Standard Oil. AT&T. Microsoft. Those are some of the names that jump to mind when you think about business monopolies over the past century or so. One that may go overlooked, but has no less dominant of a market share, is Nike’s basketball shoes. According to a report from Morgan Stanley last spring, Nike and the Nike-owned Jordan Brand account for 96.7% of the U.S. market in hoops kicks, up from 89.3% in 2011. Think about how crazy that is. That means that Adidas, Reebok, and Under Armour are battling to sell four shoes out of every 100 that leave a store.
With numbers like that, launching a new performance basketball sneaker brand would seem like a fool’s errand. And David Raysse, the founder of Brandblack, admits as much. “Either I’m completely delusional or there is something here. That still remains to be seen,” Raysse says of his two-year-old sneaker brand. “But the most successful people are usually a nice heaping spoonful of both.” As Steve Jobs’s Apple once famously said, “Here’s to the crazy ones.”
Brandblack is a performance footwear and apparel brand that is focused on making fashion-forward pieces that really work. The company is not about making shoes that look good for look’s sake. The sneakers have to be able to go hard in the paint too. Raysse, who worked at Fila, Adidas, and Skechers, before starting his own brand, is trying to create products with a pure design aesthetic that seamlessly merges form and function. To establish Brandblack’s legitimacy in hoops, the company signed on Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford and will release his third signature shoe next holiday season. It is also involved in grassroots ball, sponsoring a top AAU team and the Venice Basketball League.
Still, it’s an uphill climb. Remember, it’s 96.7%. But Raysse believes the company’s small size allows it to boldly venture in its own direction versus trying to out-Nike Nike. Besides, being freed of the obligation to sell billions of dollars worth of sneakers, he is able to cater to that influential top 1% of the top 1%. And if Brandblack’s products catch on with that crowd (and they already have, the first shipment of Jamal Crawford’s second signature shoe sold out within minutes), there’s a good bet that the masses will follow suit.
To get some insight into what possessed Raysse to get into this category and how he thinks Brandblack can differentiate itself, we spoke with him and the company’s creative director Billy Dill.
What made you want to get into making basketball shoes?
DAVID: I was at a lot of big athletic brands, whether it be Fila or Adidas. The whole time I was at those places, I was really striving to move them into a more fashionable space. That’s kind of a taboo word with those companies. It was really challenging. I felt like I’d been trying to build Brandblack products at those companies for the better part of 20 years. Finally it was time to put my money where my mouth is and try to execute this.
Nike is the 800-pound gorilla in this category. How do you think you can differentiate yourself?
DAVID: Nike is a victim of their own success in some respects. They don’t have to do anything wrong for somebody to be like, “I’m tired of my mom, dad, uncle, grandpa, cousins, and 17 other people wearing the same brand.” Their sheer size was an opportunity in my mind. The other part of it is us being completely different in the way we approach what we build. Nike is a sports brand that will play in the fashion world occasionally. We have a fashion sensibility from everything that we do.
Do you consider Brandblack to be a lifestyle footwear company or a performance footwear company?
DAVID: I think it’s really right down the middle. I feel like every product we make should be able to do its intended purposes. Our basketball shoes have gotten really, really good reviews from wear testers. Everything we build is at the most elite technical level but doesn’t have to look so overtly techy. My beef with a lot of the way that athletic brands have been building their product is is that they look “techy,” but it’s bullshit. It doesn’t really do anything, just lots of shiny plastic and goofy shit all over the shoe. They’re adding crap to the shoe to make it look like it’s worth more money. I felt like if you could strip that crap away and build really pure product, it could be extremely functional but, at the same time, be elegant and beautiful.
How do you balance putting out timeless pieces with the need to have seasonal updates and new releases?
BILLY: You can spin classic motif through materializations and color. With your classic cotton canvas ideas, now you can spin it in a wind-resistant, seam-sealed, moisture-wicking idea. Imagine if you took a classic peacoat and put it into an actual performance based material. That’s kind of how we’re spinning thing. We’re a small brand so we have the ability and luxury to make products that we think are great for ourselves and our inner circle of peers. Then we hope that there’s a market for it. The big guys are beholden to monstrous initiatives. They need to sell $30 billion worth of product. Whereas we can get that 1% of 1% that we think is a sexy crowd and they’ll get it because they notice the nuances that we’re attached to.
How has Brandblack evolved?
DAVID: I think that we have really begun to hone in on what it is that we want to be. We’ve gone through adolescence. No more beer bongs aesthetically and ending up passed out in front of your house [laughs.]. In terms of the aesthetic sensibility it’s become like a hegemony of Nike’s aesthetic. It takes a while to shed that off of you and find your own voice. Not only are you conditioned as a designer to love that stuff because you grew up with it, but the customer is as well. It really takes a long time to train ourselves to be really pure and focused on what it is that we believe in and also to train the customer into digging what you’re doing and not being like, “What the hell are they doing?”
How would you characterize who you want to be?
DAVID: Billy and I have a lot of combined experience in this industry. You’d think that we have a ton of case studies that we can use that would be beneficial for Brandblack. But what we found is that 99.9% of the time when we tried something that has worked somewhere else, it failed [for us]. The only time we’ve ever been able to move forward is when we tried something that’s completely loopy and it’s our own thing. As that confidence builds, I think you’ll see the product going off in its own space. You won’t have to ask how is it different from other brands. It’s going to be very obvious.
