Adidas’ Nic Galway on Building Successful Collaborations

Nic Galway talks about working with Kanye West, the formula for successful collaborations and the resale market.

Before joining Adidas, where he’s worked for almost two decades, Nic Galway, the global senior vice president of design for Adidas Originals and Style, studied automotive design. He parlayed that into a job at Adidas, where he helped facilitate collaborations before they were called collaborations — specifically the launch of the Y-3 line with Yohji Yamamoto.

He still works with Yamamoto, but is juggling many more projects, including the successful partnership on the Yeezy line with Kanye West, who he said has pushed him and the team at Adidas to move beyond their comfort zones. Galway sat down with WWD’s style director Alex Badia to talk about merging Adidas’ heritage with the future, the future of men’s wear, and what makes a strong collaboration.

WWD: I’ve seen that car design and shoe design are related. Do you think that’s the case?

Nic Galway: I studied back in the mid-Nineties. And when I joined Adidas, there was no one in the company at all who studied shoe design and sneaker design wasn’t something you could study at all. There are a lot of people who are into automotive who really thought they wanted to study this, but when they got into the world it somehow seemed too stuffy to practice.

WWD: You were instrumental in launching Y-3. Can you tell us how that went?

N.G.: I joined Adidas in 1999, and the main reason I came to Adidas is because I wanted to make things, but I didn’t know anything about the fashion world at all. And I was designing some women’s sneakers at Adidas in my spare time and Yohji had been in touch, and somehow he noticed my work and asked to meet me. And I had no idea who he was. And I think had I known who he was, I would have had preconceived ideas of what he wanted and that would have been intimidating. It opened up a completely different world to me. I didn’t know this world existed and it changed my entire destiny. For Adidas to work with Yohji, it was untested. People at the brand thought why are we doing this. But by doing these projects with Yohji pre-Y-3 it showed the potential. It suddenly was in the press and people were talking about it. So that led to us launching the brand. And Adidas has always been a pioneering brand, so we decided to commit and do something we’ve never done before.

WWD: You’ve done a lot of different collaborations. How do you choose who you want to work with?

N.G.: It’s interesting because in the early days, I didn’t get to choose, but today I get to choose. But what’s important to me is there has to be a connection. When you meet someone and talk to them, you see, is there something there that you want to do with each other. Something that you want to do that you couldn’t do for long and if the connection isn’t there, we can stay friends. A collaboration can’t be someone’s name on a product. It has to be something more. And I’m very proud of the portfolio we’ve built.

WWD: How did the Kanye West partnership come about?

N.G.: I think to talk about Kanye we have to take a step back. We didn’t start a partnership with Run-DMC. This was way before partnerships between musicians and brands existed. Run-DMC wore Adidas product on their own. And I believe they saw luxury, European goods and they wanted to wear them. And it was very bold of someone in the mid-Eighties fly to New York and meet these guys and then a partnership was formed. The reason you have to have that context is because it’s natural for Adidas to work with culture, because we always have because culture decides everything, brands don’t decide culture. Meeting Kanye for the first time was almost a little like meeting Yohji for the first time. I’m not someone who is deeply into music and I think Kanye liked that because I wasn’t a fan. For Kanye and Pharrell, it’s about treating them as creatives who happen to be really good at music, and I think if we can switch our minds into that thought process, you don’t draw the obvious conclusions. Kanye drives people hard but he drives himself hard as well. To go to a factory in China with Kanye West, you can imagine. He asked to go to China, so I arrived and he turned up on his own and we worked around 10 days solid in the factory every day. And then he calls me up and says I’m not satisfied, we still have to do more, and we went back. We went back twice in two months, so that shows someone’s ambition and drive.

WWD: Did you have any idea you were going to get that kind of response?

N.G.: No. Everything was a whirlwind. We announced that Adidas is going to be working with Kanye West, and then the next day I find out I’m going to be working with Kanye West. So the world knew before I knew and then the expectation of the world is already there and you have to create something and then the pressure is pretty crazy. You have to get this thing done and you are doing it in real time. Kanye was on the phone with me pretty much every day. He would send me sketches and I would send him back. And that’s a real partnership and collaboration. And he used to say to me, you guys think you are going all the way, and to me you are compromising. And that was great. All of us sit in our worlds and we have our comfort zones and he said our comfort zones are too short. We have to stretch ourselves. And he was right. There is a lot of space in there to go further.

WWD: I read that your design ethos is uniting collective memory from our sports past and using that to shape future trends and culture. Is that your secret?

N.G.: I have a couple of words that I use with the designers and one is “collective memory” and the other is “past empowers future.” And like I was saying with the archive, you could look at the archive as old shoes that need to be protected, or it could be a resource to connect with a new generation. If I look at the founder of our company, after every sporting event he would take that shoe and turn it into something else. He took it forward. So for me, past empowers future is really important.

WWD: Can you talk to me about Futurecraft?

N.G.: The past empowers future is my approach for Adidas Originals. I look after that side of the brand, but Adidas is much bigger. And Futurecraft is how we talk about design full stop at Adidas. It’s saying yes we have the potential to do anything. We can print 4-D carbon shoes. We have Boost technology. But sometimes this technology draws you away from talking. And Futurecraft is about saying how do you take the best of tomorrow, but remember the past and getting hands-on and making things. Talking and exploring. So if you see the images there, there’s a mixture of products that come out of Futurecraft. The maker lab is where I encourage designers to come together. Because if you sit behind a computer screen, there’s only so far you can go. But when you make things with people you make mistakes, but it takes you new places.

WWD: Let’s talk about your collection with Daniëlle Cathari. It was one of the most read reviews on WWD.

N.G.: That’s awesome to hear. So Daniëlle is interesting. For those of you who don’t know, Daniëlle is a young designer student who was making things out of Adidas tracksuits and it got brought to my attention. One of my designers sent me images and I was curious. And at the same time my legal department was sending me images wondering who this girl is. Imagine these two conversations, but I’m really interested in the design side. One of my designers reached out to her on Instagram and we got to know Daniëlle. And it came at an interesting time. We met her and she loved our brand and she was on a journey as a student. And at the same time we met Kendall Jenner, who came on board at Adidas. And Kendall has this huge voice and huge reach, but equally she’s looking for something. So I shared with Kendall a whole load of young designers’ work and she went straight to Daniëlle. And I just love this idea of giving the stage to an unknown designer. So we street cast and gave this whole voice to New York City and all of these girls who really wanted to be at fashion week and it created this great community and the collection sold out instantly.

WWD: What’s the future in men’s wear?

N.G.: What I do know is that the speed of the generation has shifted. I feel like this is so important. I find that there is this generation that loves where they are and they are curious about the generations that come before them. I think it moves in these cycles. And for me, that’s why I say our archive can never be a museum, because if it is, the brand gets stuck and you wake up one day and everyone has left you. You have to move with the speed of generation shifts, or you get left behind.

WWD: Is that what makes your collaborations successful?

N.G.: I think if you go into a collaboration with a preconceived notion, chances are it’s not going to be that great. But if you meet someone and you really get to know who they are and what they can bring, then you can do amazing things. Figure out what it can look like and where it can take you.

WWD: Where else do you see the Kanye West partnership going?

N.G.: What I would say is nowhere predictable. We entered into a partnership with Kanye knowing that Kanye is someone who can shift culture. I don’t think brands can shift culture, but people can. And he has such a huge voice and our job is to allow that to develop. We’ve been building our facilities in Calabasas with him