London-based designer Alexander Taylor has pushed the boundaries of what’s possible in modern-day footwear technology. He played a part in creating the one-piece Primeknit upper, first released in the Primeknit adiZero in 2012. He designed the adidas X Parley Ultraboosts, made from ocean plastic yarn, and several other innovative one-piece constructions, such as the limited-edition Futurecraft Leather Superstar and the Tailored Fibre Ultraboost concept shoe. SNEAKERS visited Taylor at his studio in London to speak about his design history and ethos.
Your design portfolio is very broad. You’ve designed coat hooks and lamps, among other things. What was special about sneakers, and how did you get into this industry?
I saw a huge opportunity when I was first invited to work on a footwear project with adidas, having never worked on shoes before. I was able to approach it using exactly the same method as any other project I had, whether it was a lamp, chair, table, etc.
The “one-piece approach”: The Futurecraft leather Superstar, with Joachim de Callatay
This is what “one-piece” looks like in the early stage – the actual piece of leather that later becomes the Superstar above
What was different when you worked on sneakers?
The difference was that working on sneakers allowed me to use my knowledge and experience to investigate technologies and processes from other industries and apply them to making footwear. Making footwear is nice because it allows you to develop models and proof of principal research and create high-performance designs without a huge investment.
One of the biggest projects you took on was Primeknit, which came out in 2012. Before that, you had already designed a lamp for Established & Sons that was made out of just a single metal sheet. What’s the deal with your one-piece approach?
The one-piece approach is driven entirely through the reduction of part pieces and processes to design simpler, more intelligent objects. It takes production into serious consideration, which in turn naturally evolves into something intuitive as an object.
All your projects in footwear are adidas-related. What’s your personal connection with the brand?
It was like a dream job getting to work with adidas. Although I wasn’t a sneakerhead, I love sport and I was always an adidas kid. I’ve been through so many pairs of Marathon 80s. That was my favorite adidas trainer for sure, not for sport but just for wearing every single day.
A whole box of adidas X Parley prototypes.
What’s it like to work for a brand that has such a great history, but also designs future-oriented footwear?
That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy working with adidas so much – the heritage side of the brand and the way you can consistently reinterpret or incorporate lines and character that reference classic designs and the brand’s DNA while remaining totally future-focused.
Your three favorite models?
Stan Smith, Copa, Marathon 80.
Please tell us more about the thinking behind projects like Primeknit.
With Primeknit, it all started as a reaction to the amount of parts and pieces used to make shoes at the time, usually 15 to 20 different parts and pieces cut, pasted, and glued back together. It was all about adding to solve a problem, and my response was to write a brief to build a shoe with all the same performance properties from a single piece and process. You have to write a brief and have some goals in order to guide the development work.
This is what “raw” Primeknit looks like
Is it the same for something material-driven like Tailored Fibre?
With something like Tailored Fibre, it’s really an evolution of investigating the world and capabilities of textiles. We visit material fairs and examine technology outside of the regular options that already exist in the industry. We work in a way where we now have multiple ongoing channels of investigation and research, and it only takes seeing something, perhaps a sample, to start a new direction of development.
Primeknit Futurecraft Tailored Fibre, made using a technique more commonly used for electrical appliances within the automotive and aerospace industry.
How did you arrive at a solution?
Tailored Fibre Placement was exactly that. We found a technology that was typically associated with the automotive and aerospace industry and took a sample from that. While it was a very small sample, it was still enough for us to believe that we could develop a zero-waste complete upper using data to direct and inform us where we needed to lay material. You can engineer the material and develop programming and machines that simply add to the shoemaking tools and technology already available to adidas.
Speaking of shoemaking, what’s the relationship between designing and manufacturing?
The designer always needs to understand “how” a product is made. That’s the most important thing, since the process of designing and making then guides the technology. In my opinion, if it’s the other way around – if you have the technologies and machines and use those to guide the design – it doesn’t work. Instead of being an expert in any one particular industry, it’s a huge advantage to have an understanding of many processes in order to collaborate with experts and build a network.
Early sample – one of the very first “one-piece” Primeknit shoes ever.
How do you see the future of sustainable production? Is this possible on a larger scale?
Sustainable is a tricky word. I like the idea that we all have to be responsible, and if everyone works in small steps, it can make a major difference on a large scale.
And finally, is there a common theme to all of your design work?
Yes, I think there is. There’s a working method that runs through all of my design work. It’s practical innovation, performance-driven simplicity, and process-driven character.
Alexander, thank you for this interview.
Make sure to follow Alexander Taylor Studio on Instagram
INTERVIEW & PHOTOS BY HOLGER VON KROSIGK