In the galaxy of shoes, Empty Behaviour is interstellar. The experimental footwear brand founded by Chen Yichang and Qian Zhou in 2020 creates pieces that are inspired by how athletic shoes are worn by all genders. Taking that concept to the next playing field with kitten heels for urban living, studded soles as found on the golf course to ballet shoes uppers. What we get is a real vision of what unisex shoes can be outside of the sports track and beyond wider ranges of size. 

Taking risks has attracted a lot of cool kids to the brand. Celebrating gender fluidity and non-conforming subcultures, we got the chance to dive deep with Empty Behaviour’s founders. It’s time to talk shoes and beyond!

Let’s start at the beginning! Empty Behaviour was founded in 2020 by yourselves, Chen Yichang and Qian Zhou, how did you two meet and what made you decide to start the experimental footwear brand?

Chen/Zhou: We met at Pitti Uomo in Florence and hit it off immediately. We talked for a long time and decided on the spot to create something interesting together. At first, we wanted to design artistic furniture together, then NINO suggested that we could create something more. So, we chose to express our ideas and concepts through footwear, using shoes as small-scale architecture and interpreting them through industrial and architectural language, all while staying true to the initial concept we both had.

How would you describe your roles in the brand?

Zhou: We both graduated from art and design schools, but I didn’t pursue a career in design after my graduation. Instead, I worked as a fashion magazine editor for ten years. My experience as a fashion editor helped me understand what a fashion brand needs and its mission, which gave us a different way from other designer brands to start. Chen and I met during fashion week in Milan through mutual friends and we totally hit it off. Now we have our respective roles: Chen primarily handles design work, while I am mainly in charge of brand operations. However, we have close discussions with each other. I would give my suggestions on design to Chen, and Chen would give his suggestions on decisions regarding operations to me. We complement each other while maintaining our independence. To conclude, I am responsible for everything from 0 to 1, and NINO is in charge of everything from 1 to 2.

What shoes are you wearing now?

Zhou: A pair of Asics eco-friendly running shoes.


There are many architectural elements in your design, did you go to school to be a shoe designer and where did you study?

Chen/Zhou: Because we both love the lines of architecture, the fusion of architectural aesthetics and humanistic art has always been one of the inspirations for our creativity. We aim to explore new relationships between people the environment, and society, under the progress of architectural aesthetics, aligning with the discussions on human nature in postmodernism. We use functional materials, hardware, and fasteners in traditional footwear such as monk shoes, derby shoes, and Mary Janes to improve comfort and expand the traditional footwear’s application scenarios.

Even in high-heeled shoes, we incorporate sports mesh, rubber soles, and ski boot buckles, creating an intermediate form between evening high heels and professional athletic shoes. The use of 3M reflective materials and industrial colors such as silver and fluorescent adds a cool and avant-garde sense to the visual aesthetics. The collision of various elements gives rise to a modern sports aesthetic that is not deliberate but rather a chemical reaction between cultures. In the future, we will attempt to add lighting, voice control, and electric features to extend the concept of footwear and accessories as part of the human body, completing another upgrade of the application scenario.

Did you have a shoe design job prior to Empty Behaviour and how did you get it?

Chen: I graduated from Fashion Accessories Design of POLIMODA and have worked on shoe design with multiple brands like MaxMara, Loro Piana, and Rick Owens. Before I graduated I had already been hired to be a Product Director. One reason for how I got the job might be that my graduation collection was selected for the POLIMODA show and appeared on VOGUE ITALIA.

Could you recall one of the first designs you created that instantaneously led to the brand being seen on such iconic faces as Cardi B?

Chen/Zhou: That must be the iconic high-heel boots of EB.

You explore sports and functional materials, along with conflicting futuristic visual concepts. Being so non-conforming, what was your starting point when collaborating with ASICS, and what attracted you to the performance brand?

Chen/Zhou: Inclusiveness and diversity are deeply planted in our brand DNA. So the starting point for us was to think outside the box, reach outside to different zones, and explore potential creativity with brands from different zones. Meanwhile, collaborating with ASICS helps customers from different zones to enjoy the design aesthetics of both EB and ASICS.

Our collaboration with ASICS was really creative. The first campaign with ASICS initiated by our friends from ASICS who approached us and suggested working together to create something fun. Then we began by creating external components for the ASICS GT-2160, drawing inspiration from surrealistic and futuristic aesthetics. In the second campaign, we focused on the theme of redefining customization for the ASICS GEL-KAYANO LEGACY. We try to bring a cross-disciplinary fusion of sports and fashion to this event by integrating the design languages of both EMPTY BEHAVIOUR and ASICS to reshape the GEL-KAYANO LEGACY footwear.

