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The supremacist infrastructure that sneaker brands are built upon has held back Black employees and talent for decades. Nobody understands this narrative more than well-known designer Cyrus-El (formerly Joe Davis), a fine artist turned footwear designer who started his career at FILA USA in 1993. Though the brand often targeted the “urban community,” within the FILA offices, he claims that things were not nearly as affirming while there.
In this exclusive interview with REVOLT, Cyrus-El reveals the tenacious racism and bias he experienced during the years he led design at FILA — a relationship that cumulated with multiple stolen designs and an estimated 60 million dollars in unpaid royalties for the design of the Disruptor 2. Check out the insightful conversation below.
How were you first brought into the FILA universe?
I started off in 1993. I was trained by FILA; it was the first company that I worked with. I came in as a regular designer, a footwear designer, and after three years, I became the director of basketball and cross training.
When you came in as a designer, what was your end goal? Where did you see yourself within the brand in the next five years?
I’ve always been an extremely powerful artist. I was taken out of elementary school and put through all kinds of rigorous, extra art training. By the time I got into FILA, coming from Pratt Institute, I was actually a little embarrassed to be a footwear designer because I’m a painter. I also sculpt and draw, but painting was what I was known for.
So, while I was there, I really didn’t have a goal. I was just like, “I’m going to make a few sneakers, and then I’m probably gonna end up splitting on this and go back to doing what I was supposed to do.” But, I just could never get off of it. At a certain point in time, I became fully dedicated to shoes. Probably, some of that came from FILA because while I was there early on, I immediately picked up the first signs of suppression. I felt that they were not allowing me to spread my wings completely, and I like to spread my wings.
Do you remember the first time you felt suppressed in your vision?
Yes. My best friend at the time was from Pratt as well (David Raysse, creator of BrandBlack); he was an industrial designer. He was kind of well-to-do, his mother was the first African American on the cover of Vogue, and his father was a Frenchman, I think he started Kenzo. He looked Italian, and he was really charming, and he was the first person to go into FILA. He actually tried to block me from going in because he was scared of me. He was scared of my artistic ability. So I found my way in on my own, I just went and knocked on the door, and I got let in.
I didn’t realize we were competing a little bit right away, but what it was, was that FILA took to him like a fish to water. He had “the look,” he had that “FILA look.” He looked Italian, and they favored him immediately. Everything he did was great, and while everything I did was awesome, they always smoothly found a way to suppress it. They allowed him to steal a lot of my design work, and that feeling of suppression got stronger and stronger for the next five years.
How did you deal with the microaggressions and toxic culture in that environment? Because essentially, they were elevating the white-passing man in the office while continuing to make the space you hold invisible. What was your breaking point?
I’ve always had this frame of mind since I was young. I’m dark-skinned and African American, so I have lived a lot of the horrors of our people — even in my own house, where I was teased. Because of that, I started to pick it up in the neighborhood, out in the public. By the time I got into FILA, I already knew how the world worked. I was used to spinning and dodging and dealing with certain things, and I was keen to picking it up.
So in ‘93, when I got to FILA and started having experiences, I just said, “I’m gonna outwork these guys because I don’t even have to work that hard.” But, when they started to cheat me, suppress my designs, and started coming up with crazy reasons why they were giving my designs and pieces of my designs to other people, we had a problem. And that’s what happened with the leather patch.
The Grant Hill 1 has a leather patch on the midsole, and that leather patch was originally on one of my shoes. The director that hired me — real smoothly — came over and asked me if he could use my patch for his shoe. He used my patch and called it his shoe, and that’s why I’m holding it in a photograph that they took for a Japanese magazine (1996) because the patch is mine. And the stripe on the Grant Hill 2 was mine. It got frustrating. The people that were rewarded, and that were held up and lifted up were the people who were the dirtiest. I’m not going to call them dirty, but they were willing to do the dirt.
