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People were scrambling in the Footwear News fashion studio.
With just an hour to wrap a photo shoot featuring five of the most influential people in the sneaker business, one of the subjects was creating a small controversy.
Vashtie Kola, who splits her time between directing music videos (her clients have included Justin Bieber and Solange Knowles), DJing parties in the city and working on various design projects, was the only female in FN’s pool of streetwear tastemakers. She also was the only person in the group wearing Timberlands.
“You shouldn’t have worn boots to something called ‘sneaker’ influencers,” Ronnie Fieg, owner of New York’s Kith boutique and a footwear collaboration magnate, said sarcastically from the sidelines. Laughter broke out among the five personalities and Fieg’s entourage, which included New York Giant Victor Cruz and photographer Timothy McGurr (better known as 13th Witness).
“If there’s a Foot Locker nearby, I can run and get some Air Forces or something,” Kola said.
But after a quick search of the FN fashion closet for samples and an attempt to trade her size 6.5 boots for McGurr’s size 8.5 red Air Jordans, the loudest voice in the room boomed through the studio.
“Vash, just wear the Timberlands,” said DJ Clark Kent, a hip-hop original whose resume includes working on Jay-Z’s first album and consulting with major sneaker brands like Nike. “Timberlands are sneakers in the hood.”
And when DJ Clark Kent says 6-inch workboots can be considered sneakers, people listen.
These five New York trendsetters have the precious cachet with millennials that is highly sought after by brands. “We can relay a message that brands can’t relay to people in this market,” Fieg said.
They’ve turned their digital followings and inside knowledge of sneaker culture into brand partnerships, cross-marketing opportunities and even their own media channels.
“Streetwear, hip-hop and skate — all of those things came out of this angst-driven, anti-establishment mentality,” explained Jeff Staple, founder of design agency Staple Design and boutique The Reed Space. “Now the tune has switched a bit. Tony Hawk is a millionaire. Jay-Z is a millionaire. Marc Ecko is a millionaire. That [entrepreneurial] mentality is winning people over.”
Here, Kola, Fieg, Kent, Staple and Bobbito Garcia sound off on how they’ve built their captive audiences, using social media and their unique style sense.
Influencer is a word that’s used a lot to describe this group. What does that mean to you?
Vashtie Kola: From my understanding, it’s a person who has natural access to a group of people brands are trying to reach. Influencers have that capacity or that connection to [consumers] that a company might not have.
Ronnie Fieg: When people are considered influencers, to me, that’s more of a definition of someone like a musician. In our market, to be considered an influencer, it’s really the work you put out that’s influencing. The work should speak for the person. The work is what’s considered influential.
DJ Clark Kent: That word influencer comes with a lot of responsibility. If all of a sudden I was to do something that was extra crazy, then all of a sudden, I have no influence. You have to be very careful with it. The term is actually a little scary. I can’t subscribe to it, but if I do have any influence, it’s because I’m true to what I like. I don’t believe I have any power. I just like what I like. If someone can take from my reality, maybe what my influence is doing is teaching people to like what they like.
Bobbito Garcia: For my era, the influencers were the ball players and drug dealers who had a lot of money. That was the epicenter that urban wear, street culture and eventually hip-hop took their cues from. If you look at the three most popular, iconic and biggest-selling sneakers of all time — the Chuck Taylor, the Air Force 1, the Adidas [Superstar] shelltoes — all three started as basketball shoes, as performance equipment. By virtue of their popularity in that circle, they became popular in casual lifestyle.
Jeff Staple: What you do says a lot more than what people call you or what you call yourself. Let your work speak for yourself and if, by chance, that work you produce happens to influence other people in a positive manner, that’s just gravy on top. Even if my work didn’t influence anyone, I’d still approach it the same way I do now. I try not to think so much about being tagged as an influencer because I actually have a fear that it’ll change my ways if I start thinking so much about how people will react to it.
Each of you has a massive following among sneaker fans. Why do you have that pull with potential consumers?
DJCK: The fact that I really am a consumer. I’m not a guy who works for a sneaker company. I’m not a designer. I can think like a consumer. There’s about 8 percent of the population that’s really cool. The rest are trying to figure it out.
BG: It’s a mixture of things. I’ve been a sneaker historian, in some ways, and a voice for the community. But legitimately, I’m a ball player. That adds so much credibility to when I’m saying things about basketball sneakers, because I’ve played.
RF: The Internet plays a huge part in terms of recognition, but I built my credibility when I was with the David Z [stores in New York] and I feel like I’ve worked hard enough for people to trust my opinions. That’s the most important thing in any relationship — trust — except this relationship is between me and the consumer. It’s important for the consumer to trust me because [footwear] is all I know and all I’ve ever done in my life.
VK: I’d like to think that I am aspirational because I came from humble beginnings. My parents are just two hard-working immigrants from Trinidad. Seeing me live this lifestyle could help impact someone else’s life who grew up in a small town like I grew up in. I didn’t grow up with idols who looked like me or were women and where I felt connected to what they were doing. I had people I looked up to, but none I felt like my life could be mirrored after or who were doing the same things I want to be doing.
JS: My only explanation is that either I caught up with the times or the times caught up with me. For the first decade of my career, I was working in a bubble where the general public wasn’t aware of what I was doing. It’s reached a point where it’s on people’s radars now. Maybe it’s social media. Maybe it’s the Internet or trends in street culture. It could be all those things added together, but I don’t care. It’s not that big of an achievement for me. I just work.
You’ve all been part of a lot of product collaborations. Why do shoe brands seek you out?
DJKC: Brands turn to me because I’m a sneaker guy, but I’m not one-dimensional. When I connect with a brand, they’re hiring somebody who’s connected to hip-hop culture, connected to consumers and connected to sneakers, and who can tell a story and make enthusiasts want or buy them.
RF: We can relay a message that brands can’t relay to people in this market. It’s very different with every brand, but I feel it’s reached a point where the brands are like family. I’m on a friendship level with many of the brands, and we look to each other on how we can help each other grow.
JF: Collaborations are great. They allow you to do things you normally wouldn’t do. They allow you to get exposure with people you might not be able to get exposure with, but we don’t live and die by them.
How do your projects with these companies usually come together?
VK: I’ve never formally pitched an idea. I like being natural and letting things happen, and if someone’s not interested in working with me, I don’t push. I want to keep working that way.
RF: There’s no real formula. Every project is different, but basically, it’s me having a good idea when I sit down with the brand. I’ll tell them what my idea is, they’ll tell me what their ideas are, and we usually meet somewhere in the middle to make sure we both relay the messages that we want to put out there to the consumer.
JS: I never cold sent a brochure to someone and said, ‘Look at our design services. Would you like to work with us one day?’ Every collaboration we’ve ever done happened organically. I’d meet the person in charge of these things. We’d grab coffee, sit down and vibe to see if it worked out. We don’t even make money off collabs sometimes. It’s not a moneymaker for us. I only do it when I feel like it’s right. It has to happen organically.
DJCK: I’ve never pitched to anybody. I don’t want it to seem contrived. There’s a clarity when it comes to me, and it’s as simple as my name — DJ Clark Kent. Not sneaker designer Clark Kent or brand manager Clark Kent. If you approach me as the DJ first, everything will suss itself out. I’m creative, but I’m creative musically first.