Despite a healthy sense of self-doubt — the hallmark of any artist (and I don’t use the term “artist” lightly) — as an art director, animator, musician, videographer, director, designer, and pro skater it doesn’t seem like there is anything Alexis Sablone can’t do. Oh, and did we mention she also has a Masters Degree in Architecture from MIT? During the pandemic, Sablone pulled her various talents together to self-produce, score, shoot, and edit the promotional material for her new Converse CONS collection, Designed By Alexis, which features new iterations of Converse’s iconic One Star Pro, Jack Purcell Pro, and Louie Lopez Pro sneaker silhouettes made to Sablone’s performance-based specifications.
“I grew up skating by myself in a small town, so in some ways, skating New York City all alone during quarantine felt familiar,” Sablone tells us. “On the other hand, filming myself, making the music, and editing it all together with my animations was very new for me. I’ve never controlled all of the pieces in a project like this and the process really gave me a creative outlet and something to throw myself into during the isolation of quarantine.”
Originally conceived to be introduced at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games where Sablone would ride as part of the inaugural US Skateboarding team before the pandemic put a pause on that, Sablone’s background in architecture and her artistic sensibilities pop up throughout the Designed By Alexis collection, as every minute detail feels consciously constructed. Throughout our chat, Sablone speaks of the tactile feel of the sneakers, the grip of a rubber toe, or the need for reinforced stitching to compliment her precise style. As such, every aspect of the design feels constructed with a purpose that artfully mixes functionality with style. The collection reflects a person who is interested not just in art from a superficial standpoint, but someone interested in exploring the inner workings of what makes the composition work in the first place.
So let’s jump into our chat with Alexis where we talk about her new sneaker line, creating during the pandemic, the influence of Japan, and the ways she hopes the skateboarding community continues to evolve to be a more inclusive space.
You’ve been making a name for yourself as a pro skater for quite a while, but it wasn’t until recently that you signed with Converse. What is your connection to the brand and why was Converse the perfect home for what you wanted to accomplish in footwear?
I grew up with Chucks. I had some awareness of the shoe’s early history as a basketball sneaker, but mainly I think Chucks always stood out because it was a shoe all different types of people loved to wear. Depending on who’s wearing it and how, Chucks take on a whole different style, but they’re always classic. That’s why when I eventually came to know Converse as a brand in skateboarding, it fit. I liked the way skateboarders looked in Converse and skateboarding is about a lot of things, but style is and always has been one of them. In addition, one of my best friends was the team manager at Converse Cons, plus the team has many of my favorite skateboarders. When the opportunity for me to join the team came along, it just made sense and felt right.
Tell us a little bit about what you were going for with the design of the One Star Pro?
Despite my love for Chuck Taylors, the One Star was almost immediately my favorite skate shoe when I got to Converse. I began skating in the ‘90s and although the One Star technically began as a ‘70s basketball shoe, to me, it was a shoe of the ‘90s. It has a little bit of that classic skate shoe of the ‘90s look, a little bit of that ‘90s punk kid at the mall look. Basically, it felt classic and nostalgic, bringing me back to my favorite period in skateboarding style and history.
I loved skating it as it was. But for my One Star Pro, I wanted to make some performance modifications and tried to do so in ways that were visible but kept the classic feel of the original. I blow through shoes really fast when I skate, plus I like the grippy feel of a rubber toe on the board, so I added reinforced stitching and a partial rubber toe cap to meet those needs. I’m really happy with how it came out and I think the modifications add to the lifetime of the shoe, which makes me feel good knowing kids out there buying it can get a lot out of it.
What about the Jack Purcell Pro and the Louie Lopez Pro made you want to include these silhouettes as part of the collection?
I thought the three shoes complemented each other. I enjoy skating in all three, but they each bring a little something different and feel pretty different to skate in. The signature thick rubber toe of the Jack Purcell Pro gave me an excuse to do a version of my One Star AS Pro with a suede toe rather than rubber just this once, since some people don’t like the grippy feel of rubber in the front. It was nice to work with a collection of three for that reason – I could make one really bright shoe (the Louie) and then two monotone shoes, all black and all white, but still tie the three together with details like the license plate and sole print, and also the mixing of multiple materials in each shoe.
One of the cool things about your new collection is how much creative control Converse gave you over the project, letting you make music, shoot and edit footage, make animations… What was their reaction to you taking such a hands-on approach and what was your favorite part of that process?
The decision to make that project came pretty naturally. It was a combination of timing — the pandemic and being isolated — plus my own desire to kind of push myself in new directions and see what came out, and finally, Converse’s willingness to trust me through the process. Obviously, the skateboarding itself wasn’t new to me, nor was the animation, since I’ve done a number of animation projects for skate videos at that point. But filming myself, editing, and certainly, making music was all totally new to me.
It’s hard to pick one favorite part of the process. Making the track was definitely the most frightening since, apart from loving music and being able to sing along to some extent, I knew nothing about how it was made. I’m sure I’ll look back and have a hard time listening past all the rookie mistakes. But, for now, I’m pretty excited about how it came out since I was really operating in the dark. Everything — not just the music — was a process of trial and error: “Nope, that looks wrong” or “nope, that sounds terrible” or “no this” and “no that.” Eventually, though, I think it came together and was a pretty rewarding process.
Ultimately, you could look at it and say “Ok, cool. It’s like, a little minute and a half long skate video.” But from the inside, with any creative process, like anyone that makes anything knows from experience, it’s a million little decisions, and a lot of careful thought and dreaming up ideas, and headaches trying to execute them, realizing they don’t always work out like you’d thought.
