Ones to watch: Footwear designer Nathan Alexander Walker on storytelling, social media and thinking slow
“You don’t need to kill yourself to make stuff pretty for social media”, Nathan Alexander explains during a recent visit to the Barbican Centre to discuss his often abstract and disruptive design style. Still a student on BA (Hons) Cordwainers Footwear, Nathan is wise beyond his age and has been making moves to surround himself with like-minded creatives that want to make their mark on the industry too. We sat down with Nathan to discuss slow-development, working at McQ and Concept Kicks, plus making storytelling more fluid in footwear.
Born and raised in Nottingham to athletic parents, Nathan played a lot of sports growing up and continues having people trying to label him into the ‘sportswear’ bracket in relation to design although he’s so much more diverse than that. During secondary school he started leaning towards his creative tendencies, he knew he wasn’t gifted in art but had an eye for composition, drawing and painting. Starting his sixth form studies was a defining moment – Nathan wanted a fresh start somewhere new after six years of being in the same school. “My mum helped influence my next move, coming from a creative standpoint, she knew that was the direction I needed to go towards so I enrolled on an Art & Design course at Nottingham Central College. There I was really able to explore the ideas I previously kept in my head,” he explains. His teacher Julian Woodcock opened his eyes to art, photography and sculpture, it’s here where his next move became more evident.
During his second year of college, Nathan became really interested in sculpture, fashion and sneakers, so this helped him focus on footwear as it was a unique meeting point for those influences. “I researched the course and saw what the possibilities were to study and experiment, so it was a bit of a no-brainer applying”, he tells us. Fashion and footwear helped sway his mind, although he did toy with the idea of following fine art at university.
Nathan still wants to work in the art world and create sculptures in the future, but for now, this course has helped him apply comfort to designs which are still lead by sculpture and abstract shapes. He thinks it’s an interesting time to observe fashion as it continues to make more of a transition into the art world, products are all “hybrid with multiple influences” that come in from all places he explains. Art and fashion becoming more connected has helped him explore different forms of footwear, generating ideas with emotion and deeper narratives.
Nathan is humble but also straight to the point, he says sometimes that can come across as blunt to people that don’t know him. Growing up in Nottingham has kept him on his feet, “being raised there has definitely influenced me. It’s a hard-working city and it’s a place that sometimes isn’t friendly if you aren’t humble. If you’re a big-headed person then you won’t go far where I come from or have good personal relationships with people around you”, he explains. He tried to keep that mentality when he moved to London but found it difficult at the start. He remembers it being very flashy at the start and social media-driven, which he recites as being eye-opening. He felt there was a pressure to present this alternative lifestyle to others, which inevitably had a knock-on effect on many people’s mental health.
Dropped right in the middle of Millennials and Generation Z, Nathan looked into the traits that both generations have and believes he shares similarities to both. “I feel Millennials want to bring about change and have an impact on the world instantly, while Generation Z approaches things with caution. They’ve seen Millennials try and sometimes fail, so they observe more, I think I have the perfect balance of that. I know there are things that need changing in fashion, footwear and product, it feels wrong contributing to a consumer culture but it is also an influential way to inflict change, especially through storytelling”.
A lot of fashion brands tell stories from a political stane through collections, but Nathan doesn’t want to achieve this with his work. Instead, he says, “I want my storytelling to form social and economic perspectives in terms of the change I hope to influence. I’ve always been quite understanding of different perspectives.” He wants to start discussions around inequality, social issues, race, gender and much more with his work. Nathan used an industry project with Clark’s Originals to tell the story of hip-hop subcultures from the 1980-90s within New York. His aim was to tell a story that emphasised the people that existed within these subcultures and the forms of expression they emitted within their oppressive boundaries. He did this by using the sole unit to represents the buildings, set within the environment the people lived in. “Angles translated from how the buildings line up with one another from a shallow bird’s eye view, relatable angle to how police and news helicopters would fly over the projects to film or look out for ‘suspects'”, he explains. The reason for the shapes placed around the shoe was to represent the expression and enthusiasm emitted by the people within those environments. Featured in red nylon to represent the clothing typically worn in the 80s and 90s era of hip-hop and artistic impression. The suede was chosen to represent the rough texture of the bricks surrounding the people in their environment, relaying the overwhelming stature of the project buildings.
The grids stitched through the main shape on the vamp of the foot was to represent the project windows, each section pushing through representing the human forms trying to escape through their practice of expression and artistry. Immersive storytelling is very important to Nathan, he wants to tell stories in footwear like legends such as Milano Blanco, Loubiton, Nike. This storytelling approach is present within clothing brands but he wants to bring it into the footwear realm, just with a different perspective.
