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Sneakerjagers Interview: Charlotte Lee on her work as a designer and the New Balance XC-72

October 22, 2021 9:00 AM
Sneakerjagers Interview: Charlotte Lee on her work as a designer and the New Balance XC-72

How does the idea for a new sneaker design come about? New Balance designer Charlotte Lee reveals all:

In an in-depth interview with Sneakerjagers, the footwear designer, who has worked at New Balance for seven years, takes us on a journey through the design process of a sneaker, gives us insights into working at New Balance, and also has some motivating tips for aspiring sneaker designers.

Charlotte also gives us a glimpse into the story behind her brand-new design, the New Balance XC-72.

So, look forward to exciting impressions from the life of a successful footwear designer, and let Charlotte inspire you, just like us.

The Process of Designing a New Shoe

New Balance XC-72 Ivory

When designing a new sneaker, how long does the process take? What are the steps?

That’s a tough question because it can really vary depending on the complexity of the project.

Sometimes there can be something you’ve been thinking about and sketching, but then doesn’t get shown to anyone in a while. Or there are lots of rounds of samples because no one ever interprets your design like it is in your mind until the 3rd or 4th sample. So, the time really varies.

But I would say on average that it takes about six months, from first sketch to sample in hand.

What’s your favourite part of the design process?

I actually have two favourite parts.

New Balance is a brand where everything has to make sense, with a back story or a reason to exist, and nothing is created just because it looks good. So my first favourite part is when the story telling all comes together. I love using inspiration from the archive, or adding bits that are really progressive, or sometimes just because I love something personally.

It’s a great feeling when everything finally comes together, but it’s an even better feeling when you start the sampling process. Because there’s a lot of self-doubt in the process as well, where you ask yourself questions like is this good enough, am I happy with it, does it represent what I want etc, when you get those glimmers of yes! This is going really well! Those are honestly the best part for me.

When you’ve designed a new model, are you involved in all the future colorways that drop on it?

It’s quite rare in the sneaker world for designers to do the colour work as well, but at New Balance, we create the concept and story behind the sneaker, and the colorway naturally falls in as part of that.

If the sneaker has been inspired by something in the archive I do try to fit its colours in somehow. New Balance is know for its grey colorways, but I’m always trying to find something that is a bit different.

After about a year the design gets passed on to someone else, which is a bit like handing over your baby! But it is a good thing, because other people have different perspectives and ideas to bring to the table that you’ve never thought of. I honestly think that some of the best colorways on the 327 and XC-72 will be ones I haven’t touched, as someone will look at it with fresh eyes and see potential in the shoe that I haven’t personally seen.

How do you get your ideas for designs? Have you ever had a design idea come to you at a really odd moment?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a design come to me at a not odd moment! I never have conscious, lightbulb moments, but things that come to me really slowly. I’ll draw something and pick out parts I like, or I’ll see a specific detail I like and keep, so it’s more of a slow build of details that all come together for the aesthetic. It does click together on a sketch or sample you’re really happy with, but I don’t think there’s a specific moment.

You never really switch off as a designer, you constantly think about it. I might be out for a walk and something will just come to me, like ‘should I make the N logo like this?’. It’s the sort of thing you have to bank in your memory, as sometimes you come up with concepts months head of a brief.

How often do you wear your own designs?

When I first started at NB in 2014, everything was quite masculine looking. I wanted to create something I know I would want to wear forever. In terms of my own collection, it’s about 75% of my own work, which sounds self-indulgent but I’m creating it because I’d like to wear it, so I wear it. The other parts of my collection are designs from colleagues which I thought were amazing.

How do you get over creative blocks?

That’s rough, really rough. I don’t think enough people talk about it as well. It’s not even a ‘creative block’, it’s self-doubt, like am I the right person to work on this? If I ever feel like I don’t know what I’m doing I sit down and talk it out with my manager, Sam Pearce, who’s a great designer and really inspirational.

I also try to speak to other people, or get out and see different areas of design, art, and creativity. It’s important not to force it, as there’s little point sitting there and getting frustrated. New Balance are quite flexible too, so if you’re having a hard moment and need to go away for a couple of days and work on something else, to come back with fresh eyes, you can, which is really helpful.

What would you say to young people with the same dream as yours?

The first thing I always say is – intern, intern, intern! Even if it’s just for a day, an hour, anything, whatever you can do.

I was fortunate in that I got into the business through an internship at Clarks. I wasn’t even interested in shoes at the time, I just wanted to get into a creative studio, but it led me to this path. When I went along I was amazed. People were making things every day and getting paid for it!

Internships are so powerful. Even if you go and you hate it, then at least you know it’s not for you. It’s all about exposure and understanding the industry. Instagram and other social media have sensationalised designing, but it’s not all sketching on tables in big glamourous design studios. There’s a lot of other parts to it that are a lot less interesting.

It’s important to find out what designing is really like, and make sure it’s right for you.

Are there any tools, courses or other things to do that you recommend for people just starting out in designing?

