KITH, Making of a Modern Brand
In the Jewish religion, a bar mitzvah happens at the age of thirteen. It’s recognized as the time a boy becomes a man, when he, not his parents, become responsible for his actions.
Ronnie Fieg took this transition quite seriously.
Fieg’s first cousin is David Z, a legendary sneaker and sportswear retailer in New York City. Ronnie’s parents were paying off his bar mitzvah celebration with the gifts from the guests, so as is customary, David came to the celebration with his gift in hand: an envelope of cash. Ronnie saw this as an opportunity and told David, thanks, but no thanks. He turned down David’s gift and asked for a job instead. The next day Ronnie started as a stock boy at David Z, beginning his journey in the sneaker business at the age of thirteen.
In the late 1990s David Z was located on Eighth Street in the Village, one of the most influential blocks in the country for street culture. All the big hip-hop artists spent their weekends hanging on the block. They would start on the corner with a Gray’s Papaya hot dog, maybe grab a pair of Parasuco Jeans in one of the lesser-known shops, and end at David Z’s with a pair of GORE-TEX boots. This was where Ronnie learned the business of sneakers and streetwear. As he tells it, “When Lauryn Hill spits ‘In some Gore-Tex and sweats I make treks like I’m homeless,’—the week that she recorded that album, I sold her the boots. And anytime when you see Ma$e and Diddy in the ‘Been Around the World’ video and they’re wearing Dolomites, I sold them their boots. Anytime you’d see Wu-Tang with custom Wallabies, I used to get them custom made for them. Jay was there every weekend. ‘Cruising down Eighth Street,’ when he spits that on the [‘Empire State of Mind’] track, that was him every Saturday, cruising down Eighth Street. I used to help him with his Timberlands every Saturday.” For Ronnie, working at David Z was like graduating from the Harvard of street style.
Ronnie worked his way up from stock boy to salesclerk to assistant manager to manager to assistant buyer and, eventually, buyer for multiple David Z stores at around the age of twenty-five. As the head buyer, Ronnie had direct exposure to the brands and, luckily for him, David Z moved volume and that gave him influence. He formed a relationship with ASICS at a Vegas trade show and the brand performed well in the stores, so ASICS decided to give him the opportunity to design his own silhouette.
This was a fateful opportunity; back in the day, his mom had bought him a pair of ASICS Gel-Lyte IIIs at Tennis Junction in Great Neck—my hometown—instead of the more popular Reebok Pumps he wanted. At the time, Ronnie hated them but eventually he grew to love them, wearing them until they had “holes in the soles.” He wanted to replace them, but they’d been discontinued. When ASICS gave him the chance to design his own, the Gel-Lyte III was his obvious choice. He pulled them out of the archive and created three versions, a total of 756 pairs. This was way before Kith; nobody knew him, so he called in some favors from a few friends. They threw an event at the store. The next day, they sold a few pairs, and he shared the story of the shoes with one of the buyers. The day after that, Ronnie’s mother called him crying: “Your shoe is on the cover of the Wall Street Journal!” The buyer was an editor, writing a story about limited-run sneakers, and the next day, there was a line around the block. That same day, the president of Adidas America showed up and, as Ronnie tells it, “I told him the story, and that’s how we started talking about working on a shoe called the Black Tie.” Ronnie had started to build his following.
While David Z had a thriving business focused on moving quantity, Ronnie was coming up in the era of Union and Supreme. He was obsessed with what they were doing and decided, “What I really wanted to do is build a curated lifestyle shop, and not be pigeonholed into one category or another, give the New York vibe of all types of products, multi-brand, and have our own brand.” So, in 2007, he started Kith, a small T-shirt and jacket line, and in 2010 he decided he wanted his own shop. He partnered with Sam Ben-Avraham, owner of another legendary New York retail chain, Atrium. His first shop was eight hundred square feet and he slept in the shop for five days, “no shower, just building the store with our bare hands. I borrowed money to open the shop. It really took off the minute we opened and the money was paid back in like four months of what it took to open.”
Since the opening of that shop, Kith has become a retail juggernaut, expanding as virtually all other retail brands contract. Currently the brand has three permanent locations: New York Downtown, KithLand at Bergdorf Goodman, Miami Beach, and a pop-up/seasonal location in Aspen. They recently tripled the size of the original store with a department solely dedicated to Nike and they have a separate Kith Woman’s location across the street. There are also three locations of their Kith Treats concept, a cereal bar that focuses on combining cereal and ice cream for decadent ice cream desserts.
Why is Kith thriving when most other retail brands are dying? The answer is a combination of curation, collaboration, content, and community, and the obvious requirement, great product. To start, all the Kith stores are designed by Snarkitecture, a firm created by artist Daniel Arsham, focused on “investigating the boundaries between art and architecture.” Daniel’s work makes the stores more immersive art exhibits than retail stores and that makes Kith a place to see, experience, and even gather, rather than just shop. The stores are highly curated from start to finish, whether its their sneaker displays, book selections, wallpaper, or website, everything reinforces the brands status as a culture creator. As Ronnie puts it, “We take a lot of risks, but you have to take risks in this market to be rewarded and to feel like you’re helping shift this culture and not just be a follower and someone who’s eating off the culture. You need to actually provide newness and culture-shifting ideas.” While people go to Kith for the practical reason of purchasing sneakers, they also come to be a part of the movement, to say they have been there and bring home a piece of culture, just like a museum.
Next, Ronnie made collaborating core to his design process, not a side project. He collaborates with brands ranging from the commercial—Rugrats, Power Rangers, Coca-Cola, and Cap’n Crunch—to high style, including Colette, BAPE, and Bergdorf Goodman, to the footwear legends Timberland, Adidas, and the grande dame of the sneaker world, Nike. Through this process, Kith is constantly exchanging intellectual capital, social capital, and customers with some of most influential brands and people on the planet. As Ronnie explains it, “Working with brands becomes important when it can be something that’s fun, something that’s new, and really represents both sides in a collaborative effort.”
And because they’re launching these collaboration projects spread throughout the calendar, customers always have another reason to visit, another happening to be a part of. Combined with their experiential stores, this makes Kith a naturally sharable product, overflowing with great content. From the stores to the product to the partners to the cereal bar, Kith is brimming with interesting stories to tell and imagery to share, both for the traditional media and social media. And that kind of content is immensely valuable in the modern age, just take look at the #Kith hashtag and you’ll see how a sharable product can transform into a movement.
Finally, Kith is tapping into two massively cultish communities: sneaker geeks and street-style junkies. These communities are constantly looking for what’s next, and Kith is always there to give it to them with great product, collaborations, and new experiences and stores. Not only that, popular culture pulls directly from these two fringe communities regularly to decide what is new and next. Ronnie’s decades of street credibility give the brand authenticity and his market knowledge helps Kith stay ahead of the curve, both invaluable assets when dealing with these types of communities.
Kith excites me not only because the product is great, but because the business is great. Ronnie Fieg understands how to drive commerce through culture and has used his skills to capture the essence of the modern paradigm; creating one of the next great brands in the process.