Natalie Candrian has had the opportunity to be involved in many of professional athletes' most pivotal career moments. She designed the "little black dress" Maria Sharapova wore in her first match when she became a US Open Champion. She also co-created the spike shoe worn by Allyson Felix in her historic 2020 Tokyo Olympics circuit, which led to her title of most decorated American Olympian.
Despite these remarkable successes, Candrian is the first to admit that sports design wasn't her initial focus early in her career. This may be a foreign concept to those on a fast-paced educational track today, for whom footwear design is the ultimate goal. But her work at Adidas and Nike demonstrates the novelty of her diversified design curiosity, from working with professional athletes on notable sneaker designs, to experimental sustainable projects created in Nike's Innovation Kitchen, and even a collaboration with designer Narciso Rodriguez that showcased at Fashion Week. As Head of Product Design for Allyson Felix's footwear company SAYSH, she is creating a product line that tackles the issue of fit within women's running shoes. And in one of her more recent titles as Creative Director of Product Designer at OMORPHO, she is designing in an attempt to revolutionize the personal athletics space through their line of weighted exercise gear.
We recently had a chance to chat with Candrian, who will serve as the 2023 Core77 Design Awards Sports & Outdoors Jury Captain. The interview includes notable moments in her career, the advantages that may have come from her "outsider" perspective, and how embracing other designers with this expansive creative point of view should be seen as a boon for the sportswear industry.
Core77: Where did your journey in design begin? How did it lead you to where you are today?
Candrian: I was always creative as a teenager, but I didn't know anything about product design. So I assumed I would study graphic design. I heard about Art Center College of Design, which had a European campus here in Switzerland. Not only was it a very high regarded school, but it was so close by. That's the first time I really [learned about] industrial design, transportation design, the depths of design and its creative possibilities. So I applied and got accepted, and we had to do a preparatory term. And within that, you have to visit all those different classes. That exposed me to the idea of 3D design, and I enjoyed it. So that really changed my mind and helped me find industrial design as a major. And then I went from there. I started at ArtCenter in Europe, and then moved over to the States when they closed the European campus. And really enjoyed it.
After graduation I had the opportunity to interview and stay in the States with a student visa. It was literally luck that a friend of a friend asked if I wanted to interview at Adidas and that led me into the sports world. So none of it was sort of an early fascination or focus of mine, it was kind of one thing leading to another. And that's what got me initially into footwear, the world of sports, and understanding the industrial design part within that. And seeing all the different possibilities within sports in different categories, and the world of athletes, the global appeal, it really has such an emotional bond with all of us. That really tied me to it and I just kept going.
It's interesting that you came in not really having that perspective of, I want to work within sports product design. How did you first tackle getting into it, even though it wasn't necessarily your area of expertise?
I think it was, naive? But I just went with it! I never over thought what was going on, but I got hired and put into men's basketball. And it was a pretty rough start, I'm not going to lie. I was the only woman and I asked our Creative Director later what his thought process was. He said, "Well, it was just healthy to have such a different perspective within the team." And basketball is a sport that has such a strong culture around it. So I just didn't give up, let's put it that way. I put my head down, I worked, and I knew I could rely on my skills from school. I just put my creativity into it and worked really hard.
Every season, you work in the six month cycle, and I just asked for other and more. And was lucky with some of the projects I got my hands on, which ended up falling in place with one of the biggest NBA athletes Adidas had and some of them are still selling. So very early on in my career, I fell in love with that professional athlete experience that I got to work on. It was one of the first times where I was really adding a personality and a character and therefore a lot of emotion into a design. So it's the balance between designing for performance, and finding the balance with that storytelling that you add to it. And that is something that is still my favorite yin yang sort of balancing act within my work today. Because I had that rare opportunity so early on, it sort of stuck with me.
I think that's reflected well in the work you've done, and it spans across so many different categories—you've designed for the courts of the NBA all the way to high fashion runways! And I would think your different perspective contributes to that. But I'm curious, are there any projects that stand out to you as closest to your heart?
For sure—and that doesn't mean the ones that never made it to production aren't part of my journey, or important to the learning process. But obviously, one that is close to my heart is the TMAC series that I got to do at Adidas. Like I said, when you have that one athlete that you can really observe and bring their character into the project is unique. Then obviously, you have the wind of the brand behind it, the marketing. It was amazing to be part of that entire journey, and see it so well received by a community and a culture I really had to observe and learn from, and work closely with to find my voice within. I was also creatively directed by Peter Moore, who is one of the legends within the sports industry in design. So that was unique for me.
