Getting fired from a job in his early 30s prepared Paul Gaudio, the global creative director at adidas since 2015, for his current role. “It's not so much that it happened, it's what happens next,” he says. “I was on a path, and at the time, it seemed very linear. Now all of a sudden I was forced to sidestep, which was a good thing…. If that hadn't happened, there's no way I'm in this job today.”
He’d leaned into consulting after being let go, digging deeper into design, but also zooming out and realizing his strengths in branding and strategy. It was like he'd tapped into an energy he had growing up in Western Pennsylvania, a time when he’d had the freedom to explore his many strengths without restrictions. As a kid and teen, he grew up playing sports, making things at his grandfather’s furniture store, and fanning over punk and rap.
There were no rules for what he could be interested in or do, an attitude that he’s translated into his work at adidas, where through bringing sports and culture together, he’s brought new relevance and excitement to the brand, particularly in the eyes of young people. When we met to chat in early August, it was at an adidas event that embodied that sweet spot between the two worlds — New York’s adidas P.O.D. System event, a workshop-marketplace that allowed hands-on creative experiences in the scope of sport.
What does an average day look like for you?
PAUL GAUDIO: It starts at about 6 a.m. Germany is where most of the action happens. Their being nine hours ahead of us, I’m inevitably spending the first couple hours every day on the phone, walking around, sometimes making lunch for kids, trying to get dressed and out the door. If I get into the office, it can be anywhere between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. depending on calls, and early if I'm on video conferences. Sometimes I'll be in at 5:30 p.m. The afternoon is usually time for me to meet with people and work. I get a surprising amount of thinking time and working time.
I like to write. To me, words are probably the tool I use today more than anything. I rely heavily on words, and I like words. When you're younger, you do what you mean. You sit down, design something and say, "This is what I mean, see?" At this stage, I'm trying to explain larger concepts, ideas, create a framework more or less, for people to operate within. That framework is context for us, for the brand.
Going into this role, what stands out as the most formative experience that prepared you for what you do on a day-to-day basis?
I guess the most seminal moment was getting fired. At some point, some people get fired. There could be 100 reasons why it happens, and it's not so much that it happened, it’s what happens next [that matters most]. For me, that moment was pretty traumatic, painful, sort of scary. [I was] 34 years old, it was a big derailment. You have to own the reasons you got fired. Some of them may be mine, some of them may have not been mine, or things that I agree with. But you gotta own all those anyway, wear them around for a while and get comfortable with it, 'cause it happened and it's real. People ask you about it too, quite often. You've got to be able to answer those questions. I think going through that process and learning a bit more about myself, strengths and weaknesses, and finding different paths. I was on a path and at the time, it seemed very linear. Now all of a sudden I was forced to sidestep, which was a good thing. In the end, it's probably what I wanted to do anyhow.
That's why it was so positive for me. I got into different aspects of design and creativity, and I got more into strategy and branding. It helped round out who I am and my experiences from being somebody that designs things. To somebody who now shapes ideas, and articulates what a brand can be, or a strategy. That was a huge opportunity in the end and probably is the reason why I'm sitting here now. If that hadn't happened, there's no way I'm in this job today.
You grew up in Western Pennsylvania. What was that like?
I don't have much to complain about. It was not the best time for the era, considering the industry was collapsing around us. Luckily, my father was a doctor, so we were not personally touched by it, but everyone — jobs, friends, everything around me was crumbling. The city was crumbling. Steel mills were shutting down just down the street, friends parents were losing jobs. It was not an ideal time. That definitely has a big impact on your experience growing up. You start to see the city around you, which I was always very proud of, I still have a great fondness for Pittsburgh. But it was a tough time.
From my standpoint it was kind of like, "Well, I probably need to get out of here." In my head I couldn't imagine there was going to be a lot of opportunity [in Pittsburgh]. I think that also sort of always kept me looking outward. I was, as a kid, like many who grew up in places like Pittsburgh, were fascinated by California or New York. I became pretty fixated on those cultures, whether it was punk rock coming out of New York, or London. Surf culture, skate culture in Los Angeles, because it just looked so good. I had magazines — we didn't have the internet, of course — cars, skateboards, BMX bikes, surfing. I would ride my skateboard around Pennsylvania and pretend that I was somewhere in Santa Monica.
“I was drawing, building things, and I realized, ’Hey, you can shape your own reality.’”
I know you also played football, and I’ve read in interviews that you’d build various items in your grandfather's furniture store and have worked in car dealerships. How did all those different interests come together to inform your interest in design?
I was drawing, building things, and I realized, "Hey, you can shape your own reality." That's what I did for fun. Whether it was in my basement or a friend’s garage or my grandfather's shop. Working on old cars and motorcycles, it's just something I realized pretty early that was way more fun than not having it, or starting at it in a catalog. You had to work for everything. Even going into downtown Pittsburgh, it opened up worlds that weren't open to me growing up outside of the city, like music and vintage shops and old clothing stores and antiques. It was a big discovery to go into the city, let alone to go to New York or L.A., where, in my mind, the real shit was happening.
