SUSAN CHO

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Tell us a little bit about what you do. What’s the exact title of your job?

I’m a material designer for footwear at Nike. I’m responsible for designing and developing materials on the upper part of the shoe, not including the bottom; so everything on top - from the materials, to the textiles, to the leathers and the laces. I spec those in, meaning I choose them, to be ordered by the factory. We work with our vendor partners to collaborate and come up with new concepts, then we ship them over to the factory to get them built. 

 
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What does your day-to-day look like?

All the roles at Nike are pretty specific - we have color designers, footwear designers, wear testers, cost engineers, etc., so everyone is very specialized in their roles. So I really just work with material design. Collaboration is an important part of product creation and this is what the majority of my day-to day consists of. Each function works back and forth with others to make a vision come to life; so if the footwear designer wants something sleek for a fast running shoe, it is my responsibility to figure out how we will compose materials together on the shoe to make the vision come to life. 

 
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Can you talk a little bit about your creative background?

I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence for textile design. I feel it was the perfect meld of technical training with a strong fine-arts foundation. The program started us off in a solid year of painting, drawing, color theory, and sculpture. After declaring my major in textile design, my courses became more specific and jumped right into 101 classes in knitting, weaving, and fibers. The courses gradually became more advanced and led to computerized jacquard knitting and weaving. In addition to these skills, I also experimented with screen printing and a lot of dyeing; I would dye my own yarn and knit with it. I did a few internships in fashion during my summers at RISD – one was with Alexander Wang, which consisted of running up and down in midtown mostly but I had the opportunity to do quite a bit of design work. I think the inspiration for that season was tropical palm trees and flowers, so I ended up painting a lot of flowers with watercolors and put them into repeat in Photoshop. They ended up being used for laser-cut leathers and knit jacquards. The following summer I interned at Stoll, which is an industrial knitting machine company that has a sample-making facility in New York. I learned a lot about knitwear pattern-making and finishing and it naturally led me to an assistant knitwear position at Theyskens’ Theory.

 
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How did you end up at Nike?

I ended up there via LinkedIn! Material design has become very important in the past few years with the evolution away from leather in footwear. I believe this is what caused the need for more people in my field in footwear.

 

What’s a project that you’re most proud of? Why?

At Nike I think my biggest breakthrough was finishing up my first signature basketball project. Basketball was the category that I was most unfamiliar with so the challenge was exciting.

 

Is it weird to see a shoe you've designed on someone?

I think it’s really fun to see who buys the shoes, what type of person they are, and wonder what drew them to that shoe. It helps me think ahead to future projects.

 
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Do you do anything outside of work that’s creative as well? Tell us a little about it. 

I have a little studio - it’s very small. I rent a space above a boutique store in Southeast Portland that is owned by a milliner who sells her beautiful hats and also new/vintage women’s clothing and accessories. Her store is called Shop Boswell. In my space I have a domestic knitting machine which I mostly knit beanies and occasionally sweaters on. I sell and gift them to friends but surprisingly had a lot of success at a pop-up shop for designers for the past couple years. I enjoy making beanies that are extreme - so like really short beanies, really tall beanies, beanies with personality. 

 
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Have you ever failed at anything? If so, how did you face that creative challenge? What did you learn from it?

I’m a problem solver, and I’ll make anything work, and do anything I can to make things work. Work-wise there’s definitely design decisions I’ve made that I’m not proud of but I wouldn’t call them failures. If a certain material doesn’t work for whatever reason, my team and I will work together to problem solve as much as we can. If there are absolutely no solutions, I will have to come up with an alternative that does work and looks just as good as the original idea. We face material challenges every day and what I’ve learned is to rely on the experts around you, be collaborative, and flexible. At the end of the day they’re just shoes!

 
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What do you think is the biggest thing that influences you in your creativity today?

My peers. The whole collaboration thing. I love getting feedback from those who don’t know much about materials. They’ll often ask, “What if you change this and this line, or this yarn here,” and because I know how the material is created, a lot of the time I’ll know those modifications aren’t possible, but then I’ll wonder what it would be like to make that possible by using a different method of make. There are countless instances where that has happened and actually pushed my development to a new space with the material. I think the challenges that my peers give me are the most inspirational. I think right now I value the footwear designers’ opinions on materials since they’re creatives as well, but also the developers who didn’t go to art school, never took a painting class - sometimes they’ll say things or ask things that are really interesting and make me think in a different way. 

 
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What do you want to do career-wise? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

I’ve learned a lot from being on a huge team in a huge corporation - a ton, but I definitely want to go back to working with a smaller team, and to being less specialized in one thing. I love the idea of one day owning an alpaca farm and knitting simple alpaca sweaters.
 

 

 

Check out Susan's Ten Facts feature here.