John Legend and Wolverine President Brendan Hoffman on a New Play for Sperry and the Power of Partnership at FN CEO Summit 2021

John Legend revealed some interesting similarities between creating shoes and music at FN’s virtual CEO Summit yesterday.

“When you’re in the studio, you’re making all these small tweaks to the sound by fine-tuning knobs, so you get it to a point where it feels exactly right,” said the Grammy-award-winning artist. “I think with design and aesthetic, it’s a similar thing. With all the little elements that go into crafting footwear, when the looks finally come together and feel perfect, it’s such a beautiful experience.”

Legend sat down with FN Editorial Director and Fairchild Media Group Chief Brand Officer Michael Atmore and Brendan Hoffman, president of Sperry parent company Wolverine Worldwide, to discuss his big fall collection launch with the brand.

Michael Atmore, Brendan Hoffman, and John Legend.

Since joining Sperry as an ambassador last year, Legend, FN’s new cover star, has launched three curated edits of the brand’s shoes. And now he’s prepping for the bigger play.

“To me, Sperry was always one of those aspirational brands,” said Legend, who has been wearing Sperry shoes since his youth. “I grew up in a blue collar family in Ohio, but dressed preppy to feel ‘fancier’ than I actually was. And since then, Sperry has stuck in my wardrobe.”

He continued, “I Iove what the brand represents: a good time, leisure, a way of looking casual but also elegant. I felt it really fit in with my own personal style, and that we could collaborate and create something we’re all really proud of.”

Hoffman said Legend was a natural fit for the collaboration due to his deep connection to the brand, and also because of his ability to help expand the label’s customer base to a younger, social media-savvy demographic. (Legend has almost 14 million followers on Instagram, where he’s shared news of the launch).

“Sperry is a pillar brand for us at Wolverine,” said Hoffman, who became president of Wolverine Worldwide last September. “The label offers shoes I wore when I was growing up as a kid and that my father wears at 76. Finding ways to stretch the elasticity of wear between those ages is critical for us at Sperry. Wth his personal sense of style, John lends himself to being the perfect ambassador and collaborator for us.”

In what Hoffman describes as taking the “Sperry DNA and elevating its coolness factor,” the collection includes three distinctive styles: a cupsole boat shoe — the first of its kind for Sperry — a 7-eye lace-up Commodore boot and a dressier 10-eye lace-up boot with a medial side zipper and Vibram outsole. Each style also includes signature details inspired by the Legend’s aesthetic, including keyboard prints on the footbed, quotes by the musician printed on the inside of the tongue and a hand-stitched JL logo on each piece.

“We wanted to honor the heritage of the brand, embracing the styles that Sperry has been known for over the years while finding our own ways to make them different and customize them toward my own personal taste,” said Legend. “I love color, classic shapes and good tailoring, all of which I think are very apparent throughout the collection.”

john legend, sperry, burberry suit, gucci shirt, sperry shoes
John Legend wears a Burberry suit, Gucci shirt and Sperry shoes.
CREDIT: Yu Tsai

Hoffman and Legend said the silhouettes — both versatile and comfort-driven — are fitting for a range of occasions, especially as the world starts to open up again in the wake of the pandemic.

“I associate Sperry with the boat life, but also with the backyard barbecue life and the Saturday/Sunday brunch life,” said Legend. “I think our collection is in a good position to provide go-to shoes for so many of these moments where we’re all getting back together.”

john leged, sperry, tall boot, authentic original, boot
John Legend x Sperry Tall Boot.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Sperry

With his 2020 music tour cancelled due to the pandemic, Legend said he was able to find time to design the collection in between writing music and serving as a judge for reality TV show “The Voice” (where he wore Sperry to the season finale). He notes that his stylist Dave Thomas was also very involved in the design process.

“We didn’t go in with an arrogance on how to make a Sperry shoe better,” he said. “We came in really respecting the team at Sperry, while bringing our own sensibility to the table.”

According to Hoffman, Sperry’s VP of product and design Sean McDowell — who worked closely with Legend and Thomas — said this was by far the best partnership he’s ever done with a celebrity. (McDowell previously worked in design for over two decades at Nike, which has seen dozens of celebrity collaborations).

In addition to admiring the brand’s aesthetic, Legend — who often uses his platform to raise awareness about social justice issues like voting rights and mass incarceration — shares he felt aligned with Sperry’s commitment to activism. Last year, Sperry donated more than 3,000 pairs of shoes to the Two Ten Footwear Foundation and its employees facing hardship amidst the coronavirus crisis. The brand also launched styles made from recycled plastic water bottles in its efforts to help save the oceans, and, in honor of Pride month this June, has partnered with PFLAG National on its 2021 Pride Collection to celebrate inclusivity.

“I believe it’s important for every business to show they have positive values and put positive energy out into the world,” said Legend. “And I think it’s great when brands give their customers the opportunity to be a part of change. I try to collaborate with companies that do all these things.”

Hoffman says Sperry is already working with Legend on his collection for 2022, and plans to cultivate the relationship for years to come — with the potential to expand beyond footwear in future offerings.

“When I joined Wolverine, one opportunity I saw was to take Sperry into other categories,” said Hoffman. “I’d love to follow up with John on how we can utilize him and his sense of style — maybe a launch in apparel. I think we’re just at the beginning here.”

Alongside Sperry’s collaboration with Legend, Hoffman notes that a range of Wolverine Worldwide labels are working with A-listers and other key players to raise awareness about their product. For example, Chaco recently partnered with country music star Thomas Rhett on a line of outdoor sandals debuting throughout the summer, while Saucony continues to tap micro-influencers (who are currently fueling the overall influencer market) for its social media and marketing campaigns.

“Collaborating with people and other entities is a constant part of our messaging and bringing product to market,” said Hoffman.

Legend’s favorite part of designing and working with Sperry? Unboxing the final styles.

“We’ve had all this back and forth and had been seeing things on a computer screen, since we had to work online a lot due to the pandemic,” said Legend. When I finally was able to try on the shoes, I was like, ‘Oh, they look good. They feel good. This has my name on it.’ I’ve created so many things, but I haven’t designed a collection with a brand like this. It was really exciting to be a part of.”

The Sperry x John Legend collection will be available on Sperry.com and at select retailers in late September and will retail for $120 to $250.

Summit sponsors include presenting sponsor PayPal and event sponsors Aetrex, Caleres, FDRA, K-Swiss, Riskified, SkyPad, Sperry, Two Ten and Zappos.

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