WATCH: Meet the Shy Kid from UST Who Designs Your Favorite NBA Stars' Nike Sneakers
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
Admit it. You’re not the only one spending all those hours on Nike By You, mixing and matching color and material choices on sneakers you’ll never end up ordering anyway. You’re not alone.
Designing sneakers for a living is probably one of the coolest jobs in the world. Imagine if someone from our islands could break through and make it halfway across the globe to the Nike campus someday. Little did we know that it’s already been done. We caught up with Nike Footwear Designer Kevin Reyes to talk about his journey growing up in the motherland all the way to doing what he does in Beaverton, Oregon today.
It was apparent from the get-go that Kevin Reyes wasn’t your archetypal amboy. Whatever success he has had thus far has done very little to change the shy, soft-spoken 32-year-old who migrated to the U.S. 12 years ago and still holds a lot of the same values from back home close to heart.
FX rides to school
Born and raised in the Philippines, Reyes was just another Industrial Design student at the University of Sto. Tomas in the late 2000s. “I always felt like I had design in my blood,” he tells Esquire Philippines. “My mom was an interior designer in the Philippines. That’s where people say I get it from.
Kevin (left) hanging out in UST's Beato Angelico Building with his friend Carlo Reniva
“Every morning I would have to leave home at least an hour and a half or two hours before (class),” Reyes recalls of his daily commute to school. “At that time you could still make it from Commonwealth to UST even with traffic. I’d wake up early and ride the tricycle then I’d wait along the highway. There’s really no designated spot where you’re supposed to wait for a bus or FX or jeep so you’re just finding whichever spot doesn’t have people then flag one down and hopefully you get an FX, at least may aircon.”
Reyes looks back with a great deal of fondness on his education in USTe. “I was part of the College of Fine Arts Football Team and I did Judo for a little bit,” he recounts.
Even the dreaded seasonal floods, part and parcel of the UST experience, brings back unforgettable memories. One, in particular, was when he got stranded in school the night before his birthday and had to spend the night sleeping on the floor of a basketball court while his friends were waiting to surprise him with a salubong back at home. Guess who ended up more surprised when he never showed up.
"Sa buong stay mo, if you don’t get stranded there at least twice, I don’t think you did it right,” he says with a huge smile.
Kevin receiving an award in UST with teammates Andy Kubota and David Gutierrez
Tough years and a perfectly timed letter
When the recession hit in the late 2000s, a lot of Filipinos felt the effects of the economic crisis, some more than most. His parents had to take care of Kevin and his two older sisters. It was a challenging time for the Reyeses.
Family photo everyone wearing the Nike Flex Contact 1, which Kevin helped design
“I always will look back to 2009,” Reyes recalls. “There was no work. It had been a while since my parents had work and they had three mouths to feed. It’s a testament to how lucky I am with the parents I have because they really did a good job of shielding me and my sisters from what was going on behind the scenes. They tried their best to make it feel like it was business as usual but I could tell deep down that if we kept going, things could have gotten super difficult.”
Call it divine intervention, coincidence or just plain luck, the family would get perfectly timed help that would ultimately set the wheels in motion for the youngest Reyes sibling’s life to change forever.
“While we were going through that, we got a letter in the mail which was from the U.S. Embassy saying that our petition for a Green Card got approved,” he recalls. “It was kind of crazy. When you apply for a petition, it takes 18 to 20 years and that’s exactly what happened with us. I was 20 years old, and I think when it was petitioned, I was basically still a baby. It happened exactly when we kind of had our backs against the wall.”
The family decided to take their chance at a better life. The tough decision to migrate to the United States also meant having to leave behind his two sisters who were already over the age of 21. But sacrifices had to be made.
“I was in my junior year when we decided to uproot and move,” Reyes recalls. “My parents and I flew out and there was literally no plan. We just had the clothes that we had and whatever money in our pockets. It was a restart.”
After moving around a lot and trying to find their place in America, the family settled in Northern California and called Daly City home. Reyes decided to pursue his Industrial Design degree, working his way through college at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. As a kid, Reyes dreamed of becoming a cartoonist. He was a Spider-Man nut and that was what got him started with drawing.
With the Nike Air Precision II
Another dream he had, just like any other starry-eyed Filipino kid growing up, was to make it to the NBA. Reyes grew up adoring Kobe Bryant. His love for basketball and talent for drawing led to him thinking about designing sneakers someday.
“Becoming a footwear designer was cool but as a kid, I didn’t know how to get to that,” he says. “There were no real steps that you could take so I had that in my head and then it kind of went away and I kind of forgot about it.”
College in the U.S. would reunite him with that childhood dream. “I didn’t even know you could do Footwear Design through an Industrial Design major. I was living with a couple of friends that I met from school so I was kind of on their couch for a while. My friend walks in and he had some shoe sketches with him,” he recalls. “Up to that point, all the stuff that I had worked on in school—my portfolio—was all non-footwear stuff. Coming into my senior year in university, I proposed a footwear concept to my professor. It was definitely one of the most fun projects I’d ever done in university and I felt like that was the strongest piece in all of the work that I did so I felt like this was my path.”
It wasn’t long until Reyes’ work caught the attention of sneaker companies in the East Coast, which opened up opportunities for the young designer. “New Balance saw that project that I did on my senior year and they were intrigued so that got me my internship with them,” he says. “From thereon I just really worked my butt off.”
