The idyll of a childhood ambition is one that is wistful, and often, unattained. We’ve all experienced it. Maybe you dreamt of being a globe-trotting photojournalist, impacting the world by documenting injustices against mankind. Or maybe you dreamt of dancing your way into the upper echelons of The Royal Ballet, basking in rapturous applause as you take a bow. Yong Bae Seok wanted to design Ferraris.
And unlike many of the masses, he had the gumption to pursue his goal at all costs.
“I loved drawing as a child. My mum told me that my first drawing was of a car. I was only three or fours years old then,” Seok tells me in halting English. “My favourite car is a Ferrari. That’s why I chose to work in Italy. Ferrari is one of the most beautiful cars in the world.”
Despite not speaking a word of Italian he laid his plans. In 2000, he boarded a 12-hour flight to Milan from his home country, South Korea. He had enrolled himself in the IED (Istituto Europeo del Design) in Turin. By 2002, he had earned a masters in industrial design, and snagged a design gig with the famed auto design house, Pininfarina Studio. The Turin-based firm is used by manufacturers worldwide – think Lamborghini, BMW, and yes, Ferrari.
It led to an opportunity to work as a consulting shoe designer on a project with Fila and Ferrari. From then on, the designer was embraced by the fashion world. Based in Milan for the past decade, the tenacious Seok is, naturally, now fluent in Italian. And his design vocabulary is vast and multifarious.
Becoming A Sneaker God
He’s collaborated with brands as diverse as Bally, Geox and Diesel. He has led shoe design teams at Kappa, Dolce & Gabbana. Currently, he is Tod’s head of men’s footwear, famously designing the best-selling ‘Shoeker’. He launched his own label, Seok, in 2018. Within months, his affordably priced sneakers were stocked in over 100 multi-brand retailers across Europe and South Korea.
We meet Seok for the first time in a former power station in Pasir Panjang, Singapore. He’s here to attend Street Superior, a mega festival featuring streetwear. He is in town to promote his sneaker collection with Pony, reinterpreting the American brand’s classic City Wings.
The experimental creative exudes an attitude of curiosity, which has led to him building the ability to design almost anything he fancies.
“My mind is flexible… I’ve designed luxury shoes, ceramic tiles, worked on interior design. In the future, I want to make a completely different product,” says Seok earnestly from behind his shades.
Truly Kick-Ass Kicks
To Seok, shoes and cars aren’t that different. They are both tools of transportation for humans. And whether it’s conceptualising a pair of kick-ass kicks or a fancy Ferrari, the designer abides by the same philosophy — what he makes has got to look amazing, and it’s got to work like a beast.
He says: “I’ve learnt how to balance beauty and functionality through experience, learning by working on different brands and products. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. It’s hard the first time, but the process gets easier.”
One of Seok’s high fashion shoe designs proved it was fit for competitive performance.
Basketball pro Gilbert Arenas made the news when he tore up the court at a 2010 Washington Wizards game against the Lakers. What he wore: A pair of Seok-designed Dolce & Gabbana high tops. That night, the Wizards guard scored 23 points in the glossy kicks. Seok says: “Basketball players usually prefer laces. But even though I used velcro, I made sure (the shoe) was sturdy.”
Given the story, you might mistakenly think of Seok as a dude who is all nouveau riche glam, cruising through the valleys of Tuscany like a shark in a Ferrari convertible.
But no, Seok’s mind doesn’t go there. Ask him if this image is accurate, and he says: “Oh, no. I have a Porsche Panamera, it’s a four-door sedan, because I need to put a lot of stuff in it.”
The Pony X Yong Bae Seok collection is available at Tangs Orchard and Robinsons @ Heeren.