Omar Bailey On FCTRY Lab And The Future Of Footwear Design

Photo Credit: Anthony Shumate

Omar Bailey has excelled in the footwear industry for almost 20 years, and he’s showing no signs of letting up. As the engineer behind collections from some of the world’s biggest names, he has maintained his position as one of the leaders in redefining the landscape of design. As the founder of the Los Angeles-based footwear prototyping lab and venture studio FCTRY LAb, this visionary aims to challenge traditional thinking, and foster an inclusive and innovative ecosystem that empowers minority designers, athletes, trendsetters, and businesses both large and small.

Being the trailblazing entrepreneur leading FCTRY LAb, Bailey is spearheading a transformative movement within the fashion footwear sector. His vision and exceptional team are revolutionizing the industry with unparalleled prototyping prowess and innovative design methods. “I had an extensive amount of experience working in factories overseas, living overseas in India as I did,” he tells ESSENCE. “So, I had real intimate knowledge and understanding of what that sequence looks like when you’re trying to bring a product to life.”

The journey into the realm of footwear design began for Bailey  in his parents’ New York home at just seven years old. He would craft his early designs as compensation for not being able to have the newest Air Jordans, which were wildly popular—as they still are today. “Since I couldn’t have the shoes physically and I was an artist, I thought drawing them on paper was sort of satisfactory enough for me to be able to have them,” he says. That  passion for shoes led him to esteemed institutions such as the College for Creative Studies and the College of Design, Architecture & Art University, where he earned several degrees and honed his craft even further.

Over the years, Bailey has held pivotal roles at industry giants including New Balance, K-Swiss, Adidas, and Timberland, and was the former head of the YEEZY innovation lab. He has collaborated with influential personalities such as Jay-Z, Jalen Ramsey, and Quest Love, among others, and recently announced the partnership with rapper NLE Choppa on the exclusive “Duck Boot.”

“What makes me most excited about this collaboration is the fact that this is  representative of what our business model is,” Bailey explains. “Our business model is about empowering creators to build their own brands and allowing them to be owners.” This, along with the debut of the Women’s MOCC with Fred Segal, Bailey continues to promote diversity in his field, while influencing the future of footwear for the better.

ESSENCE: What moment or moments in your early life created this passion for footwear design?

Omar Bailey: Great question. The first thing that comes to mind is when I was about 10 years old, or between the ages seven and eight which was the time that the Air Jordans were hot. Now we’re thinking about it and we’re so used to seeing Air Jordan 1s and the 11s and all these things being retro. But the “Be Like Mike” commercials were hitting hard in the early nineties, so everybody wanted the shoes. And you’d never seen lines forming up around sneaker stores before. That was all a new thing, man. So just like everybody else, I was caught up in the hype and wanted to be a part of that and wanted to try and get those shoes. But my parents, they’re from Jamaica, so all this stuff was new to them in terms of American culture and consumerism and marketing.

So when they learned that some kids, especially ones that look like us, were getting hurt for their shoes where they were getting beat up or even shot and killed for their sneakers, they were like, “Hell no, that ain’t happening.” So since I couldn’t have the shoes physically and I was an artist—I liked point sketching and drawing—I thought drawing them on paper was sort of satisfactory enough for me to be able to have them. So if I can physically draw them on paper, it was just as good for me to be able to do that. So yeah, I would say that’s where the love and the passion for sneakers came from, which is kind of ironic. It came from me not being able to actually have them is how it started pretty much.

And then I just stuck with it. And I’d get my East Bay magazines every month like we all did because they were free. We didn’t have to pay for them. And I would just sit there and look at these shoes that I would love to have, couldn’t actually have them, couldn’t afford them. But I used the magazines as reference to sketch and draw, which I actually have all those drawings to this day or many of them. I have three bindersworth in my home of all these sketches from that time and beyond.

