Omar Bailey | Transforming The World One Sneaker At A Time

Conversing With A Creative Who Steps Beyond The Conventional

Written by

Mariam Bagdady

Photographed by

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From a young age we are exposed to a myriad of experiences–various walks of life that go onto define who we are as we grow. In those moments lie our imagination, an untamed vision waiting to bloom in the chaos that is reality. When untethered, our creativity begins to soar. And for some, that creativity becomes more than just a moments’ glimpse. Here enters Omar Bailey: an innovator, creative, artist, and visionary who’s work began long before his time at Yeezy. 

With a sketchbook in hand full of what would become the blueprint for all his future endeavors, Bailey’s younger years were dedicated to more than just his imagination. Those drawings were his forthright beginnings to an empire built on the foundations of footwear. His canvas is the world. His art is how we step into it. With his time in China and Saudi Arabia honing his craft with shoe designs, spearheading Yeezy’s Innovation Lab at Adidas, and now creating opportunities for others with his FCTRY LAb, Bailey is an example of what fervent resilience wrapped in an unwavering passion can ultimately establish. His vision goes beyond a sneakers canvas and burgeons itself into the world as something altruistic and free-spirited. 

From dream to passion to trailblazing innovation, Bailey transformed the sneaker community. And it all began with that initial spark of untamed creativity. As he now reflects on his latest debut during Paris Fashion Week, you can’t help but feel the inspiration he’s imbued into every environment he’s created in. It is with this understanding that I sat to speak with Bailey– yearning to know how one lit flame of passion was soon able to become a blazing fire. 

From a young age, footwear innovation has been your vision, and you’ve now conceptualized it into your work, transforming the sneaker world as we speak. How do you define the term “passion” and in what ways has finding your passion influenced the way you perceive the world now?

As a kid I was just sketching and drawing on sneakers, much like an athlete who picks up a basketball or football or baseball would, and it's just something that you do for fun. You're not even really thinking about where you want to take it or you're not even thinking about a job or anything like that, it's just more about living in the moment. It's something that you do and that's where the passion starts. Passion is obsession with something that you love doing, and no one has to make you do it, it's just something that you just constantly eat, sleep, and think about all the time. And without even knowing it, you're getting better and better at it. I'm a big believer in you get out what you put in. The universe kind of gravitates towards those positive vibes or that energy that you're kind of putting out about this thing that you are passionate about.

From a kid all the way through now, passion has just always somehow felt like you're in the right place at the right time and attracting the right people and the right energy around you to help you get over certain hurdles. Kids and people ask me all the time, “How did you do this?,” or “How did you do that?” It's really hard to kind of put my finger on it. I think it was just a series of things that happen; but more importantly, when you're passionate about something and you're excited about something and other people see that passion and excitement, I think it encourages them to want to help and support you in any way possible. And that's kind of what's been my experience from when I was 8 years old to now being 40 years old.

Why create a new innovation studio such as FCTRY LAb and in what ways has it challenged you?

The shoe business isn't one of those things where you can just go pick up a book or go to school and say, “This is what I want to do and learn and understand how supply chain works overseas.” Whether it's in Asia or Europe or South America or wherever, it is in the world, a lot of what I've learned has been through trial and error. I've crashed and burned many, many times on projects and through that, through that journey, and through a lot of those failures, it’s about falling on your face a million times and having to get up you know a million and one times. You learn and you're able to sort of develop your own sort of strategy or approach on how to execute at a high level with time. Footwear and being in any business is about having to execute at a high level and being able to get things done. A lot of people talk about things that they can do and talk the talk, but a lot of them can't walk the walk. And that was always important to me, understanding how to walk the walk. A lot of that came from seeing my dad. He always had these wild ideas. He worked in construction and would always have these different invention ideas, but always had a lot of stuff going on and couldn't quite execute it. I felt like maybe I've kind of picked up that baton a little bit. So being able to execute at a high level was important to me, and that translated into wanting to build it into a footwear innovation lab.

There is a need for it and there's been a need for this for a long time. The barrier of entry into footwear is extremely difficult, but over the years as I continued to develop my craft and really understand supply chain on a global level from living in India and China and spending a ton of time in South America, and then being enriched in different brands and celebrities and other folks who wanted to build their own shoes, it really helped me understand and come up with a formula on how to make that barrier to entry a little bit easier and a little bit simpler. And then my time at Yeezy, the three years prior to starting this company, really kind of helped solidify a lot of those thoughts through the innovation that we did in those facilities in Calabasas and in Wyoming.

