With a degree in dance, curiosity and restlessness led Gessica to work in advertising for several years with consulting and strategic planning. In 2014, her journey with adidas began, and later she worked as director of culture for the agency Vista.
In 2016, for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, adidas called four cariocas to create a Superstar in honor of the city. Gessica was one of them, and in our interview, she talked to us in detail about the creation process of the sneaker, showing us the symbols and stories that were inserted in this Rio native reinterpretation of the classic Superstar.
Gessica never imagined that all her experiences and cultural baggage could inspire the creation of something like a sneaker, that her emotions and ideas would be materialized in something that could be on the feet of so many people. And this goes far beyond being associated with a big brand like adidas; it’s something that will pass on to other people’s lives.
Every time she wanted to reinforce her Carioca identity, she wore her ‘Rio de Janeiro’ Superstar until it got chewed by her dog. But the pair she brought for our interview is brand new, she has never worn it. Plans are that it will be kept in an acrylic box for future generations to see her achievement years from now.
“I’m Gessica Justino, 33 years old. It’s tough to talk about yourself because people expect you to talk about your professional background, how many things you have accomplished. But I always like to talk about myself based on my own social construction. I’m this 33-year-old person, a deserter from Rio de Janeiro. I was born in Niterói, and I became a carioca citizen by absorption from the city of Rio because Niterói is a neighboring city of Rio de Janeiro. I come from a black Brazilian family, with all the issues and solutions of a black Brazilian family. And also, with a very strong cultural heritage, which is not so elaborate, but that I understand today, the value of all that my family left to me.
I’ve always had a kind of wanderer lifestyle, talking a little more about my personal decisions. When I decided what college I wanted to go to and what I would work with, it was all very non-linear. So I went through a few universities, but I chose to get my degree in dance.”
Where did your interest in studying dance come from?
gessica In my understanding, talking about people, behavior, and understanding how the world moves comes mainly from the way bodies express themselves. The body is a place where everything is solved, where everything begins. So for me, dance was, and still is today, perhaps the strongest potential for communication.
I’ve always been a very curious person, very restless, and maybe that’s why my life has been a somewhat meandering journey. I’d ask myself why it happened, how it happened, and sometimes just direct questions and answers left me with no resolution. So I needed a more sensitive place to understand this, and dance brought me closer to comprehension. I was a ballerina at one point, I danced in some countries, I was with a few companies, but I needed to be more than that. This was already so big, but I needed it to overflow.
So, my curious and restless way of being led me to have a depth of cultural analysis based on these elements that dance gave me – which is a social observation, a questioning, a sensitive look. And this started to be interesting for the advertising industry. Brands and companies started needing people like me: who didn’t have an advertising background, who didn’t have the vices that communication, or even marketing, brought to a business solution. They started asking me for consulting services, strategic planning, and that’s how I started my professional journey.
“So, my curious and restless way of being led me to have a depth of cultural analysis based on these elements that dance gave me – which is a social observation, a questioning, a sensitive look.”
And how has your trajectory been, since leaving Rio de Janeiro until today, living in São Paulo?
gessica It’s been over three years since I moved to São Paulo. I’ve been to other cities, lived for a while in France, lived in Germany, England, and many places without speaking a single word of English (laughs). Still, I lived very well in these places and communicated in a way I believed in.
Throughout this trajectory, I crossed paths with some brands. Being a person who was also in this place of practical observation, in the street, seeing things happening, being part of the street in a living way, some brands like Rider, adidas saw an exciting potential to create things. And from here, the story goes on.
More than just a creative head, I was also a thinking head for these specific brands that needed to understand a more contemporary street pulse. I went through places like Sharp, which is a hub of cultural intelligence and strategy. I managed Pernod Ricard’s account, creating strategies based on socio-cultural intelligence for what the brand couldn’t understand and define which way to go. I went through Vice Brasil, where I had a very hybrid position making the bridge between what was happening in the world and the company’s objectives, showcasing which would be the paths and opportunities, feeding the objectives of Vice and all its other branches.
So in 2014, I started my journey with adidas, where I was director of culture and relationship for Vista, which is the culture branch of adidas. I looked after a portfolio of 84 people who are contracted megaphones for the brand. I’d think about how this relationship would happen, the management of these people, and how brand strategies could be activated in the best way. I had to understand a little bit of the universe of these 84 people, which among them were: Pabllo Vittar, Anitta, Agnes Nunes, some labels like Ceia, some people from sports lifestyle, like Desimpedidos, which makes soccer content, the people from Dibradoras. It’s a lot of people. Besides the organic opportunities when these 84 weren’t able to meet all of the brand’s strategies or when we needed a specific opportunity. We were also thinking about the brand’s future in the hiring period, who is the new crowd we wanted to bring in.