Having spent the last year at McQ and Concept Kicks during his placement year, Nathan learnt a lot about the industry and what sort of environment he wants to be in daily. Nathan wanted to see how a big international fashion house works so applied for McQ and landed himself a six-month internship. He learnt a lot at McQ, like the many different layers of designing a collection for a huge organisation and timing, but he did sometimes feel limited being an intern. The brand spoke in board meetings about tapping into Millennials but never used his background in design, retail and age to their advantage.
Nathan works at the NikeLab 1948 in Shoreditch alongside studying, which is how he made a connection to his next placement at Concept Kicks. He was talking to Paul Ayre, a regular customer and author of Sneakers: Size isn’t everything (which features a 17-year-old Kim Jones), a book on 1990s sneaker culture, who suggested making an introduction to Daniel Bailey, who runs Concept Kicks independently. Nathan and Daniel got chatting, keeping in contact over the year, before putting himself forward as a potential intern if Concept Kicks were ever looking to recruit. Later on down the line, Daniel offered him a position, so he joined them straight after his McQ internship finished.
Concept Kicks was the opposite end of the pool to McQ, a very small and laidback design agency that works remotely across east London. He says a smaller office culture suits him more as it allows him to flex his ‘creative muscle’ and get involved in more projects from start to finish. Working at a big fashion house really helps your career blossoms, having that on your resume does open doors, but it can come at a price, you sometimes find your role limited within the brand or strictly assigned to one task. Nathan says the two placements have helped him scope out the sort of environment he prefers working in, which also mirrors which development ideology. He believes “success has to come from the ground level and the people at your level right now”. Collaboration and working with other emerging designers, brands and creative minds is the most organic way to get recognition, plus it allows him to stretch his skills and work across multiple departments. It also ties into his ‘slow-development’ approach to work and identity.
Fashion houses already have their footwear divisions, making an impact within these spaces can be quite restricted, that’s why he wants to work with other independent creatives wanting to make their mark on the industry. Nathan has been working with Aaron Kudi, who founded and runs Goeie Katoen, consulting with Nike on a future project, working with The Basement Approved, plus some other projects we can’t legally mention just yet. The people he surrounds himself with aren’t looking for quick gratification and getting 10,000 likes on Instagram or jumping on trends, this isn’t how they want to make an impact on the industry. Instead, longevity is the name of the game. Nathan looks at Samuel Ross of A-COLD-WALL* and Craig Green as leading examples of creatives that mastered their craft through slow developments before making their mark and influencing change through the appreciation of storytelling through fashion.
“We have a long life to live, as long as the West doesn’t destroy the world”, so Nathan isn’t in a rush to start his own brand or become a social media influencer. Producing outstanding work under the age of 27-years-old is a rarity, occasionally you get a shining star, but more often than you need experience and to put in the ground-work if you truly want to be successful. “Nobody wins in huge bursts”, Nathan says during our talk as we continue to discuss finding your feet in design.
Knowledge and skill comes with experience. Nathan believes there is a new wave of people coming through that are trying to change the industry, not a revolution, but an altered perspective on fashion, cycles, consumerism and honesty. He believes people want honesty from brands and influential characters, from social media all the way through to production. Having an online presence and the mental health issues around social media are something Nathan believes needs and is changing within the industry. “I think last year there was this pressure to post images and stories every day on Instagram. I’m seeing influential people being humbler with their content, people who are still considered ‘influencers’ aren’t posting that much anymore. Maybe this is down to how detrimental social media can be to mental health in some ways”.
There needs to be more consideration and a different approach to fashion, social media and design. Growing up in today’s society, there is a lot that can be imposed on the youth and older generations trying to label people or put them in a box, Nathan says he wants to disturb that opinion and break down stereotypes. Nathan felt misread growing up and still does to some extent today. He told us, “People look at me and think, ‘he’s going to design trainers’. Because of comfort I wear trainers all the time but my ‘artistic perspective’ wants to buy into other things”, my appreciation of other products is so extensive but he continues to be generalised. He wants to combine art-based influences with a formal way of dressing with an underlining technicality of sportswear and trainers. He is already planning on using his final project as a template for his future plans. He says it will be very hybrid and dark in terms of inspiration, probably described as ‘Sports Formal’, bringing tenancies of military and work-wear together. By bringing in ideas and references from everywhere, Nathan plans to create something new and accessible to everyone, but his message throughout will be tackling social and economical-based issues. Nathan is part of a new wave of designers looking to bring sociological and psychological thinking into footwear through storytelling and design, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for his final project next summer.
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