In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
"I get to work on some dope shit," says Priscella Shum when asked what her role as global design manager for Reebok Classic entails. Her focus involves the special projects and collaborations with the global athletic brand, including exclusive collections coming from Pyer Moss and Gigi Hadid. "Anybody who we're making product with, I meet with them, I solidify the partnership," adds Shum. "I work with them in design and translate what they're thinking into actual product that can be sold to the consumer.”
Shum got her start in fashion during the pre-internet golden age of streetwear, landing her first job at Baby Phat in the early 2000s. (Fittingly, the female-fronted brand recently relaunched in June for streetwear's digital era, thanks to Kimora Lee Simmons Leissner buying it back in the beginning of 2019. "I'm super excited because Kimora is fierce," says Shum on its comeback. "She knows what she wants, she has a vision, she has a direction. I'm really excited to see where they take it.")
With collaborations at the core of streetwear, Shum's design roots are a major asset to her job and how she approaches today's Reebok customer. "It excites me that streetwear is being taken as the norm. We're just allowing people to express themselves," she says. "Ultimately, that's why I got into it."
During a recent visit to Reebok's Boston-based headquarters, we sat down with Shum to learn more about how she broke into the fashion industry, how she works with collaborators Kerby Jean-Raymond (of Pyer Moss) and Hadid and her best career advice. Read on for highlights from our chat.
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How did you get your start in fashion?
I actually started off in marketing and merchandising. I thought I wanted to be a buyer. I didn't really know the different avenues that you could take within fashion. So for me, it was just, 'Oh, you're going to be a buyer,' and that's what you do, and that's how you get into fashion. But I would sit in textiles class and constantly sketch stuff. Finally, my teacher was like, 'Get out of my class. Go change your major and go do design,' which is what I did. I did a couple of semesters at FIT and then I went back to Miami to study at Miami International University of Art & Design.
After graduating, what would you consider your big break in the industry?
My first big break would have to be working for Baby Phat for Kimora Lee Simmons. I designed the infamous Baby Phat jacket that everybody had back in 2004. Before that, I started interning at Fubu. It was a leather company that did Fubu and Mecca. I got to work with Daymond John, and then I got hired as an assistant for Kimora, then everybody quit. I was like, 'What's going to happen? What am I going to do?' I had to put a collection together, and that's where that jacket came from — a dire necessity to have to do something.
Aside from the Baby Phat jacket, what are some other accomplishments in your career so far?
I survived doing the Yeezy Season 1 collection. I say 'survived' because that was very important. I worked on the Jay-Z jacket for the MLB World Series. That was one of my first bigger projects that I remember very well, and that was really fun. Here at Reebok, one of my biggest accomplishments is taking the Classics line and building that foundation, to where we're way over our target of where we're supposed to be in the last three years. And then, the Pyer Moss collection. That, and Gigi — she's just killing it over the globe. But definitely working with Pyer Moss, it touches my heart because I am that kid.
Do you have any mentors in the industry?
At the beginning of my career, I wasn't fortunate enough to have any mentors to guide me, so a lot of it I had to figure out on my own, which went really well sometimes and really bad sometimes. But now, I do. I have a few that are in the industry, and a few that are not in the industry. We all go through things at work, so I think it's good, listening to other people and getting their perspective on it. Also, you can learn so much from someone's outer perspective on it when they're not in the industry, so I think it's super important. And then I have a couple of mentees who I try to mentor now. I speak to them every so often, and I have them go out and do things, and just build themselves up.
I have two mentors who have known me since I was a kid. One is April Walker, the founder of Walker Wear. She's the OG streetwear lady, like B.I.G., Pac, Big Daddy Kane, Heavy D, all of them were wearing her stuff. And she's always been someone that I just check in with. She's also a woman in the industry and a person of color helping me navigate this space. You'd think that in 2019 it'd be a little bit more progressive, and it would have furthered a little bit, as far as representation, but it's not, so she helps me out a lot.
And then there's Jason Mayden. He's the ex-Global Design Director for Jordan Brand at Nike. He has been a huge force in my life. He's always building me up, breathing life into me and showing me how high the bar is, and believing that I can reach it. Always reminding me that he can't believe in me more than I believe in myself. That's a constant, strong source in my life.
