When Paulo Dybala signed for adidas in the summer the brand already had big plans for him to become the lead COPA 19 player. Fast forward a few months and the Juve man is a headline asset for the Three Stripes. We recently went behind-the-scenes on the shoot for his COPA 'Gladiator' celebration mask to sit down with the man responsible for creating the design, Beijing-based sneaker designer and mask artist Zhijun Wang.

A designer with a disruptive dynamic, Wang has rapidly built a following for his stunning collection of masks that he designs and creates from some of the most hyped sneakers on the market. For his latest trick adidas challenged him to turn the COPA 19+ football boots into a mask that Dybala describes as – "not just a goal celebration, it has a message. To always keep moving forward, whatever happens. In order to fight, you have to wear a mask – like gladiators do."


Zhijun, when and why did you start making masks out of trainers?

I started making them almost five years ago. I was running every week in my home town of Beijing and I noticed that under the street lights there was like a smokey haze, so I checked the internet and I found that this smoke would be harmful to my health especially after running. So I wanted to make something to protect myself from that, but I didn’t want to just wear the plain white normal masks.

Why did you make them from trainers?

I’ve always loved collecting sneakers, ever since I was a teenager. At that moment I wanted to make an interesting solution and because I’m a designer, I love creative things. So many people were wearing masks and they were all the same so I wanted to create something different. I love customised sneakers so I thought I would just try to make mask out of a pair.

And this is something you do full time now?

Yeah, this is my job now. Before this all took off I was working as a designer at an advertising agency but now I’m in a position to do this full time thanks to the popularity of my designs.


At what point did you realise that everyone was into this idea of turning trainers into masks?

Almost from one day. The first mask I made was one out of Ikea shopping bags and people went crazy for it – Hypebeast reposted it and things went mad. Then I started making masks from trainers and my Instagram following just blew up.

I got a lot of feedback on Instagram with people telling me to make other ones and if they could buy them, and I also received lots of emails asking to do work. At that time I knew, OK, people love my work. From that time I got a lot of encouragement from the outside world. People now allow me to cut expensive sneakers. They also look forward to seeing what happens next, one by one.

When I started making the masks I wanted to challenge myself, only myself. But after I noticed the feedback from people who liked my work, I was motivated to share my passion with them.

Is the mask beginning to become more of a fashion item now in China?

I think in China it’s still more functional because we need the mask to protect us, not just on a fashion level, but the style side of things is definitely starting to rise. Now I think there are a lot of people who need the mask to show their creativity on a fashion-level in China.

How long does it take to make a mask?

It takes almost one week to make one mask. I only ever make one mask at a time from one pair of shoes. No repeats. Although last year when I got the commission from adidas Basketball in the US they requested nine pieces, different colourways, for their campaign in LA.

How many masks have you made in total?

I’ve made over 100 now.


Dybala isn’t the only high profile person you’ve made a mask for. Who else have you worked with?

A lot of people from different industries. Lots of celebrities from the UK. There was a celebrity singer from the UK who wanted to buy one of the masks I made. I didn’t know who he was but after he got in touch I checked his Instagram and he was quite famous. It was Liam Payne from One Direction.

And you’ve worked with James Harden. How did that come about? Did adidas come to you?

Yes, adidas asked me to destroy their shoes for James Harden. I was so surprised about the chance to work with him. He used the mask for warming up before a match. That was definitely one of my proudest moments.

Does it almost hurt to cut up a nice pair of trainers?

Yes, absolutely. It still does now! But the results are worth it! I suppose it has become quite normal now though.

Do you have to buy two pairs of each, one to wear and one for the masks?

Yeah, I used to have to do that. Luckily these days I don’t need to buy the shoes. Usually people will send me their shoes to work with.


For this project, you’ve done the COPA 19, which is a football boot. What was the ambition of the project from the start? What did adidas tell you?

We wanted to reference Dybala’s goal celebration where he puts his hand up to his face. It’s a reference from the film Gladiator and one that has attracted a lot of attention in the football world.

Did adidas give you freedom to create what you wanted with the boot?

Yes, they gave me the whole space to create this mask. Nothing was off limits so it was really fun to work on it. It’s one of the biggest projects I’ve work on in terms of exposure. I watched a lot of the Italian soccer league when I was a student, a teenager, like twenty years ago.

Was it different working with a football boot compared to a sneaker?

Yes, it was a big challenge. The design’s not a normal design, it’s not symmetrical. It’s a one piece upper and it combines different materials. I love it, but it did make things interesting for me.

What was the process of making the mask, where do you start?

I started from using a paper face mask of my wife, because I have no idea about the size of Dybala’s face. The only way I can see him is on the TV or internet. I watched a lot of games from different angles and I can gather his size from my mind. It should be an adjustable mask that would be fit for him.

How do you choose which parts of the boots go where on the mask?

That’s another challenge because I only had two pairs of uppers so I had to meditate. I stayed in a room without other people and stayed a long time to think, just think, imagining the environment, the soccer stadium, like I pretend I am Dybala. A lot of imagination. After that I got this idea and marked on the upper and drew a sketch. At the same time I got the whole idea.

Do you think that football has become more adopted in streetwear cultures now?

I think so, yes. In China we can see the people, the students, wearing more football-styled clothes in subtle and more statement ways. The young generation are wearing the high end shoes from the flagship stores, they'll queue for hours to get a limited edition, and I think football is starting to move into that space in a really natural way. 


Look out for the full Dybala Documentary "Behind the Mask" launching on Thursday 6th December.

See the final results of the mask here and shop the adidas COPA 19+ football boots at prodirectsoccer.com