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5 Minutes with Leon Witherow ‘Prestology’

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Leon2 We sat down with Leon, famed for his 200 pair strong collection of Presto’s, to talk the shoe itself, his role at Nike and what one colourway started it all off. Could you tell us a little about your background and current career & role? I was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. I fell in love with Nike from a really young age and as soon as I could afford my own sneakers, I would head down to the Nike factory store to pick up whatever rare pair I could find. I’ve always loved to draw, and while my parents thought I would end up as an artist, I always liked the idea of creating products and things for people to use- functional things. I did my Honors Degree in Industrial Design at RMIT in Melbourne with the goal of getting in to transportation design. When the financial crisis hit and the industry slowed down, I turned to my other real passion: Nike. I landed a job with Nike Australia at a retail level, but the goal was always to design shoes for them. After a few years in Australia, I decided it was time to see the world, so I packed my life and a few pairs of Prestos in to a suitcase and headed for Holland. At the start of 2013 I began studying a Master of Footwear Innovation at the SLEM Footwear Institute in Waalwijk, Holland, learning the fundamentals of footwear design and building my network. It was through social media that I made contact with the design team from Nike European HQ and landed a spot in the internship program. I am currently a colour designer for the Young Athletes category at the European HQ but in a couple of months I will be heading to the World HQ in Oregon to work in my dream job as a footwear designer for the Young Athletes category. When did you first get into the Presto? Was there one particular colourway that started it all off? It was actually pure chance that I discovered the Presto; normally I am Air Max head. One day, while I was still working at the Nike Factory store, my best friend Ben called me and asked if I had ever heard of the Presto. He told me that if I found a pair, I had to buy it immediately. In some strange twist of fate, a pair of Australasian-exclusive Prestos had just arrived that day in our discount section. I tried them on and that’s where it all started for me. What makes the Presto so special to you? It’s a whole combination of things. It’s the timeless shape of it. It’s the simplicity of it. It’s the philosophy behind the design, the way it was conceived by some of Nikes greatest creative minds, the comfort, the way it is connected to art and street culture, the unique way it was marketed and distributed and, finally, the way it ushered in a whole new generation of footwear innovation. When you dig deeper and start to find more and more information on the Presto, you start to understand what it was trying to achieve. It wasn’t just about the performance capabilities of the shoe, it was about creating an entire cultural shift around footwear. The Presto revolutionised the way that footwear was marketed, distributed and permeated through every aspect of our culture. You’ve gained quite a following on social media for your impressive collection, have you come across anyone else with as many varieties? I really haven’t. There are a couple of people out there who have nice collections of rare pairs, but when I started collecting them almost 8 years ago, the goal was just to have as many nice pairs as possible. Now people really only want the super rare pairs. Still, I’ve met some awesome people who share my passion and it’s comforting to know that there are so many people out there who see the same things I do when I look at the shoe. I like the thought of being extremely passionate, almost obsessive, about something. I don’t think I’d be talking to you now if my passion for the Presto was just a humble pastime. What are your numbers looking like at the moment?   Right now I’m sitting on about 200 pairs but it’s always growing. To be honest, my pace has slowed down a lot recently because my sole focus is acquiring the last of the holy grails that continue to evade me. The good thing is that I have a policy of never selling my pairs, so the collection will never shrink. Have you ever had the same scale of obsession over a particular style before discovering the Presto range? Never. When I first got into Nike I was also involved in Melbourne’s growing street art community. The Air Max 90 is considered a bit of an icon in this community so for a while I was trying to collect only 90’s. That ended as soon as I discovered the Presto. Any interesting stories about trying to hunt a pair down? Has the search taken you on any adventures around the world? For me, each pair that I own has a story to it. Each pair is almost a little checkpoint in my life. I have a theory that the most rare pairs can often be found in the most obscure places and often have the most interesting histories. I have two pairs of the Australian Olympic Presto- an extremely rare release that was only given to friends and family- and both pairs were found in the discount bins at Thrift stores down the road from Nike World HQ in Oregon. I also have a pair of Prestos signed and worn by Eric Clapton during his 2001 World Tour. The pair was signed by Clapton and then auctioned off for charity. The proceeds of the auction went to the Crossroads Foundation at Mr. Clapton's request. At some point the pair ended up at K-Skit in Japan where they sold for around $900. After a few years of silence, they surfaced again at a second-hand motorcycle dealership in Nara, Japan, called  ‘Holly Equip Inc.'