Speaking of East Bay—with that magazine you would be able to order shoes from all these different brands like New Balance, K Swiss, Adidas, Timberland—all brands that you’ve collaborated with. What do you think is the most important lesson that you’ve learned as a creator in working with these companies?

What I learned from those experiences working with those companies and working for those companies at the time as a young design intern, is that I didn’t want to work in corporate. That’s what I took away from that if I’m being completely honest with you, it was like, “I do not want to be a part of this machine. I’ve got to figure out how to do this on my own.” But no, from a creative standpoint though in all fairness, when I reflect back on those moments, what I take the most with me is the people that I worked with. I thought it was really special that I was as young as I was and I had the opportunity to work with these industry veterans who were really able to share with me what their experience truly was.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial regardless, but then also the life experiences that I was able to learn. I’ve always considered myself, or at least a lot of people that knew me at that time, called me a little bit of an old soul because I would spend time with the OGs and really try to learn and absorb from them, and I’ve always valued having mentors. So, I would say that was probably less than a creative experience because from a creative standpoint came the drawing and sketching. I’ve always been extremely confident in those abilities. But the things that I was able to learn from some of these OGs in the industry to me was priceless. So when I reflect back on that time, I would say it was really about the people that I got to spend time with and really learn from and really soak and absorb not only what the industry was like, but what life could potentially look like going forward, or at least be able to have that advice or have those examples in front of me as a young man that’s trying to come up in the shoe game.

I wanted to talk about FCTRY Lab and what was the impetus for its creation?

FCTRY Lab is an independent footwear innovation lab. What that means is when someone wants to create a shoe, and same goes for any type of product that you want to create, there’s a specific sequence of processes that has to happen in order to do that. And typically you have to lean into a factory, usually overseas or abroad to be able to execute what these steps are, especially if you don’t have the knowledge and understanding of it.

And I had an extensive amount of experience working in factories overseas, living overseas in India as I did. So, I had real intimate knowledge and understanding of what that sequence looks like when you’re trying to bring a product to life. And the thing that was really clear and obvious was that there wasn’t really anything like that that existed here in the States. So when I say “independent footwear innovation lab,” the idea is how do I take those same processes that I got so familiar with abroad and bring that in the States?

The value to that is having more control over the creative process in building your shoe when you’re remote. So if you’re in Atlanta and you’re working with a factory in let’s just say China for example, there’s this back and forth that happens. Things get lost in translation literally and figuratively. But when you can actually physically be in the space and you can have a more direct interaction with the folks that are building your product, you are more likely to get to that final product in the form in which you visualize it or design it. But you also have the ability to make changes on the fly and try things and say, “Okay, this doesn’t look as good as I thought.” So FCTRY Lab is a place where you can do all of those things. And I’ve learned over the years from experience why something like that is valuable. And the idea, a lot of it came from when I was working with Adidas and working with Ye and seeing that process in which he worked to be able to bring a product to life. But the fact that he was super involved in it and was always around, was always giving feedback, was always just very in tune with the product, that was impressive to me.

But then what I learned through other creators and other public figures that I’ve worked with who have the same ambitions to want to get into the shoe space and create things, I felt like, “Man, if there was a way where your fans and your audience could see that you’re actually participating in this creation process, I think it would make the relationship to that product from the person that I’m creating the shoe with feel more organic to the outside world.” So that was where the idea of a FCTRY Lab came from was taking all these experiences and putting them together and being able to create a lab that can develop and create footwear and ideate and experiment in real time live on the spot, but also be somewhat of a content creation zone where we can actually story tell and show the audience or people who are willing to watch that this creator is truly involved in this process.

You brought up Ye in your response, and I’m thinking about him and people like Jay-Z, and even going further back to Run DMC and everything like that. In your words, with you being so involved in this business and this culture, why do you think hip hop has been so influential in sneaker culture throughout the years?

