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Billy Walsh Designs Sneakers for Rihanna and Writes Songs for the Weeknd

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The Footwear News Achievement Awards, sometimes called the Oscars of shoes, shines a highlight on the industry’s top designers. But when the singer Dua Lipa won for a Puma collection last November, her frequent collaborator Billy Walsh bolted on the sight of flashing cameras.

“Billy Walsh’s five-seconds limit on the red carpet,” Ms. Lipa said, as photographers shouted her name at Cipriani Wall Street.

“More like two seconds,” Mr. Walsh, 40, added safely from the sidelines.

Avoiding attention is a peculiar trait for a person who collaborates with a few of the biggest names in pop, including Ms. Lipa, Post Malone and the Weeknd, straddling the upper echelons of fashion and music.

He has collaborated with Rihanna on a Fenty collection with Puma, and consulted Kanye West on video directors. As a fashion stylist, he dressed the Weeknd in Givenchy for the Met gala and James Blake in Yohji Yamamoto for awards shows.

But his biggest achievements are in songwriting. His co-writing credits include “Sunflower” by Post Malone and Swae Lee, and 6 tracks on Mr. West’s “Donda” album — and people are only counting his Grammy nominations.

“Billy is an element of a small group of individuals on this industry that I consider to be like family,” Mr. Malone said by email. Their shared writing catalog also includes the hits “I Fall Apart,” “Higher Now,” “Wow” and “Circles.” “Not only is he among the best songwriters, but he is an excellent creative and clothier.”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Walsh went shopping at Dover Street Market, the retail temple in Manhattan where he often goes for inspiration. “I might come here to do massive pulls for the Weeknd,” he said. “I used to begin on the highest floor and work my way down.”

He still does. As he flipped through racks of Raf Simons and Junya Watanabe on the seventh floor, Mr. Walsh recounted this unorthodox rise within the recording and street wear industries. “Fashion and music are definitely interrelated, but I assume I don’t know too many individuals who’ve succeeded in each,” he said. “I stay within the back and don’t need credit.”

Wearing an all-black “uniform” (T-shirt, Prada nylon shorts, Alyx socks and Nike Air Tuned Max sneakers), together with his signature shaved head and chrome-metal grills, he has the tough-guy appearance of a post-apocalyptic British rude boy.

Mr. Walsh credits his dexterity to his rough-and-tumble upbringing within the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. His father, William Walsh, a folk musician who performed at local Irish pubs, encouraged him to write down poetry and dance. He was also an obsessive sneaker head. “I drove my mom crazy looking all around the city for the Adidas Equipment Basketball shoes with the interchangeable, different-colored socks,” he said.

Other addictions followed. He began drinking at 11, often stepping into after-school brawls until he sobered up a decade later.

At 18, he headed to Los Angeles to review dance at Loyola Marymount University, and signed with an agent. But dance gigs were few and much between, so he spent most of his 20s as a nightclub promoter, working alongside his brother at Hollywood hot spots like Emerson Theater and Hyde, where he would party with a young Post Malone and future designers like Matthew M. Williams of Givenchy.

In 2011, the choreographer Fatima Robinson, who he met at Eden, a Hollywood nightclub, encouraged him to stop dancing and concentrate on poetry and design as an alternative. “This woman literally saved my life,” he said.

He quit auditioning and busied himself with writing poetry and daydreaming about street wear. He looked inside his sneaker closet and commenced experimenting with Frankenstein combos. Considered one of the primary designs cobbled together was a white Nike Air Force One with a black rubber creeper sole. “I at all times wondered what a creeper would seem like with certain old sneakers from my childhood,” he said.

He wore his custom sneakers to the clubs, which might get noticed by emerging V.I.P.s like Virgil Abloh and Travis Scott. In 2014, with seed money from fellow party promoters, he and a friend began a street wear label called Mr. Completely, which reimagined classic sneakers including Adidas Sambas and Stan Smiths.

To advertise the brand, he held a celebration at Fourtwofour on Fairfax and invited everyone he knew. Amongst them was the stylist Jahleel Weaver, who ordered several pairs for his client Rihanna. That turned out to be a propitious sale. Just a few months later, Rihanna invited Mr. Walsh to design her debut collection with Puma (which went on to win the Footwear News “Shoe of the Yr” two years later).

Sneakers opened other doors. Considered one of them led to Illangelo, a veteran Canadian producer, who became a confidant and his unexpected entree into music writing. Once more, it began at a nightclub. The 2 were clubbing on the Sunset Strip in 2014 when Illangelo mentioned that he needed a recent songwriter. Seizing the moment, Mr. Walsh shared a brief poem from his iPhone Notes app.

Illangelo was so impressed that he brought Mr. Walsh into studio sessions with Alicia Keys and he ended up getting his first mainstream writing credit on the song, “In Common.” Illangelo also introduced Mr. Walsh to the Weeknd, who at first was only fascinated about working with him as a stylist. (The 2 shared an appreciation for military bomber jackets.) But as Mr. Walsh’s repute as a songwriter began to rise, the Weeknd began bringing him into the studio.

Those sessions resulted in three tracks from the 2016 album‌‌ “Starboy,” including “True Colours” and “Die ‌for You,” which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 this month, seven years after it was first released, because of going viral on TikTok.

Mr. Walsh has since gone on to write down greater than 100 songs for artists as varied because the Kid Laroi (“Without You”), pop powerhouses like Mr. Malone and Ms. Lipa, and rock royalty like Ozzy Osbourne (“Odd Man”). His publishing catalog has racked up a combined 20 billion streams. Last November, “Sunflower” went 17 times platinum, becoming the highest-certified single of all time.

His soaring music profession hasn’t stopped him from other creative pursuits. In 2016, he began Donavan’s Yard, a nightlife collective in Los Angeles with the D.J.s Drew Byrd and Sean G that hosts parties in Tokyo and a streaming concert series on Amazon Music Live. Branded merch is sold at Dover Street Market,

In October, he began a conceptual street wear label called Iswas with Keith Richardson, his creative partner at Mr. Completely. The label currently sells one item: a pair of painter’s pants made out of Japanese selvage denim that costs $450.

Wearing many hats, Mr. Walsh said, affords him creative freedom. “If Abel knows I’m winning an award with Dua and doing my very own clothing line, he respects that I’m doing OK for myself,” he said, referring to the Weeknd by his given name. “Nobody looks like you’re too dependent.”

Back at Dover Street, Mr. Walsh went from floor to floor, examining the clothing racks like an archaeologist at a fresh dig. On the shoe floor, he picked up a pair of cloven-toed “tabi” boots by Martin Margiela. “I appreciate what this guy does,” he said of the designer, who, like himself, shuns the limelight in favor of letting his work speak for itself.

After about two hours, he reached the Rose Bakery on the bottom floor, took a seat and ordered an Earl Grey tea. As ambient music played overhead, he reflected on his unusual journey. “My success comes from artists recognizing that I see the creative process as sacred, somewhat secret,” he said. “I’m never the primary focus, just correctly.”

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