From co-creating with Rihanna to helping Puma take a new direction, Yassine Saidi has become one of the most influential people in style and streetwear.
Yassine Saidi has one of those jobs that didn’t really exist until fairly recently but is now among the most important in his company. He’s Puma’s head of select, the department that sets up collaborations and helps shape the entire aesthetic of the brand. He’s been involved in collaborations with The Weeknd, Rihanna, and Big Sean. As he tells Vogue Man Arabia, Puma has long moved away from being a sportswear company and is now so much more. “We’re in the fashion industry now,” Saidi says. “If you look at the three big companies – Adidas, Nike, and Puma – what’s most important is that we all bring innovation and help athletes to perform better. You have to be true to who you are, but that’s only one part of it. There’s been this extension from sport to street that’s made us change the way we work. Sport is lifestyle and lifestyle is sport – these two worlds now match.” It’s been said that Adidas has pretty much nailed lifestyle, while Nike will always be the king of sportswear, but Puma has found itself with a foot in both camps.
“We were first in fashion. It’s part of our DNA. Everything we design, we do through the lens of style and fashion,” Saidi says. This marks a big shift from where the company used to be. “This shoe has to perform… but you have to be able to also wear it with denim.”
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“The consumer decides how to use the products and we see how the consumer behaves and react to it,” he continues. “Sometimes we create new needs – for example, collaborating with Rihanna.”
The shift to fashion and lifestyle seems to be working for Puma. So well, in fact, that it’s had the dubious yet significant honor of seeing counterfeit versions of its products appear in Asia. It’s something that has made Saidi, if not his employers, happy. “Oh, it’s great!” he laughs, “It means we’re making things people want. Nobody makes counterfeit versions of things nobody wants to buy. It’s a legal problem, obviously, but someone who’s going to buy a fake Creeper for US $20 will never buy the real thing for US $160.” It’s that sort of thinking that has made people like Saidi so crucial to big corporations, with their ability to look at a brand with a more inventive and creative – rather than simply commercial – eye. And now the line between what he does and what high-end fashion labels are creating, is becoming increasingly blurred, with pretty much every brand now having its own range of sneakers.
“If fashion brands are making sneakers then it’s because there is a demand,” Saidi points out. “I’m not competing with a Gucci sneaker because we’re at a completely different price point, but at the same time, the person buying a Gucci sneaker will probably also have Puma, Nike, and Adidas – it’s just extended the reach and market size.”
All the traditional sports brands are now part of the fashion world and what they are offering fits in with the modern demand for versatility. “People used to go to the office wearing brown shoes, but the brown shoe market is dying,” Saidi says. “When you look at Puma’s early collaborations with people like Alexander McQueen, we were doing semi-formal shoes, but now it’s just sneakers. Although the materials we are using were designed for comfort and performance.”
And this is where the co-creating comes in. “Today, if you bring an amazing design for a shoe and you don’t have a story to anchor it, it’s not going to work, even if it’s the best shoe,” he says. “Streetwear, music, fashion, assets, Instagram influencers… A show that’s not activated through influencer marketing, asset marketing, or streetwear cultural movements most probably will fail.” When Saidi talks about influencers here, he’s not talking about the dubious kind with a few thousand bought followers. He’s referring to genuine big names with huge authentic reach. Cara Delevingne has 41.1 million Instagram followers, so when Puma teamed up with her, there was a built-in advertising campaign sorted already. Plus, she looks great in those pants. Mostly, though, Saidi co-creates with musicians, because they are the bridge between fashion, lifestyle, and sport. “Music is the most powerful cultural driver. Whether I’m in a taxi in New York, São Paulo, or Tokyo, The Weeknd or Rihanna will be playing. It’s global.”
What does that mean for ambassadors like Usain Bolt? Is their time past now? “I think it is,” Saidi nods. “Usain Bolt is such an amazing asset, but he’s doing track and field, not basketball or skateboarding.”
Here’s something that’s probably going to make you feel old. “The 17-year-old kid is always the target, because the 17-year-old kid is the most influential,” Saidi says. While Rhianna is not 17, when she designs, she’s thinking about a demographic and who is going to wear it. The good news, though, is the gap between what a 17-year-old might wear and what someone twice that age would wear is eroding. “I’m 38 years old but feel very young. Age doesn’t matter anymore – I see people in their 50s who look young and fresh. Age group is not a conversation we’re having today.” With the way Saidi is helping shape the industry, the demand is growing. “I used to wear only one pair of sneakers, but now everybody has five pairs to switch. The market is expanding.”
Originally printed in the Vogue Man Arabia Spring/Summer 2018 issue. Words by Matt Pomroy.