What was the music that drew you in at the time?
I had very eclectic taste. If I think junior high school, we were really into funk. When punk rock arrived, it was around the same time. My head was spinning like, "Oh my God, I don't know what I'm angry about but that feels so good." What I love about it was that it was stripped back, simple, elemental, real, raw, and honest. At least it felt that way to me. It was so different from everything else that I had heard. I immediately responded to that. Part of it was the superficial aspects of it. The attitude, the fashion, the clothes, and hair, all that. I was a kid, right? I was really always heavily influenced by music, and then the culture, and fashion around it.
Shortly after, the advent of rap music came. It hit me, just as hard as when punk rock came. To me, it was just punk rock, only now it's different. Now it's maybe more local, or more American, it was better because it somehow scratched the itch back to the me loving Funkadelic, and that sort of stuff. It was simple. I went to this place called the Islam Grotto with my sister. It was like a break dance show/rap battle. It was just a place with cardboard on the floor and DJ's rapping. It's like a race car. You strip all the junk off of it, and there's just the good stuff left. That's the part that works.
Those are probably the biggest influences. It influenced my tastes in fashion, my perspectives on the world. It definitely pulled me in different directions as a kid. One day I would be in a punk rock mood and want to dress like a punk. Then the next day I would listen to rap music. Now I listen to anything and everything. I'm probably back on rap music again, mainly 'cause I’ve got teenage kids and I got sucked back into it pretty hard. I like it better today than I did 10, 20 years ago.
Did you see an intersection in music and sport growing up? How does that come full circle for you at adidas?
It's maybe more prominent today than it used to be. When I was a kid we used music in locker rooms. It was more to create a vibe, excitement, energy. Athletes back then weren't the influencers. The world's weren't as connected. You had a jock and you had a musician, or something. They probably didn't hangout much, whereas today of course they do and they influence one another in a way that's kind of inseparable. To me, that's critical for what we do.
You can't think of sport without thinking about music, without thinking about fashion. You can't think of sport without thinking of the culture that surrounds it. When we sort of go to work every day, we try to embrace the fact that it is a mishmash, and not as clean cut as it used to be. We make shoes for athletes. That's adidas. But, what's an athlete today? Just the fusion, and knowing that a kid today in Iowa, he knows Balenciaga. Why? Because, he listened to somebody rap about it, right? Those connections, and the internet, and all of those things have enabled this fusion.
As a person who is immersed in creative and design 24/7 at work and in your spare time, how do you stay refreshed and energetic in the field and keep new ideas or creative juices flowing?
I'm kind of two different things at once. In one way I'm definitely kind of a social, cultural sponge, observer, collector of stuff like that. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I spent a lot of time on the internet and social media. As part of our job, we have to spend time out in different communities, talking to consumers, talking to kids. Being connected to culture and consumers keeps me constantly challenged. You look at things where your personal reaction to something is, "Nah, I would never." But then you have to push yourself past that and say, "Well, why is that?" I love that process. I've always been that person.
The other side is that I love to just switch off and shutdown the brain. I can be incredibly lazy at times. I don't mean lazy like a procrastinator but there are times where I will just come in and shutdown, and do absolutely nothing for long periods of time, and not feel bad about it. I think you need the downtime, to recharge, quiet in your brain. For me, working on old cars and motorcycles helps give you that focus. You get lost in the kind of inner workings, mechanisms, problems, and possible solutions. I love getting lost in stuff. For me, [that’s] riding motorcycles, racing motorcycles, racing cars. You are forced into a moment, into the moment.
I’ve read that your inspirations are “creators, makers, doers.” Who is a creator, marker, or doer that inspires you?
When I hear those words, I think of Ray and Charles Eames. They're among my list of design heroes. Maybe them more so because they were just so industrious. They did everything, made everything. They made it their life, they lived in a [home they built]. Everything they did was like, "Let's make it.” They embraced the craft behind it, there were things that were soulful and real. Beautiful objects but still kind of mass-produced, industrial design. It's one thing to talk about it and be theoretical and high-minded. It's another thing to just get in the shop and make it. People like that, that actually get in there and do the work, are the ones that are most inspiring to me.
In 2018 what do you look for in a creative or a designer?
I think I personally value people that have a broad background [and] are able to take a broader view. I think people that have diverse experiences in their lives, personal and professional, have more perspective to offer, to draw from, as opposed to, say, real, hardcore experts. I tend to like people that are more agile, generalists that know enough about a lot to be dangerous. Because as creatives, the more things we can apply the process to, the better. I've always tried to take that more meandering path in my career and it's made me stronger, more confident in myself and the decisions I've made, the things I can do. I look for people that, at the least, have some sort of diverse perspective, diverse background, diverse experiences that they can present. Diversity is just generally a key to creativity.