Tricks to Kicks

Scott Johnston is an ill skater. Sure, he's no longer pro, having gracefully transitioned out of that career and into skate shoe design at Lakai Limited Footwear. But even if steady skating isn't his 9-5 anymore, that doesn't mean Johnston can't still throw down one of the better back Smiths you'll ever witness. Raised in the Washington DC skate tradition of stylish and tech street skating, aesthetic has always been just as important as skill for Johnston. Having been pro for Mad Circle, and later Chocolate, aesthetic and skill were always at the forefront. After a swan song in the "Fully Flared" video, Scott took his long-time interest in shoe design to the next level stepping into a new roll as a designer for his former sponsor, Lakai. We caught up with Johnston to talk about skating, design and life after a pro career.

What was the impetus for transition from skating to designing shoes and how did you start to make that move?
I expressed my interest pretty early on that I'd be interested in taking on that role. When I was skating I saw that I only had a couple more years in me—maybe like three or four years prior I started to think about what I wanted to do next. I had been working on my own pro shoes with Lakai, so it was kind of already a home to me, being a part of it from the start with Rick [Howard] and Mike [Carroll]. I felt like that was going to be a comfortable transition from skating to the real world, and just in the interest of making shoes and trying to make them better and trying to do what I like. I would try with my own pro shoes, but trying to maintain a skate career, I wasn't involved 100%. To design shoes start to finish seemed pretty interesting.

How did the collaboration process work when you were a rider?
I would always start with a shoe, like some old adidas soccer shoe or something, and it would have a toe on it that I thought looked cool, and I'd come to them and say, hey, I want something like this, then it would just go from there. I'd come back like a month later when they'd have rough samples, and talk about some design elements that might set it apart. Most of the time that stuff was up to them. I'd just complain about the shapes or something.

How did you come to that realization, that you only had a couple years
of skating left?

You go out, and most of the time you're trying to film and do these things, and as you get older your place in life becomes more important. There is more pressure to produce—you know, to sleep-in until 11 and go to brunch and maybe skate for an hour sounds like a dream to some people, but that becomes really stressful when you know its not going to last forever. It becomes not fun. You feel like what's fun is having a full busy day, and then skating-- having a full day makes you feel a little more valuable. That lifestyle became stressful, as funny as it sounds and I just needed more. I needed to utilize my time more. Some people are better at it—like, Keith Hufnagel, that guy, he took advantage of his free time and he went a started a business. In hindsight, that's probably what I should have done, I should have taken advantage of that free time, but instead I went with it and it stressed me out.

Did you make a conscious decision for the Lakai video to be your send
off from a pro skate career?

Yeah, seeing the video approach the end, I just felt like this was it. Honestly I'd rather have had a full part and just have gone out way on top instead of just a couple tricks in a video. But that was my plan, to end on a good note and not bleed this career dry the way some guys do by not letting it go. Skating was so good to me, and I want to be good to it and not be one of those guys that won't go away. I still skate, I don't need to get paid for it, though.

Once you made that move from being paid to skate to being paid to do
office work, were you stoked?

It was really good I think for the first six months, I didn't even look back. I was like this is fun, I was learning so much, it was exciting. Maybe a year or so into it, I was like, wow, this is it. I'm not going back. Then I started thinking I've got to figure out a way to turn this into something where I have the freedom that I once had. It's just nonstop, you'd never get time for yourself, you're always clocking in. So, it was a culture shock. I went almost 15 years without having a real job, to, almost three years here now.

When you first started the job, what was the learning curve like?
They saw the potential in me, but there wasn't a dire need to have a fourth employee here. They saw that fit and me being a part of the company from the start they were willing to put in some time to train me. The lead designer at the time, Aaron Hoover, was the one that saw it in me and he knew facets of the job. He constantly pushed me and handed me projects that were slightly over my head, and then would sit down with me and get me going. He got me up to speed pretty quick. It was good, but scary; he handed me things that I thought I was going to really screw up. I was just forced to learn.

What is the process of designing shoe like now for Lakai?
There area couple ways. Some projects are more lenient—there's not necessarily a spot in the line, but there is something that you want to see made, and you just take that upon yourself to start sampling it. Not necessarily the outsoles because it's costly, but uppers, you can just throw it on different outsoles and play around with it. You get the shape right and dial in the pattern and just bring it to life. A lot of times, once it's there and in your face and people see it in 3D, it's like, wow, that's dope, and make it work. There are some other projects where we look at competitors, say there is a void in our line where we are missing a style competition-wise, we might be missing those dollars, so then you design with that in mind and try to make something comparable. That's the aspect of design that I'm having a hard time with. I like to design for myself and what I think is good, and to be a real designer you have to take direction from any which way and make something. Honestly, I think I take it from my heart—what I think is dope—and it works for me when it's those projects and it's tough when it's those other projects where I have direction given from sales or something.

You've always been known for great style, since the Mad Circle days, that was one of the things that was special about your skating. Do you get a similar expression of your personal style design shoes that you got from skating?
Yeah, for sure. You nailed it. That's pretty much it—when I get to make something that expresses me I think that's the fulfillment that I'm looking for me. That's my nature. That's probably why I skated how I did and it's why I got into something similar to this.

Who are the best and worst to work with on the team?
Everyone is pretty comparable. I didn't work with Mike Mo on his shoes, but he was pretty consistent about coming in and making sure it was what he wanted. I think he probably was the best. Which is good, because he's really picky, so it's smart on his part to come in. No one really bad, I feel like these guys just hope to get things to a point where they like it and then walk away. I worked on Marc Johnson's fifth shoe, and he was really involved in the beginning, he said what he wanted, and I think that's probably all he thought he needed to do was say, this is what I need, this is what I want, I want to look down and see this, and I think it was pretty successful. He's emailed me and left messages saying that this is the best shoe that he's ever had. Things like that really mean a lot to me.

How much do you think about technology and innovation versus just the style of the shoe?
To a small extent—I don't feel that skate shoes need to be that technical. I think that fit and board control are always going to be the best things, make sure that the shoe really fits snug to your foot and pads it just enough so it's not in the way but it does protect your foot, and just the feel of the board. I know what I'm looking for in a shoe, and a lot of that technology gets in the way of the feel.

What are your thoughts on the big brands, like Nike and adidas,
getting involved in skateboarding?

Some people like to get bitter, but if you think about it we put ourselves out there begging for it with things like X Games, exposing our market so broadly. We made an industry that is lucrative and they are going to come after it. They're footwear companies, they make shoes for every sport, why would they not? Especially, when, I'm sure statistics show, that more kids are signing up for skate camp than they are for baseball camp now. It just pushes us to make a better product. Before the bigger brands got involved the bar was a little lower. There were skate brands just learning how to make shoes. But when these big shoe companies came in, they'd been making shoes for years with way more technology and money; it's forcing everyone to step up. I'm hoping that we're in a position to step up and shine amongst brands like Nike, and let the other ones that don't pay attention to the details fall. It's just survival of the fittest.

If you weren't designing skate shoes right now, what would you be doing?
I dunno. Hopefully not skating for a sh**ty, C-rated skateboard company, trying to figure things out.

Will we see another trick from you in the future?
I'd like to. All I skate is skateparks these days, but if I can venture out into the streets and it comes as easy as it comes in the skatepark—I don't think it will—I'd like to pop up and do something that looks halfway decent.

We'll be looking forward to it.