It confirmed some of the theories that I had in my mind. You can build, develop, and prototype samples here in the States, but the one part of the process that I think gets overlooked in all of this is when building a shoe, everyone thinks that you need to find a big factory to produce your shoes. Yes, that's important. But what's even more important is having a facility or a place that can actually develop and execute your idea first. And then once that's all solved and you're able to understand what you can't do versus what you can do, you're able to come to a conclusion very quickly to then say, “This is my final product that I want to take into production and scale.” That's why I built this place. It was to make the barrier of entry very simple or a lot simpler into building a product, and then having that opportunity to take it into the market.

Reflecting on your latest launch and FCTRY LAb’s showcase at Paris Fashion Week, how have you stepped beyond the conventional and explored free-spirited fashion?

In 2016-2017, I was living in India and I was running a sample room, part of a shoe factory, and designing shoes for this brand. It was a brand where, truth be told, in the shoe business, was one like a lot of the companies out there just copied each other. There's only a handful of true innovators that are really out there pushing the boundaries, and then there’s a ton of other people just kind of sitting back and watching to see what works. Then they jump on in and copy it or do their own little version of it and then put it out. And the brand that I was working with in India did that just like a lot of other people did where they tried to ride the coattails of whatever wave it was that someone else created by tweaking something a little bit different. And that shit got boring. It wasn't satisfying and that creative itch burned. That was when Yeezy called, told me about the opportunity, and expressed interest in wanting to have me join the team just based on the experience that I had overseas with building and developing and executing footwear at a high level. That was the Super Bowl of jobs and opportunities for me, and what I didn't realize was what was going to come out of it. That opportunity from three years ago, it pushed me creatively into corners of my brain that I didn't know existed before. And that was super satisfying to be able to be challenged to creatively think beyond the norm of what a shoe is. To execute these crazy ideas that Kanye had and actually bring them to life. I feel like that just kind of awakened this other side of my creative brain that I didn't know existed. After that experience, possibilities were endless. You can literally do anything in footwear and go against the grain and it was okay to play with shapes and forms. It was okay to make a shoe that doesn't actually look like a shoe but still fits like a shoe. That mindset is what I've taken over to the factory lab.

From FCTRY LAb’s conception in Los Angeles to your latest debut in Paris, how does space play a role in sneaker design for you?

Having space to be able to think and work creatively, whether it's in my lab here in downtown LA or it's space that I'm able to create for myself when I travel, in general, whether domestically or abroad, having that space to be inspired by things that are around me and to be able to absorb what's around me, it's something that you definitely have to be conscious of. You have to be conscious of creating for yourself or creating those moments or that time for you to have that space to think freely and creatively. I keep my sketchbook with me at all times. So I'm always jotting ideas down when something comes to me whether it's at 1am, I'm on a flight, or I'm sitting in the back of an Uber in Paris. 

How are you challenging individualism in your designs whilst appreciating the wonder of individuality within a larger collective? 

It starts with the method of make. This is where all of my experience overseas comes in. Materials and processes are just as important, if not more important than the design itself. Understanding those applications and understanding how a TPU injection mold works versus a silicone mold versus an EVGA mold. How does that material respond when you put color dye in it? Understanding all these different nuances helps you almost like Frankenstein design. I allow the method of make to inspire how I want to design the shoe versus when I was much younger and didn't know much about how this all works. And then I allow that to influence or dictate which direction I go in from a creative perspective. There's a lot of people out there that are doing some different things in the shoe space. I think the footwear business right now is in a good spot, in terms of, there's a lot of interesting people out there doing some innovative things in footwear and fashion in general, and are pushing the boundaries on that. But what I do think that separates what we're doing here from some of those individuals is that we have the ability to execute and produce these ideas in house and move a little bit quicker. We don't work on a traditional development or production calendar that a big brand might, which is a 12 to 18 month calendar. We've made a conscious effort and shortened that, keeping it to around three to six months in terms of us developing new ideas and concepts. I'm excited for the other products that other people are creating, but I'm also just as excited, if not more excited, about what we're creating because I know that we're going to be pumping things out at a pretty fast pace.

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Omar Bailey, FCTRY LAb, Fashion, Mariam Bagdady