To find more about the unique sneaker illustrations we saw on the @johnkaiserknight Instagram account, we reached out to the man behind them. Here’s a conversation with adidas designer, illustrator and cartoonist Jean Khalifé, aka John Kaiser Knight.
John, pleased to meet you for this interview. As we can see here, nearly all of your sneaker illustrations revolve around the Three Stripes. It’s your employer, but the brand obviously means a lot more to you. Please tell us how that passion evolved?
Well, I was born and raised in the east of France, very close to the German border, and therefore adidas always had a special part in my heart. I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s having Gazelles, Countrys and Superstars on my feet. The whole cultural affiliation that the brand had through music with bands like the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Britpop in general and movies like Carlito’s Way or Starsky & Hutch had a massive impact on me too. At the same time, I was also very much into comics, storytelling and illustrations and found my way to industrial design.
What brought you to adidas then?
I guess I saw product design as a good way to combine all my passions together. Imagine designing a product, but also mastering the communication and the story telling around it. That sounds epic to me. During my studies, I had a chance to delve in architecture, transportation and then footwear. I felt like the sports- and streetwear industry was a nice place to evolve in, especially when you are young and fresh out with a diploma. I was keen to travel and meet great people that share the same passions and same references too. I had my first job in a skateboarding brand that made me develop my design and artistic skills, and then adidas reached out to me with an opportunity at Originals three years ago. It was like a dream to me. I feel blessed that I joined the brand at that time. The team I worked with was marvelous, and Nic Galway was just starting to push the brand towards other horizons.
What are the most important and fun projects you’ve been involved in so far?
I was involved in a few great projects, looking back. My first season was about looking back into our archive to bring back a 90s version of the Gazelle – an absolute dream for me. Then I worked on the NMD franchise and Atric. The most fun project I worked on was the Handball Top that got released a few months ago. I did a little doodle of that shoe on Instagram and the response was insane. The team felt that we had to replicate that shoe because it was speaking to what the street scene wanted. I’ve mentioned a few projects that involve seeking inspiration from our archives, which brings an interesting design challenge in its own right. When designing for Originals, you are tasked with achieving a dynamic balance between legitimate cultural references and new products that are relevant for a modern audience. That’s where the fun lies. I wanted to thank my Originals family for making my design experience there unforgettable.
This piece is about your art, so we should get into that quickly. To make it short, your style is unique because you take a really cartoonish, comic style to footwear and create something new. What were your first artistic influences?
Thanks a lot. I started illustration as a kid via drawing comics; that might be a style that is a part of my DNA now. Artists like Brian Bolland, Paul Pope, Moebius or Geof Darrow have a big inf luence on me, not only for their art or aesthetic but also for their versatility and abilities to use different media.
Do you remember when you first drew a pair of shoes and what it was?
It was more than 10 years ago now, when I was still a student. It was a personal running project. Looking back at it now, it feels dated and dreadful (laughs).
One thing that’s really striking is how you work with perspective. A lot of sneaker art is rather static, but you show some really crazy perspectives that somehow put the viewer up really close. Is that an approach you’ve adapted from comics?
Yes! I am glad you paid attention to that, because that’s one of my biggest obsessions when I draw something. It needs to have depth and dramatic points of view. If it stays f lat without relief and charisma, it doesn’t work for me. It has to be impactful, and it has to have an attitude. That is a cue I picked up from comics, but really you find it in photography, films, visual story-telling, you name it.
What’s most important for you when you draw footwear?
For me it really depends on the focus. The approach to a performance project is slightly different from that of a style project. In general, you curate as much information as you can before putting ink on paper. Creating a story around the product to set an identity is the best way to have something relevant as an end result.
How did you first get into sneakers and what kind of models are you into the most?
I was always surrounded by older cousins who were dressed out in what was cool, but as far as I can remember the late 90s adidas Gonzales Adimatic was it. It wasn’t until later that my own style developed more and I started wearing the Gazelle and Campus.
Can you name your top 5 adidas sneakers please and explain why?
SL72: The fact that it was one of the first shoes to feature the trefoil when it was revealed for the 1972 Olympics. And, not to mention, because Paul Michael Glaser wore them on Starsky & Hutch.
GAZELLE: A no-brainer for me. It’s truly been a part of my uniform for years.
SUPERSTAR NEIGHBORHOOD 35TH FROM 2005: This is one of my top-rated Superstars in terms of shape and materials. It was my grail that a friend helped me finally get 2 years ago.
THE VERY FIRST YEEZY 350 “TURTLE DOVE”: Just because it was one of those styles, along with the Qasa and the NMD, that showed the industry that adidas was back in the game.
ADIDAS GT MANCHESTER SPZL: The Spezial Capsule Collection has been absolutely amazing since it started. Gary [Aspden] and the guys in Statement are doing an epic job revisiting the classics and educating a new generation about them as well.
It’s no secret that you’re really into terrace footwear. You were also involved in the relaunch of the Gazelle. What kind of experience was the rebirth of such an icon?
Well, first you question whether or not it is really happening, because when you grow up wearing that shoe and are told to bring it back to relaunch it, it almost seems too good to be true! We went to the archives, reviewed a few variants and picked up the one that made the most sense for us – an early 90s version. I was lucky to have an amazing team of developers and product managers to make sure that we achieved a replica that could be launched properly.
We shouldn’t forget one of the most important topics here: The Kaiser! Your Instagram name actually hints at Franz Beckenbauer. Why him? What makes the Kaiser the Kaiser in your opinion?
Well, in 2006 the [soccer] World Cup took place in Germany and it was an amazing event – until France lost in the final of course. As you might remember, Beckenbauer was one of the key figures. I was fascinated by this man who was world champion not only as a player, but also as a coach. He also created an interesting and versatile role when he played as a libero (sweeper). My fascination carried on to when I did a student exchange in Germany (Pforzheim). Because I kept talking about him, the rest of the local students started to call me Kaiser as an ironic nickname, so well it just sort of stayed like that.
Thanks again for your consideration.
This is a shortened version of our interview with Jean. The full story appears in SNEAKERS MAG #37 – Released in Janury 2018