Dingyun Zhang, the Mongolian-Chinese designer known for his alien outerwear, has always admired adidas’ shoes. He remembers staring googly-eyed at the Tracy McGrady T-Mac 5 in adidas’ store windows as a child, and he recalls picking up his first shoes from the German sportswear brand — the tech-y 1.1 Intelligence — in 2007. In Somerset, England, he would sport all-black Sambas to his boarding school classes, despite the uniform not allowing sneakers. Now, with a résumé that includes an MA from Central Saint Martins, a favored Marni collaboration and designing several of YEEZY’s era-defining sneakers, Zhang’s story comes full circle: enter the Dingyun Zhang adidas Originals Samba.

Zhang’s first-ever footwear collaboration came to fruition after a visit to adidas’ archives in Beijing and Herzogenaurach, where he browsed the German sportswear giant’s decades-spanning footwear history books for source material. Zhang became fond of adidas’ shoes in the aughts, so he naturally gravitated toward designs from his own foundational years for inspiration. In particular, the 2006 adidas Predator Absolute cleat offered the blueprint for his design’s distinctive heel guard, and popular 2000s skate styles gave way to its exaggerated cushion heel. The puffy low-cut silhouette was no afterthought either: the look is “reminiscent of the era when street skaters would take a box cutter to their brand new shoes and convert them into low tops,” adidas explains.

In a medley of materials, the model’s upper employs rippling patent leather; and its toe box, finished in suede, sits atop a sole made of matte-embossed gum rubber. Breathable holes dot adidas’ Three Stripes iconography at custom distances, while tonal branding and an all-black color scheme lets the altered design speak for itself instead of highlighting any specific area.

“This shoe is all about demonstrating that highly conceptual ideas can be stretched into an all-new physical silhouette,” Zhang said. “Bypassing obstacles; the more you challenge yourself, the more you think outside the box and push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

What does this collaboration mean to you?

I’ve had an interest in sneakers since I was a child. Before I could get my hands on shoes, I would make sketches of them, and I used to create collectible sneaker trading cards modeled after the popular silhouettes of the time. Many of those shoes were made by adidas, so this partnership being my first footwear release really feels like a dream come true.

What was the first adidas shoe that caught your attention?

It was Tracy McGrady’s T-Mac 5 in 2006. That was a very pivotal year for me. I was hooked by that shoe’s unique usage of patent leather, and it was the first time that I had seen wooden panels on a basketball shoe. That silhouette had a very strong influence on my design codes. Classic basketball and skate styles heavily informed my later works, and I think adidas played a big role in shaping my aesthetic.

I was never actually able to buy the T-Mac 5, though. The first adidas shoe I got my hands on was a kid-sized 1.1 Intelligence in 2007. The shoe itself had plus and minus buttons on the side of its design that were able to adjust the midsole’s cushioning for different activities, terrains and comfort levels. That technology made a huge impact on my idea of what could be possible for footwear design.

“It was exciting to think about how we could implement new ideas into what already existed.”

Did you wear Sambas at all?

Yes. This question makes me instantly flash back to my days at boarding school in the UK. We had a strict uniform, and you weren’t allowed to wear sneakers. But I would wear all-black Sambas anyway because they blended in very well, and I pretty much got away with it.

What did you discover while visiting adidas’ archives in Beijing and Herzogenaurach, and how did your trip influence the design process for your own Samba?

I have always been driven by adidas’ innovation, and it was very inspiring to see the history in the archives. We were able to be very hands-on with the models, and I learned how certain materials age over time. It was exciting to think about how we could implement new ideas into what already existed.

Why did you decide to remake the Samba?

We had the option to tackle other silhouettes, but the Samba’s history in youth and subculture, coupled with its influence in sports and skateboarding, sparked strong curiosity from my team and me.

How do you put a personal spin on a silhouette everyone knows without getting too far away from its ethos?

For me, it was really about staying true to my brand’s ethos, with exaggerated design details, like the puffed-up collar and the shiny finishes. Those Ding touches were very important to me. I wanted to accentuate the Samba with my own perspective, not rewrite its story.

What did the production process look like? With your being based in Shanghai and adidas in Germany, how did you manage to collaborate on a global scale?

I flew to Germany with my mother, and we designed the shoe over a few rounds of ideation meetings at adidas’ headquarters. Their team also came to my studio in Shanghai, where we conducted focus group sessions to troubleshoot any design flaws and implement changes until we got the results that we were all happy with.

“The idea of making a shoe was like building a rocket ship to me when I was younger.”

You have yet to put out a namesake shoe, but you are the brain behind some of Yeezy’s most-loved silhouettes. How did your thought process in this collaboration differ from that during your time at YEEZY? Were there any similarities?

The idea of making a shoe was like building a rocket ship to me when I was younger. But after working at YEEZY and building silhouettes step-by-step, my perspective widened to see innovative possibilities within the footwear space. With this collaboration, the process of taking the original sketch and placing the product in the market was pretty similar because we were also working with adidas at that time.

What’s your favorite design feature on the shoe?

I really like the heel guard, which is inspired by a David Beckham football shoe called the Predator Absolute from 2006. I think the puffy collar and the suede toe cap really contribute to the model’s unique look — a Samba with a distinctive Ding touch.

The adidas Originals by Dingyun Zhang Samba launches on May 10 via select retailers and CONFIRMED. Registration will open via CONFIRMED on May 4 at 10 a.m. CET.

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