A little while ago, I was informed that this chair would no longer be strategic. It will be an operational chair, and I decided that it wouldn’t be interesting for me anymore. So this journey with adidas, which started back in 2014, 2015, and 2016 when I was invited to be one of the creators of the Rio Superstar, comes to an end in 2021. Everything good begins, and one day ends.
So this interview is coming full circle - you are talking about the sneaker that started your journey with adidas, a journey that's now coming to an end.
gessica Exactly! The interview represents closure. I have a special affection for the brand. I strongly believe in the relationship building that the brand has with people; it’s committed to what it can do. You can see that because, with streetwear brands, you hardly stay for too long, and 2014 to 2021 is a long time. Brands usually want to seize the “right now” opportunity and then move on.
Apart from that, I do several other side projects and lead some advertising campaigns. I find it very curious because people who don’t know my story think: “ah, she is in advertising.” No, I’m not in advertising, I come from another place, from another background, and I’m very happy about that.
And why did you decide to leave Rio and move to São Paulo?
gessica I decided to move to São Paulo for the same reason that most people do – work. It was right after the Olympics, after the World Cup, a period of political scrapping in the city, and it really became untenable to continue doing the things I used to do there. So, with a heavy heart, I left my city. I don’t have any family here in São Paulo, so it was a little complicated in the beginning. But I have many friends from Rio de Janeiro and other places, friends from São Paulo, who today form my big family here in the city.
I confess that I don’t like the city very much, but I also have to confess that São Paulo has been very generous to my goals in this way. So I’m looking every day for a way to love the city. So São Paulo, give me reasons not to leave, to stay here (laughs). And Rio de Janeiro continues to be my place of comfort, where I always go back to; I go back every month.
If I wasn’t carioca, I don’t know if I’d know how to live and go through so many places. This makes a huge difference. Because I think that Rio de Janeiro proposes a transition, a shuffle. You need to adapt to all the places; every corner is a different city. Rio is a small city, but it encourages you to adapt to situations and to try to find happiness within these changes. So one minute, I’m facing the beach; the next minute, if I take two steps, I’m in the middle of a community, in a favela, and just round the corner, I’m in the most luxurious street of the city. And then, there’s a samba going on in the street, a square with some guys skateboarding, and there will be some jazz going on in a little while. And then you love the city, you become all of this.
“This sneaker was created because of a desire of a brand. adidas had the desire to build this specific design for the 2016 Olympics. So the idea was to make a sneaker that paid tribute to the city – that’s why the name is adidas Superstar ‘Rio de Janeiro.'”
Why, of all your sneakers, did you choose the adidas Superstar 'Rio de Janeiro' for your Kickstory?
gessica This sneaker was created because of a desire of a brand. adidas had the desire to build this specific design for the 2016 Olympics. So the idea was to make a sneaker that paid tribute to the city – that’s why the name is adidas Superstar ‘Rio de Janeiro.’ The strategy for this creation was: the Superstar is a classic. What would be a classic with a carioca identity? A sneaker that is adaptable to any situation. So based on this brand desire, adidas searched for people who could bring this aspirational place of the city, who could translate their stories of authentic experiences to this sneaker. They invited Marcela Ceribelli, Hayala Garcia, Fernando Schlaepfer, and me. We were people with very different backgrounds and visions of Rio de Janeiro. Each creative had a role and a look within this sneaker’s construction, but there were some guidelines.
These guidelines, for starters, were like, man, it’s a Superstar, this is the structure, it’s a white sneaker. Second, it needs to represent Rio de Janeiro to the world. So what are the Carioca codes that the world can relate? And then the challenge was for it not to be a stereotyped sneaker, not to bring the stereotypes that no longer make sense to us. The cliché, even when a positive archetype, kind of is what it is, and how could it best be translated without sounding like more of the same. And then we relaunched the next challenge: it needs to have some social or environmental impact. In 2016, advances in sustainability were already a pillar of the brand. So it was an incredible opportunity that no brand was talking about here in Brazil, especially in the sneaker segment. We brought this environmental side to the outsole, which is made of recycled rubber.
