Under the Hard Shell with
Designer Jeremy Karl
The Creator Behind Drake’s Hot Step Air Terra, NOCTA, and
Arc’teryx System_A Talks Style, Utility, and Blockchain
- Interview: Christopher Danforth
- Photography: Keith Oshiro
“I don’t sign a lot of NDAs,” Jeremy Karl explains. I’m relieved, given his frequent involvement in many of the most anticipated, often celebrity-backed, fashion projects of the last few years. You may be familiar with Karl’s curriculum vitae; the usually behind-the-scenes designer’s work includes Arc’teryx’s streetwear-leaning System_A collection, launched in 2021, and Drake’s NOCTA collaboration alongside Nike, including the feverishly anticipated Hot Step Air Terra sneaker. Karl recently teamed up with the German premium outdoors brand Lowa on a limited range of footwear, launching at SSENSE. What makes his approach different? While the style-minded may wonder, “What does my clothing say about me?” Karl would rather ask, “What does my clothing do for me?”
Karl, 30, and a native Montrealer, started out working alongside other local creatives like Vincent Tsang (Dime) and Justin Saunders (JJJJound) in 2010 as part of the Virgil Abloh–led DONDA team. Karl describes this design incubator as a “sniper squad” that worked across projects like BEEN TRILL and YEEZY. The following year Karl founded techspec, a resource library blending design and utility that was partly inspired by Karl and Tsang’s love for functional gear that could withstand harsh Montreal winters, like Arc’teryx’s military and law-enforcement range LEAF. Starting out as a blog on Tumblr, techspec now represents one of Karl’s driving philosophies, which not only informs the products he creates, but also provides a structure for how he works and collaborates.
As a response to perceived failures and shortfalls in the creator economy, Karl recently authored a series of essays outlining how blockchain concepts can ensure autonomy, equity, and representation in creative communities. He sees the future of this design and creator marketplace as a decentralized space where he and his colleagues can profit from their own designs, make living wages, and share knowledge freely. Karl hopes to achieve an open-source system for transparent and community-owned apparel production.
This is how Karl works, and why.
You went to school in Montreal. What were your interests then?
I took some visual arts and design courses at Concordia. I was almost going to get kicked out of university, so I left in my last year. Everything on my LinkedIn is a scam, I didn’t graduate.
At a certain point I met Vincent Tsang, who is the founder and designer of Dime. Vince taught me more than I had learned at university. He was my first mentor. Through Vince, I connected with Justin Saunders and Virgil Abloh. Around that time, we started techspec on Tumblr. I think of it as a repository or library of tech moods. I was using techspec a lot for the work we were doing for Justin, Virgil, and Kanye. That was the BEEN TRILL sniper team. We all shared some big responsibilities, some huge decisions for YEEZY, like colorways and silhouettes. We would always ask, “Is it techspec approved?” I was obsessed with Arc’teryx LEAF and Veilance. Vince and I would hunt for certain pieces.
Recently that love for Arc’teryx came full circle when you helped design System_A. When it launched, you tweeted, “This is for us.” What did that moment mean to you?
System_A is an intersection between Veilance and LEAF. Regular Arc’teryx is great, but the bird logo is really loud, the cuts aren’t ideal, and Veilance is too tailored. We wanted to make something more universal. The kids really rode for Arc’teryx: kids that are into skateboarding or into rap. System_A was a love letter to those people. The System_A Dume jacket has the LEAF velcro patch, and we included references to the RECCO detectors because we used to wear that stuff, even though we never used our gear to go skiing.
Vince introduced me to ACRONYM and William Gibson when I was like 18; they both inspired techspec a lot, and inspired my design career. Taka [Kasuga] and I spoke a lot about Errolson Hugh and William Gibson. It was like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.
[Editor’s Note: ACRONYM founder Errolson Hugh was an early consultant for Veilance, and science-fiction writer William Gibson’s novel Spook Country introduced a fictional martial-art form named systema, which inspired the name for Arc’teryx System_A.]
What brought you to NOCTA? How did the golf concept come into play?
