The Biz! Kevin Imamura (Nike SB)
When Nike decided to do skate, they did it big! Back in 2002, their crack team began an astonishing period of sublime product development that created unprecedented hype – Alpha Numeric, Supreme, Jedi, Homer, Tokyo, Dunkle, Raygun, Aloha, Bison, Pigeons, Tiffany, Hemp, Hunter... Bam! All of them dropped like bunkerbusters complete with fat tongues and Zoom Air. Nike SB made sneakers the coolest damn thing in the world and Kevin Imamura was on the frontline to see it all happen. But before that, he worked in college radio and magazines, using his grounding in pop culture to kick open one door after another. Following your passion is one choice piece of advice, but as Kevin says, connecting the dots is what it’s all about.
What did you aspire to be as a kid?
Let me see... Because of the TV show Emergency, I think I wanted to be a paramedic or a fire fighter. Once you get into skateboarding, you start to gravitate towards stuff that would kind of revolve around...
Yeah... (laughs). My parents were mostly like ‘have fun and try a bunch of different things’ and I played flag football and little league, but I sucked and when skateboarding came along, that suited me just fine. I actually got really into BMX for a while. I did that for several years ‘til I got hit by a car. I also gotta say that the immediate family that I had around me included a couple of uncles that were really into movies and magazines and music and fashion and pop culture in general. They were a pretty good education. They were artists as well, so they definitely educated me on that side of culture. All the exposure to media and mass culture got me really interested in magazines, and so by the time I got out of high school, the combination of skateboarding, music, media and just pop culture in general, really drove me in that direction.
Did you study after high school?
I ended up doing four years at university, where I worked at the radio station, and it definitely opened my eyes in terms of the different types of personalities that you connect with. Right after school I did an internship with the LA Weekly, which is the big, free weekly paper in Los Angeles. I got in with the music director and did a little bit of writing. Then I hit up a guy by the name of Mark Woodlief who did a magazine called Warp, so I asked him if he had any freelance writing and he said ‘well, I’m quitting my job in two weeks, why don’t you apply for it?’ That’s basically how I got my foot in the door at Transworld. So it’s kind of like stumbling along, one thing leading to another, and just basically being excited about a lot of things.
It’s interesting you bring that up, because for a lot of kids, that random path is a pretty hard concept to come to terms with. I think everyone wants some certainty about the future, which you have if you study medicine as a vocation for example, but if you’re more creatively inclined, the trajectory is not so easy to predict...
Right. That’s the one bit of advice that I can give people. If you do go to school make sure you’re studying something that you’re interested in, because along the way you’ll get connected to other interesting people. I studied political science and I never thought that I was going to get a job in government or as a lawyer or anything, but the combination of the subjects was more akin to journalism in a roundabout way. Like I said, I definitely encourage people to pursue things that you’re passionate about rather than constantly thinking ‘if I do this, it’s going to get me a job’ because most of the time, that’s not how it works.
How did you actually end up at Nike?
It was a weird situation. After Warp, we started a new magazine called Stance and we did some theme issues and one of them was AIR, so I interviewed Sandy Bodecker (Nike Legend) and Tinker Hatfield (Nike Designer), which is definitely something I was really proud of, because at that point Tinker wasn’t giving a lot of interviews. I basically just kept in touch with the guys and one thing led to another and I basically asked them if they needed some help and they said yeah! So I packed up my stuff, left San Diego and moved to Portland.
That must’ve been quite an adventure, because the next five years of SB are probably one of the most amazing periods in marketing and product creation. Did you feel like it was a pretty wild time when you were living through it?
Exciting and totally exhilarating, for sure. It’s not something where you are looking at stuff as it’s happening and thinking you’re changing the world, but... It was a very small team of people doing stuff at a very, very large company, and most of the time it was us just screwing around having fun. Marcus Tayui used to be the PLM, he had connections with Stash and Futura and James Jebbia (Supreme). Even before that, we were doing stuff with Stussy and Paul Mittleman and a lot of it was just connecting the dots and some really, really cool stuff came out of it. So if you sit back and look at it now, yeah, it’s totally a trip. And to witness everything that’s come in the wake of all the different shoes and events and the collaborations that we’ve done... It’s definitely something that I can say I’m proud to have been a part of.
NOW you’re the brand manager at Nike SB, is that right?
Actually it’s just changed. I was working out at Beaverton and I’m now based in Los Angeles. So, my title is now Marketing Manager West. You could say that, basically, I’m the marketing and communications manager for Nike Skateboarding, but I’m based in Los Angeles, so my focus is California. It’s only been about a month or so since I’ve been down here, so I’m still actually doing a lot of the same stuff that I was.
Is there a moment that really stands out as something that made you really proud of what you’d achieved at the brand?
OK, you can have more than one...
Nah... that’s impossible, man. There’s been so many different shoes, and a lot were attached to events as well. It was truly thrilling the first time that we threw a party in San Diego around ASR where we gave away the Dunkles. That was really cool just because it was our first big party. We had J Dilla play, we had Z-Trip. It was really showing what happens when Nike SB puts on an event. Doing stuff like having J Mascis play an acoustic set the following year was really cool and that brought about the Dinosaur Junior Dunk. I can definitely say that the people that I work with at Nike SB are some of the hardest working people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing office space with. I can say that with pride, because you look at our track record and the projects that we’ve pulled off, it’s high level stuff. That to me will probably leave a longer impression than any one particular product or event.
You got into the industry more or less as a fan. Has it altered your opinions about shoes?
It has and it hasn’t. I mean, the overall aesthetics of what you look for does change, but that’s also just because you get tired of certain things. I wouldn’t have been completely interested in working for the company if I wasn’t like a total dork about shoes. You get bitten by the bug early on and you just keep getting excited about the little things. Sometimes it’s a shoe, a piece of clothing, a component on a skateboard, or a bicycle. What it comes down to is your interest in the detail. Is it because it’s simple? Is it because it’s totally complicated? That’s the thing that still attracts me.
So what are you working on right now?
Yes. Stefan Janoski is also working on a shoe. That’ll be coming out next summer. And we’ve also got another shoe called the Veloce which is based on the outsole of the Tre A.D. That’s a completely re-designed upper that’s based off of Nike’s heritage with running shoes.
A lot of kids would probably be really intrigued as to how you get a job like yours? What advice could you give them?
Passion. And obviously sticking to your guns in terms of figuring out that thing that you love the most, so that when it comes down to it, you’re prepared. But in terms of actually getting the job, it’s just paying attention and trying to connect the dots. That’s what my job comes down to, connecting the dots. Stupid as that sounds, that’s it. I really did mean it when I said earlier to make sure you study something that you’re passionate about, because it will open up lots of doors and allow you to make the connections that will help you jump the queue. Going from radio, to magazines, to a shoe company, the common thread throughout all of that was always skateboarding. Each one of those individual things stemmed from being passionate about one thing.
And finally, what shoes are you wearing right now?
A pair of Nike SB cotton socks. (laughs).
Sorry, which ones?
The Nike FREE Hybrid Boot. It melted my face the first time I saw it because the lines on it are definitely a classic boot, like a Redwing. But it’s got the Huarache back which is also woven, and it’s got a FREE outsole so it’s the most comfortable shoe on the planet. That’s the beauty of Nike. When you can tap into all those things and have classic lines as well as technology and maximum comfort and performance. That to me, is the company at its best. It feels good, it looks good, and you can just be stoked about the shoes that you’re wearing.
This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here