As soon as you see Asha Harper’s work, you can tell that you’re getting something different. Her style is one that you’d happily struggle to put a label on, but the nod to individuality is one that stems from Asha’s personality resonating well with the German brand she now represents: PUMA.
Born in East London and quickly relocating to Leicester with her family, Asha’s journey which has led her to become one of PUMA’s footwear designers, started with her love of art and design. She tells us, “my art foundation was where I made the connection with design and footwear, I have so much time for both subjects. Even when I’m not designing I’m designing in my head.” For Asha, designing footwear goes beyond something just being “cool”, and is more about understanding what the customer needs without them even realising. “Not only is it about products looking fancy it’s also about craftsmanship, functionality and practicality. For me, it’s a must to know how to design as well as how to construct a product. The two should never be separate in my opinion. It should be a standard bread and butter for all designers.”
A work ethic that clearly held its own, as it has seen Asha get an unconditional offer from De Montfort University – one of only three universities in the UK to offer a Footwear Design and Accessories course. From that point the only way was up for Asha, landing an apprenticeship at leading British brand Dr. Martens which then turned into a full time job as one of their menswear footwear designers for two years. This led to her current role at PUMA, and that’s where we see how Asha’s love of the brand and what she does mixes so well with the direction they are heading.
“To be honest I feel like Rihanna is what PUMA needed, not only as a Creative Director but also as a person to look to for ways to push boundaries. Taking things to the next step with everything she does.”
With 60 years of experience in the game, PUMA has always been a sportswear favourite but it seemed unlikely that the brand would collaborate (or as PUMA’s Head of Select, Yassine Saidi likes to say, ‘co-create’) with a such big names in the fashion, music and entertainment industry. The most notable being their relationship with global superstar Rihanna, who was made the Creative Director of womenswear in 2014. Amassing a co-creative list with musicians, models, sportsmen and women as well as general public figures has made PUMA one of the hottest sportswear brands. Their apparel line is just as important as their footwear, making them one of Nike and Adidas’ main competitors.
“To be honest I feel like Rihanna is what PUMA needed, not only as a Creative Director but also as a person to look to for ways to push boundaries. Taking things to the next step with everything she does. She has a distinctive vision which is working in our favour. I mean the creeper won shoe of the year last year, that’s a big deal especially as it’s influenced by our most iconic. I like that she doesn’t change too much of the originals. It’s just minor tweaks here and there with a mix of high fashion. Which I feel is where the sneaker industry is going. Her collections to come are lit.”
It’s no secret that fashion is continuously moving at a fast pace and in the footwear industry (most particularly trainers) this seems more prevalent than ever. “Today everything is pretty much accessible, the market is flooded. This now means brands need to rely on ambassadors or big stories to help create the hype that once was. Sometimes a good thing, but you forever must leave your consumers thirsty for more and try to design something which could change the game whilst staying pure.” According to Asha, this is why PUMA has done so well recently. Their ability to create stories with their Brand Ambassadors such as The Weeknd and Big Sean and even Cara Delevingne allow the brand to reach out to an even broader consumer market and challenge the creative direction. “Building and crafting stories is a must. Most times I find myself asking, ‘If I was the consumer what would I want to be wearing or what would my friends want to be wearing?’ I create the concept and fine tune it until it’s ready.”
As a designer, Asha makes it clear that the best way to keep up with the social media age is to continue to make target consumer present in the products that PUMA designs, creating a world for them to feel as though they’re exclusively entering. “For me what helps is banking editorials, pictures of random compositions, documentaries in fashion or life, colours, textures anything which can help create the world you want your product to reflect.” There’s something very cool and personal in the way Asha speaks about the art of footwear design. A task that surely can’t be easy but instantly inspires you to create whatever thoughts you have going on in your own mind. Her love for what she does is infectious, making you want nothing but success for a woman that is clearly extremely talented. “Along the way I’ve fallen in love with so many talented people with different backgrounds to me but we’ve all been brought together through design and the industry. Fortunately, I’m lucky to have a handful of them here with me in Germany working at another brand. But they give me life and constantly remind me of the daily grind. You win some battles you lose some…You are the only person that can limit your greatness.”
Designs by Asha Harper
Portrait of Asha by Nadine Ijiwere