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Behind the Design: Nike SB Dunk “Gardenia” – The Fragrance of Shanghai

A couple months ago, pictures of the new Nike SB Dunk “Gardenia” from FLY Streetwear were leaked and social media blew up with mixed reviews. While some were saying Nike was releasing too many blue dunks, others were marveling at the intricate details packed into the shoe. Every shoe collaboration that FLY Streetwear’s founder Jeff Han releases is creatively calculated with a story. Even better, most of his designs are inspired by traditional Chinese street culture, some elements of which are slowly disappearing as China urbanizes, leaving his shoe designs the sole cultural preservation of China’s unique street culture. We had a chance to see the “Godfather of Chinese skateboarding” last year in December, and got a first look into the samples of the SB Dunk just as he was leaving to make special handcrafted “friends and family” woven boxes that paid tribute to the baskets on which the Gardenia were sold from.

Since our first interview with Jeff back in 2014, he’s kept FLY Streetwear going strong in Shanghai, building a heavy squad of young Shanghainese skaters, celebrating family life with the welcoming of his newborn, renovating the shop, and of course, designing this shoe. And although he typically likes to stay out of the limelight, Jeff let us pick his brain on the all new FLY Streetwear x Nike SB Dunk “Gardenia” shoe. Read on for the full interview below:

Nike SB Dunk Fly Streetwear

Streetwear has already hit a 20 year milestone! Can you tell us a bit on how FLY started?

Jeff: As of this year, FLY is officially 24 years old, since we started in 1999. The inception of our story is quite simple; I used to do sales at a Milk company where I was swamped with work, so I didn’t have any time to go skate. I opened this shop because I wanted to do something related to skating and in my parent’s eyes “opening a shop” was a business venture, so they approved. But truthfully, I just wanted to find an “out” to have more time to actually skate. We’ve been up and down Chang Le Rd. throughout these years, and we’ve just renovated our shop, located on 704 & 706 Chang Le Rd (长乐路704) .

What was the most defining moment that put FLY on the global radar?

It was a while ago, but we filmed and released the Gift Video <It’s A Wrap>, which was China’s first official full length skate video. I forgot what year that came out, maybe you can help me find it. This, along with P-Rod’s cameo, got us on the global radar. The Nike SB partnerships over the years have also helped us reach an audience outside of Shanghai or China. In terms of collabs, this most recent Gardenia shoe marks the 7th collab we’ve had with Nike SB. Every time we’ve collaborated, Nike’s been helping promote our Shanghai skate scene on an international platform.

Skateboarding in China has blossomed in recent years, and there’s been huge changes in the industry, culture and skill level of skateboarding. What’s your opinion of the development, are we headed in a positive direction?

Definitely. I also agree that the skateboarding scene in China has been through huge changes these past years. In the past few years, there has been an explosion in skateboarding, due to the Olympics. China is massive; and recently, almost every city in China has multiple skateparks. There are a bunch of skateparks that the government has commissioned to build, as well as private skateparks coming to life, run by skaters who can make a decent living from teaching skateboarding. The scene in China has its own unique characteristics. I think it’s still going in a positive direction. With the explosion of skate lessons across China, and the development of skateparks everywhere, Chinese parents are having a more positive outlook on skateboarding, which is still a crucial part in pushing the local skateboarding scene.

FLY creates a lot of shoes with designs inspired by traditional Chinese street culture (Vans cricket shoe, Hutong Dunks, FLY “Elderly Shanghai” board series). Can you share with us the inspiration behind this specific design and how it connects with Shanghai’s traditional street culture?

For this SB Dunk, my design inspiration came from early days of street culture in Shanghai. Back in the days, there were a lot of elderly grandmothers “lao nai nai” (老奶奶) who would sell Gardenia flowers on the street corners. This Gardenia flower is extremely fragrant and back then, colognes and perfumes weren’t easily accessible or even available. So during the summertime, the elderly street vendors would sell these flowers around the busiest corners of the street and passersby’s would buy them to hang on their shirt to smell fresh. Nowadays, these street vendors are even harder to find. I think this is as Chinese “street culture” as it gets, and I really wanted to preserve this element of street culture through the shoe design. In a way, skaters, including myself, “grew up” on the streets, and we’re pretty familiar with the ins and outs of our own local street culture, so it holds a special place in our hearts. With this shoe, I wanted to make sure this part of Shanghai’s history of street culture was preserved and could live on. Selling flowers in Shanghai and skateboarding are two things that both live on the streets, so it was a perfect design inspiration.

Nike SB Dunk Fly Streetwear

Usually with shoe collabs there are strict guidelines in re-iterating their logos. With this Nike SB collab, what was different in terms of the freedom to design?

I think this is what separates Nike from other brands and companies. I’ve helped other brands do designs as well and more often than not, my original ideas get stripped down a lot. Sometimes production can’t make it happen, or the brand’s guidelines are really strict, and in the end a lot of the details I originally wanted aren’t in the final product, which is a shame. So before I start designing, I usually ask the brand what to look out for, or if there’s anything I can’t do. But with this collab, Nike approached me and said up front, don’t limit yourself and think as big as you want. With that, I sketched out the first draft, and I told them I wanted to make the swoosh into a flower with petals, and almost like a skateboard shape. Then I told them I wanted to make the heel of the shoe green, because it represents the bud of the gardenia flower, and metaphorically speaking it was the perfect area of the shoe to make the whole flower come to life. The Nike team took it all in, and they gave me complete creative control. They gave me a bunch of different materials and colors to choose from and in the end we landed with a stitched logo to create more of a three-dimensional feel to the “flower”. I loved how it came out. All my original designs and ideas came out in the final product. If you look closely, the tongue of the shoe is also made of leather. Most Nike SB dunk’s tongues are made out of a breathable nylon, but I insisted them to use leather, to match the topline upper of the dunk. Not only that, but I wanted to use a premium suede for topline, counter lining and heel collar, in hopes of giving a more premium feel to the shoe and making the shoe feel more “classic”.

Which element of the Nike SB Dunk was the hardest to design?

When the sample arrived, I made one last request. When it came to the stitching of the swoosh petals, the material proposed actually had two different sides. One side was shiny, and the other side was more dull, kind of like matte colored. I asked them to have each petal to use the matte color stitching. I was a bit hesitant to ask them this, because I knew this small detail would made the production of the shoe harder, but surprisingly Nike agreed. If you get a pair, definitely check out this small detail. I’ve always felt like the Nike SB Dunk was a rebellious, unique and youthful shoe model in their product line. The fact that they were down to change up the classic swoosh is also similar to the spirit of rebellion in skateboarding. The hardest part of this whole shoe was definitely the swoosh.

Which Nike SB Dunks released from the past did you like the most and why?

I like the Nike SB Dunk High “Sea Crystal”, which was released a while ago. I loved that shoe and it was really comfortable. 

If you were to create your own shoe from scratch, which design elements would you think are the most important when it comes to performance and style?

I think most important is to make sure it’s a good looking shoe. You want to catch people’s attention first. Once attention is caught, then people will look more into the story behind the shoe. I think this should be the starting logic behind designing a new shoe. But of course, the comfort of the shoe is also really important.

What can we expect from FLY in the near future?

FLY’s been around for 24 years, and I never really had a clear plan set in stone. I usually act on how I feel, try to do things I like. Whatever piques my interest, I dive into it 100 percent and prioritize it first. Everything after that, slowly comes. I think a lot of skaters share this similar problem. We don’t put too much thought into the future.

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