Common Projects

Text by Tag Christof
Photography by Kristina Gill
and Clément Pascal

April 30 2015

Robert Browning, and not Mies van der Rohe, actually coined the term “less is more.” Common Projects, likewise, were the first to put the maxim into practice for sneaker design. While others have followed suit, it was Common Projects minimalist, beautifully-made and now iconic first model, the Achilles, that helped transform the humble sneaker into an elevated menswear staple.

This year marks a decade since Flavio Girolami and Prathan Poopat, two friends with a knack for making, founded the brand. The pair has an enviable creative energy, and though they spend the better part of every year on separate continents, they continue to design every collection collaboratively. Early on, they made the decision to set up production in Flavio’s native Italy, drawn in by the local shoemaking saper-fare and abundance of superfluous materials. Ten years on, it’s hard to argue with the result.

In keeping with its Italian-American DNA, everything the brand makes is both sartorial and street—a pair of Common Projects is an evergreen wardrobe pillar immune to the caprice of menswear trends. They’ve expanded the original line accordingly to include more formal shoe models, variations on the original sneakers, and boots. A few years ago, the brand also branched out into women’s—apparently thanks to the requests of customers’ girlfriends eager for a pair of Common Projects of their own—and now produce a full women’s line. They’ve also grown the brand through regular collaborations, and have amassed a list of limited-edition co-productions with the likes of Robert Geller and Tim Coppens.

Late this summer, we caught up with them both on separate sides of the Atlantic: Prathan in New York City and Flavio in his hometown of San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic Coast.

Flavio Girolami, Common Projects: Italy

Hometown
San Benedetto del Tronto, Marche, Italy

Residence
Italy & New York

Drink of choice
Negroni or Spritz depending on the time of the day

Favourite meal
I love food and I love to eat. I really enjoy international “cuisine”, but my favorite meal is that of my grandmother’s cannelloni, a traditional dish from the Marche region, consisting of meat and veggies rolled inside handmade pasta then baked in the oven with her secret tomato sauce, aged parmigiano and fresh mozzarella. Fortunately, she taught me how to make them.

Favourite sandwich
Mozzarella di bufala and Alici

How do you take your coffee?
Espresso. Black.

Primary mode of transport
Bicycle/airplane

Describe your Sunday ritual.

Used to be pretty mellow, but it changed since I learned how to sail. This summer, I’ve been waking up pretty early and after a quick cappuccino I jump on my bike and head to the seaport where I put my little sailboat into the water for a peaceful ride. I hang the rest of the day at the beach club with friends and family. There is everything you need there—a great seafood restaurant, gelato and the best Spritz for afternoon aperitivo. I will really miss this in the winter.

Tell us about the trajectory that led up to you working on Common Projects.

It was pretty straightforward. At a very young age I founded a creative agency in Italy where I was working to help several manufacturers build something that suited their needs. I loved doing that, but I wanted to create something for myself. Later on I met Prathan, and we both realized we shared the same passion for simplicity in design and started talking about creating something together. After a few years of friendship, while we kept working at our day jobs, we decided that it was the time to start. We founded Common Projects.

When you’re not designing shoes, what do you get up to?

I am restless, and I love to make things. With the help of Giuseppe, an Italian friend from Williamsburg, I just started to build a custom-made motorcycle.

The brand has been around for a whole decade now. How have things evolved since the outset?

Everything grew organically. We started creating a shoe that we wanted to wear for ourselves. The first season, we just had a couple of styles sitting on a table at The News, our showroom in New York. Everyone loved them and Common Projects became a shoe company. Since then, almost 10 years ago, we still work with the same passion and philosophy, trying to create something we want to wear or would love to see on people we like. Since then, the collection has grown into dress shoes and accessories.

It was funny when our customers’ girlfriends started to beg us to make something specifically for them, and about 3 years ago we launched Woman by Common Projects.

I have to confess that it’s so much fun to design! It’s almost as much fun as working on the collaboration we do each season with the designers we love.

How do you think your own personality has shaped the brand?

I am a very detail-oriented person and I believe in hard work done with passion. I think that good human relationships should come before interests and having fun is better than being stressed. I am pretty reserved.

I choose quality before image and I believe in what Mies said—less really is more. They say I am a control freak. Maybe it’s true.

How does working from different countries affect the end product? And how do you manage to tie everything together in the end?

It doesn’t really affect the product. I spend half of the year in New York where we work together focusing on design. Rather, it’s that the product is affected by our native and cultural differences and working to balance that two-way cross-pollination is what makes our product so unique.

How do you settle creative differences?

A good old fashioned arm wrestle does the trick. Haha!

We talk a lot when trying to explain our vision. A lot of it actually comes to fruition, even if our way of seeing design and aesthetic is almost the same. In the end, one of us gives in and gets a credit for the next arm wrestle.

Tell us about a time Prathan convinced you to change your mind about something.