After six months in Massachusetts and just as he was extending his stay in Boston after barely a week into his new internship at Reebok, the phone rang. “The footwear industry’s so small. I got on Nike’s radar from there. They gave me a call and that’s how I got here.”
Making it to Beaverton
To say that making it to the Nike World Headquarters in 2015 was huge would be an even bigger understatement. The sprawling 280-acre campus located in Beaverton, Oregon is, to sneakerheads, what Wonka’s Chocolate Factory probably meant to Charlie Bucket. Also, going to work and seeing his design icons like Eric Avar, Sergio Lozano, Leo Chang, and of course, the legendary Tinker Hatfield wasn’t half bad.
Showing my cousin JB Hernandez around Nike campus
“Every time you see the hat and the glasses, for everyone on campus, that’s the man right there,” he says of random Hatfield sightings. Reyes was hired to be part of the team that worked on running, men’s and women’s training, and basketball footwear priced at $100 (about P4900) and below.
“When they offered me that, I was like, yeah, of course,” he says. “Just give me a pen and paper and I’ll draw anything for you guys.” Although it may not seem as glamorous as designing the fancier, more expensive limited-edition sneakers, Reyes saw it as a great way to start and master his craft.
“It feels almost like you only have three crayons to color with and you have to make the most out of that,” he shares. “You just really learn the ins and outs of shoemaking, especially if you’re doing it for a specific sport; really trying to stay truthful and honest with how you approach your design process and how you make the product. It teaches you the foundational stuff as you design and make footwear.”
Designing for Kobe
Reyes has designed a number of sneakers since he started with the company. His debut was the Nike Flex Contact running shoe, which was a sub-line for Nike Free. But a creation of his that will forever have a special place in his heart was a sneaker he designed in 2019. The Mamba Focus was a takedown model of the late great Kobe Bryant’s signature shoe and an absolute dream come true for Reyes.
Nike Mamba Focus sketch with a message and signed by Kevin
“That one’s almost like a love letter to the DNA of Kobe’s Nike shoes in general. Obviously, I had to design it at a $100 price point so it was really all about how you push the needle on a budget,” he shares. "Kobe had a lot of input in all the products. The one thing about him, and I think it showed in all the Kobe shoes, was that he was very highly involved. He won’t tell you to draw this line or draw that line, but if he doesn’t like it, he’ll tell you right away.
“When I walked into that meeting room to show Kobe this is where the shoe’s at so far, he had his notebook out. Nobody writes the notes for him,” Reyes recalls. “He scrutinizes everything himself and I know that sounds like something I’m just supposed to say but no, that is the real scoop. It only inspired me even more because I was one of the biggest Kobe fans growing up. He inspired me when I was working my way through college. When I saw Mamba Mentality in that meeting room, I was just like, man, that’s my guy.”
Another treasured memory he has of meeting with Bryant was when The Mamba told him that it was the best $100 sneaker he’s ever seen and that he had to get a pair for his daughter Gigi. Because of this, when you look closely at the shoe’s outsole, you’ll notice a series of dots that turn out to be Braille that was first employed by Avar on Kobe’s signature line.
“I decided to put my own twist on Braille,” Reyes explains. “That’s the names of his children.” Immortalizing Bryant’s devotion to his daughters on the shoe he designed for his childhood hero just felt like the perfect final touch to what would become his personal tribute to someone who meant so much to Reyes throughout his journey.
More to come
Five years into his residency at Nike and it seems like the best is yet to come for Reyes. Set to launch this summer is a new shoe he designed for another exciting NBA star. The Giannis Immortality, the first sub-line shoe in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Nike Zoom Freak signature series, is scheduled to release sometime this month.
“I just have a great feeling about that one,” he shares. “I’m so excited. I felt that I was able to just run away with it and I really hope people feel that when they see it and feel great when they play with it on the court.” Another basketball shoe is due to release in October.
Blazing a trail for Pinoys who dream of following in his footsteps, Reyes has this to say: “I always look back at when I was working my way through university, trying to get myself through, and I was really living paycheck to paycheck and pulling all-nighters. It was also really fun because I was just getting lost in the creativity and the work that goes with trying to create something that you feel pushes the envelope on whatever it is.
“If it’s sneaker design or if you want to be the next awesome painter, it’s so much fun to be in that grind,” he adds. “Have fun in that journey. I knew that this is what I wanted to do when I was basically broke, I had nothing, not in the best living conditions, but I still wanted to do it. I was happy every day that I did it and I was willing to do anything really to get to my goal.”
What was evident throughout my conversation with Reyes is how he has managed to stay rooted and remain grounded despite his success so far. “I bring a lot of the Philippines with me all the time. I grew up there. The Philippines is just part of my DNA,” he says. “I get frustrated too but I think the most Filipino thing that I have is optimism. It’s super underrated and a really powerful thing. Also, as you’re going through your journey, empathy and kindness goes a long way. It’s always going to be a collaborative process so if you can do good for people along the way, that just puts you in a better position in a team.”
Playing basketball at the Nike campus
Kevin Reyes is a rarity. There are few unique instances when real life turns out even better than you ever imagined and when you manage to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. His is definitely one of those. If a Filipino kid from here can make it all the way to the Nike campus, boldly going where nobody from España has gone before, imagine the possibilities. Oh, the places you’ll go.
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