Reebok and beyond: how Siler City’s Hardigan has thrived in shoe design

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 12/16/20

SILER CITY — When he was working an entry-level warehouse job at Reebok in 1988, Hank Hardigan III used to sketch out shoe designs on notecards and drop them into a suggestion box.

When he moved …

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Reebok and beyond: how Siler City’s Hardigan has thrived in shoe design

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SILER CITY — When he was working an entry-level warehouse job at Reebok in 1988, Hank Hardigan III used to sketch out shoe designs on notecards and drop them into a suggestion box.

When he moved up to the company’s accounting department, he scribbled out so much concept art on the bottom of his balance sheets that his boss firmly reminded him more than once: “Can you please finish your work before you draw?”

What really convinced him to dive headfirst into his current field, though, was the pattern he noticed while he worked that 9-to-5 accounting job at Reebok’s corporate headquarters in Boston.

“There was a group of people who never came to work on time and always got to travel,” Hardigan said, laughing. “And I thought: ‘I can do that.’”

So he quit his job, went back to school, got a degree and became a shoe designer just like them.

Nearly three decades later, Hardigan, 54, is still knee-deep in the world of footwear: ecstatic to brainstorm and design and create and talk about shoes with anyone at any place at any time.

He’s settled in Siler City now — Hardigan lives near downtown with his wife, Chatham County Board of Education member Jane Allen Wilson, and their three dogs — but his career has taken him across the country and the world and into the offices of Reebok, Calvin Klein and Nautica, to name a few.

Not bad for someone who readily described his teenage self as equal parts 1980s punk and awful student. Put them together, and Hardigan just barely graduated from his rural Florida high school.

An artsy student who’d never actually taken an art class, Hardigan tried his hand at a few careers.

He majored in marketing at the University of South Florida (transferring in after boosting his GPA in community college) but realized late in his senior year there was “no way” he’d actually enjoy working in the field he was about to enter. So he dropped out of school four months before graduation and moved to Boston, where a few of his friends already lived.

And once Hardigan caught on at Reebok and decided to finish his degree, he thought engineering might be the way to go. A few years of fine art classes (“I really excelled”) and math classes (“I hated calculus”) at Framingham State near Boston taught him otherwise. He ultimately earned a bachelor of fine arts in industrial design from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (or MassArt), where he graduated with honors in 1994.

By the time Reebok re-hired Hardigan as a designer the same year, he’d made up his mind: he wanted to work in products. Considering he was a longtime competitive mountain biker (and still is), a gig with Reebok’s action sports division was an ideal landing spot — even if it paled in comparison to the company’s main money maker.

“(Reebok) didn’t really have an action sports category,” Hardigan said. “We were so into just basketball — Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal — but I wasn’t into that. I got work on a product I liked, though, which was really cool.”

And he made immediate strides.

Two years into his new job, in 1996, Hardigan created the Reebok Spark, which held the title of world’s lightest cycling shoe/cleat for four years, thanks to its innovative carbon molding as opposed to metal plating. His Reebok Krakatau boot design — sleek, light, waterproof — was also a hit.

Then Calvin Klein called: they wanted Hardigan to move to New York and help bolster the company’s athletic shoe repertoire. Hardigan took it — “Well, I like a challenge,” he remembered thinking — and was promptly miserable.

“I stuck with for three years, but it was probably the second biggest learning time of my life,” he said. “I realized that I really liked when I was in control of the product and not being told what to do so much. At Reebok, they always gave me free rein: ‘You want a cycling shoe? Go make a cycling shoe.’”

So he spent the 2000s on the lam, moonlighting in high-level design roles everywhere from Nautica to the French boot company Palladium to the Italian luxury brand Dry-shoD. Most of this work was done remotely from Chapel Hill, a much more cyclist-friendly area than New York City.

“Most people in design, they move around but they stay in athletics or they stay in fashion,” Hardigan said. “I’d been all over the place: in fashion, in athletics. I got know as this guy who was a little bit off, doing these really interesting things.”

He even tried his hand at a personal brand — haha shoes, the store he ran for three years in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, earned placement in every major U.S. and Japanese boutique — before returning to the advanced concepts/futures team at Reebok (now owned by Adidas) in 2007.

It was, just like his first time around at the company, a perfect fit.

“In futures, we weren’t really even designing for the market,” Hardigan said. “We were the ones saying: ‘OK, let’s use this new robotic dispensing arm to create something new.’ So it was always kind of abstract. A lot of times, we wouldn’t even finish a shoe.”

In his second Reebok stint, Hardigan spearheaded the design of the Springblade, a futuristic running shoe, and ZigTech, the zig-zagging, energy-dispersing foam sole technology that you probably saw on the feet of at least one friend or family member who rocked Reebok Zigs in the early 2010s.

After 13 years, Hardigan left Reebok again in late 2019 — there wasn’t any bad blood; the company just wanted to bring more employees in-house, and Hardigan had no desire to move out of Chatham County.

“This is the first time I’ve been anywhere for a long period of time,” he said.

Hardigan now works remotely as the director of sustainable design for Consolidated Shoe Company, a start-up, where he’s musing on tons of ideas: how to reduce carcinogens when cementing the bottom unit of a shoe to the top with glue, how to create bottom units out of mostly natural, tree-based rubber.

That keeps Hardigan busy, as does his work at the N.C. Arts Incubator in Siler City and at N.C. State, where he’s an adjunct professor of industrial design and footwear in the school’s college of design.

And he’s happy to talk shop with any aspiring designers — high schoolers, community college students — and remind them: if a low-GPA punk from rural Florida can make it in shoe design, they can, too.

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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