Golf has the best material packages, like Nike golf, adidas golf. They use a lot of GORE[-TEX] membranes, some of the best details like zip-off sleeves or short sleeve windbreakers, interesting details that capture the eye.
At first, it was an adidas deal. Matt George calls me, and he's like, “I have this project for adidas. If you want to run it, it's basically like techspec. If you want to make a cooler Stone Island.” I get to Toronto and meet with Matt. Then Drake walks in. I didn’t really even know it was a Drake thing until I saw him and until we started speaking, but that was where NOCTA started. So we worked on this adidas deal for a year, which was basically practice for Drake and I to figure out NOCTA.
[Editor’s Note: Matt George founded Canadian retailers NOMAD and Goodfoot, before playing an instrumental role in bringing Stüssy to Vancouver and Toronto. Currently George is CEO at YEEZY.]
Hot Step is the perfect name for a Drake sneaker. But it still looks pretty hard, like a TN.
The Hot Step is one of the first things we worked on. The inspiration for the Hot Step is early 2000s Nike basketball. Really simple details, perforations or pillow stitching, things that give it a little bit of speed. Drake picked the outsole. It’s actually a hiking outsole. So, the Hot Step is a minimal basketball upper with a hiking outsole, but the idea was, “What’s the new version of a TN?” But also, Drake’s favorite shoe is the Air Force 1. So we wanted to make something as universal and as wearable.
Is there a specific criteria that you keep in mind for your designs? Something that you’re always hoping to achieve?
Everyday protection from the environment. That’s what I feel is important. And obviously, my designs come with deeper research and obscure references. But it’s mostly about—if it starts raining, you’re good to go. If you have to be somewhere last minute, you’re good to go. If you feel insecure that day, you just wear the hard shell, and you feel amazing. I speak a lot about emotional function. You’re like, “Oh. This jacket makes me feel great.” To me, that’s part of functional clothing.
What is that jacket for you right now?
We talked about William Gibson. One of his characters is Cayce Pollard from Pattern Recognition. She has these Cayce Pollard units or CPUs where she’d always wear the same things, and for me it’s the same. I have softshell pants that I wear from System_A or Patagonia. I wear a bomber made by Colin Meredith. If not the bomber, it’s a hard shell or the SL, the superlight shell from System_A. I only wear triple-black shoes. I wear a lot of Loro Piana. There has to be some type of universality to how I roll.
Other than Vince, who do you consider your biggest mentors?
My biggest mentors were Vince, Virgil, and Taka. Even Virgil— our last convo was a couple days before he passed—his mentorship was something that I was blessed with.
I try to give back, and to give more than I have received. Find the new kids, give them paid work. That’s the school that got me where I’m at right now, and that’s why I want to give back, especially to young kids of color that feel misunderstood. Virgil taught me to trust myself. He taught me that my point of view was valid and that I need to keep rolling. It’s natural and easy to link them up with someone or find them some work, teach them Illustrator, buy their software licenses.
I feel like this tweet says a lot about you right now: “Stated my day rate for design consulting in ETH today. Felt normal.”
Twitter is the intersection where I have fashion friends, tech friends, and crypto friends. Blockchain Twitter is a whole different world. Twitter is basically the only censorship-free social media. I am active on it because there’s a lot of talk about blockchain, new tech, social justice, and decolonization.
What are the larger concepts that we can take from blockchain and apply to creative autonomy or creativity in general?
I think blockchain will allow a lot of creators and designers to live to design. To live to create, instead of create to live. It will decentralize everything, giving us different ways of funding, and different ways of capturing profits from collective creations.
It’s kind of like the designer version of owning your own masters.
Yeah, exactly. Brands own the designers, but the designers should own their product and their ideas. It’s going to be led by culture or led by people like me, a designer who saw blockchain as a tool. For me, blockchain is the most human future, and the future of fashion.
Born in Vancouver and currently based in Berlin, Chris Danforth is a writer, photographer and editor with a steady hand on the keyboard.
- Interview: Christopher Danforth
- Photography: Keith Oshiro
- Hair: Jamaican Barbie
- Date: January 31, 2022