My opinion on that is hip hop is the ultimate expression of our coolness, and who we are as a people. And it translates and it has translated all over the world, everything from the way that we dress, the way that we walk, the way that we talk. I can go down the list and name all kinds of different categories. Even now you’re seeing it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Gap commercial or something, like hip hop is infused in everything around us. You’re always hearing it, or you’re always seeing it, or both.

So I think it’s been important to our culture and footwear and how, I don’t know, the two things are just one, sneakers and hip hop. It was funny, I was talking to a buddy of mine who played in the NBA for a long time, and we were talking about how back when he was playing, that was the period when rappers wanted to be basketball players and basketball players wanted to be rappers. And now I feel like there’s been this shift where basketball players and athletes want to be designers now. Everyone wants to be a creative director. Everyone wants to start their brand. Everyone wants that front row seat at the Louis Vuitton Runway Show for Paris Fashion Week. That’s the look now. That’s what everybody wants. And hip hop has obviously totally influenced that as well.

There are a lot of people that look like us that wear stylish sneakers from various brands, but there’s not as many people designing them. So I wanted to ask you, how do you feel about the representation of Black people in the design space currently, and what do you think it would take to increase that representation?

It starts with access to information. Even when I reflect on my time as a kid, I didn’t know, even though I was sketching and drawing shoes all the time, I didn’t know that I could actually do this for a living until my freshman year of college. Up until that point, I thought it was just a hobby and something that I did. And even the year prior to me being in college, if you had asked me how you become a shoe designer, I thought I’d go apply for a job at Foot Locker—I didn’t know. I didn’t know because no one in my neighborhood or that I knew looked like me that I was doing it. And I remember one time in SLAM Magazine, and there was an article about this young designer at the time. And I’ve sent him a few DMs and told him this story, Dallas Stokes, how he was a young designer at Reebok.

And that was the first time that I said, “Oh wow, okay. There’s people out there that look like me that’s out here doing it.” But it was a little tiny, it was probably just a paragraph about him in this big magazine. And I remember buying that and cutting that out and reading it all the time. And that was that little glimpse of hope that I had and that I knew. So I think it starts with the access to information. People like my friend Dwayne Edwards who has the Pensole Lewis College in Detroit, Michigan, which is the first historically Black design school that’s in Detroit, Michigan, who’s a good friend of mine and a mentor. The things that he’s doing are incredible.

So, we all elevate individually in this space, I think it’s about what we’re doing to give back and to get that information out for those who are trying to break into the space. Now, the ones that are currently in the space and are trying to elevate, that’s a little bit of a different situation. But I think that’s about us trying to take the opportunities where we can get them and it’s definitely much easier said than done, depending on the company and where you’re working because a lot of those things are out of our control. From my experience and what I can reference is like what I did in those moments and opportunities was I tried to focus on the things that I could control and absorb and learn what I could and always try to put myself in positions to win. To give a couple of specific examples, whether that was going to a trade show on my own dime, flying to Vegas and going to the Magic Trade show and going to network and connect with people and building relationships.

These are things that are in your power and in your control, and if your company doesn’t want to pay for you to go to it, then you figure out how to go on your own. Sometimes when you’re working for these bigger brands, whether knowingly or not, as a designer you can sometimes be sort of pushed to the back of the room meaning that you don’t necessarily get to get that same glimpse under the hood as everyone else does to how all the inner workings work, right?

I wanted to know the inner workings of factories and how you bring products to life and supply chain and the relationship between a brand and a factory and what the expectations are. So for me, that curiosity started there, and I would say that should be the same for anyone who’s looking to elevate out of the position that they’re in, is don’t wait for somebody to do it for you. Figure out how to create opportunities for yourself.

What’s next for Omar Bailey?

In terms of the future for FCTRY Lab is doing more of these types of projects, but also expansion outside of the United States and being able to do these types of partnerships with other creators in other regions, whether it’s in Africa and Europe and Asia and South America and other places where there are creators out there who are just so incredibly talented and creative that want that opportunity or are looking for an opportunity to be able to launch their own shoe or shoe brand. I want to be able to help them do that.

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