PORTAL 2: Supreme Air Time- Sneaker Design Royalty Gemo Wong Chops It Up
Since I was a child I was always obsessed with the Wizard Of Oz's theoretical "Man behind the curtain." More importantly, I was obsessed with understanding the mind inside that man. Call it a labor of love. Perhaps my endless need to understand what, or more importantly who, designs and moves culture's needle has been the one connective link from my childhood brain, to my brain to now.
If anything, I've learned one thing on this front.
The man behind the curtain is the designer of the culture the curtain shrouds him from.
Gemo Wong is one such man.
See, everyone knows the Eiffel Tower, Lady Liberty and the Great Wall of China but ask those same motherfuckers who created them and the answer column is left blank. That's really the sandbox that my brain always picked up the ball and ran the flank in. To chop it up with the one man behind some of the greatest works in sneaker history is beyond a pleasure. It's an honor.
For the better part of two decades, Wong has designed the most heralded sneakers that align the shrink wrapped face of hypebeast Mt. Rushmore. The Jordan Supreme alone is enough to break the scoreboard. From 2013 to 2020, Wong was the Global Design Director for Nike's Jordan Brand and innovated what a "collab" could even be.
He converged entire worlds and subcultures on a wearable canvas that transcended both basketball and skateboarding.
Then he did it again and again with names like KAWS, Christian Dior, Travis Scott and more.
Out of all the tools in Wong's skill set, his understanding of cultures is by far his most magic of wands.
While Nike's Tinker Hatfield & Jason Petrie have become household names in the sneakerhead world, I found the calmly spoken, under the radar Wong & his work to be by far the most prolific of the Nike triumvirate.
The small town midwest kid has had his hand on the pulse ever since he started his career designing older womens sweaters for a line sold in malls to get his foot in the door before bullshitting his way thru an interview at Enyce at the peak of the now defunct urban labels powers.
Early work from Wong's portfolio from 2004 with Sean John.
From Enyce, Wong took his sketchbook and talents to both Russell Simmons and Diddy's empires in Phat Farm & Sean John respectively before the Swoosh came calling to launch his work into orbit.
His sneaker design CV reads like the illest kick rotation one could ever wear. The Jordan Supreme is just the entry point upon second glance. Theres the Jordan x OffWhite collab, the Travis Scott "Cactus Jack" Jordans, the Jordan x Union collab entitled "Spread Love" which came with an entire social activation in LA that uplifted a whole community, the Jordan x KAWS work that is now valued at 3 K per pair and the entire Jordan x Christian Dior capsule, of which the near impossible to find kicks start at $8000 if you're lucky enough to even find a plug. Needless to say, there are many more.
At second look, it becomes apparent that Wong doesn't "design kicks and streetwear"- he designs cultural moments of note.
The heralded Jordan x Off White "AIR" kicks, now going for four digits at Sothebys.
For a decade, Wong captained the mothership in Portland under the Jumpman's flag. For a decade, the innovative collabs and concepts kept coming like hit after hit, a rapper in his golden era or a boxer in his prime stringing together Billboard banger on banger or flawless victory after victory. Wong was on a relentless mission to put out the best work of a generation.
Along his path, he's worked with both Virgil Abloh and (Supreme founder) James Jebbia. His vision to always put narrative first and connect with the audience has never let him down. He feels it's the secret sauce in every undertaking. I couldn't agree more.
Without narrative, all we have, or make, are shapes and colors with price tags. That's what those outside of our world never understood when confronted with the sticker shock or seeing the lines outside of pop ups and drops. What it means, what its soul stands for, is worth far more than the sum of its parts.
I got the chance to sit down with the man himself this autumn and chop it up, peering inside the mind and giving a platform to someone whose works speak for themselves. Gemo Wong has achieved everything the young version of Gemo Wong dreamt of back. Back when he'd hang out in the local mall frequenting comic book shops and arcades as a young sketch artist for that jolt of what the older versions of us call "flowstate."
