Alexis Sablone and Converse Have Made the Next Iconic Skate Shoe
Alexis Sablone began skating, mostly alone, at age 9 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. At 16, she debuted in the cult favorite skate video P.J. Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible, Life (2002) with a minute of footage that was a resounding anomaly in skating: an unknown girl from the East Coast skating to “Mambo Italiano” with power and style on par with any of skateboarding’s (almost entirely male) professionals. Sablone pops sharply, flicks with authority, and clears stair sets double her size. If that footage in W.H.L. were released today, companies would immediately queue to offer sponsorship opportunities like those Sablone finally now gets, over 20 years later.
The skateboarding industry has only recently begun to make strides in non-male representation. Sablone spent years on the periphery of paid sponsorship, instead relying on competitions for a living, while most male skaters at her level could support themselves with lucrative endorsement deals. But thanks to an uncanny ability to perform well under pressure, Sablone earned enough from competition skating to make rent and pay her way through undergraduate and master’s degrees.
Sablone didn’t officially become a pro skateboarder until joining WKND Skateboards in 2016, where she also took on the role of art director and regularly produced footage for their videos. She eventually eased away from the competitive circuit, and in her final outing at the postponed 2020 Olympic Games, she ranked fourth in Women’s Street. But that was good as first place to the many fans endeared to Sablone’s power and East Coast sensibility, which was captured in the winter 2020 Converse video, Seize The Seconds. Her opening scene was an instant classic, hitting home both with those who’d paid attention since Wonderful, Horrible, Life and a new generation of skaters coming of age tandem with Sablone’s career renaissance. Sablone joined the New York-based brand Alltimers a week after the Converse video dropped.
I meet with Sablone in late April at the Guggenheim Museum as its interior is being prepared for the launch of her signature Converse shoe, the AS-1. An accompanying mini-documentary (featuring Sablone skating down its iconic spiral and cracking a nollie heelflip in the foyer) would be shown that evening in the museum, which is displaying skateable sculptures of her designs alongside the new sneaker in various colorways. Sablone greets me wearing a baggy waffle-knit longsleeve in navy, loose black jeans subtly scuffed on the left knee, and a cap casting a shadow over her eyes.
I mention a story that Sablone’s Converse teammate Ariana Spencer recently told me about seeing Sablone show up to a contest with her school books in hand, skating the competition, then sitting back down to study. “I’ve always had skateboarding and ‘other stuff’,” Sablone says. “Design and studying, not that I have to compare, but they’ve held equal importance. I feel strongly about everything I do, and none of it’s like work to me. It’s all just something I really want to do, and there are only so many hours in the day.”
What Sablone modestly calls “other stuff” is shorthand for her academic achievement—she has a BA in Arts & Sciences from Columbia University and a Masters in Architecture from MIT—as well as her design work for public, skateable sculptures in Sweden and the US (of which there are more in the works). Naturally, she designed her new Converse signature shoe herself, from the ground up.
GQ: Your Converse pro model, the AS-1, had been in development for over a year. Can you talk to me about the early stage of the design process and the journey from there?
Alexis Sablone: Obviously, I’m extremely particular. If something is 2mm off, that’s all I can focus on. When they told me this shoe is finally happening they [Converse] told me I had two weeks for the first draft of the design. Luckily, I had already been drawing stuff and thinking a lot, but I basically disappeared for two weeks, built a one-to-one paper model of exactly what I wanted the shoe to look like, and I mailed it to Converse. I just thought we’d arrive at what I wanted much faster. We didn’t have that many iterations. A few months later, I showed up [at Converse] and there was a leather sample. We did end up tweaking things, here and there, but it basically was the shoe.
How important are tangible iterations in your approach to design?
Sometimes it’s essential just to wrap my head around it. For a shoe there’s a lot of, like, “Does it look good from the top down,” or “What does this feel like?” but sometimes it’s more to convince myself I like something. We work so digitally now but it's hard for me to get excited about a digital image.
To build a model, I get really into that process and sometimes, along the way, you get different ideas than when you’re all the way zoomed into a [digital] 3D model. You’re so focused on connecting this to that, you might not see an opportunity. I think switching back and forth between different modes of making and thinking about stuff is really important, at least for me in the process of iteration and narrowing in on something.
I just love making stuff. I like to be able to hold it and say, “Do I like this? What do I hate?” and move on from there. Maybe it’s because of the background I have in architecture, we make models, or maybe I studied architecture because I like to make models. I don’t know. That’s just how I work.
Few signature skate shoes have stuck around for a long time, but those that have—like the Vans Half Cab or the Nike SB Janoski—have had a huge appeal outside of skating too. Did you set out to design a shoe that would have a broader appeal? Or were you focused on making the shoe you wanted?
To me, the nice thing is that those two goals overlap a lot. I wanted to make what I wanted to make, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t set out to dream of this thing being timeless or existing ten-plus years from now. But skateboarding has gone through a lot of fashion phases and changes. Everyone has footage from ten-or-so years back where you’re like, “I wore my pants like that? What was I thinking?” The same can be extended to footwear.