Obviously, Maria Sharapova's court appearances that I could design for were amazing. First one was the 2006 US Open, the little black dress that we designed for her. I got to be in New York, and saw her first night match, the first moment she walked out with that outfit. And funny enough, her sports marketing person at Nike was sitting next to me and said to me, "I think she could win this."
Candrian's sketches for Sharapova's 2006 US Open "little black dress"
I think the confidence she exuded just really helped through the whole tournament. Obviously, I'm not saying the dress won her trophy! But it carries the confidence of the person wearing what you work on. And that doesn't only go for a pro athlete, it goes for everyone. If you put something on that makes you feel stronger and more confident, that definitely helps you in that moment. So that was very special to me, that little black dress in 2006. And she did win the tournament!
After that, leaving Nike or some of the big corporations, my assumption was, that was my run, right? Those were the projects, those were the big moments. So then when I got tapped by Allyson Felix and her team to work with her post-Nike, designing the first shoe for SAYSH and then her track spikes for Tokyo is another moment for me that was huge. Those are just a few big moments I really enjoyed and appreciated.
No small moments there! And on that note, I wanted to talk about SAYSH for a minute. I think it's a really interesting example of a brand that doesn't shy away from a woman's point of view, but it's also clearly grounded in performance. It feels oddly rare though it shouldn't be! I was curious how you went about coming up with the first designs for the company in order to create a product that stood out and could hold as a brand staple?
Yeah, like you said—performance, it matters. And especially for me, I don't want to design something that doesn't function. As an industrial designer, that's at the heart of what you do, to create something where you better a product that's out there, [differentiate] from what's currently on the market. So that to me is sort of a given; that's what I expect from myself, and what I expect the project or briefing to be. And when Allyson and her brother [a co-founder of SAYSH] briefed myself and engineer Tiffany Beers, the brief was really Allyson's story. And of course, we knew her story through Nike and the press, but to hear it straight from her was really special. It allowed me to find that very personal storytelling element. To find a way to bring that not only into the shoe, but really laying the sort of groundstones for SAYSH, because that's what it's founded on.
The Saysh One shoe
And that is more the visual language, SAYSH's [name] comes from the seiche wave. Seiche wave is a wave that is created through disruption. A tsunami is basically what comes before a seiche wave, the seiche wave is what happens after; they are the waves that balance everything out again. And so that idea of that sort of wave, that fluid motion was an element that was important to us. Then what you see in the design is sort of what I call her "office," which are the track lines.
Diagonal pattern feature of the SAYSH One shoe
There were two other elements, one is the idea of this wrap, a diagonal across your foot. A diagonal is a very flattering line, an example for that is the wrap dress created by Diane von Furstenberg in the 70s, something that is still a classic today. It's flattering to pretty much any size, any type, any age, anyone really. My niece can wear it, I can wear it, my mother can wear it. And so that idea of bringing something that is very universally flattering, and works for everybody is also part of that philosophy. So it's very inclusive.
And then thirdly, of course was working closely with Tiffany to really build it for Allyson, and that's where the performance comes in. This was important for us because after all of us being in the industry for so long, we know that shoes are built off of a man's last; the lasts are built based on a man's foot. Our feet are not that different, but there are differences. And we know that those small differences can actually make a big difference in the big picture. So really building that shoe for her not just from a visual perspective, but really engineering it for her and making sure that the proportions and dimensions are true to a woman's foot, and what she's looking for. And it's not just the proportions, it's not just the last, but it's also the foam that you pick under her foot, the density of the foam. The proportion of our weight to our foot size is different than men, in general. So a lot of times those foams are too heavy or too stiff or too hard for us because they're built for the weight proportion of men. So there are a lot of technical details that in the end, if you put them all together make a difference. And so it was really fun to be able to have that space to really build something with that performance, insight driven perspective. And then having that story that served as a sort of playground around the feminine approach to tell the SAYSH story and create that visual platform for that DNA to grow for the company.
Earlier you talked a little bit about not feeling fully comfortable in the athletic arena at first. Clearly that has not stopped you from making highly successful work. But I was curious if you think that this sense of 'imposter syndrome' is still a prevailing sentiment in the industry for people outside of the perhaps typical persona of a shoe designer? And what do you think having designers with slightly different perspective does for moving sports design forward?