He told me he went to a small Catholic school with a uniform, so style always really especially intrigued him. Makes sense, really. We always love what we can't have, they say. But my, how Wong's work has tilted those scales since his elementary school days.
Gemo has since left Nike for the Head of Special Projects for Aritizia and Reigning Champ. and is the Creative Director of his own tennis inspired brand, Volley Club.
Here are my seven questions with the man, the myth, and the legend. It's nice to be able to use that introductory cliche and in this instance, actually mean all three titles.
This was our talk.
AX: Where did it all begin for you? Like not "what was the first big hype beast ass name drop project" you could give me, but truly, like, what was your early life like and what was your come up like?
GW: It all began for me in my hometown of Cairo,IL. Coming from a small rural town of 2000 people maybe at the time, I didn’t have access to what a big city normally provides. So the TV and local comic book shop was my escape. I learned to draw at an early age by collecting comics with my older brothers Kirk and Patrick. From the TV, came my escape into Mtv and music which drove my curiousity since I was in the 1st grade where I started to collect vinyl. So Music and Drawing were 2 aspects of my early life that carried and inspired me all the way thru grade school to high school to college to today. I cared about how I dressed at an early age. Maybe since the 5th grade where everything from the TV/music videos to my mom who was always fresh inspired my curiosity to how I should dress. I went to a catholic private school where uniforms where my everyday. So anytime I got the opportunity to dress in something different I took full advantage of it. That curiosity to learn more about clothing and different brands came full circle once I got into fashion school where I studied Fashion. From there the rest is history.
AX: The come up tells us so much in retrospect. What were your biggest influences as a kid?
GW: My mom, MTV, my brothers, and the local mall (40 minutes away) where I would spend almost every weekend as a grade school kid going to every arcade, clothing, record, sneakers stores (from Payless to FootLocker) for endless hours. I couldn’t get enough.
AX: Was there a single moment that you knew this is what you were gunna do? Or was it something else that led to where you are now and if so, what was that pivot like?
GW: I was studying fashion at the Art institute but it took a year or so for things to click. It wasn’t until brands like Cross colours, Karl Kani, Brand Jordan came into my world where I became instantly immersed into that world of music and fashion. I instantly became a fan and consumer. Nike quickly became on my radar and I never let that dream go of working there one day. I set it in my head and was stubborn and relentless about working there.
AX: When you're designing, what are your essentials that you must have around?
GW: Always my music- like, Spotify. A nice rotation of new and old music/any genre. I love to be surprised. Space: anywhere. But mainly my home is where I’m most comfortable.
AX: When I'm working, I really get inside the world of the project that I'm working on. Like, I'll become obsessive about setting that mood and vibe up for the project in my space and world while working on it. I know cats like us that do the same or totally detach and just sort of not even be present and let the creation go where it does. Do you have a process or is every project different?
GW: I like for things to be organic and have inspiration come to me as it may. But it all starts with the consumer and the ideal of what success looks and feels like. The mood and vibe is key as well. I need to immerse my self into the world to feel and understand the project I’m working on.
AX: What are your biggest design inspirations? They could be other cats in culture or like, nature or the city- doesn't matter.
GW: Music is huge for me as it was when I was a child where it just came to me naturally. It cleanses my head and soul and puts me in a mood to be inspired by whatever comes my way. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most brilliant minds from Virgil, James Jebbia to at risk kids in Chicago. All of which I’m just a sponge, trying learn like I’m a first year student. I try to come into spaces not knowing anything. And let things come as they may. Inspiration comes in different shapes and sizes. Whether it’s that kid just telling me what inspires him/her or weekly mix on Spotify, I’m here for it all…taking it all in. Traveling is huge for me too. Just being in a different city seeing the same things in a different space gives you so much perspective.
AX: If you could design the dream kick collab- what would it be?
GW: I’m hungry for newness and innovation done with and for the sneaker community. For them from them whatever that looks like…I’m here for it. Give back to those/give back to the planet. There’s too many things that don’t matter for the sake of doing it. Less is more for me these days. I’m bored of the same process. I’m ready for something new/something different but for our planet.