. I’m sure there will be plenty more stories to come. Outside of the original silhouette, what would you say is your favourite of the more obscure Presto releases from over the years?   That’s a tough one. I think I’m torn between the Presto Faze and the Escape. They share a similar concept; lace-less uppers and TPU cages with extremely comfortable and stretchy uppers- but each shoe has such a distinct look and character that really helped diversify the Presto line. On top of that they are great canvases for crazy prints and colorways. Are there any pairs you’re still on the look out for that seem to constantly elude you?  Have you succeeded in tracking down the original 13 colourways?  After a solid 7 years of endless hunting, I still have not been able to track down a set of the Fragment Design ‘Hello Kitty’ Prestos. They are insanely rare and those that own them are not exactly willing to let them go. Just last week I found out that I missed an opportunity to buy the set from the original designer, and it was one of the most heartbreaking moments I have ever experienced in my life. I could actually hear the sad violins playing in the background. I have most of the original 13 colorways but right now the priority has turned to tracking down the last of my holy grails. What would you say is the absolute pinnacle piece of your collection? For me, the highlight of my collection would definitely be the Sole Collector X Niketown Honolulu Presto that released in 2005. It was the very first time that Sole Collector had collaborated with Nike and with just 48 pairs world wide, they have a very special significance for me. The pair really sums up Nikes passion for storytelling, collaboration and blurring the lines between art and science. What does your current rotation consist of? I’ve regularly been wearing the white BR pair that released recently, but my current weekly rotation consists of an O.G pair of Lightning Prestos from 2001, the Genealogy pair that released last year, a bright orange Footlocker-exclusive pair from 2009, a tough triple-black pair from 2001, a Kermit green pair of NIKEiD Prestos from 2005 and a wild pair of ‘Mercury Man’ Escapes which I picked up recently. You must be pleased to see a return of the silhouette to the market this year? It’s amazing. To see new audiences get introduced to the shoe and to see older audiences come out of the woodworks and share their thoughts on the return of the Presto is really exciting. So many people remember this shoe when it first released and so many people have incredible stories about what role the Presto played in their lives, and these stories really do serve to highlight the fact that this shoe is just as important and relevant now as it was when it first released. Throughout your career and general interest in footwear design, have you ever dabbled in creating your own interpretation of a Presto style?   I have a confession to make. For a long time, whenever I would draw sneakers, all I could draw were shoes that looked Presto-inspired. It was a time when I was quite new to footwear design and the only thing that ran through my head was the Presto. My teacher at my school in the Netherlands got quite tired of it eventually. To be honest I’ve never made a real attempt at reimagining the Presto. It’s an intimidating thought- trying to improve on perfection. I’d prefer, for the moment, to let the shoe continue to inspire me in a more holistic way. I don’t want to try and reinvent the Presto, but one day I dream of creating something that had just as much of an impact on footwear and culture as it did. What classic Nike colourway would you love to apply to a Presto?  My mind immediately pictures a Presto with any of the incredible colorways used on the Nike X Patta collaborations. I think you could make some really sophisticated pairs using those colors. I also think that the colors on some of the legendary Atmos and Mita collaborations would be amazing too. Would you be interested in seeing a new updated style that followed the same design principles? Absolutely! The Presto is often referred to as the granddaddy of the Nike Free, so I can only imagine that the creation of a new style that was built on the same principles would help create just as much of a paradigm shift as the original Presto did. The Presto was a game changer- pure and simple- and it helped usher in an entirely new way that we look at footwear- the idea of deconstructing a shoe to its most essential components. With all of the incredible technology, innovation and creative minds at Nike, there’s no reason that another shoe like this couldn’t be created.  

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