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Kickin’ Facts | Black sneaker shop owners break down the difficulties they face as compared to white store owners

“We, as African-Americans, are the trendsetters ... There would be no Nike and none of these brands if it wasn’t for us setting the trends... How is it possible that in most major cities in America, there is no African-American retailer that has a Nike account? How is that possible?”

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“Kickin’ Facts” is REVOLT’s sneaker column, written by sneaker expert Jazerai Allen-Lord, where she dives into the culture and discusses all things kicks with a special emphasis on black people who are in the scene, but who the now very-gentrified sneaker industry often overlooks. Come here for the real from an absolute sneakerhead who truly is of the culture.

Like most of us living in the midst of a revolution — and by “us,” I mean Black people — I’ve strived to shift my Black dollars into the Black economy. Some things were more accessible than others — a coffee here, a T-shirt there. But, when it came to sneakers, where the big bucks are spent, the possibilities were slim to none. I could think of less than ten Black-owned sneaker boutiques, and when considering Black-owned sneaker brands, the number was even scarier.

Ownership is intrinsically tied to wealth and the American wealth gap is monstrous. White people had a 400-year head start, placing them in a position to succeed. But, the Black people who built this country have yet to have the chance to catch up. Brookings recently reported that the ratio of white family wealth to Black family wealth is higher today than at the start of the century, meaning when it comes to wealth, equality, and prosperity; we have even further to go.

For Black people in America, the system almost feels rigged. Many of us lack access to family wealth because our ancestors weren’t given opportunities to create it. Post-slavery and Jim Crow, Black people were charged with creating our own wealth — poorly equipped with a lack of education and limited resources.

In studying the current retail landscape, there is unquestionably a shortage in Black-owned shops. I spoke to several Black owners of sneaker retail shops and one sneaker brand founder about their personal journeys to ownership. When asked, “How many Black-owned sneaker boutiques do you know of?” many participants maxed out at ten. One of the most recognized entrepreneurs in the space, James Whitner, broke it down.

“There are less than 15 Black-owned shops in North America, and then if you go out of the country, you have Patta in Europe, and my homeboy Alex in London has a shop called The Basement. Here, though, there’s the shops that nobody talks about. Nobody thinks about shops like FRESH in Macon, Georgia. These are shops that exist, but because they’re not highlighted in national conversations, people don’t realize that they exist. But shops carrying Nike AND adidas?....AND New Balance?....AND Reebok? The number probably goes under ten at that point.

So, let’s count. There’s me, and I have four: Social Status, A Ma Maniere, APB, and Prosper. And then there’s LDRS1354, Succezz, RSVP Gallery, Puffer Reds, Burn Rubber, Sole Classics, UNION, Premium Goods, Canvas, Hush Life up in Jersey, FRESH down in Georgia, Basement in London and Patta in Amsterdam and London.” - James Whitner, Founder of The Whitaker Grp (Social Status, A Ma Maniére, APB, and Prosper)

The Small Business Administration reports that while 70.9% of all U.S. businesses are white-owned, less than 10% are Black-owned. This is a reality that is hard to miss in the sneaker business, an industry that wouldn’t exist without the Black community. According to the people on the ground who are doing the work, Black-owned sneaker stores account for less than 1% of the current retail doors.

“We, as African-Americans, are the trendsetters in this marketplace. There would be no Nike and none of these brands if it wasn’t for us setting the trends, wearing the product... How is it possible that in most major cities in America, there is no African-American retailer that has a Nike account? How is that possible?” - Diego Ross, Creative Director of LDRS1354

The problem starts with access. According to Guidant, the greatest challenge for Black business owners is working capital and access to cash. The Washington Post reports that Black business owners seeking loans are often offered lower amounts of funds with higher interest rates, if approved at all. And unlike a lot of our white counterparts, we, unfortunately, don’t have the political connections or generational wealth to fall back on.

“Years before we bought Burn Rubber from the owners, I wanted to open a sneaker boutique. I wrote up a business proposal and a five-year plan, and it was impossible for me to get funding. I would go to banks, and before I even sat down, they would look at me like, “Okay, man...c’mon. What are you even doing here?” I didn’t really own anything, I didn’t have any collateral, I just did what I saw people on TV do. If you needed money, you were supposed to go to a bank, and they would give you money. I didn’t know how it worked because being from where I’m from, we weren’t taught that. Our parents didn’t own companies and weren’t fluent in business, and obviously, it wasn’t learned in school. So, I went to my grandmother and my mother and my partner, Rick, went to his grandfather. And then we bought the store.” - Roland Coit, Co-Founder of Burn Rubber

“We didn’t have any capital, it came from our pockets. There were no loans; there was none of that. Our families, like my partner’s mom, helped us out a little bit. But, it was scraps. Literally, like, scraping up cash to create this vision that we had. We didn’t have a grandfather or great-grandfather to go to, who has been sitting on all this family wealth. Some of these other stores that open up, like one right down the street from me, they do. They open up and can get everything in less than two years, and are able to do things like $500,000 build-outs.” - Diego Ross, Creative Director of LDRS1354

Once opened, Black-owned sneaker boutiques are challenged with navigating an industry filled with blurry lines, moving targets, unwritten rules, and no real path to success. One of the most significant obstacles owners often encounter is in securing accounts. Without an open account and credit with each individual brand, you aren’t capable of obtaining product to sell in your stores.

