Music mogul Scooter Braun is reviving sneaker brand British Knights, popularized by its association with hip-hop culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s, for a new generation.
In a new joint venture with British Knights founders Jack Schwartz Shoes, Inc., Braun has enlisted creative director Darren Romanelli (aka DrX) to bring a fresh look to the high-top non-performance shoes, much like the streetwise designs he’s developed over the years for brands like Coca-Cola, Converse and Nike.
The first designs will be unveiled at Sneaker Con in Las Vegas on Feb. 17 before going on sale at select high-end retailers beginning March 15. Braun and his SB Projects will also host two events at South By Southwest on behalf of British Knights — one at NiceKicks in Austin, another as the sponsor of the Illmore’s three-night showcase from March 13 through March 15.
“British Knights was one of my favorite shoe brands growing up, and if you came up when I did there’s two things you miss — ‘Bobby’s World’ and British Knights,” Braun says. “I hear that a lot when I talk to certain artists, like I remember having a conversation with Macklemore and he was like, ‘Dude, I love British Knights!’”
Beyond two designs — one an update on the classic black high-top, another a Union Jack take on the classic design — Braun is cagey on additional details about the shoes themselves. But he tells Billboard he wants to re-establish British Knights (or “BKs,” as they were affectionately called back in the day) as a premium shoe for a certain type of urban trendsetter. To accomplish that cachet, Braun and Romanelli will collaborate with “some of the world’s greatest street artists” on limited-edition designs.
“Getting a pair of British Knights is not gonna be as easy as going out there and getting ‘em,” Braun says. “We already have people emailing me, ‘Where can I get ‘em?’ We’re not basing the shoes on what athlete is wearing them, it’s based on artists as the new athletes.”
Footwear is the latest venture for Braun, who’s been diversifying his portfolio as of late with tech investments like Pinterest, Spotify, Songza, Uber, Viddy and StageIt, and a fund with an estimated value of $120 million to invest in management companies rumored to include Sandbox Entertainment, October’s Very Own and Atom Factory, among others. He’s often cited David Geffen, Jimmy Iovine and Lucian Grainge as mentors and inspirations for placing bets outside the core music industry. So, British Knights is a bid to become his Beats by Dre.
“I truly feel the same way that Jimmy (Iovine) has shown that headphones can be a way we express ourselves and what we wear, sneakers can be a form of self-expression,” he says. “Are my acts gonna be getting pairs? Yeah, they’re already hounding ‘em.”
And indeed, the British Knights of yore relied on endorsements from rappers like MC Hammer and Kool Moe Dee over athletes (“they did have a great relationship with Derrick Coleman,” Braun notes of the former New Jersey Net). And Justin Bieber could very well be among the SB Projects clients who could soon be soon rocking a pair of BKs, having inked a non-exclusive endorsement deal with Adidas last year premised on the fact that the singer is often snapped in the hottest shoes (he was recently seen wearing a pair of Balenciaga sneakers.)
The versatility of the sneaker has contributed to its continues growth in the fashion footwear category, as sales of sport leisure shoes for men grew 5% in 2013, accounting for 18% of a $12.5 billion marketplace, according to the NPD Group.
“The high-top non-performance category has done well for awhile now, but it’s gotten a little bit of an extra resurgence with the continuation of casual merging with dress,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. “Look at how a young man dresses today — he’s wearing a suit and athletic shoes to go with it. In many cases, the shoe is either a high-top performance shoe, or he’s wearing a high-top non-performance shoe. And what that means for the category is huge opportunity for growth because it’s no longer being worn as the weekend shoe, it’s being worn as the work shoe and the go-out-at-night shoe. It’s increased its usage.”