BILLY: There’s a lot of ad-libbing on stage right now. I don’t know if you saw Birdman, but it’s like when Ed Norton gets on stage for the first time and goes crazy. We’re in that zone right now. It’s really organic. I think we’re really just getting our stride right now.
Can you talk about your background?
DAVID: I started at Fila when I was still in college in the 90s. I came from a fashion family and played basketball in high school and college at Pratt in Brooklyn. My father was one of the founders of Kenzo. I always had those two sensibilities [fashion and basketball] in me.
You designed shoes for Grant Hill and Jerry Stackhouse at Fila. What did that teach you?
DAVID: I was still in college. I was the target consumer at the time—in my 20s, living in Brooklyn, playing basketball. That was one of last times since right now that I was doing whatever the hell I felt like doing. And doing it because it’s what I wanted to wear. Over the course of 20 years, you have that purity beaten out of you. You find solutions that are going to work and those are, generally speaking, watered down. It’s nice that I’ve gotten my voice back in some respects.
How did your relationship with Jamal Crawford come about?
DAVID: We felt that if you were going to build a sneaker company that was as fashion-forward as what we’re building, it’s going to be hard for people to take seriously. I felt like we should sign an athlete to give it instant credibility and to help us with testing. When we started looking at players, I think there are great synergies between athletes and shoes, but the majority of them are not. I’m not going to name names but half the shoes are terrible and don’t have anything to do with the player. It was important to find somebody that was a real fit for the brand. We really liked Jamal Crawford because his game is almost like a streetball game but in the NBA. He’s played in major markets; he’s got a lot of swag. He appeals to more of a connoisseur of basketball. He embodies the spirit of the brand. Whenever we show him radical ideas, he loves it.
What was Jamal looking for in a sneaker?
BILLY: Jamal likes his shoes really broken in and flexible. Whereas a lot of guys like LeBron want what’s basically a snowboard boot. That kind of changed the way that David looks at design. He started designing around those ideas and came up with different things that are off the grid from other basketball shoes. But in doing so, we’ve gotten major reviews on the last shoe. It was a top 3 shoe last year performance-wise from a number of high level reviewers.
DAVID: Jamal really does like a shoe that is 90% different from what you’ve been told is an appropriate basketball shoe. He likes it soft so that it moves well. It’s more akin to a running shoe. To build that in a way that was engineered appropriately for him was an incredible challenge. But it has allowed us to build a fantastic shoe. I joke with Jamal that he’s like The Princess and the Pea. He can feel the most tiny little things. It’s pretty incredible and incredibly frustrating sometimes too.
Has Jamal told you what other NBA players are saying about the shoes?
DAVID: People are breaking his door down wanting shoes, wanting to get down. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We just launched his second shoe about three weeks ago. We had a very small amount of pairs that we put in a couple of retailers and they sold out in 15 minutes. The second allotment just got in and we put them on our website the day before yesterday at midnight and we’re already sold out. There’s been a huge groundswell of anticipation for this shoe and it’s really exciting.
Why did you guys get involved with grassroots basketball? BILLY: It’s a great way for us to broadcast that the brand is not only a fashion sports brand but it functions well, it plays well. We’re sponsoring what I think is the No. 1 AAU team out of California, the Rockfish. We’re doing the Venice Basketball League. We’re in the JBL; we’ve been talking to the Drew. We have a really elite squad of basketball players. If anybody questions do [these shoes] work, when you see a 6'10” guy doing a crazy dunk over three other guys, you know it’s working.
DAVID: Who says you have to follow the Jordan model or the Kareem model of, “Alright I have to pay the top player in the NBA a ton of money and that’s going to sell my shoes?” I feel like we can be a bit more local in how we market and have a dialogue with our customer. I like that these unsung heroes, these local kids that have devoted their lives to basketball but don’t get paid a lot of money, are wearing our brand.
What is the psychograph of the Brandblack customer?
DAVID: First and foremost it’s an individual. It’s someone that sees the world a little differently and wants to look a little different. They’re confident. They’re trendsetters not followers. They are going to wear a new brand because they think it’s cool not because someone told them it’s cool. That’s mostly our guy. I’m bi-racial and I get so irritated by people that break down demographics into race. I’m not targeting any specific race. I’m targeting a person who is into cool shit and is an individual. That cuts across age, gender, everything. We’ve got a 50-year-old architect, a 17-year-old baller. We’ve got women that are obsessed with the brand.
What are some of the things that we can look for in the future?
DAVID: We’ve got the JC3, Jamal Crawford’s third shoe, which is just wrapping up. We will be introducing that around holiday. We probably leaked the Jamal Crawford 2 shoe too early and it inspired a lot of people. I’ll leave it at that. We’ll be a lot more careful about releasing this shoe. But I’m really excited about it. I think that shoe is going to be a big statement about this brand. We’re also introducing running as a category and taking it very seriously. Before this, I helped Skechers build their marathon shoe for Meb Keflezighi. I learned a lot about high performance technical running shoes. I’m really excited about the shoe that we’ve built.