An Interview with FRONTEER's Jon Tang
How NASA and Air Jordans Inspired the Creation of a New Outdoor Brand
If Jon Tang had it his way, we’d wear his shoes on Mars, but while the masters of astrophysics devise a method to get us there, he’ll settle for virtually anywhere else. Tang has been designing footwear for roughly ten years and has worked for “every brand under the sun,” according to him. Right now though, the only brand he works for is his own: FRONTEER.
FRONTEER is small and startup-y. Its products, which consist of a handful of footwear silhouettes along with a few hats, are filled with harmonious contradiction; their palettes are bright and dull, their constructions are uncomplicated and complex. They straddle nostalgia and avant-garde, outdoorsy and street — and it’s all by design.
Tang is a mash-up of sorts himself, with unequal parts Texan, New Yorker and Californian. He grew up in the Lone Star State, where he developed an affinity for sneakers as well as a fascination with astronauts and outer space that he picked up during class trips to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Despite his urban upbringing, that wonder extended to the outdoors, for which Tang devotes a special affinity.
Basketball shoes, NASA, rock climbing — they’re all encompassed by FRONTEER in one way or another. To understand Tang’s brand, it’s best to let him speak to it. Below, he talks soccer cleats, Chuck Taylors, outdoor lifestyle and much more.
Q: What lead you to start FRONTEER?
A: I grew up in sneakers. I grew up in Michael Jordan Airs and I grew up playing soccer as well and that style, and cleats, is a very different thing. Cleats were actually more expensive than basketball shoes. There’s always this idea of really high-priced conceptual product that always has this story to it.
I grew up in Texas, life before the Internet, and we were outside a lot. I enjoyed the stars, the sunsets. NASA is also in Houston, and anyone growing up in Houston as a kid went on field trips to the Johnson Space Center. I was always very interested in and inspired by the Space Center, it gave me this idea of “the beyond.” I loved things like space suits and all the gear that they’d have to put on for this futuristic journey. I like camping, I like hiking, getting out and climbing. Space is that times a billion. I like the play between the two.
I was designing and working for three different [footwear] companies, and I would see things that I’d be really inspired by and think, “Well that’s pretty cool, but if I had my own company I would do it like this.” I started to take all these bits of brainstorming and compile them together, and basically ten years later, I had an idea of what to do for a brand. I had pretty much everything thought-out beforehand down to like the company font.
Then in 2015, I wanted to pull the trigger; I was bursting at the seams with ideas and so I started the brand.
I always felt like the outdoor market had this void, this gap, between performance products and lifestyle. Right now a lot of outdoor products dive into “Oh, this is for climbing Mount Everest.” And it’s great and that product is amazing and I would definitely wear it to go do that, but I wanted to do something that was like “Well, I’m inspired by the outdoors but I’m a city guy, ya know?” I walk around on cement so I can’t have something like a TPU shank or a stiff last or hard compound rubber, which normally you would need to make sure jagged rocks don’t go right through your boot. You don’t need that in the city. But I still love what the products represented, what the colors did, the stories, and the iconic styles, and I wanted to be able to wear that every day.
Q: What did the first shoe look like?
A: The first shoe was the Super Gratton. I dove into climbing because I really liked climbing footwear and I thought that was a missed opportunity — all these climbing shoes are beautifully made, they have such detail, they have such story to them but you can’t walk around in them. When I go out and climb I would wear everyday shoes and then I slip into the climbing shoes and for that moment I’m the climber and I get to be a part of that culture, but I didn’t like the idea that I couldn’t just walk around in them.
The Super Gratton took the very first climbing shoe that was ever made, it was also called the Super Gratton actually, it wasn’t meant for walking, but that shoe in itself was inspired by [Converse] Chuck Taylors. Pierre Alain, a French climber from the sixties, worked with a cobbler to make a climbing shoe based on the Chuck Taylor.
I liked the idea that Alain worked with the cobbler to make a specific shoe for rock climbing and so I wanted to bring it full circle, where I’m taking the rock climbing shoe now, to come back to everyday street. Instead of raw sticky rubber on the bottom, I use compound rubber so you can actually walk around. I tried to keep as much of the essence of the original Super Gratton.
Q: How did you come across that story?
A: I have a lot of these old climbing books, a lot of just stories I read online and in editorials. I try to stay connected to the culture. I just love vintage in general and everything I do connects to the past in some form.
Q: Is that the mindset for every piece you design?
