We’re big fans of Chicago’s St. Alfred store, and this week we were lucky enough to catch up with David Robinson, the man behind the lens at St. Alfred. David does most of the photography for the company/brand, and his eye is behind the popular photo shirts the brand dropped in the last year. Aside from that, he’s also the co-manager and co-buyer for the shop, which is run by a small team with great taste. Keep reading to learn more about David’s work and to learn a little more about what St. Alfred has planned. If you’re a fan of collaborations, you’ll love what kicks he brought out this week.
Mariana Mandanas: What shoes do you have on right now?
David Robinson: I’m wearing a pair of the Ubiq x Vans Vault Sk8-His. Ubiq in Philly recently did a collab with Vans and they used the skill of Hiroshi Hirakawa from Three Tides Tattoo in Japan to draw the art that is on the Sk8-Hi and Authentic. If you look closely you can see the Samurai wearing Sk8-His and he’s on a boat traveling with boxes of Vans. Very ill collab from top to bottom.
MM: You rep Chicago, so I know you gotta love Jordans. Which ones are your favorite and why?
DR: My two favorite without a doubt are the Jordan 1 specifically the black/red color and the Jordan 3–Both styles are timeless to me and both had a heavy impact on the design of sneakers that’s still felt today. Each shoe is synonymous with my two homes [Chicago and New York] as well. The Jordan 1 reminds me of Chicago and the beginning of the golden era of the Bulls, which was a great period of basketball in general. The Jordan 3 reminds me of Mars Blackmon, Brooklyn, Spike Lee and another portion of my childhood when I was in New York. My father was from Brooklyn and that entire side of my family is all from New York. He had a love/hate relationship with Jordan, they were always a problem for his Knicks.
MM: Yeah, definitely. The Knicks were pretty hot that time as well, but Jordan was just too good. So many legends don’t have a ring because of him.
DR: Well, he [my dad] was still personally a fan as long as they weren’t playing the Knicks. Those two styles [the Jordan 1 and the Jordan 3] are two of the few models that I have multiple pairs of the same shoe as well as the same shoe from different years. Honorable mention also goes to the black Jordan 6 as well as the Bordeaux Jordan 7 which is crazy comfortable. I always thought it was interesting that it took inspiration from the Huarache, which is another one of my favorite styles.
MM: Jordans aside, what’s your favorite shoe of all time?
DR: That’s a difficult one, I don’t think I have just one favorite shoe of all time. I have a few but for this question I’ll give one, one specific one–the Nike Lunar Rejuven8 Mid, specifically the Mr. Cartoon version. This was the second shoe I bought that had Nike’s Lunar technology…it’s is lightweight, extremely comfortable and really clean. The Mr. Cartoon version had a black upper with a white lunar sole which made it really versatile and wearable shoe. I remember when I first saw the promo photo of it I bugged every person I met that worked for Nike to find out the distribution and release date. Fortunately, when we did the collaborative space with Nike we got a few pairs in and a short time after that, Nike sent me a pair so I have one I’ve kept on reserve. People don’t even know what they are so they have that wow factor every time I wear them. They’ve held up really well, I’ve worn them in multiple cities, the beach, tossed them in the washing machine and they keep going–plus the interior of the shoe is made with a moisture-wicking material. Unfortunately Nike doesn’t doesn’t make this style anymore. I also love the old Nike Air Force Max, the Huarache and the HTM2 Run Boot Mid which I’m still looking for in black in a 13.
MM: Let’s take it all the way back before Saint Alfred…how’d you get involved in the sneaker game?
DR: I’ve been involved for as long as I can remember. Whether it was seeing people in certain sneakers when I was younger or certain commercials. I’d also order Eastbay catalogs to flip through even though I couldn’t afford to buy anything. For me at the time sneakers and sports went hand in hand–so I remember all the old Nike basketball commercials along with the running and cross training commercials from Nike. I loved what Weiden + Kennedy did as far as the cleverness in their advertising and usually in the commercials you only got a glimpse of the shoe.
MM: How has your taste changed from back then to today?
DR: It’s been the same for the most part through out the years. Maybe a few less basketball shoes, but I’ve always been open to a variety of styles of shoes and I’ve always like some of the more weirder, tech-driven styles. If anything I’d say my knowledge of the history of certain silhouettes has gotten better. So I’ll try to find older niche styles like Air Mocs, Sock Darts, Prestos, Footscapes, HTM2 Run Boot…which is usually difficult since I’m a size 13.
MM: You’re also involved in photography–what are your usual subjects and what inspires you artistically?
DR: My two usual subjects are people and product. Product is work-related since I handle the majority of the product photography for Saint Alfred as well as do a little freelance photography for Nike. Shooting product has given me a better appreciation for the details of a item and to keep in mind what images I would look for if I was buying something and could only see it online. As far as photography, I prefer people and that’s what the majority of my personal work is. I went to school for Psychology because I’ve always been fascinated by why people do what they do, and for me photography has been a way of further understanding a person, the true person not the public persona they project. To me, photography is a extension of Psychology. As far as what motivates me creatively, I would have to say almost everything I lay my eyes on. I’m a visual learner so a lot of images, books, magazines, museums, cartoons, etc. all spark me creatively.
MM: You’ve done shirts and photography for the company, but what’s your favorite project you’ve ever worked on for St. Alfred?
