- Ingmar Chen
THEY are the minimalists, the aspiring architects, the interior designers, the MoMa-obsessed, the fashion and design-conscious, the sleep-deprived art school student, the instagrammer that hashtags #architectureporn, the essentialists, the outliers, the people who understand that this is not just a shoe with a black dot on it but represents a concept bigger than that.
A new alternative in lifestyle footwear with original designs and a fresh outlook, THEY New York has a passion for minimalist design that captures both practical functionality and an inarguably sophisticated aesthetic. We spoke to founders Jack and Angela Lin to learn more about the brand‘s craftsmanship, influences, creativity, and what it‘s like working so closely with a sibling.
How and when did the idea of creating THEY NY take shape?
[Angela] We first started the brand as a passion project. My brother, Jack, the designer of our collection approached footwear with a graphic designer’s approach, therefore, the designs reflect thoughtful design first and sneaker construction second. With our family’s background being in the footwear manufacturing industry for over 50 years, we enlisted the help from our family’s factory and worked together to develop a unique construction technique that brought his designs to life. Both of us are passionate about continuing the family legacy, but with our own interpretation of the family business. Therefore, THEY NY was born, and it demonstrates our integration of both design and comfort in a classic white sneaker with a twist.
You are three co-founders—how do you divide your work? Who is responsible for what?
[Angela] We are primarily a brother and sister team. Our third colleague was with us in the initial development stages, but is no longer part of the business. Since it is just the two of us right now, we have to wear a lot of hats. Jack is the Creative Director and is also the designer of the entire collection. He also corresponds with production to communicate the specific details of his designs to the manufacturing team. He is responsible for directing our brand imagery and overall aesthetic identity. Jack also designs and maintains our website, keeping track of inventory both online and in-store during our Pop-Ups. I am the Managing Director, which encompasses quite a few responsibilities from seemingly menial tasks, such as answering customer service emails, to coordinating international freight shipments for our wholesale accounts. I manage our sales and inventory management as well as outreach and marketing strategies. In addition to these tasks, I am also managing our social media platforms and working on collaboration opportunities with other brands as well.
Has working together changed your relationship in any way?
[Angela] Jack and I are only one year apart, so we’re technically each other’s first friends. We are very close and working together has its ups and downs just like in any sibling relationship. There are advantages of working with family and also disadvantages, but one of the main points is knowing that both of us are dedicated to building this brand 100% and we won’t walk away (it’s also too late to walk away).
What kind of expertise do you draw from your experiences in the Japanese footwear industry? What other backgrounds do you have?
[Angela] Growing up in a footwear manufacturing family, we have had the opportunity to visit numerous footwear factories since we could walk. Grandpa and dad both lived in Japan for numerous years and speak fluent Japanese, which was also how they developed their Japanese clientele over the years. We are actually the first generation that sort of grew up and had our education in the States, thanks to our Mom who knew a western education could broaden our perspective. Our summer and winter vacations were spent at factories, learning how a shoe is made from start to finish and often helping out with packaging. My father took every opportunity to educate us on the construction of a shoe and what factors determine the comfort and durability of footwear. He also kept mentioning it’s not child labor if we help out in the family business. Though neither Jack or I studied management, we are blessed to be able to bring to the table a different type of expertise that can still sustain the legacy of the family business. Jack has experience working as a creative at AKQA, a global advertising agency, and I have worked in PR and fashion showrooms in New York. These collective experiences helped shape how we approach managing the business and where we position ourselves in the market.
Your influences stem from German Bauhaus and Japanese graphic and architecture. How do both enter into dialogue in your work?
[Jack] I have always wanted to create something that adequately expresses my appreciation to the beauty of simplicity and minimalism- which for me was a strong reduction of the visual language. Growing up in Taiwan, I’ve visited Japan many times throughout my childhood and has always been mesmerised by their graphic design and architecture, namely the works of Kenya Hara and Tadao Ando. The aesthetics and design philosophy greatly influenced my creative work as a designer. The geometric shapes and colour blocking found in our shoes are actually stemmed from Suprematism, an art movement by Russian artist Kzimir Malevich. It was the first art movement that focused on geometric forms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, all expressed in limited colour ways. Our classic Circle low pays homage to one of Malevich’s earliest work, the “Black Circle” that he completed in 1915. Influenced by suprematism, the Bauhaus philosophy of “bringing art back into contact with everyday life” is also another pillar of our core design values as we aim to create a product that both has artistic value and practicality. Like many of the work from the Bauhaus period, we feature little ornamentation and focus on balanced forms and abstract shapes.
You are based in New York. How does the city influence you and your work? Is there anywhere in the city you visit for inspiration?
[Jack] New York City has so much artistic energy and is so diverse that you get to be exposed to so many different art forms from different inspiring creators. However, that also gives you a lot of competition in the city since everyone is trying to create something that captures people’s attention. It kind of keeps me grounded and constantly focused on creating new things to stay relevant. New York City is also an ideal place to start something like THEY, where people give a shit about new startup fashion labels. As of places in the city that I visit for inspiration, you’d probably expect me to say somewhere like the MoMa or some gallery featuring Richard Serra’s work but honestly you can walk around anywhere in the city and be inspired.
The craftsmanship of your shoes is remarkable. Where are your shoes manufactured?
[Angela] Thank you! Our shoes are made right in our workshop in Tainan, Taiwan. Our father is in charge of quality control and production as he manages our manufacturing process from start to finish on site. He constantly says we should pay him a lot more for the services he provides.
You came up with a special technique to create the seamless silhouette of your sneakers. Would you describe how that works?
[Angela] Due to the unique design of our sneakers, the upper and the sole must be aligned for the design to look cohesive. In order to achieve this illusion, we had to think of a way to combine the upper and the sole without forgoing the unique design. Traditionally, shoes are constructed separately, with the upper and the sole as individual parts to be connected as one of the final steps. In order to have a seamless design that extends from the upper to the sole is the challenge we had to overcome. Our craftsmen worked on creating a custom made sole that infuses two pieces of rubber together (hence the two tone look), and hand-aligning each individual pair so that the design of the shoe will not be compromised.
Who are your customers?
[Jack] “THEY” is essentially our target customer. THEY are the minimalists, the aspiring architects, the interior designers, the creatives in ad agencies, the MoMa-obsessed, the fashion and design-conscious, the sleep-deprived art school student, the instagrammer that hashtags #minimallove and #architectureporn, the essentialists, the outliers, the people who understand that this is not just a shoe with a black dot on it but represents a concept bigger than that. The shoe is the medium for how we start the conversation with our ideal customers–and we want them to address us as “THEY” who create these beautiful sneakers.
Of your entire collection, which design is your personal favourite?
[Jack] It’s like asking a mother to pick her favourite child- and for me that’s the Circle Low in Offwhite-White. All mothers have a favourite child.
Are you strictly sneakers, or what other kind of shoes do you like to wear? What criteria do these shoes have to meet?
[Jack] Angela used to wear other kinds of shoes, but now I make her wear sneakers (she still owns other kinds of girl shoes). I personally wear mostly our own sneakers, sometimes I wear slides or Chelsea boots when the situation requires that I do. They have to be pretty and most likely black or white.
Does your minimalist approach allow for any new designs in the future? What else is there to come for THEY NY?
[Jack] Our craftsmen have developed a unique way of printing on leather that can extend the graphic down to the sole of the shoe. This opens up a range of opportunities for us to do collaborations with designers of different fields and illustrators using our signature sneaker design as a canvas. Stay tuned for some very interesting collaborations.