Something classic has that capacity where it’s just enough—but not too much—in the right places; simple but has enough detail where it feels really considered and can stand out. In terms of design, for me, that’s a good ethos anyway: keep pulling stuff away until you feel like you find the right spot.
Your “Garden of Skateable Fruits”—a skatepark and sculpture hybrid—in Montclair, New Jersey opened last month. Was there a main notion which informed the overall design?
It’s a real challenge to design these skateable objects and sculptures. I don’t want to make a skatepark but also you can’t author a skate spot. If there’s an intention of skating [to the design], it’s not a natural spot. So what’s exciting for me or a skater who thinks, “This looks and feels a little different”? It’s less concerned with flow. It’s more isolated, interesting objects that you can link together in whichever way you want. It’s cool because when you see people skating there you see that actualized by the paths people are taking.
Your skate shop, Plush in New Haven, CT opened its doors last September, too. How far into Plush's inception did your vision for the physical space come to be and can you tell me about the journey from designing, to building it out, to opening up?
The process was extremely stressful and hectic. I opened the shop with my best friend, Trevor Thompson. The design process was the same: drawing things, making models. I knew the space was a box with tall ceilings so, going back and forth, Trevor was a form of balance because he knew there were certain requirements for the actual shop in terms of merchandise. Aside from that, I wanted the skate shop of my dreams that we never had growing up, that looks really interesting, but the employees aren’t assholes [laughs].
It's a commercial space so I had to steel frame everything and I had never done that before. We had friends help, and our partners, it was a real team effort by the end but most nights it was Trevor and I at 5:00am with me at the top rung of a ladder. I had to learn and figure out a lot, quickly. I'm a perfectionist so it was hard to stay on the timeline we set. It was right down to the wire and looked like a dusty construction zone until about thirty minutes before we had our grand opening when we turned on the lights, put the boards on the wall, and put the music on. Suddenly, it was a shop and everyone felt a little relieved.
Skate shops are community hubs as much as they are retail spaces. Some of the most important times in my life have been spent hanging out or working in them. Could you speak on how formative a skate shop was for you not just as a skateboarder but as a person?
Trevor and I wanted to do something for a while and originally the idea was, “Let’s do a brand. There’s no overhead now. You can do everything on social media until it grows.” We ended up doing the complete opposite. There’s nothing with more overhead or more tangible than a shop.
We met when we were nine or ten years old at an indoor skate space with a little shop in Connecticut. We lived 45 minutes apart but every weekend we basically lived there. We were reminiscing about that, how they basically taught us how to skate, and were our babysitters, let us camp out there and watch skate videos. That’s where our whole friendship formed.
The community we had, I can’t understate the bond and how important it was. There were no online communities so to find other skaters on the East Coast, in the mid-90s, it was like, “Good luck!” That was a place where there were these other people who wanted to do what I wanted to do, to share stories, to talk, it was really big. Originally we wanted to just do a brand and then it was the idea of, “Well, we could be that. We could make something that’s that for kids and future generations.” That seemed too important.
Shop merch is one of the best aspects of skate clothing. It’s a unique signifier to other skaters and can be integral in building a store’s identity. How have you approached treating Plush as a brand and where do you want it to go in that regard?
If it can branch out and be something beyond the local community and the shop, that would be the dream but it has to evolve and happen naturally. What’s cool about shop shirts is they tell you that person is from there, has been there, or in some way identifies with that, like, “That’s their crew.”
We’ve got to this place, with things like Dime and stuff, where there are examples of shops that go on to be a lot more or bigger. The guiding thing is I want to make stuff that Trevor and I like, that we think is cool, and that our friends and employees—the kids there—are excited about so they can be proud of something. That’s the seed, you know? If it can spread and grow into something bigger, beyond New Haven, I definitely want that but it starts there.
Circling back to your Converse shoe, what does the AS-1 represent as both a design project and a personal accomplishment?
I’d say they’re one in the same but, designer or not, as a skater you have opinions about what you wear, what you want to look like, style and function. Everything gets wrapped up in skateboarding in this way where it’s more than just clothes. How does it look in footage? Does it work? Not just what graphic is on that board, but what’s the [board’s] shape? There’s more to it.
It’s of course a dream for everyone to have their ideal shoe but as a designer, being able to take the reins, do it, have the support of Converse…. Then on top of that, I can count on two fingers the number of non-male skaters that have gotten this. I think that will continue to change, and I certainly hope it does, but those two things alone: that it’s happening for me and I got to design it, are crazy. It’s so surreal. And we’re sitting at the Guggenheim in a cafe! I don’t think Frank Lloyd Wright ever intended this [laughs]. It’s wild.
Skateboarding has opened up so many opportunities. The way I am, when I have any opportunity, I go hard. I get obsessed, I want to do a certain thing, and do it all the way. It’s crazy now to look back and think that I’ve been doing all these things. It’s cool, especially as someone who, as I said, is a perfectionist. There's stuff I put a lot of time and energy into that no-one will ever see that doesn’t exist in tangible form. To have little traces of that stuff and have it be a part of skateboarding makes me… I don’t often step back and think about it like that, so thanks for asking [laughs]. It’s pretty cool. This is pretty humbling and crazy that we’re here right now.
Originally Appeared on GQ