navigation Pack" was the first collection he released with Nike, in 2004, and consisted of three silhouettes (Air Burst, Shox NZ, and Air Max 90) that paid tribute to New York, London, and Tokyo. And as the excitement around the recent "Black Pigeon" Dunk showed last year, Staple's relevance has not diminished over the ensuing years.
Because of his lineage and taste level, Staple, who is now the creative director of Extra Butter, always provides a unique and interesting point of view on the sneaker space and its continued evolution. He recently stopped by Stadium Goods at 47 Howard Street in New York City to discuss the Air Max lineage and what it takes for a sneaker to earn a spot in his rotation.
What is your first memory of an Air Max?
In all honesty, I wasn't an Air Max 1 or Air Max 90 aficionado to begin with. I was much more about ball sports so I was into Air Revolution, Air Tech Challenge, Air Trainer, which had visible Air soles but were not known as part of the Air Max series. The first Air Max that I got into was when they put it into Charles Barkley's shoes, the CB series. That was what I got into because I was playing basketball at the time. It wasn't until sneakers became a lifestyle for me that I got into the Air Max 90, which was my favorite from an aesthetic point of view. Then I got into the Air Max 1 a little bit later. It was with the Huf Air Max 1 that I started to get really into the runners.
Where do you think the Air Max fits into the cultural landscape?
To me, Air Max is like bread and butter. Air is the technology, but Air Max is the most foundational, base application of that technology. I think Nike has done an amazing job of owning that position, of being this basic pillar of sneaker design and innovation. Air Max Day is really genius. If anything, Air Max was almost turning into a commodity, like Q-Tips or something. Air Max Day brings the culture back into it. It reminds people that there is this legacy and timeline of collaboration projects and everything that comes along with [Air Max].
As you mentioned, Air Max is largely a technology story, and new technologies often take time to be appreciated. How do you feel about some of the recent models such as the Air Max 270?
I think they have to stand the test of time. I'll give you a music analogy. I don't add a new song to my playlist until the album is dope. If you're an artist, and you made two hit records, even if I like the two hit records, I won't put them on my phone. I need you to show me that you can make an album. Then I will add you to the library. That's an old school way of thinking. Back then when you wanted to buy the song you had to buy the whole CD. If you knew they had one hit song, but the other 19 songs sucked, it's not worth the $20 so you're not supporting. When you use that analogy on the 270 or the VaporMax, they're still in their one-, two-hit wonder stages. I need to see that there's a franchise and longevity to this before I get on board. I'm too fickle about my collection to just start adding stuff on a whim. I'm a fan of the 270 more than the VaporMax. I'm literally scared of the VaporMax. I feel like I'll twist my ankle in those shoes. But the 270s are growing on me visually. I see a lot of dope colors. But I still haven't either plunked down my own cash or asked somebody to send me a pair of 270s. I want to see Nike's investment into it too.
Now that I think about it, that's what it means to be a connoisseur. It's like with anything, wine, watches, cars, art. If you're just buying everything like these kids out there who know they can flip it, that's not a connoisseur. That's like a hoarder. I'm a real connoisseur. I only want stuff that I really believe in.
How did you arrive at that stage?
I think it's a mixture of two things. One is the time and longevity. Shoes that you see on a campus, shoes that you see on a store, and shoes that you see in a collection are three different piles. I've seen all of them. I've seen probably 100 times more shoes than most people. Then the other aspect of it is that I'm a designer and a creative. Ever since I was young, I've always had this eye for consideration. When I look at a shoe, I'm picturing myself in the shoes of the designer who made them. What was he thinking when he did this? I can see when he was just phoning this one in. Then I can see when there was mad thought, deep levels of thinking. I love that sort of stuff.
Do you have a greater appreciation for that approach because you understand the gauntlet every sneaker needs to make it through before it shows up on a shelf?
The first one that comes to my mind in recent memory is the Acronym Presto. It's a polarizing shoe. But whether you love it or hate it, Errolson and the Nike design team put in a lot of thought and consideration. That is what I value, the consideration.
Is there a model that you would love to work on?
It would be the Jordan 3. This is a little known story, but we had the opportunity to work with Jordan, and I wanted to do a 3. But they wanted us to work on something else that I didn't want to work on. This is probably around 2007, a little bit after the Pigeon Dunk. Everything was all gravy so I just figured we'll come back around and revisit this. I think [Jordan] took it a certain way and we never ended up doing something. Now in retrospect, if I had done that shoe that I kind of didn't want to do maybe it could have been a gateway. But I wasn't thinking gateway. It's a lesson learned as a young designer.
Do you have a go to Air Max model?
My current one is the Air Max 1 oddly enough. The one that I wasn't feeling when it first came out. For whatever reason, I'm kind of tired of the Air Max 90 as a silhouette on my feet. It has a lot to do with fashion and trend and what you're wearing on your top and your bottoms and your sock. These things all lead down to the foot. If certain trends are happening on the uppers that affect the chunkiness or the slimness of your sneaker, it's going to change [your favorite sneakers]. So I think right now Air Max 90 is not on trend with what's happening in fashion. I think it's more of an Air Max 1 right now, a slimmer silhouette. But you know what? With the whole dad shoe, ugly shoe phenomenon, maybe the 90 will come back and play into that. I have a pair of London Underground Air Max 1s that took the upholstery from the subway. It's called the Roundel London Underground Air Max 1. It's woven. It's visually beautiful. I've never seen anyone on their feet with it, which is very important to a sneakerhead. So I'm snapping mad necks all the time when I walk around with those. It's a great shoe.
Who are the collaborators that have been able to put together that breadth of work that you appreciate?
The one that I definitely pay respect to is Hiroshi Fujiwara. He showed us all the way. The current day people are Ronnie [Fieg] of course and everything that he does. Then what Virgil [Abloh] recently did was amazing and set another bar. To be honest, if you look at all the collaborators that Nike has ever worked with, there's only a handful that have been able to work across different platforms and categories. A lot of times, it's an artist du jour that they just ask to put their mark on one shoe. Then that's it. If you think about the Roc-A-Fella Air Force 1, it's a logo on the back heel. It's hot. It causes hype. But when you think about what we did with Navigation Pack, Nordic Pack, Dunk, they're franchises. Ronnie does franchises. And Virgil just came out with a 10-piece franchise across Nike, Jordan, and Converse. It's great to see how now the brand is more open-minded to this sort of all-in collaboration.
Interview by Justin Tejada