What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned over the past 16 years in the fashion industry?
You will judge yourself on your intentions, but people will judge you based on their perceptions. Perception is reality, especially in this industry. One of the biggest things I learned is that you have to stay true to yourself. You can't compromise yourself to make product, or to do something that you don't align with. Because at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. You have to be proud of what you do. And if you're not proud of what you do, then you need to figure something out because it'll eat away at your soul eventually. As a designer, as an artist, for me, at least, it will literally eat at my soul.
And staying strong, as well. Having that voice and being very forthright, in a sense. Not being passive-aggressive, just telling people, 'Listen, this is what I need, this is what it is. It's not a personal thing, but how can we make this better?' Being able to see different things from both sides, and learning everything from every single function, so that you can be a better designer, or person. Just connecting with people and understanding how your job affects theirs.
Tell us about the creative process between your partnerships with Pyer Moss and Gigi Hadid.
Kerby has a pretty clear vision on what he wants, and with the direction he was going. It fit in perfectly with our DNA. We have a huge, huge history in every single sport, every single court, on different social moments in culture. So I think tapping into that, and tapping into our purpose as far as socially, and how we stand, and what we stand for was really fundamental in building out that vision with him. Also, always remembering where I come from, and the people we're trying to talk to at the end of the day. We're just trying to talk to kid versions of us. That was pretty easy. We're from the same place, same neighborhood and all those things, so it was easy for me because it was like speaking to my cousins, or myself.
Whereas Gigi, for instance, I had to get into her head a little bit. I had to spend more time with her in order to really understand where she was coming from and where her life came from, and her inspirations come from. A lot of it comes from her family and her background, but you would never know that, because you see her and you're like, 'Oh, Gigi, wow! She's this supermodel!’ And then you really get to know her, and you're like 'Wow, there's a really, truly incredible person here,' and then that's what you want to be able to show.
How do you balance the Reebok customer with whomever you're collaborating with?
The important part is knowing your consumer, knowing the modern person who you're designing for. For instance, depending on which partnership comes in, and what consumer we're targeting, I can visually see it in my head, and there's a completely different consumer across the world who has different needs than there is here in North America. So being able to cater to that is truly knowing your consumer, and getting closer to them and the way that they shop nowadays. Probably the most important part is being able to differentiate between how each [partnership] is going to look. Not only that, but it's also an extension of the partner themselves, so it should be like an extension of their personality, of what they stand for and what they believe in.
How do you stay inspired?
My friends. Honestly, the people in my life are a huge inspiration to me because I'm always thinking, 'What would I design for so-and-so? What would I have so-and-so wear?' I try to go to art galleries and museums a lot to see the different exhibitions. Art History is a huge, huge inspiration for me, and the history of dressing. How people use that as a way to present themselves to the world, and how we used to care so much about it. You know, our Sunday's best, right? Now we just throw on a pair of sweats and we're like, 'Peace! We're out!' The change in that fascinates me.
What do you look for when you're hiring?
Individuality. Honesty, in a sense. I look for a certain type of energy. You can tell when a person really wants to be there, and when a person really wants that job. I look for communication and the way that they speak, as well. I never wanna say, 'Okay, well, if you're not a part of it, like if you haven't grown up in it, or if you're not really in the culture, you can't do it.’ Because I've had designers who don't even know what Hypebeast is and they are excellent designers. It's just giving that person a chance, and really feeling them out. I'm a big person on that. I just want to know the person first, because I'm sure you could do the job, but I just want to know you.
What advice would you give to young designers trying to break into the industry?
Intern, do apprentice work. Network, get to know people. You can always learn something from anybody. Always try to find out what people expect from you beforehand, so you can have those corners covered. I always tell my designers, 'Always try to find out what your product marketers — our counterparts that would always tell us no — why would they tell you no?' and then find those things out, and have an answer for them. Try as much as you can. Learn about as much as you can because it'll only make you better. Work hard. Do good, be good, and kill shit.
Disclosure: Reebok paid for my transportation to visit the brand's headquarters in Boston.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.