Q+A – Gavin Ivester

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Established in 1948, Puma never received as much brand recognition in the United States as Adidas, its sibling shoe company established by the German Dassler family. But over the last few years, Puma has rolled out new stores, new models and new cachet. Its product line is part retro, emphasizing styles born in the ’70s, and part futuristic, notably in the standout Mostro model, whose nubby sole wraps around the foot and is secured with straps like a shoulder belt. One of the key figures in Puma’s revival is senior vice president and general manager Gavin Ivester. His career high points include creating prototypes of futuristic high-tech product concepts for Apple (he worked on the Newton and first PowerBook) and designing for Nike. In 2001, Ivester relocated to Puma’s Boston-area offices.

Puma seems to have two very different design components, one that looks back and one that looks forward. What’s behind that?

A significant part of our business is based on what we call “heritage product,” the ultimate result of a market oversaturated with tech-based products. The goodwill left over for the brand was far bigger than its market size. And you can only get new kids if you have goodwill. When I was a kid, I had Puma Clydes (the basketball shoe endorsed by New York Knicks star Walt “Clyde” Frazier) and Puma soccer boots. Kids discovering us now wouldn’t pay attention if we didn’t have authenticity. It travels through the classic network of opinion leaders, the bell curve of innovators and followers.

What’s Puma’s design strategy?

More than a year ago we laid out three points for Puma: Manage success, plant seeds and build balance. Our corporate mission is to be the most desirable “sportslifestyle brand.” That’s sports-lifestyle-one word. We’re not trying to be the biggest, but the most desirable, creating interest in brand and products for people with a high metabolism for fashion and sneakers. The adjunct to this statement is “no sport without lifestyle, no lifestyle without sport,” which means fashion plays off a performance product. In skateboarding, for instance, a whole lifestyle surrounds the sport and its low-profile sneakers. We’re validated in that business because of our tradition in low-profile sneakers.

How do you “manage success?”

Managing success is all about how to keep that heritage business. The way we do it is to enliven products through color and materials. It’s a fashion-based rather than industrial design-based approach. People love the products but they also want something different. It’s like the Ford Thunderbird. You don’t just do the same car. You make it feel current. We plan life cycles. We bring it out for the first time in as original a form as possible and then we bring out additional colors and materials. The people who know care; those who don’t would never notice.

You say you plant seeds in your design strategy. Are you referring to new designs?

Yes. One seed was Mostro. That was a signature product. It’s about three things: the low-profile outsole, the up-wrapping knobs on the sole and the closure system, or straps. The name and the idea come from the great Ducati Mostro motorcycle. The idea was that Puma is like Ducati. Ducati isn’t huge like Honda and is using a 30-year-old technology that’s still great. In the same way, we don’t have a giant research lab like Nike. We’re more like Ducati.

You’ve done the Mostro in lots of colors and materials.

We’ve done the Mostro in everything from garment leather to rip-stop nylon. We do everything possible to make it an interesting product. On a big seller we don’t want people to see themselves walking down the street. So we use lots of different materials and keep the quantities of any single version down.

Did the move from high-tech to footwear give you a different perspective?

Coming from the computer business, I was less intimidated by technology and able to see more opportunities for precision in the products. With footwear, the closest piece to anything on a computer is the midsole and outsole. When I got to Nike I found the designers did 90 percent hand drawings. Now I do sketches to come up with ideas. Another shift is that I used to use Ashlar-Vellum and now I’ve jumped to Adobe Illustrator.

Puma seems to have distinguished itself with its color palette.

I don’t think it’s the palette, but the way we use the colors. At Nike I sat on the color committee and would bet the colors we use at Puma aren’t so different from theirs. We like more challenging color combinations. My favorite is decadent chocolate with Pompeiian red.

Shoe companies are moving more and more into electronics, beginning with watches and extending to MP3 players and so on. Does your background help Puma there?

What we’ve tried to do with watches is to capture a flavor already in footwear and apparel, alluding to the ’70s, and appropriate in terms of materials and color. So we have this beefy thing, a big chunk of metal.

How do Puma’s stores serve the brand? A; We use our company stores to feed and test new ideas. It’s a huge advantage to be able to place products we believe in but are ahead of the market. For example, we used to sponsor Oscar de la Hoya and saw a fashion trend coming in with boxing boots. We studied boots from the past and tried out prototypes in boxing gyms, and they loved it. So this started as a performance boxing boot and moved to a fashion trend.

Design writer Phil Patton contributes to The New York Times, Esquire and other publications.

Photocredit: Puma