There are loads of things that are available to people starting out now, much more than when I started. And you don’t even need to be the best sketcher by hand! It does help, because it’s easier for you to get across your ideas, but it’s not actually necessary anymore.

We use Illustrator on a daily basis, but that’s something you learn at Uni or as you go along. There are other things like Gravity Sketch, which is a free program, where you can design shoes in 3D, and other digital tools that you can either get for free or on a free trial that will help you enhance your portfolio massively.

As for courses, I still do courses now, on things not even related to the industry. It’s important to keep the creativity flowing and I do art, craft and life drawing classes for that reason. I think if you’re already looking into designing, then you probably do a lot of this kind of thing anyway, and I would just say keep it up!

Working at New Balance

New Balance XC-72 Ivory

We’ve seen a lot of awesome new styles and collabs from NB in the last couple of years, how is your feeling about the development of NB in the sneaker scene?

It’s definitely a good time to be with the brand, I’ve just celebrated my 7th anniversary and I’ve seen it transform. It’s very exciting!

When I first started seven years ago, there wasn’t a lot of new, futuristic ideas coming out, so there wasn’t a lot of confidence to launch those ideas. Things being sketched out wouldn’t be seen necessarily, but now it’s exciting to know we can create, take risks, and launch those successfully.

NB has a long history as one of the oldest brands, do you feel they got a new image in the last years?

I do feel it’s got a new image but also that it’s stayed very true to who they are. I love the ‘dad shoe’ vibe behind the brand, it’s got this humorous attitude to it that I love to see still happening.

We’ve got this weird ability to create something on the runway and create something for someone barbequing in America and then for everyone in-between.

When we link designs back to the archive, we push things but also try to keep them very New Balance. We always think, what makes this design a New Balance shoe?

Who would your dream collab on the New Balance be with?

I really enjoy when New Balance collaborates with off-beat partners like artists or emerging designers, people that I’ve never heard of before. Because it’s all about partnership, and about bringing something new to the table for us.

So I would say my dream collab would be not with a specific partner, but with anyone that can bring something fresh in to the brand, as that’s the most interesting part.

The New Balance 327

New Balance 327

The trend around the NB327 is crazy at the moment. How does it feel to see the sneaker you designed on the streets and on Instagram, etc?

Amazing. I can’t think of a better word. The 327 was a bit of a personal project for me. It was the first shoe I created that I was like, yeah, I’ll wear this all the time. I’m wearing some now! And to see people paying their own money for something that came from my brain, it’s such an odd thing.

I remember the first person I saw wearing a pair of my shoes, was in the supermarket. I felt like I needed to introduce myself to him! I think now I’m a bit more used to it, but every so often the thought hits me that a person is wearing something from my mind.

It’s also really fun to see it being worn by all sorts of people. I designed it with myself in mind but then I see people I never would have imaged wearing it. And they style it in such interesting ways! It’s good though, I can take that information to my next project, that it’s not just young females interested in the design but lots of other people too.

The New Balance XC-72

New Balance XC-72 Castlerock
New Balance XC-72 Ivory
New Balance XC-72 Ivory

What elements of older models were incorporated into the XC-72 design, and why?

When we were talking about the 327 and what we wanted to do afterwards, we knew that we wanted to take something from the 70s archive. It was an amazing time for New Balance, with the N logo being introduced and some really stepped-up designs.

It wasn’t really an era we’d looked at yet for reinterpreting, so after the 327 I went back to it and thought, what did I miss? And I found quite a lot of things that I’d overlooked.

One Fleetfoot campaign called ‘Three of the Best’ had three sneakers that looked pretty much the same but featured different treads for different runners.

NB 375 Sole
NB XC15 Sole
NB 620 Sole

I thought this was really interesting, as the sole tread on one of the models in particular looked like it had been designed to be from the future, but back in the 70s. I thought, has anyone use all three tread designs at once? I also thought, is it a good idea?? So I played around with the idea, made some designs, showed it to other people, and we thought it worked well.

Where does the name ‘XC-72’ come from?

The XC part comes from the ‘XC-15’ which is one of the sneakers from the ‘Three of the Best’ campaign that inspired the unique sole on this new model. The 7 is taken from the ‘375’ and the 2 is taken from the ‘620’, the other two sneakers in the campaign.

Was there anything from the first concepts that didn’t make it into the final draft that you regret?

No, I don’t think there was. It was pretty set from the beginning with the retro futuristic idea. One thing I suppose, was at the time, I wondered if we should do another shoe with a big N logo. I trialled different ways of using the N, but we kept coming back to the big N as it looked the best, so we stuck with it. And I’m glad! I think the slight slant to it adds to the retro look.

A big thank you to Charlotte Lee and the New Balance team for all the exciting insights. We are already looking forward to their next sneaker design!

Two new upcoming colorways on the XC-72, the XC72CA1 and the XC72CB1, will be released on Saturday, 23 October 2021 at 10:00 am and will be available at New Balance stores in London (Oxford Street), Paris (Forum des Halles), Berlin, and Amsterdam.