This story was originally published as part of Complex’s April/May 2009 magazine issue.

Phase 1: The Promise

In Which Two Men Plot Something Called Domination…

Kanye West (MC, Producer, Hypebeast): I’ve always stressed my passion for design—and not just, “Oh, let me throw my name on this,” but to use my celebrity as an opportunity to jump into the design world—and in this case, to design my own shoe.

Mark Smith (Creative Dir. of Special Projects, Nike): I don’t really put my life in dates in a normal way. [Laughs.] So I couldn’t even say when everything went down, but one day I got a call asking me if I would work with Kanye on the project. 

KW: It was after the Air Force 1 “1 Night Only” event [in December 2006]. I sat there and drew countless forms of shoes, and a lot of them were inspired by Back to the Future, by the McFlys or whatever people call them—I just call them the Mags. All kinds of different ideas that stemmed from that and Robotech and all my other anime influences.

Complex April/May 2009 Nike Air Yeezy Kanye Sketches
Kanye’s initial sketches. Image via Complex Original

MS: What we wanted to do was really create something that was specific and unique to the two of us working together, so it wasn’t an entourage full of people on either side. 

KW: Nike is the No. 1 sneaker lifestyle brand, right? And I’m the No. 1 most influential cultural pop art brand: scarves, beards, plastic glasses, whatever. So you take those two things and you mesh that—it’s very exciting. I’m the Nike of culture. 

MS: He showed me what he was into. I asked him about sneakers that he liked, what he was wearing, and why he was wearing them; he’s very up to the minute on what he likes. 

KW: I grabbed all these Jordans from their archives and I’m sitting in the office next to Tinker [Hatfield, Jordan designer] and Mark, just pulling out shit and putting it in front of him like, “I like this element.” We just vibed it out.

MS: He started just dumping stuff out, and I did the same thing. We did it in the Innovation Kitchen—Nike’s underground innovation center, where tomorrow’s technologies are kind of getting bubbled up, so he actually was seeing a bunch of stuff that nobody else would see.

Complex April/May 2009 Nike Air Yeezy Sketch
A refined schematic with perf leather and the forefoot strap. Image via Complex Original

KW: The types of shit Nike can do? I say, “Hey, use this sole,” and they have it? The possibilities are just endless.

MS: I always try to look at things through an athlete’s eyes—if you look at a basketball player, his or her performance is on court, in the middle of a game. The equivalent for Kanye would be to get onstage and rock it for a couple of hours. And he goes through a pretty athletic show, so we wanted to make sure these were super-comfortable performance shoes.

KW: Every guy drew Nikes in fourth grade, so to really do it is a dream come true.