I think that 'impostor syndrome,' it's still there, right? You have to really trust yourself and trust that what you offer has meaning and it's important to push through. I think there are two sides to that now compared to when I started in footwear. For one, now you can study footwear design. There are a lot of programs that offer that and that's great. But I personally am glad I studied industrial design, because I know footwear is one of my strengths and skills— almost like a Master's that I got through Adidas, Nike. But I know I can do anything within industrial design really, right?
"For the first eight years of my career, I was mostly the only woman in my teams [...] It wasn't easy because you have to stand your ground, and I'm not the loudest person in the room. So you have to really trust your voice, because it can get drowned out easily."
I think when it comes to footwear, apparel and so on, the additional challenge is that it has to move in perfect harmony with your body. And so that's an additional element that needs to be considered. I think it comes down to really trusting yourself. And that was definitely not easy for me when the environment was...I want to say everything I'm not and I wasn't, but sort of!
For the first eight years of my career, I was mostly the only woman in my teams, I would be the only woman traveling with my teams. It wasn't easy because you have to stand your ground, and I'm not the loudest person in the room. So you have to really trust your voice, because it can get drowned out easily. It also has a lot to do with the environment that fosters those individuals, right? So the Creative Director who hired me obviously wanted me in there. Every so often, he made sure that the space was given for me to be heard. Otherwise, he wouldn't have put me in there in the first place.
Allyson Felix at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, in the Spike One shoe co-designed by Candrian
So I think, not just for young and upcoming talent, but for Managers and Creative Directors out there, [it's about] creating those spaces, where other points of views are fostered and heard and included is really important. And like I said earlier, on one hand, you have the footwear designers today who study footwear design and are very focused on that one element, which obviously creates a certain confidence coming into the industry because that is what you want to do. And on the other hand, I feel the generation that's coming in now has a lot more of that individuality and that confidence in being an individual. And that's reflected within larger society today, right? There is more of an acceptance of being different or yourself. At the same time, as we all know, there's still a long road to go for real, true inclusivity and sort of equal playing fields.
And just to elaborate on that, I always felt that within the footwear industry, though the women I met within footwear were few and far between, we always had each other's backs. And it was a very strong community. Even though they were not on my team, there was no negative competitive behavior among the women within footwear. So I always felt very lucky that the women within footwear were always super helpful and supported each other. I hope I can do the same for any woman joining or are coming in.
"Things that feel new, interesting and different [in athletic wear] sometimes come from inspiration in a very different area. So if sneakers is your world, that's amazing. But I would try to keep your focus, then take a step back and have a bird's eye view on the bigger picture."
Do you have any advice that you would give to young people who are aspiring to pave their way in this industry? Especially at time where it's getting more competitive as sneaker culture expands and more people aspire to the role of footwear designer.
I think keeping a very open mind about what you're doing and where you get your inspiration from is key. I've worked in innovation quite a bit and things that feel new, interesting and different sometimes come from inspiration in a very different area, not necessarily within footwear or even in sports.
So if sneakers is your world, that's amazing. But I would always try to keep your focus, then take a step back and have a bird's eye view on the bigger picture. And then coming back to what you're doing is key. That's why, you know, design philosophy for me is very much that "attract, engage, capture" process, and the attraction is from further away. I've always designed my shoes that way and went through the design process where the initial read from far away has to attract you. And then you kind of get intrigued by it, and in the end, it captures you through the performance of it, and becomes your favorite shoe. That was always kind of a successful way to work.
OMORPHO's weighted workout vest worn by actor Cynthia Erivo
You are the Jury Captain of the Sports & Outdoors category this year. I'm curious, what are some things that you would be excited to see within the selection of entries? What would feel fresh to you?
I hope to see not only footwear, let's start there! You know, the sports industry, there is a lot out there that is true and tested, but what I'm hoping to see is different points of view on how to be active. We have the classic categories, the classic sports, but it's always interesting to see new elements within that. I'm maybe a little biased because of one of the brands I'm working on right now, OMORPHO, which is kind of a new way of thinking in terms of how to be active and how to approach sports. So what I'm hoping to see and excited for is, is there any kind of completely different perspective within sport? And that as sort of a counterbalance to seeing a revolution within a classic sports product as well.
This interview has been edited down for further brevity and clarity.