I can’t remember a particular situation, but as I said before, it happens a lot because we trust one another’s talent.

How do you think the two of you compliment one another?

He is pretty and I am smart!

How do you describe Common Projects to other people?

I try to avoid to describing CP. Who wants to give a label to his own baby?

Why is Made in Italy still such an important marker of quality?

This is something I am really passionate about.

In Italy there are still manufacturers that put the quality of the product before anything else. The factory we work with is still family based—making shoes is their life. It’s what their fathers did, and it’s what their sons will do. I think that the best words to describe Italian production are care, passion and pride.

I try to avoid describing Common Projects. Who wants to put a label on his own baby?

Prathan Poopat, Common Projects: New York

Hometown
Detroit, Michigan

Residence
New York City

Drink of choice
Stoli, soda, lime

Favourite meal
I like everything. Although, now it’s summer, so usually something light.

Favourite sandwich
Soprassata/salami, provolone, virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, basil

How do you take your coffee?
Cortado, touch of sugar

Primary mode of transport
It ranges from vintage three-speed to Vespa to motorbike or the wagon. Depending on the day could be none or all.

Describe your Sunday ritual.

I don’t really have a strict Sunday ritual, but it usually starts out with coffee and the paper. Lately I’ve been fixing a house in Brooklyn. It’s a good excuse for a motorcycle ride over the Brooklyn Bridge to check on the progress. The rest is reserved for the family.

Tell us about the trajectory that led up to you working on Common Projects.

I was trained at RISD as an industrial designer but for years worked in advertising as a graphic designer/art director. I was sort of a creative “jack of all trades” and worked mainly in fashion and entertainment. After several agencies and a couple iterations of my own, I eventually found myself working for a fashion publication-slash-design agency, Visionaire/V Magazine. While there, we made our first small production.

Flavio and I were good friends and shared a lot of the same interests and worked on similar kinds of projects. In the summer of 2003, we decided to join forces and work on some things together. We called it Common Projects. As an experiment for ourselves, we decided to make a sneaker, the Achilles.

When you’re not designing shoes, what do you get up to?

I have a lot of hobbies, like taking photos, etc. But mostly I like to make things. Lately I’ve been into motorcycles. I’ve been riding them since I was a kid, but there’s something about the design and mechanics of it all that really gets me. A great bike is the sum of its parts and strikes a perfect balance of necessity and design and I love that. I drive a Triumph Scrambler and am constantly tweaking it. I dream of having a shop to make all sorts of things.

The brand has been around for a whole decade now. How have things evolved since the outset?

Yeah, it’s been that long. Time flies. In a lot of ways I feel like it hasn’t evolved at all. Our process hasn’t changed much and the philosophy has largely remained the same which is a good thing. The one thing that has changed is that we make so much more of it. We now have a full women’s line and so many styles. If I could only go to all the great places we’re carried….

How do you think your own personality has shaped the brand?

First of all, we only make things that we love and it usually starts out and ends that way.

From the outset, I’m a minimalist. Always peeling things away. I’m design-driven and obsessive about quality. I’m pretty low-key. I never liked being in the foreground and I think that all somehow makes its way into the brand.

How does working from different countries affect the end product? And how do you manage to tie everything together in the end?

It takes a ton of organization and the different time zones can be the biggest hindrance, but I think it comes down to just simply being on the same page. There can sometimes be long pauses in between but I think we both have this sort of internal CP clock. We both know what time it is and when we’re back on the same continent or in Skype it just snaps to. Often, we’re thinking and doing similar things. It’s the in-between moments that inspire us. It happens pretty organically and we don’t question it. It just comes together.

How do you settle creative differences?

I try to go into design with an open mind. Although we’re generally on the same page overall, we often have different takes on it for sure. We try not to compromise on any one idea. If anything, it gets built upon. And sometimes that one idea gets built upon to the point that it becomes another. Eventually all the ideas become a collection. Each collection is sort of a conversation between us.

Tell us about a time Flavio convinced you to change your mind about something.

I can’t place one exact time but I think it probably happens all the time and maybe vice versa. Sometimes I don’t even know it’s happening. When I do realize, it’s welcome.

There’s nothing like seeing another point of view. It’s like New York (or wherever you live), if you take the time to go a different route, you find a new coffee shop, see different people, notice different things and change your perspective. The city comes to life again.

How do you think the two of you compliment one another?

I’ve combined forces with so many folks in the past and nothing comes close. We don’t finish each other’s sentences, but almost. It just works. I can ramble on and dream all day. Flavio solidifies it.

How do you describe Common Projects to other people?

“…a little company that makes shoes and accessories.”  I’d like it to be “a little company that makes things.”

Why is Made in Italy still such an important marker of quality?

We started in Italy for obvious reasons and have looked into other ways from time to time for different things, but Italians just do it better. Simple as that. It’s in their blood.