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Aaron Hoover | Interview of Lakai Footwear's designer

A little Interview with Aaron Hoover (Lakai Footwear's Designer)

Hey Aaron, how’s it going? Where are you at right now?

Good, can’t complain… I work in skateboarding. At the moment I’m sitting at my desk in my home office in Ohio. I bounce back and forth between Lakai HQ in LA and home in Ohio.

I´ve learned that you´ve worked at Strength Magazine back in the day. At the same time, you were enrolled in the University of Cincinnati. Was Strength like a “part-time job” back then?

Damn, how did you know that?!

I did. I worked at Strength Mag with some really good friends while going to school. It started off part-time, then turned into a full time job. Such a rad time… this was around 1995-96.  Joe Castrucci (Habitat Skateboards) was doing a brand called Solid Skateboards at the time. He told my good friend, Eric Wollam (now the Art Director of Almost Skateboards) a guy named Christian started a skate mag and he needed help with the layout of the mag. Wollam had me go with to talk with him and Christian ended up hiring both of us. I worked on the mag for a few issues. Shortly after starting the mag, Christian partnered with Steve Saiz and started Nation Skateboards. We had a solid squad at the time, Jason Rothmeyer, Rob G., Panama Dan, James Riff, Jake Brown, Joey Bast and Jason King. I helped with that for a little while. 

Wow, interesting! So, in 2001 you moved to LA to start working at DVS. How did you transfer from doing layouts at a magazine to designing shoes? Did you apply at DVS or know anyone at Podium Distribution?

My roommate at the time, Eric Wollam left Strength mag to work for Dub / Doors in LA. Eric’s LA roommate Doug, worked for DVS. Doug put in a good word for me to Tim Gavin. Long story short, Gavin hired me for a DVS graphic designer position. After a few months on the job, I became friends with the DVS footwear director, Kelly Kikuta. We’d often talk about footwear, skateboarding, and product design in general.  Within a year of working at DVS, a footwear designer position became available and Kelly asked if I would be interested in the position. I took him up on the offer and have been designing footwear ever since!

So, over the course of the following 7 years you pretty much grew into the direction of design at DVS and Lakai – how come you then went back to Ohio to work for DNA?

Yeah, I worked closely with Kelly for about year on DVS. I traveled to Asia a lot working with the factory, learning a ton. After about year, Kelly and Kevin Dunlap asked if I would take the lead for design spot for Lakai. I focused exclusively on Lakai footwear design from 2002 to around 2007. Around 2007, I was asked to manage DVS footwear on top of Lakai. In the middle of all this, my wife and I had twins. It was a lot to manage and keep everything at a high level. Something had to give and family is top priority. So, I had take a step back. 

Wasn´t the Californian weather hard to leave?

Ha! Well, at the time that was the least of my worries!

So, even though you were obviously backing it at this time, but looking back, would you say a board company is capable of building a footwear brand under the same name? Or is that something doomed right from the beginning? I mean, Habitat Footwear didn’t really stay in the game for too long…

Okay, when we decided to move back to Ohio, I reconnected with Joe Castrucci. He needed help with designing apparel and accessories for Habitat. One of his goals was to expand into footwear down the road. After talking with Joe for a while he wanted to put a plan together for footwear. He knew the history / odds of using a hard goods name for a footwear brand and that it would be an uphill battle. His take on it was that he worked too hard on Habitat to then shift the focus and put a ton of energy into building and marketing a totally new brand. He felt like Habitat would suffer. So, we moved forward with footwear under the name of Habitat. The footwear was actually working, but the brand changed ownership multiple times within a few years. Joe recently told me that footwear is actually still one of the top searches on the Habitat site.

So after that, you went to Fallen Footwear, back to Cali working with the Chief. I saw some shoe samples in an interview with a shoe design that can be cut down to a low top. First of all, how come Fallen closed so quickly after that (Interview form 2015)? Additionally, how come this idea hasn´t made it to the market yet with other brands? That idea seemed quite brilliant…

I got a call from a friend that worked at Dwindle. They need a footwear designer for Fallen as Dwindle just partnered with Zero and Fallen. Dwindle gave it a run but as Jamie mentioned in his Nine Club interview it was too late to revive the brand. They knew it was going to be tough but we gave it a good shot.  

And yes, thanks! That shoe design was Dane’s first pro shoe. I brought up the idea to give him a mid-top that could be cut down into a low. Jamie called Dane to get his ideas and Dane said the same thing… “I want a shoe that could be cut into a low“. The concept was perfect for a raw brand like Fallen. 