DR: I know I’m cheating by saying this but there are three of those projects and they’re my favorite for different reasons. The first is the first tee I did for the shop. At the time of the first one it was the first photo tee the shop did–the owners asked me if I’d like to select one of my photos for a shirt and so far, I’ve done two photo tees and I’m honored by the fact that the both sold out pretty quick. I’m still amazed when I see someone wearing one–it’s an image that seems to have resonated with people not only in Chicago, but throughout the world. The second project was Six Points, which was the co-branded pop up space we did with Nike from 2010 to 2011 I believe. It was the first time something like that happened in Chicago. Through that space, we did changes based on various sports seasons and we all had a chance to meet a great deal of people. It brought recognition to Chicago as a major market, and allowed me to start doing freelance photo work for Nike. I’m grateful to Nike for the opportunity and grateful to the city for coming out to that and showing us love.
MM: And what about that last project?
DR: The third project was the Asics Gel-Lyte we did earlier this year. It was our first footwear project that was sold on a international level and we really didn’t anticipate the public reaction. I have a friend in Paris and he’s told me how he’s seen people out there in them. I was on a plane coming back from New York and two kids in highschool were in town for Lollapalooza so I passed them the card to the shop, they looked at the name and said, “Oh you guys did those Asics, I really wanted those but they sold out too quick.” To have something that was a group effort resonate like that is a honor.
MM: As a buyer you probably have to filter through tons of shoes….what makes something really special for you/what catches your eye in terms of design, concept, etc. What is important to you in terms of what shoes you choose for the store?
DR: What’s most important to me as far as design is cleanliness and timelessness. To me it has to have a purpose, a backstory or a reason. To me, to have something that’s different just to be different without a deeper story can be corny often times. I also don’t want something that copies something that has come before it.
MM: What shoes have you been gravitating towards recently?
DR: Lately it’s been a lot more of the running influenced styles. I have a friend that’s a really big fan of Air Maxes and Prestos, and over the past few years he’s helped me appreciate and broaden my knowledge on certain niche running styles. Besides that it’s been a lot of clean classics like Sk8-His and Converse Chuck Taylor collabs from a variety of people. Those styles are timeless and are even more interesting when a person, shop, firm, etc. are allowed to give their own take on it.
MM: What would you like to see more from different brands in terms of sneaker design?
DR: I would like to see more attention to detail and better use of materials. For example, instead of doing 3,000 of one shoe made up of materials that don’t hold up like they should based on the amount of bread your paying for them, do 1,500 of a shoe that has quality materials instead. Quality over quantity. That helps build brand loyalty and the customer values what they bought that much more. The item has a chance to grow and age with the buyer and becomes less of a disposable item. That’s why some of the best shoes look good after they’ve been worn for years. That’s another example of good design.
MM: Working in the industry, you must have crazy access to styles that are hard to come by…what’s your most “valuable” sneaker, and what kind of value does it hold for you?
DR: There are a few shoes that are valuable in a monetary way but my most valuable ones to me are valuable for a totally different reason. For example, the Mars Yard Shoe Tom Sachs did with Nike is valuable to me because of what I went through to get my hands on a pair after I saw the promotional photos and learning what went into making the shoe. None of my friends were feeling them when I showed them photos, but to me it was a clever release that was in the true spirit of Nike that I’ve come to love. To make the shoe, Nike bought a material from NASA called Vectran that’s used in astronauts suits as well as the air bag in the rover that was on Mars. Vectran is as strong as steel, flame retardant and water resistant. I’m fascinated with materials, especially unsual materials or those that serve a functional purpose. In the States the shoe was only available at Union in LA and in the pop up store at the exhibit which was at the Park Avenue Amory. A friend of mine went to the preview of the exhibit and was able to grab one of the very few size 13s. I still didn’t know he was able to get me a pair so I kept calling Union and they had one 12 which I grabbed just in case. Having a chance to see the exhibit in person made me appreciate the shoes that much more and to see the small details Toms Sachs and Nike did for the shoe make them one of my favorite pairs of shoes I own. Another pair I have that are pretty valuable to me are the “112” LeBron 8s.
MM: What’s the story behind that?
DR: I helped Clark Kent get his hands on a pair of shoes he really wanted and I jokingly mentioned if he had anything he wasn’t wearing feel free to send since we’re the same size. A week later I get a box and at the bottom is the box signed with the 112 joints in them–I was speechless. To me it wasn’t Clark Kent the cat that loves shoes the sent them to me, it was the Clark Kent that produced on Reasonable Doubt. I first knew about Clark Kent from hiphop, not sneakers, So that was really a honor.
MM: What was the best release of 2013 for you and what upcoming releases are you most excited about?
DR: I may be a little biased but for me the best release was the Asics we did. The inspiration and color story was a homage to the city of Chicago and all the people in it. It’s not the best because it sold out or it’s worth bread or it may end up on year-end lists or any reason like that. It was our first footwear collab released on a international level and to see the reaction to something a handful of people in a small boutique in Chicago worked on together was surprising to me. We [at St. Alfred] have a small crew so a few of us wear a few hats as far as what we do for the shop. Plus it never ceases to amaze me when I go somewhere and see someone in our gear, or in this case in our shoes. It never gets old and I never take it for granted. I’m appreciative to everyone that checks for what we do. But there is a release coming up that I’m really excited about but I can’t speak on it. It’s not something we’re doing but it’s a collab with a major footwear manufacter that I believe should be out next year with one of my favorite designers who owns my favorite brand. Haha, I wish I could be more specific but I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.