By The Drum, Administrator

September 29, 2005 | 8 min read

Few people observed Reebok’s take-over by Adidas as keenly as Chris Lee. The former creative director at the Boston-based firm has an interesting take on his old employer. He is never short of a word or two. Chances are that one is an expletive.

\"They fucking lost it. When they took me on they wanted all this creativity and direction, but it was always a battle. They were always too concerned about their competitors to take any chances.\"

In the harsh light of this magazine’s pages, Lee’s comments could come across as a tad abrasive, aggressive even. The reality is very different. The 38-year-old simply knows his stuff, and has almost always found himself in an enviable position of power, even in his early days at Wade Smith.

It was during his time at the Liverpool retailer, that Lee made his name as buying director, \"We were good at retailing – the best. As a by-product, I was seen to be good at my job,\" he says, with understatement.

This underplays his skills, and his eye for a good shoe. He also had the confidence – and the backing of owner Robert Wade-Smith – to make what would seem like bizarre and risky decisions, as he explained: \"I knew that there were these golf shoes, if you took the spikes off you had an exclusive shoe that would sell.\" The shoes were ordered and Wade Smith shifted more than 2,000 pairs.

It wasn’t long before Adidas was flying him out to Fontainebleau to tap into his knowledge, while Ellesse, Lacoste and Timberland were among the others consulting this young Scouser. Tony Searles of Reebok was a particular fan. Searles, head of sport at the time and now product development director for Europe, would ask for direction from Lee, something which seems surprising to a mere journalist.

One would presume that multi-million pound brands would be far too arrogant to seek the advice of some young scallie (not that he was of course).

\"A lot of these guys were chasing the market that we were going to, so I would give them advice that would benefit them. If they produced a better product it was better for me.\"

When the product failed to meet the required standards, Lee was characteristically forthright in his comments.

\"They used to come to us with utter crap. We used to have some laughs, but it wasn’t really that funny if you weren’t selling shoes because they weren’t doing their job properly.\"

It was during this time that Reebok’s offer arrived. Lee complained to Reebok, and was invited to Boston to present his constructive whinges at a more senior level. They took it on the chin, although it wasn’t until a couple of years later when Carl Yankowski, the CEO of Reebok, turned up at Wade-Smith’s Liverpool shop that it gathered momentum.

\"I had obviously been making waves, so he came to the store during his tour of the UK and I spent a couple of hours with him. At the end of his visit he offered me the job as head of classics, and I said to him ‘what would I do from Tuesday to Friday?’.\"

It seems almost incredible, and yet although Lee cracks a smile he insists it’s all true. \"I was in a strong position at the time. I knew I was good at my job. I didn’t need to accept the offer and I didn’t want to throw away all the experience I had in fashion, kidswear, womenswear... just to do ‘classics’.\"

He also had the added advantage of holding a five per scent stake in Wade Smith – when Arcadia (the Burton group) later bought the business for £17.3 million, Lee netted a tidy £800,000.

It was four months later – after a couple of trips to Boston – that he was offered the creative director’s job, although even at this early stage the signs were not good. Before they offered him the job he had to go through nine interviews – in one day.

Head of tennis, head of cross training, head of soccer, marketing... they all wanted to grill him on his experience and ideas.

Clearly they liked what he said, but it wasn’t plain sailing. \"I walked out of one interview when this guy got defensive. It looked bad at the time, but it stood me well. It’s important to stand up for yourself if you’re passionate about something – every time you compromise you’re diluting your principles.\"

Through all of this passion and willingness to fight his corner, it’s difficult to know if he was actually excited by the new job. He was after all, being offered the chance to become creative head of Reebok, to take on Nike and Adidas and, at the same time, swap Liverpool for Boston. And yet, every incident could be Nelson’s last stand.

\"No, I was excited – don’t get me wrong. I was living in a fantastic four-storey 70s house in Hingham. You could take a kayak onto the Atlantic, and Reebok had just moved to fantastic new offices...\"

But – and there always seems to be one with Lee – \"I always said to them ‘put me in a position where I can be fired’.\"

They didn’t have the bravery to do that – sales were down 20 per cent from 1997-1999 and the share price was still falling after he arrived – but he did have a specific job: to create a Reebok ‘style’.

\"When Reebok started it had one designer, one style. This was its DNA. When I started it had 40 designers. It was like the Wild West. I gave it a DNA.\"

He imposed a strict ‘four units’ policy (four different materials/parts) – this in a company which was inclined to use 18 different units. Simplicity was Lee’s key.

Elements of it worked, and were implemented, while others were simply ignored. \"I suggested they put clothing in trainers – like pinstripes. They never did it and then Nike ended up doing it.\"

There was also a problem in teaching Reebok to plan ahead – his ‘planting seeds, nurturing seeds and expanding seeds’ theory. The idea being that certain products need to be aimed at a specific aspirational market, part of a long-term plan to maintain the Reebok brand. Despite his insistence he did not have complete success in this area: \"I would say to them, ‘plant the seed’ and they would say ‘where’s my fucking garden?’ They were always looking at their competitors.\"

His other favourite analogy is football. Attack (being adventurous), midfield (what the competition is doing) and defence (what you are doing at the moment). Reebok never marked highly in this three-way strategy.

\"It’s the same now. They just don’t get it right. Look at this RBK campaign – going through the music scene. You can’t build on that. The last ones to do that were LA Gear and where are they now?

\"It’s like Gangster rappers driving Bentleys. You don’t see Bentley advertising the fact that Gangster rappers are buying them. You should always target your target consumers rather than your end consumers.\"

He nods his head in disbelief. \"Reebok has been stagnant. Its consumers are 40-60 year olds. It’s a great brand that needs direction. Adidas has it all buttoned up on so many distribution levels, from the large JJB level to the independents and the specialist level (defence, midfield and attack).\"

One of those ‘specialists’ is Microzine – Lee’s current venture; a man’s magazine – but a shop, rather than a magazine of course. His stores in London and Liverpool sell everything from a £30,000 Leading Edge 240RT to a pair of Adidas Micropacer stealth (£300) or a Castiglioni lamp (price £810). \"It’s a revolution in retail\", he said, but in the same breath he talks about rolling it out – like the very multiples he so despises.

Until the roll out does (or doesn’t) happen he has a lucrative contract advising DKNY, designing 250 shoes a year.

As for the future, who’s to say that it won’t be Lee’s door that Adidas comes knocking on to ‘breathe new direction’ into Reebok. He might have one or two things to say.


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