When it comes to music, Wale is one of hip-hop’s creative visionaries. And now the veteran rap star is poised to be the genre’s next profound style influencer — one sneaker at a time.
“He’s one of the best rappers out there [and] always dressed to the nines,” said Colin Brickley, sales and marketing manager at Asics Lifestyle, who dubbed Wale an original rap sneakerhead. “He’s on the forefront of trends, and he certainly dictates them as well.”
The Washington, D.C.-based artist, born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, has never kept his love for footwear a secret. Prior to his 2009 debut album, “Attention Deficit,” Wale released songs such as “Nike Boots” and “Kicks” declaring his love for all manner of shoes. His seminal effort, 2015’s “The Album About Nothing,” paid tribute to normcore style hero Jerry Seinfeld, a friend of the rapper.
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As Wale’s music has progressed, so has his taste in fashion. His latest mixtape, “Summer on Sunset,” features a song titled “Valentino.” And on July 21, Wale — prior to the fall release of his fifth album, “Shine” — will deliver his second sneaker collaboration with Asics and streetwear retailer Villa.
The shoe — named “Champion” — uses the brand’s classic Gel Lyte III silhouette. In signature audacious Wale style, it comes dressed with bold hues and eye-catching metallic materials atypical of prior iterations. And judging from the hype it’s generating, the shoe is destined to quickly sell out.
For fans, the influence behind the shoe’s design is clear: pro wrestling. The 31-year-old has been entrenched in the world of sports entertainment since childhood, a passion he’s never abandoned. (A scroll through his Instagram feed will uncover recent photos with WWE stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Vince McMahon, Enzo Amore and others.)
And much like other avid sneaker collectors, Wale was eager to show off his latest creation. While on set in New York with Footwear News in June, the rapper posted photos of the shoes to his Instagram and Snapchat accounts, creating hysteria online around the shoe months before it was slated to hit stores. That doesn’t surprise Jason Lutz, CEO of Villa.
“He has the ability to step out; he’s not a follower,” he said. “Some people have it, others don’t, and he’s always been that guy who’s ahead of what’s happening in fashion.”
But even with his extensive sneaker knowledge, the rap star isn’t opposed to learning from his peers. While walking the New York streets, which quickly swelled with followers eager for a picture with him, Wale admitted to admiring the attention Kanye West pays to aesthetics and the obscure places he looks for inspiration, specifically 1990s rap videos.
Here, Wale shares the differences in designing sneakers and recording music, his personal style influences, and his favorite high-flying wrestlers who dominate in the ring.
What influences came into the design process for your latest Asics and Villa collaboration, “Champion”?
WALE: The [WWE] Intercontinental Belt, that’s the second biggest belt in the company. It was the one all the cool people had when I was little, like Mr. Perfect and The Ultimate Warrior. It’s known inside the business as the workman’s title, the unsung hero’s title. It has a lot of comparisons to my rap career, being the unsung hero or honorable mention — not the champion but just as good, just never been crowned yet. [And] most of the people who won the IC Championship went on to win heavyweight down the road.
How did wrestling become such a big part of your life?
WALE: People were like, “Why do you watch it?” I’m like, “Bro, I shut my brain off when I watch it; I don’t have to think about anything.” I think so much in the studio that we’ve got to find things to do when we shut off.
Is there a difference creatively with creating a shoe versus creating an album?
WALE: I can create a shoe in a couple minutes; I can’t do that with an album — not at all. When I do a shoe, I’m done with it when I’m done with it. But my music is like a painting — I go back and touch it, put another color here, put more shade on it or whatever.
What’s the significance behind the title of your upcoming album, “Shine”? And what could fans expect from the album?
WALE: [“Shine”] is a self-reminder because I’m not the best at ignoring negative energy. It’s a brighter sound from me. I wanted to make an album of stuff that every song was a jam. People just put two good songs on their album, but there’s going to be a big debate on what’s the best song on “Shine.”
How did you find your own personal style?
WALE: Mine is a bit of everything I’ve acquired along the way. Your style is your postcard collection from wherever you’ve been. Where I’m from they might wear their shoes a certain way, and then I might see something in London and mix the two together. I wear DC local brands with upscale stuff. I wear SLP [Saint Laurent Paris] jeans with a local DC street company with [Nike Air Yeezy] Red Octobers or something like that.
Speaking of Kanye West, how has he impacted your design influence?
WALE: I learned so much from the dude indirectly. He showed me some video from Da Youngstas. I wasn’t privy to the group before, but I saw how he takes things and makes them his own. He was talking about their fashion — their puffy jackets, jeans and silhouettes. I don’t know if I could ever be that detailed [because] I’m so focused on rapping, you know what I’m saying? But ’Ye, he’s cornered the whole fashion world, so nobody could do it without thinking of him — him and Anna Wintour are BFFs, and she’s like the gatekeeper of all fashion. [And] Travis Scott is another one like that.
Who are some of the other designers you look up to?
WALE: When I was a kid, I really liked Iceberg — that was impossible to get. Iceberg and Moschino. When I was in high school, everybody was in Gap and Old Navy, but I was quadrupling my checks to get Iceberg sweaters. I was going for quality over quantity at that point. Faith Connexion is dope, I like their stuff, and I obviously like Rick Owens and Givenchy. Ralph Lauren Purple Label is always classic, and Saint Laurent.
How does the DC-Maryland-Virginia area influence your style?
WALE: We started a lot of trends that people don’t necessarily give us credit for — you’ve got to Google those. We started some things like [Nike Foamposites] and bulky shoes. We made our own tapered jeans in high school. I still wear a lot of the local companies, too, like Madness.
What are the top, must-shop shoe stores for you?
WALE: All the consignment stores, they’re the only ones with an element of surprise — Flight Club and Kickk Spott in DC. [I have] no favorite; I like all of them.
What’s the most you’ve spent on a pair of sneakers?
WALE: Like $6,000. I wanted Kanye’s Louis Vuitton joints, the chocolate brown with a hint of fuchsia; I got those from a consignment [store]. I had to pay a grip, and they’re way too big for me because I told them to get a size 9, but a size 9 fits like an 11.5.
What are your go-to shoes?
WALE: [Air Jordan] 3s, 4s and 5s. You’re going to see me wearing the 5s a lot in the summer because I go up from the album I’m on; it’s kind of my vibe.
What are some of your most fond sneaker memories?
WALE: Sample sales always used to be fun, used to be my vibe, seeing what’s coming out and [having] the chance to find the ill Foamposites and be the first one to have them. That was the original rush. I picked up a lot of samples in college; I was wearing stuff to school that wouldn’t come out for another year. And I remember when Nike used to invite me to the campus and give me stuff to debut. When I debuted the Copper Foams, that was a great time.
What’s different about sneakerhead culture today versus when you first got into it?
WALE: It doesn’t make any sense right now. Everybody is just reselling, and Nike’s just putting out a bunch of retros. It’s just a business at the end of the day.