“No one is going to give you the answers to the test. You’ve gotta force their hand. You gotta show them you’re better than everybody else and then make them tell you no. Now, that’s unfair, I know. But, that’s always been the standard for being Black. We can’t wake up and ever forget we’re Black. We’re Black. And, absolutely, the standard is different for us. Is it easier for our white counterparts? Hell, yeah, it is. Do they get political nudges that we don’t get? Hell, yeah, they do! The idea that you’re supposed to get anything you want just because you want it? It doesn’t work that way! In my first five years of business, there were a lot of opportunities that I didn’t get, but I also realized a couple of things. First, I was learning. Second, if I continued to learn and work at the pace that I was working, I would eventually get there. The third is, I’m Black, and the opportunities always come last for us. It frustrates the hell out of me, but it’s the truth. And I always go into it knowing that. Which is why I work harder than everyone else. It takes resilience.” - James Whitner, Founder of The Whitaker Grp (Social Status, A Ma Maniére, APB, and Prosper)

“When I bought Sole Classics, I was 23. There was nobody in my immediate circle of friends or family who could give me an ounce of business knowledge. So, one, where do you even go to start looking for accounts? A lot of people who open boutiques are former-Nike employees or have buyers in their families who have been at it for decades, so they already have the knowledge. We often have to figure it out on our own and figure it out in a hurry, without a mentor. I’ve owned the store for a little over a decade now, and it’s very rare that a brand rep or a retailer reaches out and says, ‘Hey, you’re doing this wrong, here’s what you should do.’ I’m not saying that they should give me their formula, but if you’re young and want to get into retail, and you don’t know what a buyer is, and you don’t know how to get accounts, there’s really no other way to figure it out. It’s a very ‘who you know type industry.” - Dionte Johnson, Founder of Sole Classics

“The roadblocks were crazy. I would call the Vans guy, and he wouldn’t get back to me. I would call the Nike guy, and he wouldn’t get back to me. It was very frustrating because I don’t come from that world, so I didn’t know the right people to talk to. I was just going about it the traditional way and it just wasn’t happening. Even now, I still don’t have some of the accounts I have been chasing, and it’s been five years. Every account I did get was from another relationship. I got Reebok because I had adidas. I got BBC because of our relationship with Pharrell. I get pushback from brands all the time for the dumbest reasons ever, but they’re not gonna break me ‘cause I’m not a quitter. I’m also not one to say, ‘Well, he got an account, so why can’t I?’ But, what I do want to know is why I’m being told by brands that they can’t open any new accounts, and yet, I personally know three to five white-owned accounts that have been opened. It feels like I’m not even afforded the opportunity. They’re not coming to see the store or giving me any direction on what to do. There’s no roadmap for me to get from A to B. It feels like I’m just gonna keep firing off emails and being in people’s faces until the end of time.” - Eric “Shake” James, Founder of ClicksKicks & SNEEX Boutique

“When we bought Burn Rubber, the store already had a Nike account, which was great. Because before we got Burn Rubber, I started calling the brands and they told me that in order to open an account, my store had to open, I had to have some kind of sneaker product in there, and I had to be doing business before a sales rep from a major sneaker brand would even come out to see the store. But obviously, you aren’t trying to open a sneaker store unless you have Nike. Most people stop trying to open at that point. I’ve owned this store for thirteen years, and I still don’t know if I’m going to get the next shoe that comes out. There’s no game plan. There’s nothing. There’s nothing to tell me how to get to the next level. So a lot of times, we’re just blindly throwing darts at the dartboard, hoping we land on the bullseye, but the dartboard isn’t even in the room we’re in.” - Roland Coit, Co-Founder of Burn Rubber

Assuming you’ve accumulated enough business acumen to sustain and have locked in the coveted accounts you want in your shop, next, you have to tackle the brand partnerships. Some said that the relationship feels one-sided — less like a partnership — and more like an employee. Understanding the unique connection between Black culture and sneakers, and considering the statements of solidarity that we’ve seen from the brands, I was curious to know if the desire to support the Black-community trickled down to their existing Black-owned retail partners.

“Prior to this moment, I was already having conversations and doing the work with Nike and adidas because this is what we stand for every day and have been standing for every day — for long before this. As a requirement to working with us and understanding who we are as a partner, this is the type of work we have been doing together for years. Now, are they much more open and more receptive to it now? Sure. But, do I believe that we would’ve gotten them there? I know it. Now, obviously, the world wouldn’t know that because it takes so long for the product to come down the pipe. Did it take too long for us to get here? Hell, yeah. I probably should’ve been in this same spot years prior. But, were we here before the revolution? Yes. Are things going to get much better after the revolution? I wanna believe, yes. Have I seen the work that says we will? No.” - James Whitner, Founder of The Whitaker Grp (Social Status, A Ma Maniére, APB, and Prosper)

