Jump Right In | An Interview with Kate Maher
What some might say was luck, we see as fate working its magic. Growing up in rural Ireland surrounded by a large family, Kate Maher always had an active life. It wasn’t until high school however, that she began playing basketball – the sport that changed her life.
With early success in the sport, Kate earned an athletic scholarship in the United States, where she studied international business and sports marketing, while playing Division 1 basketball. After a few professional seasons, Kate had a choice to make about her future- continue playing basketball or continue her education and study for a Masters in Architecture.
The decision day coincided with an International basketball game and not wanting to be distracted during the game by this, Kate made her decision – basketball. However fate stepped in, her agent didn’t answer the phone, but the University did. With no set career plan, Kate’s various studies and passion for sport landed her at Adidas in 2015. Kate took on her new role with a jump right in attitude that has continued to bring her much success, even today.
“You have to stay open to the opportunities when they come and a lot of things are due to timing. It’s not just being aware of the opportunity but you then need to be willing to make a change, and drive in to a new challenge.”
Being Irish, gave Kate an appreciation for the materials and style of architecture from the early days of history. In contrast, Kate’s NYC education focused more on younger architectural references and newer materials. These coupled experiences have allowed Kate to develop a different approach to her style and work. Architecture is both a fast and slow world according to Kate. She has a greater appreciation for things that can stay relevant for longer.
“Things that are quite authentic and have more of a simple approach can often resonate for much longer.”
Kate’s ideas on architecture and the influences on her style are reflections of the architects she admires. Each one is different from the others and Kate has an appreciation for something unique about each of them. In terms of simplicity and endurance, Peter Zumthor comes to mind. “When you go into his buildings, it’s almost like going into a church. You have a true sense of your own scale within the space. There’s all these details and cues that make you feel the building not just see it. That’s rare today.”
Someone who was influential during her studies was Bjarke Ingels. She shared that he was someone who broke free from tradition and took his own approach. “You don’t necessarily have to like the aesthetic of what he did but I think he’s somebody who defined a bit of the architecture world we’re in today.”
Many may know Virgil Abloh as a DJ come fashion designer, but architecture is actually his foundation. “I think he is a kind of version of the Renaissance Man today. He’s somebody who can apply a way of thinking to a number of different design problems and he can create design solutions for a number of different things.”
Kate joined the Adidas team in 2015 at a time when things were changing in the business- specifically the internal shift to a matrix organization. Having never worked in a company so large, Kate’s ‘roll with it’ attitude served her well. “You are one on 60,000. That can be daunting. My approach, like anything, was to jump in and see where I could help and what I could do to simplify some things.” A lot of it involved communication and networking within the company to learn the business.
Kate’s role as Senior Director, Retail Concept Creation, focused on creating new store environments and strategizing new consumer experiences – though it’s not as simple as it sounds. To be successful in the role requires meeting the needs of all different stake holders which can get very complex. “At the end of the day I really try to think about just two people. It’s really about the consumer and the in-store staff.”
“No matter how good your experience or digital experience or material selection is, it is really the in-store staff that is going to make or break it.”
For Kate, she sees the spaces she designs as activation platforms. “It needs to be activated. In a way I almost don’t like when architectural photography shows a space with no people in it. For me it’s not complete. You need people moving around.” Kate enjoys the pictures from opening night better when the space is filled with customers.
“I am really seeing how the space is actually working and how people are engaging with it – what things they are touching and looking at. That’s where you learn more about the space.”
Kate draws inspiration for the environments she designs from all different places including her travels and the art world. Perhaps the most interesting place she looks for inspiration is the hotel industry. “I think the hotel industry is really tough. Everything from that moment you book online until you check-out, is so important. There’s no room for error, the staff has to be on their game all the time, every time. I think we talk a lot on retail about environment we don’t talk enough about the service. I think that is such a critical part.”
“I don’t so much look at the retail industry anymore. It’s looking at other industries and seeing how those can impact retail.”
Always tying things back to her athletic roots, Kate talked about her role as a team leader. “When you move into more a leadership position you can make the mistake of thinking you’re the coach but I would much rather be the captain. I’d rather be part of the team. You’re still representing the best interest of the team but you’re some sort of mediator between the coach and the team. The captain is often the people’s choice of a leader and the choice is based on trust. I’d rather have people’s trust than just seeing me as a skilled competent boss”
“It’s really about just being human and making time for people. Your job is to empower people.”
There are two projects in particular that have given Kate a great sense of pride and accomplishment. From a professional standpoint, the 5th Ave Adidas flagship in NYC was the project of all projects. It is the manifestation of adidas’ ‘Creator’ consumer who continually works to evolve and is always a work in progress. The store is designed to bring to life the atmosphere of the nostalgia of the high school stadium. It was an ambitious project created by a large cross functional team. It’s a project that the whole team will always look back at and be proud of what they created together.
On a personal level, her work with the Adi-Dassler Fund is something Kate holds close to her heart. Through this fund, truly exemplifying the adidas motto – through sport we have the power to change lives- Kate worked with Congolese locals and designed an international school in Goma, DRC. “As a kid, I always wished my town had a basketball court. I had this idea that one day I would come back and build one there. I wanted a way to give back to the sport. It didn’t work our that way, so I ended up doing it in the Congo as part of Kivu International School.”
“I feel like my experience here has come full circle. I came into it because of my sport background and I really feel like I’ve had the opportunity to give something back.”
With the adidas creator mindset firmly in her DNA, Kate has chosen not to stand still, and continue to be a work in progress, accepting a new career challenge.
Joining the team at Gensler in London, the world-renowned architecture firm, she will take on the role of Creative Director – leading the Lifestyle Studio in designing new experiences in the retail and hospitality sector. We are looking forward to seeing what she creates while there and wish Kate all the best on this next adventure.