How Cult Brand Kith Came to Rule Music's Sneaker Culture: Exclusive
Amidst the palpable grit and ruthless storefront turnover of New York, Ronnie Fieg is an undeniable legend of streetwear and sneaker culture. Fieg is the Founder and Creative Director of KITH, a multifaceted retailer curated to house exclusives, collaborations, and limited edition sneakers artfully alongside keenly selected clothing pieces from the coolest brands – including its own under the same namesake.
So how does one carve out such a creative and respected niche? “We were there as a brand to build a space where we could [provide] the most pleasant experience that you could have, while looking for product that you could put together for yourself,” Fieg explains, describing the 2011 retail origins as well as the overall vision for the KITH customer. “So we wanted to spend time and energy into building this world – and it really is a world. We put together this material story; built out to where you walk in and feel like you’re on another planet in that moment. We haven’t focused on making sure that we sell you something, it’s just making sure that you have a good time."
At the Manhattan KITH store, white Air Force One sculptures created by artist Daniel Arsham extend across the vaulted, black ceiling while a multilevel wooden seating area beckons shoppers to lounge outside, toting the signature matte black, silver-logo inscribed KITH shopping bags. KITH’s Brooklyn outpost has KITH Treats, a small black and white tiled counter for “cereal-based treats” that greets visitors near the door. The four stand-alone stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Miami and a roving list of pop-ups at larger retailers in Aspen and Los Angeles consistently draw in the downtown, cool customer thanks to a cool look – but also, coveted product.
Kith sits at the center of the cult sneaker buyer community, where Nike and Adidas consistently battle it out for the most coveted releases that send collectors (and re-sellers) into a frenzy. Outside of Adidas, KITH was the only e-retailer to carry Kanye West’s eponymous Yeezy Boost 350 V2 in Core Black. Nike’s Space Jam XI sneaker, a limited edition re-release of the Air Jordan XI that debuted in the 1996 film, Space Jam, was toted by Trevor Edwards, president of Nike, INC, as “the largest and most successful shoe launch in the history of Nike.” KITH’s Manhattan store was one of few in New York to carry it.
Add to that the limited edition (sometimes less than 20 pair) brand collaborations that Fieg co-designs, an effort that dates back to 2007 when he first partnered with Asics to help the brand reimagine their archival Gel-Lyte 3 (since then, over 25 unique Asics designs have been created under Fieg's direction.) With Kith, he has also partnered with Timberland, Adidas, Off-White, and even Coca-Cola to mark each with his taste and style.
And for years, Fieg’s taste has been influenced and honed through his passion for, and proximity to, hip hop.
THE DAVID Z CONNECTION
Born in Queens in the 80s, Fieg started working in Manhattan at the popular 8th Street shoe retailer David Z at age 14. It was 1996; hip hop was in the midst of its glory and David Z was at the heart of New York music culture.
“For me, that was the best time in my life,” says Fieg. “That’s why you see "1996" on a lot of the [Kithland] apparel – because 1996 was the year…that culturally impacted me the most. I got to meet and help all of my idols. All of them were coming into the shop.” Jay-Z, Fieg remembers, would come in every weekend to buy a fresh pair of Timberland boots; Fieg sold Lauryn Hill the Gortex boots that she referenced on her single “Ready or Not” (“In some Gortex and sweats/I make treks like I’m homeless.”)
During his time at David Z, Fieg watched as hip hop changed the footwear industry, moving it from Timberlands and Clarks’ Wallabees to Domo Nikes. “I don’t think there’s any other genre of music that can cosign a style the way hip-hop can and be as successful as hip hop has made certain brands and styles," he says. "It was a very influential era into what shaped not only fashion today but the whole sneaker world and sneaker collecting. Those artists shaped not only who I am today in terms of what I like in music and my taste in music, but shaped basically my taste in clothing and style and lifestyle back when I was a kid,”
FRIENDS AND PARTNERS
Fieg cultivated friendships with many of his early customers, relationships that that he's since tapped for cool opportunities at Kith. The Lox starred in a Kithland campaign; Ja Rule and Mase were both front row at Kithland launch this past February; Joey Bada$$ has modeled the Kithland line.
Rapper Fabolous, who repped New York Men's Fashion Week this year and has launched his own fashion line, is also a friend of Fieg's and a fan of KITH. “Ronnie’s from Queens, so he knows New York and he knows the city; he has good taste and a great eye for the city. When you’ve been born and raised here, you know what circulates,” says the rapper. “Also within the culture, he’s cut from the cloth of the 90s culture of hip hop and growing up in that time – where things were produced differently in those eras than [they are] now. The greatest thing that you could probably do is take your know-how of some of the basics of that time and adapt them to this generation. Ronnie does that very well.”
For his part, Fieg does have a connoisseur's taste in hip hop and a sense of what makes a legacy: "If Biggie’s second album was released today, it would still rock today and still be of the best substance and quality hip hop out there." And that sense of timelessness is Fieg's motto for his brand. "To create and make timeless product that can really live on forever; how can I create product – in terms of quality, feel, style, daily practicality - that is as timeless as some of the music I still listen to today from the 90s.”
THE CULT OF THE FAMILIAR
KITH, which derives from the expression 'of kith and kin', recently released, Love Thy City, a collection of classic bombers, jackets, and sweatshirts. The lookbook, shot at Fieg’s Queens high school, features the school's basketball coach (who is also Fieg's mentor) alongside the basketball players. The line is currently featured at a pop-up within Maxfields in Los Angeles. The space, featuring a huge oversize globe, nods to a leftover from the 1964 World's Fair held in Queens. A custom playlist created by DJ Sinatra includes all of Fieg's favorite Queens-inspired or influenced songs. “Being able to take Queens to the West Coast was an emotional moment for me and the brand.”
Fabolous knows his friend is tapping into something special. “[Fieg] knows to make the experience a little bit [more] luxurious than the average experience of just going somewhere and buying a sneaker. When you look around at the customers you see [an array] of consumers but all coming for the same product and you can see the consumer appreciates what the KITH brand brings to the table.”
I left David Z. 7 years ago. Self doubt is a mother fucker. It tries to convince us that we can't achieve our dreams. I wasn't sure this would all work. All I knew is that I would die trying. If I didn't take the leap after working 15 years for the Z., I'd most likely either be working in retail or for a brand. The reason I was ready to leave was because I hit a ceiling at a company that had no vision to grow. And although David Z was very influential and successful in its time, I was a big picture dude way before the end of my career there. Fast forward 7 years later, and all of the successes Kith has had, I'm still thinking beyond where we've gotten. And I still have self doubt in any new idea I start chasing. The difference is I now know what I'm capable of when I give it my all. There is no book or guideline to follow where we are today. No retailer or brand is similar in the sense of what we provide as a retailer and what we strive to become as a brand. I don't want to be like one brand or another. I don't want us to take notes from any retailer. It's really hard growing year after year with bigger projects and more shops. I want us to evolve organically and tastefully without ever jeopardizing who we are and what we stand for. We are New York City. We are every culture and every street in one. I come from the most diverse city in America and that will never be taken for granted. This brand will always be a reflection of my upbringing and my continuous effort in being the brand of the people. I want to live in everyone's closet of those who want special product and those who want to be a part of something real. I have goals. And that is to be the best versions of ourselves. Thanks for riding with us. Next stop, Maxfield, Los Angeles. Love Thy City™