Empty Behaviour offers a wide range of sizes and is very gender-neutral, which can be quite a challenge in product design. Did you have any shoe design fails?

Chen/Zhou: In the design process, there have been many attempts, and there are also many designs that have not been brought to light. They are all part of us and the brand’s development journey. If there is a chance in the future, they may also appear in the form of an archive.

What criteria do you use when designing new shoes?

Chen/Zhou: As our brand name suggests which originates from the ancient philosophy that “all things are empty and allowed”, EB considers all creative possibilities to be legitimate. So rather than calling it designing new shoes, we prefer to say it is an experiment. We are always pushing the boundaries of fashion footwear and introducing new possibilities to art-up fashion. Humanism and eco-friendliness are rooted in our brand, so for EB, comfortable to wear and no harm to the environment are always considered. Meanwhile, we have always been committed to supporting the LGBTQ community. EB has a wide range of sizes and gender-neutral styles have always been our criteria.

How do you decide on colorways?

Chen/Zhou: Black, white, and silver are the iconic colors of EB and will be the eternal colors for the brand. But just as we mentioned, EB considers all creative possibilities to be legitimate. So in our SS24 capsule collection “Interstellar Sports”, we adopt fluorescent colors also colors like light pink and blue.

You presented back in September at Paris Fashion Week. Tell us a bit about the concept behind the collection and inspiration.

Chen/Zhou: “Reverse the path, deconstruct the identity, send a blank visiting card.” is the theme of EMPTY BEHAVIOR 24SS runway show. EB used “identity” as the initial point, trying to create a miniature “social environment” in Palais de Tokoyo from footwear, costume, and behavioral performance. So we broke the traditional runway show format by reversing the roles of models and guests. Show guests and models swapped roles, and the brand’s founders exchanged roles with the staff. And there were no traditional runway walks by models, and guests did not sit on either side to watch. Despite any ethics, skin color, or job, every person involved gets a new “identity” after the deconstruction. We hope to reconsider the relationship among “people, society, identity” through this fashion experiment and continue EB’s unique art of fashion and philosophy.

Are there any materials that you would like to explore further?

Chen/Zhou: All the new technological materials are the directions we want to explore. We believe that the development of fashion design is greatly dependent on the progress and application of technology. In every era, designers and brands are exploring the relationship between the two, creating memorable works to drive the development of fashion. We also hope to be one of them.

Who is the person you design for? How would you describe them?

Chen/Zhou: EB designs for everyone, no matter what their ethics, gender, age, job, or anything else. EB puts inclusiveness and diversity in our brand DNA. We embrace gender fluidity and all cultures. Just like the aim of our SS24 capsule collection “Interstellar Sports”, to convey unisex wearing, not just in the sense of men’s athletic shoes available in women’s sizes but from a female perspective, presenting women’s rich personalities and independent spirit, thereby influencing the concept of “unisex athletic shoes” for all genders. We are always supportive of all genders and have customers of all genders like the biggest community of drag queens in Shanghai. The two words to describe the person we design for would be colorful and diverse.

If you could bring back one shoe trend, what would it be?

Chen/Zhou: Those must-be high-heeled sneakers just like EB SS24 Capsule collection, are comfortable but dramatic and can be quite eye-catching in the crowd.

Do you have a favourite decade?

Chen/Zhou: That would be 1990-2000. We love the retro-futuristic style which could match with part of EB. The decade was full of imagination and also has the character of humanism that respects the retro style.

Shoes make the outfit, how would you describe your personal style?

Chen: I prefer to mix and match avant-garde brands with streetwear brands. Compared to the somewhat self-indulgent feeling of some designer brands, I appreciate the authentic and rebellious styles of these two categories.

ZHOU: I prefer life and my wardrobe to be more stable, allowing me more time to focus on things I love. Therefore, I value the comfort, practicality, and functionality of everyday wear, as well as durable, eco-friendly materials and details of craftsmanship.

Before we sign off, what can we expect from you in 2024?

Chen/Zhou: In 2024, EMPTY BEHAVIOR will have collaborations with several brands that we appreciate a lot. Some are the brands we have worked with multiple times and some are for the first time. Designs that could show our shared concept will be seen in the near future. At the same time, there are also art projects in collaboration with museums and artists, jointly creating a world of EB.