“Have I seen a change? I’ve seen a couple brands stepping up to the plate and doing things to ‘help the cause.’ But, as far as me and my shops, I’m going to say no. It’s been pretty status quo. I can say for the community that I am working with adidas and an Alderman who has two schools, and we are trying to create a center. Because when I was coming up, we had rec centers, community centers, and YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, and now all that stuff is gone. So, the kids don’t have anywhere to go. Not to play basketball, that’s secondary. But, we want to open a center that teaches kids financial literacy. I want to bring in speakers to teach them about banking, and real estate, and credit, and first-time home buying. I want a barber and plumber to come in there and teach them a trade. I don’t want to just get a building and put a basketball hoop in there. I want to do things differently because that’s where we need to start...with the kids.” - Eric “Shake” James, Founder of ClicksKicks & SNEEX Boutique

“A lot of times, it seems like we’re set up for failure. A while back, they came out with these Kapernick t-shirts. The first round of t-shirts, we didn’t even get. I had to call! I was like, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ All of the shop-owners talk and I’m seeing people saying that they’re getting these. And then they were like, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll send you some. They sent me eight. Now, if I was up in that office and I had 100,000 t-shirts; I would at least make sure that the Black-owned shops had the shirts to sell. Everyone and their mother was trying to get one of these shirts. I didn’t even get a shirt! Then, I get an email about the Kapernick Quickstrike AF1. I call again. And then they say, ‘Oh man, sorry, it’s only a certain number of boutiques that are going to get them.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m a Black man that is trying to represent what this man is representing, and I’m trying to stand behind him, and show the entire world that this is what my shop stands for, and you’re telling me that nobody thought about me? In Detroit? And even if you didn’t think about me, now, I’m calling you!’ And he’s like, “Sorry bro, we don’t have enough pairs.” And I’m thinking, “This is exactly why he’s kneeling!” - Roland Coit, Co-Founder of Burn Rubber

“I talk to all the boutique owners a lot because I’ve been around a long time. I’m older than everyone, I’m the OG. And what I can say is that the frustration is legitimate, and it’s crazy that we’re still having the conversation. I remember going to shows when there were no African-Americans. None. I was the only one. And I remember the launch of FUBU and the launch of Karl Kani and the impact we had on this industry. And then you look at what we have done in the footwear industry...and to know that we still have to fight for sh*t? It’s crazy!” - Diego Ross, Creative Director of LDRS1354

Aside from the revolution, COVID-19 has drastically changed operations for business owners all over the world. A recent study shows that 41% of Black-owned businesses have closed due to the pandemic, compared to just 17% of white-owned companies. In conversation with renowned creative director and footwear designer Alexander John, he discussed the effects of COVID-19 on retail, and how being a maker — not just a founder — made his business pandemic-proof. Alexander has often partnered with sneaker brands and retailers like Foot Locker on the design and production of limited run drops. He is currently preparing for the launch of his own sneaker brand, which is coming Black Friday.

“When we look at the history of America, family wealth was gained through manufacturing some type of product like oils. It’s really about being in control of the resources. That’s what I hope Black people work towards, the idea of becoming a maker and in control of all the processes. That way, when circumstances hit that you can’t manage, you’ll be okay. As long as we depend on other people in the process and supply chain, we are putting our livelihood in jeopardy. You can design a bunch of stuff that might never get manufactured. Or COVID[-19] hits and now your shop isn’t getting its product. Shipments are all super late. But, a company like NTWRK is killing it right now because they are in control of their own manufacturing. Anyone that can make their own product is killing it right now, myself included. But, when you only sell products that you don’t make, you leave yourself open to life, and any of its ails.” - Alexander John, Creative Director & Footwear Designer

In leaning further into the path to solutions, I asked each of the founders what they would tell someone Black who is aspiring to open a shop, and how brands can better support more Black ownership.

“The most important thing that they could do would just be to listen and listen with an open ear. A lot of times, the brands have ‘done the research’ by talking to people who get paid millions to tell them what’s cool. But, a lot of the time, it’s not that deep. They could start just by putting Kap’s product in the Black-owned stores because we’re the ones who are kneeling. Give us the opportunities, too. There are a lot of Black people who are set and ready to go. And if you give us the same opportunities, we will knock it out of the park.” - Roland Coit, Co-Founder of Burn Rubber

“If you want to open a boutique, you’re going to need to develop the toughest skin in the world. You can’t be afraid of rejection or of the word no because not only is there no blueprint to get a Tier 0 account. There’s no blueprint to opening a shop, especially with the focus being on direct to consumer. So, if you don’t know anybody and don’t already have a way in, your hustle better be tremendous.” - Dionte Johnson, Founder of Sole Classics

“We need to first hold ourselves accountable. Everybody can’t want a shop and not be ready to do the work. We need to look at ourselves and look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re prepared. It’s not Nike’s responsibility to teach us what excellence is. Should they lean in? Do they have a responsibility? 100%. But, it’s our responsibility to understand how to show up, to have a point of view and know how to execute that point of view. It’s their responsibility to treat us as partners and lean into us because we both have a common interest: The Black community.” - James Whitner, Founder of The Whitaker Grp (Social Status, A Ma Maniére, APB, and Prosper)

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