OK, so after Fallen was closed down, how did you get back to Lakai? Wasn’t that right around the time Scott left for Adidas and Lakai was looking for somebody to fit into his position? And since you were the person basically having taught Scott everything, was that like a „full circle“ then for you personally?

It was full circle… just a lucky coincidence. I was talking with Craig Chimile and he mentioned that they needed someone to step in and help out on the footwear. Scott, left a year before I came back. Scott and I worked closely together in his early days but it was his motivation and drive to learn footwear that got him where he is today. Good for Scott, I’m happy for him!

What´s your personal opinion on the “rubber toe cap“  being used by pretty much every footwear company nowadays?

It works for some styles. It looks right on the Huf Classic. I remember when Salman Agah’s first pro model Vans shoe came out with a rubber toecap. I was not a fan of the style but I can appreciate the purpose. I thought that little rubber toe cap on the Sal 97’s looked pretty sick. It was more of a techy look than a vintage vulc look. So, yeah it works for some styles. 

Do you think some of the rubber toecap styles would have sold in 2005? Even though it might be pretty useful in skateboarding, I personally don’t like the look…

Yeah! Rubber toecap styles did sell in 2005 but they were tech airbag shoes with welded rubber toes, not the more “vintage styles”.

The industry seemingly always has a new technology or style that they test and try to bring to market. Vulcanized soles came in so hot at a certain time and now it seems to be the rubber toe. What’s the next big thing on the horizon?

Some say puffy tech is coming back! DC has fully embraced the puff comeback with their Legacy shoe model. Personally, I’m less about the next “big thing“ and more about what fits Lakai as a brand and the personalities of their team riders. I ask “What can we do different?” Such as Dane’s midtop that can be cut to a low. That type of thing makes sense for Fallen. Riley’s new Lakai shoe is pretty unique and it fits his personality. It has laces but can also be worn as a slip-on without laces.

I´ve just seen some HUF shoes with Velcro straps, do you think those could gain popularity? Actually, they seem quite useful for skateboarding… And what about puffy shoes, do you personally think they will really have a comeback?

Velcro always seems to make its way back every few years. It does actually make a lot of sense for skateboarding! I believe puffy shoes will make a small comeback.

Do you remember the „lace-saver“ from Airwalk back in the day? Would you say something like that could come back as well? If not, why?

Funny you should say that! I do remember some Airwalk Prototypes with the lace-savers. I think if it makes sense, yes!

So, Tony and Riley are now a father/son duo on Lakai. We have to ask, can we expect a shoe from them in the future? Like, a father/son collab?

Haha… I’m not sure about father/son collab, but they each have their own thing going on! We’re currently working on projects for Tony. I’ll leave it at that for now!

Okay, what’s the weirdest feature that you´ve ever seen in shoe design?

The weirdest feature we’ve developed was a “talking tongue” for Brandon Biebel’s pro shoe! We had Biebel record like 5-6 of his crazy sayings. This may have been his first shoe, I can’t remember exactly, but if you squeezed the tongue, it would play one of Biebel’s wild sayings from a little speaker! Ridiculous, I know, but at the time it was really funny. Unfortunately, we had issues with speaker quality/electronics, so we decided not to move forward with it.

What´s your opinion about staying an „independent“ brand in the market? I´ve just read that HUF sold 90% of its stake and thinking about DC and some long article Berra recently wrote… Can you as a designer be more free when working for an „independent“ brand or doesn’t this aspect really matter?

As long it doesn’t compromise the brand’s integrity, I’m ok with it.

What answer would you give someone saying “all shoes look the same nowadays“?

There’s a lot to this question but I’ll keep it simple… trends and sales. I’m all for each brand looking different like Vans, Airwalk, and Vision Street Wear used to back in the day. Each brand fit a different genre or style of skating. I think we should go back that. I think we should hold a skate footwear summit every year to agree on certain ideas and respect the design boundaries of other brands! Sounds like a good plan to me.

Thanks for the interview Aaron! Final question: What shoes do you wear?!

In the office I’m usually wearing the EVOs for comfort. I’ve been wearing the Bristol when skating. The Bristol is definitely worth trying on the next time you are in the skate shop. It’s a simple design but it’s packed with great features… an entirely new fit for Lakai, a dual durometer rubber outsole for added heel comfort, and improved, contoured premium foam insole. It’ll be available in February 2018!

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