All in all, that’s my idea of fun, I guess. I always need a project to keep me going and this one really helped push me through a strange and isolating time in the world.
Your collaboration with Converse CONS paid tribute to Japan as inspiration, what specific inspiration did you draw from the country?
Well, initially, the shoes were supposed to be released around the 2020 Olympic games hosted in Tokyo. So that’s where the prompt began. But on a more personal level, from Miyazaki and Masaaki Yuasa to Maki Sasaki and Shigeru Mizuki, Tadanori Yokoo, Masahisa Fukase, Issey Miyake — just to name a few — many of my favorite artists are Japanese. So in that way, I’m constantly inspired by Japanese culture and work that has come out of it.
When I was younger, I had a book of Japanese woodblock prints as well as Hokusai Manga and I was obsessed with the idea of sequential images and the realization that my Disney cartoons were built off of this foundation, in a way. Also, I was in love with the way the signatures were drawn into the woodblock prints. Usually characters inside of a vertical box, and often in bright colors that really popped and stood out from the rest of the image — like a scroll almost superimposed, floating on top of the image. Somehow, graphically, this just really attracted me and I liked studying them. They were always the part I looked for first before the actual image!
The heel and sole details in the pack I designed for Converse, although totally different, tries to borrow from these colorful, graphic, signature strips, as well as the idea of sequence that early Manga gave to us. All three of the shoes share the same signature — a square red license plate on the back heel containing a perfect Converse star logo, but as you lift the heel, the red square continues and stretches into a long red rectangle down the sole, inside of which, the star evolves or devolves sequentially into abstraction.
You have a Master degree in Architecture from MIT, which is kind of the perfect academic study for a skater, how did your interest in art and architecture influence the Designed By Alexis line?
I think our influences often get all mushed together and ultimately combined with our own intuition and sensibilities as designers. So, it’s really hard to pull one thread and say how this affected that and so on and so forth. But, my background in architecture certainly helped me learn to work through the iterative and often painful design process. I say painful, because for me, there’s inevitably a part of the process in everything I design, where it’s not clicking, it feels wrong, and I don’t know how to make it right. There is no “right”, of course, but there’s a feeling I get and have learned — continue to learn — to trust, that tells me I’m moving in the right direction with a project. A lot of the work I’m doing now falls outside of the classic realm of architecture, but my process and development as a designer feels like a continuous evolution from many long sleepless nights at MIT.
Style is such a major part of the skateboarding scene, what kind of statement if at all are you trying to make with your sense of style?
I have always just been myself, dressed how I felt comfortable, and never wanted to do something loud just to make a statement. For me, that felt phony. Growing up, I hated the idea of people trying to stand out by looking the part but not really backing it up with substance. My outward style is still pretty simple. I guess it’s getting bolder as I get older because I feel more grounded and like each new year of experience gives me more of a right to not care what anyone else thinks. That said, I’ve always wanted to rely more on other creative outlets, drawing, animating, designing, and physically skateboarding, to try to express myself and let all of that work make its own statement — whatever that may be.
Pro-skater, architect, musician, director, videographer, artist … you do everything. With the Designed By Alexis line, as well as operating as an art director and deck designer within the skateboard industry, what is your approach to art direction and what are you trying to visually infuse into the realm of skate style?
There’s some overlap here in what I was just describing. If I’m making a statement, or visually infusing anything into skateboarding, It’s not part of a master plan I have beyond the fact that I try to trust my instincts and be as authentic as possible. I’m a perfectionist in many ways. As a result, I hate a lot of what I do at least at some point in the process. I’m obsessed with all of my work and I either love it or hate it and those sentiments flip flop from one second to the next. The biggest goals I have are personal. I’m not thinking about what I infuse into skateboarding at large. I’m in my own little bubble. I’m learning to press “send”, to put the pencil down, to take a step back and be okay with whatever I just made, so I can move forward and start working on the next thing.
Not only are you one of the most accomplished and visible women in skateboarding, but you’re also going on to be a core member of the United States’ first-ever Olympic skateboarding team. I wondered if you can speak on your experience operating in a sport overwhelmingly populated by straight men and what you hope for the world of skateboarding going forward?
I was 21 years old before I really first met and got to know any other non-male skaters. Growing up, most of the time it was just me skating alone. There weren’t other skaters in my town and there certainly weren’t any gay skaters or girls. I’ve always believed that skateboarding can and should be for everyone. It was a place for non-jocks and outcasts and weird kids when I started and I think that’s what drew me to it. It was something different and I think it helped me escape into something — a community, a culture — even before I was aware of what I was escaping or really knew that I was queer.
For that, I feel fortunate and am so grateful to have found skateboarding. It wasn’t until I was much older that I saw some of the flaws and had to deal with the uglier inequalities inside the industry. I think the skateboarding community is finally starting to become more self-aware and the industry is beginning to follow suit and improve its practices by supporting and promoting more than one kind of skater. I think there’s still a long way to go, but I’m hopeful.
How have you been spending your time in quarantine, and where is the first place you’re going to skate outside of New York when travel opens up?
I have no idea where I’ll go! I used to feel like JFK was becoming my second home and now I can’t even imagine stepping foot in there. I hope Paris. Whenever I romanticize traveling, Paris is the image that comes to mind. But anywhere will feel like an adventure at this point. In the meantime, I’m happy to be where I am. I’ve been busy skating in the streets and working on some new design projects in my studio and I have no complaints. NYC is my favorite city in the world and I feel lucky to live here every day.
The Designed By Alexis collection is available now at Converse.