Gordon Thompson

After 10 years overseeing design at Nike, Thompson moved to the company’s Cole Haan division as evp and creative director four years ago to revive the sleepy brand. Trained as an architect, Thompson, 43, started his career doing set design for Back to the Future and Batman. His trendy new shoe line, the G Series, debuted this spring. About to complete work on a house in Oahu, Thompson is looking for a Manhattan home to tackle next. “If you don’t keep moving forward,” he says, “you’re going to be left in the dust.”

Q: How did studying architecture and doing set design prepare you for your job at Nike?

A: For architecture you’re obsessing about the overall mass of the building, as well as a stair-rail detail. In a movie you’re driven by the script, and you have to be obsessed with the smaller things that bring the story to life. Nike has a strong overall creative direction for a brand and uses its products to bring that brand to life. It’s obsessing about what it means from an emotional standpoint and then focusing on the little details, like how the logo sits on the watch. It’s that balancing act that all three things have in common.

How does that translate to Cole Haan?

It had great ingredients but not such a great recipe. Cole Haan knew how to make beautiful things but was void of brand emotion. So a lot of time has been spent keeping the quality and the craftsmanship but marrying that with much more fashion, color and more interesting designs.

What are you doing to reinvent the brand?

On several different levels. One would be the emotion that is tied directly to advertising and representing the look of Cole Haan. Another would be focusing ultimately on the women’s business. And then introducing Nike Air into the Cole Haan product line. And then ultimately creating G Series, which is an offshoot of both companies.

How do you invest a brand with emotion?

When we asked a lot of people about Cole Haan, the No. 1 thing would be, “Oh, it’s great quality.” And although that’s fantastic, you want to shore that up with something that tugs more from your heartstring than your brain. You bring emotion to the forefront through product and product design, and then tapping more into the emotional part of society—women who fall in love with shoes and handbags—and playing that up, dedicating more advertising dollars to the women’s business. So pairing that with more of an American take on luxury, or an American take on casual, has been the objective we’ve been going down for the past couple of years.

What does the ‘G’ in G Series stand for?

Guess! Ah, for “Gordon.”

The company is not spending a lot on introducing the G Series. What’s the strategy?

The marketing strategy is a lot of ground work: wild postings, more billboard-shelter-type advertising, working with Nike’s promotions office and getting G Series on celebrities and on athletes. We’re working with Nike’s music group to get it on entertainers. The idea is to be integrated versus screaming. And also looking to city magazines, Dwell, Interview, things that Cole Haan wouldn’t necessarily advertise in.

What shoes are you wearing right now?

They’re Cole Haan crocodile lace-up, cap-toe dress shoes. I’ve got a pretty extensive collection of Cole Haan crocodile shoes.

Whose marketing campaigns do you look at and say, “That’s pretty smart”?

For a long, long time I’ve loved Apple, because it has a consistency, a clarity of vision. I don’t know where the laws of the product design and the advertising meet, but I like it all: They have the most thoughtful, Bauhaus approach to design. Altoid ads are a hoot. I always stop and read them.

How has marketing in the footwear category changed over the years?

In my early days there was a bent toward what the brand was offering you. And then athlete endorsement became incredibly important. And at some point the product design became important. At Nike we did a white campaign of just the shoes on a white background with the swoosh that was one of the most effective print campaigns we ever ran—because it was all about the product. And any time it’s taken away from that, I get a little confused as a consumer. As a brand steward of both Nike and of Cole Haan now, I just always think the product sells itself.

What’s your personal motto?

Innovate or die. I’ve seen so many brands become complacent. And so many people, frankly, that become complacent; they just become a bore to be around. I’m a believer in trying new things and experimenting and learning.

What’s your greatest accomplishment?

This is corny, but my relationship with my partner is probably my greatest accomplishment. I’ve been designing since I was tiny, so I don’t look at anything I’ve done as a great accomplishment as much as just being a process in my career. My personal life is more of an accomplishment—balancing all that with someone special.

What’s your greatest fear?

That the world would stop loving design. Design has become such an integral part of business success. People love new things, there’s this visual appetite for creativity and what’s the latest-greatest. Fashion is fun because you can always start over every season. And I’m sure that’s the same thing with advertising—that there is that appetite out there for creativity. And that’s so great.