A: It is. It’s like a good campfire story. There’s always a story. We as humans are emotionally connected to good stories and that’s why books and movies will always be around. Every year and every product drop I do, there’s always a general theme. I try to find interesting and unique things and tell untold stories. It feels slightly educational to some extent.
Every time I went to the Johnson Space Center I would find out something new, I find that really inspiring and I’d like the product to always be about something you’re discovering. I want people to come to the brand and when they see something they’re discovering, not only the product and its newness, but also the story that it represents.
Q: Do these stories look to the past or do you look adjacent in time to things that are happening now?
A: It’s what I call a recontextualization through familiarization. I try to re-contextualize things through something that’s somewhat familiar already. Take something from the past that you might find familiar and I try to re-contextualize it for today. I like to look one foot in the past but have one foot in the future — toward something different, something that may not exist.
Q: Do you think the outdoor industry is more receptive to brands and products with a story than general sportswear brands are?
A: Sportswear in general is a much more mature market in that sense — I don’t mean in regards to finances but the mass consumers of sportswear are much more receptive to very conceptualized storytelling. The outdoor market is a little bit more conservative on the storytelling, but only right now. The consumers have been receiving the same kind of storytelling for the longest time now and I think they are looking for something different.
Q: What do you think of high fashion labels adopting outdoor style cues?
A: I think a lot of these high fashion brands are looking to outdoors as a conceptual inspiration because the outdoors has such good product and stories to tell. I think fashion companies are looking for the next big inspiration and a large pool of stories to tell, the next movement of fashion. The outdoors provides a good pool for them. I embrace it, I don’t see it as a hard competition kind of thing and if anything I think it’s good competition and it builds good product. It makes people think a little bit more.
Q: Do you think there’s any danger in losing the functional piece?
A: That’s a line that I always teeter with. A fashion brand isn’t rooted and doesn’t have a need to be in the very functional side, and they might lose out on functional need. I think it’s more about embracing what you will be standing for. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with losing out on some of the functional need as long as you as a brand or as a company own up to not taking on those needs.
I would never say to go climb Everest in FRONTEER because it’s not meant for that. But, I will still give you a Vibram outsole to walk, even in the city — to go to the bar, to walk your dog — because I appreciate what Vibram represents and I’m willing to spend more money on a product because of what it represents. I take as much of the functional need as I can from the outdoors and I put it into the shoe and as long as you can still walk around in it every day, I will keep that functional need there. I embrace the fact that I am a lifestyle company, yet I will give as much outdoor features as I can.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the most important shoe, ever?
A: It’s hard to say because footwear is, at the end of the day, a form for our feet. And in different instances throughout time and history, footwear has come to mean different things in terms of function, in terms of a general need and in terms of storytelling. A lot of it depends on what you’re focusing on. It’s so contextual.
For me, personally, before the hype and before anything the Jordan 11 Concord was my favorite shoe because it was the shoe that got away. I grew up poor and my parents couldn’t buy me these expensive, nice shoes all the time. I used to get Eastbay catalogs and cut out shoes from these catalogs and throw them on my wall. I think it’s what manifested me to dive into footwear — I’d just look at these photos down to the last little ink drop. I dreamed of having these shoes.
What happened was I used to conjure up an allowance — birthday, Christmas, anything that I could from my parents — and this was like $20 basically and that was a lot. I’d buy shoes off kids’ feet. A lot of the kids around me would get the new shoes every week, and reselling wasn’t a thing back in the day. My classmates, they’d get the new ones the next week and just throw away the old ones. And I’d be like, ‘Hey can I buy the shoes off you? Here’s $20.’ And they were like, ‘Sure’ — they were going to throw them away anyways.
And so I got into this practice with these kids that were the same shoe size as me. I got a couple shoes out of that, and then one day the Jordan 11s came out and they were beautiful, they were amazing and I loved them. And I went to the same kid that I had been buying shoes off of and was like, ‘Hey, I have $20 can I buy these shoes off you.’ And he for the first time was like, ‘No, but how ’bout $50?’ And I didn’t have $50, and I couldn’t buy them.
It’s ironic because now on eBay they go for like $500, $600, $1,000 and I couldn’t get them for $50. Luckily, over the years because I’m in the industry I was able to get a pair. To me, that is the most important pair of shoes because they were the ones that got away. That was in fifth grade. It has everything to do with the story and this emotional connection to these shoes and that’s why that shoe means so much to me and it still means so much to me.