For the sneaker’s creation, we went into a deep immersion. It was crazy. Like “man, what is Rio de Janeiro? What are the things that only Rio de Janeiro has? And we said – Sun. It’s not that only Rio de Janeiro has sun, the sun rises for everyone, but in Rio, the sun is different. The city has a solar energy to it, and the sun emanates an energy that translates into people’s behavior. Cariocas are solar, no matter how old you are. It can be raining, it will be solar; it can be night, it will be solar. We started brainstorming, “this sun is not yellow; it’s a golden sun. And then, man, what else? When we talk about the sun, we talk about the sky. And there’s some information: Rio de Janeiro is the city with the bluest sky in the world.
Another fact we found was, man, ok, the beach is only 6% of the city of Rio, but Cariocas identify with it. Even the people who live in Duque de Caxias, which isn’t in the city but is a close region; even the people who live in Méier, not so close to the beach, still have energy from the beach. It’s the place where I go; it’s a meeting point. And this very blue sky reflects on the water, merging with the foam at the shoreline, becoming a unique experience. And we translated this into this camouflage. It is not just a standard camouflage; it’s like seafoam when you look at it closely.
And then marketing wanted to bring the icon of the sidewalks, the Portuguese stones. For us, this wasn’t such a nice story to tell. The Portuguese stone is not something that contributed a lot to the history of Rio in a positive way, but it is an icon. So we brought the texture of the stones in the insoles.
“The Superstar is a classic. What would be a classic with a carioca identity? A sneaker that is adaptable to any situation. So based on this brand desire, adidas searched for people who could bring this aspirational place of the city, who could translate their stories of authentic experiences to this sneaker.”
And what is the meaning of these details here on the back of the sneaker?
gessica What would be today an urban expression that unites beach and asphalt? Rio de Janeiro has a lot of transitions between beach and asphalt. We bring a longboard and a surfboard, both in gold.
This Superstar is not the sneaker with the boldest design – it is a simple sneaker, just like the Cariocas are. Cariocas wear flip-flops; we wear flip-flops to weddings. We want something to wear and be fresh. So I think this Superstar manages to capture the soul of the Carioca.
And this is a brand new pair, have you ever worn them?
gessica Not this one. I have another one that my dog ate (laughs). I wore it all the time. I’d wear them when I wanted to assume myself as a Carioca somewhere. I’d wear them to work, from work to the club, for a drink around the corner, to go to the market, I was always wearing them. Then my dog said “enough” and bit a piece off. I’ll put this one in an acrylic box to show my possible children or my potential next generations. This is the legacy I can already leave.
It was an amazing project to be a part of and very unexpected as well as you can imagine, I’m just an ordinary Carioca who lives the city the way I believed it should be lived. And suddenly, adidas, a brand I already consumed, which was already part of my lifestyle, invited me to be one of the creators. It was a great honor. I said, “damn, mom, I am Pharrel now” (laughs). This is something I never imagined. I never imagined that all this cultural baggage and authentic experience could inspire the creation of a product. So I think it’s one of the most significant achievements of my life. Not so much for being associated with a brand but for transforming it into something that everyone can use. I know that it has a bit of my emotion, my experiences, a bit of me. To think that this can be on the feet of anyone, of several people, makes me very happy. I can say that I haven’t planted a tree yet, but I’ve spread something important in the world.
“This is something I never imagined. I never imagined that all this cultural baggage and authentic experience could inspire the creation of a product. So I think it’s one of the most significant achievements of my life. Not so much for being associated with a brand but for transforming it into something that everyone can use. I know that it has a bit of my emotion, my experiences, a bit of me. To think that this can be on the feet of anyone, of several people, makes me very happy. I can say that I haven’t planted a tree yet, but I’ve spread something important in the world.”
What was your first contact with sneakers like, and today, what does it mean to you?
gessica It took me a long time to elaborate on the importance of sneakers in my life because it was a very common symbiosis for me. So I didn’t have and believe I still don’t have this sense of over elaboration of sneakers. Sneakers were a common thing, and I think that’s what makes my relationship with sneakers very powerful. Because it is not something that I can “fake.”
I lived with my uncles and grandparents. Since I was a kid, I remember my grandfather wearing low cut sneakers, like Topper. My uncles were into Funk Miami culture, and they used to wear Nauru, the famous “Sneakershoe,” but it was part of the sneaker culture in Rio de Janeiro in a very strong way. My grandmother would also wear sneakers all the time – Nauru, Reebok, Rainha. I remember these sneakers when I close my eyes but within a very urban lifestyle. Imagine my uncles when they were getting ready to go out to a Funk party, or at the time, to Baile Charme, which was R&B; it was the pinnacle of style. The guys would put on their best clothes – from the baggy overalls, the oversized pullovers, the sportswear brand pants, Cyclone, Redley itself, which was a very strong sportswear brand. When I saw this, I could understand the universe that the sneaker was associated with.
