‘I helped design the ball that won France the World Cup’

You’ve probably seen the proudest moment in Sam Handy’s career so far. Depending on where your sporting loyalties lie, it either brought you great joy, or a smattering of heartache.

It was his job to help design the football used at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“You don’t get a lot bigger than that,” he told Bitesize from Germany, where he has been based for the past 11 years as a designer for the sportswear brand Adidas, and is now its creative director for running.

Sam Handy has made a career out of designing both streetwear and sportswear

Having an input into the look and style of clothes that will be seen on streets around the world can be a dream for any aspiring designer. For Sam, who grew up in the Dorset town of Swanage, his passion took root while a pupil at secondary school.

He continued: “I knew I wanted to be a designer when I was finishing school. I took A-levels in Design and Graphics, Art and also English. I didn’t have amazing grades but then I did a foundation course at art school in Birmingham.”

The streetwear route

Following a year out to concentrate on his passion for snowboarding, Sam then studied Graphic Design and Photography at Birmingham Art School. He also had an interest in streetwear and trainers which led him to him linking up with an independent brand.

“They were writing a book at the time about camouflage’” he said. “I wrote to them proactively, saying I’d studied photography, that I thought I was quite good at using Photoshop, and can I come and work on the book?”

It can take two years for a sports shoe to go from a first sketch to the shop shelves

Sam’s request paid off, and even today he emphasises the importance of young designers being proactive and chasing after opportunities as a potential way to enter the industry.

Sam gained further experience with the same company and it led to his future employers contacting him in 2009 to say they were looking for designers to come and work in Germany. He has been based near the company headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, ever since, working on projects such as the official boot of then Juventus, now Manchester United player, Paul Pogba.

On arrival, his streetwear background helped him stand out, as many of his colleagues were more used to working with sportswear. He added: “I think a lot of the bigger international brands are very interested in recruiting people from the smaller, cool brands.”

Playing for the team

His first design for the company was a basketball shoe. It proved a real learning curve.

Sam explained: “There are lots of people involved, from the marketing team, to the development team, to the sales team, to the communications team. You have to be thicker skinned than you would be at school or university, you need to be able to take feedback.”

Paul Pogba in action for Juventus in 2016. Sam was one of the team who designed his official boot

A fashion shoe - one designed purely for its look rather than sports performance, can take up to 18 months to go from the initial sketch to the shop shelves. Sports shoes take longer, up to two years.

Sam gave an example: “We have just launched a shoe… that took two years of in-depth working with some of the best runners in the world.

“Travelling to Kenya, travelling to San Diego, travelling to Ethiopia, really being in touch with these athletes and asking them to come to test the products in Germany.”

The appliance of science

Sports science also plays a role. Sam works alongside experts in materials and construction to ensure the fashion element in his design works with the performance side, and it has helped boost his own scientific knowledge. The sportswear industry employs people with degrees in Chemistry and Biology, even if they have never thought of it as a career suited to their expertise.

Designers don’t work alone. A new trainer requires input from people with different skills

In the pre-Covid world, Sam was travelling abroad with work as much as seven times a year, especially to North America and China, working with athletes, or with colleagues in the factories where the shoes are made.

These travels also remind him of why he wanted to do this kind of job in the first place: “When I was young,” he said, “and wanted to work in this industry, designing trainers… I was convinced there must be about three people in the world who did it and they must be in America, and that it wouldn’t be a job for a kid in a seaside town. But it is, totally.

“The amount of people I bump into in the office who come from small towns in the UK, who have just got on with it and followed their dream, it’s totally possible.”

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