I come from a modest family, though very proud of what you dressed and wore. I remember my uncles saying, “I’m getting my flat one at the Chameleon” (laughs), that was the cat eyed Mizuno. I remember my uncle opening the closet, and there were shelves with Mizuno, Puma – which was a very strong brand at the time, adidas – I remember the Stan Smith a lot, although today it has become kind of a lame sneaker. But at the time, it was very representative of the brand, the Superstar themselves, Nike – Nike Shox, Nike Air Max. It was very popular, but it had a very strong presence there.
Besides the associations, for example, between sneakers and flip-flops. For us, Cariocas, flip flops were also part of a streetwear lifestyle, of an urban culture. Kenner, for example, with its big soles. I’m a big fan of the brand, and it brings a street behavior that hardly any other flip flops will ever get because it has a heavy sole with thick straps; made to be worn. The behavior you have with sneakers you can have with a Kenner. So the brand has always occupied that place in terms of status and wearability. I grew up seeing this relationship with sneakers and I kind of absorbed it, and I wore them without elaborating much. I understood that it was in sync with my life.
At what point did you realize that you had a special passion for sneakers? When did it click for you that sneakers were something special?
gessica I began noticing sneakers with more affection once I took a closer look at their stories. When I said, “I’ll buy a pair of nice sneakers from a brand I believe in, and that is comfortable, but what story does it tell?” I started to get deeply attached to these stories. That’s why I’m thrilled and proud to have helped build the story of two sneakers. So, today in my context, I think of three things for sneaker consumption: comfort, usability, and understanding what the relationship and purpose of that brand has to do with me.
You also mentioned that the Super Sleek from Ivy Park Rodeo had a very important story to you.
gessica I think I’ll get stoned for saying this, but I am not a super Beyoncé worshiper. I dig her, but I’m not part of this Ivy Park hype. But I must confess and admire just how beautiful the story that Ivy Park has been building. It’s very cool and deep; she can really tell a story and have an impact. Today the brand has collections that dress bodies that no other brand does – this brings humanization and closeness to the brand.
And in this last Drop, Ivy Park Rodeo, I really identified myself with it. As a child, I grew up in a half rural, half urban place in Niterói. And the Ivy Park Rodeo talks about the trajectory of black cowboys, which are invisible stories. When I saw the story they were telling, I transported myself to everything I saw in my childhood; this is not so far away. So, I can say that I had this experience of the field and of black people in the field.
When you look at the concentration of black people and cultural constructions, there’s also a considerable rural force. So, what is the story that black, rural, country people – I’m not talking about only music, but about the country culture, people from the countryside – When you take a look at the products, they tell this: the jeans are heavy; they’re the kind of jeans that you see on people who work in the fields. The adidas Super Sleek, which I have, the combination of colors and the texture of the fabric with the tractored outsole makes it look like a real cowboy’s boot.
Besides the adidas Superstar, you also had the opportunity to participate in the creation of Redley Prisma, a brand that, in a certain way, also represents Rio and has been very present in your life. What did this whole process represent for you?
gessica It was really cool to participate in the creative process of this sneaker. It was very curious because first, as I mentioned before, Redley is a brand that has always been present in my life. It’s a strictly carioca brand, born in the city’s suburbs at a time when, in 1985, surfwear was a synonym for streetwear; surfwear inspired urban culture. And when Redley was born, it was absorbed by a group of people connected to authentic street culture.
And for a moment, the brand distanced itself and got a kind of Scandinavian surfwear vibe, becoming a very distant side of surf. It was not Brazilian surfing, so it became a brand that no longer made sense. Redley understood this and said: “man, we look at our product development, and it’s always the same. We only change colors. We had Nauru, we had such a strong consistency in Brazil, but nowadays we are turning into a big nothing”. Then, with this realization, they understood that they needed to reconnect with their roots and deliver a product line that could better relate to the present. And then this sneaker was born. This is the new Prisma. It has a straighter outsole, you look at it and say, “it’s a Redley.” It has the red tag; it brings a whole structure that identifies the brand. With this sneaker, you can see an attempt to really connect with the sneaker crowd, who have a lifestyle and behavior more connected with the present.