At first, I just tried to outwork it, but then it started to wear on me. I noticed that even though I had been elevated in the company, I couldn’t get a big shoe out. When it hurt was when the Grant Hill 2 was released. My design partner, Dave (David Raysse), stole the stripe off of a shoe of mine. He put my stripe on his shoe, and it blew up. It sold 2 million pairs, and he was almost a celebrity right out of the gate. And I’m his roommate. I’m sitting right next to him, and you can imagine the tables turning. That actually hurt, and instead of suppressing it, it turned into a real fight. It was a lot.
By the time I left, it was nastier than I had thought. The guys at FILA had an attitude with me like they were pissed at me. Like they were mad that I had talent, and I was also dark-skinned. The director of FILA, a heavyset dude from New England named Kevin Crowley Sr., told me while I was there, “You’re gonna have a really difficult time because you have a lot of talent.” He told me in the most friendliest way, while we were out having lunch or something because that’s how FILA’s racism was. Little did I know what he meant by it.
This guy was known for saying stuff like, “Black people’s feet are built differently. Black people are built differently, so when you build the shoe, you need to take this, that and a third into consideration.” We would be looking at each other like, “Holy, crap. Did he just say that in a meeting?” But nobody would say anything to him. He would also say stuff like, “If you just put something shiny or colorful on a shoe, you can sell to the urban community.” And I’m like, hold up dude, I’m an African American and that’s actually extremely false. That’s actually why people don’t buy FILA — cause ya’ll do stupid stuff like that.
It’s such a typical tactic in corporate spaces, where you see a token Black person in the office, first praised and coddled, and then elevated and celebrated, and then the mood switches, and people hate that. So you start to feel the energy of them pushing you out, and you are either let go or leave. This is why retention of Black voices is so bad because we literally cannot survive. We can’t grow. We can’t see our futures. And we can’t exist healthily to achieve the best work that we can.
What you experienced rings true to the supremacist culture that exists within sneaker corporations. They set a culture, and it’s you who aren’t the fit. If you refuse to assimilate or play dirty, like your old director or roommate, then you can’t survive.
What you just said was a little bit of therapy for me. All this time, I didn’t know if it was just me or if other people were going through this, and to what degree. My situation got so poor after that cryptic comment from Kevin and leaving FILA that I felt like someone was following me around the industry, sabotaging me as I was trying to make moves. That’s why I’m working on this lawsuit to make an example out of FILA because designers need more leverage.
This fight with FILA has felt like a dagger fight, but instead of a dagger, I got a wrapped up shirt. I was finally able to box them in with the Disruptor 2. I designed the shoe. You haven’t done anything at all to recognize me. How do you explain yourself?
Let’s get into it. It’s 1995, and you design the Disruptor 2. You leave FILA, and then 23 years later, in 2018, you see considerable growth in the FILA brand, mostly due to the Disruptor 2. Talk to me about the feelings that came up when you saw the billions in monetary gains from a brand that still has not credited your work?
Once the industry cuts your jugular vein, they put you in a situation where it appears you fell off, and then they go into a systematic downgrade — they won’t allow you to do anything of importance. They don’t want you to do anything too big. They try to lock you into sub-brands and sub-projects to tuck you away. They had me making discount stuff. So, I left and recreated myself. I created a brand called Kustom Collabo, which is luxury shoes, so I can show what I can do when designing something on a high-end level — and that exploded.
Meanwhile, the Disruptor 2 sold in the background for a long time and it was doing well. But, these guys still hadn’t given me any royalty or any credit publicly for the Disruptor 2, though I have admissions and records that say otherwise. We also made a verbal agreement that there would be a royalty based [payment] on the sales of the shoe, but still, nothing. It sold a million pairs by 2000, but I couldn’t see where it was selling. Someone told me it was a mom shoe, and I remember in 1999, my mother-in-law showing up with them on. I told her, “I got a funny story about that shoe.”
Fast forward to 2015. I was working with FILA again. I was working with the CEO at the time, Jon Epstein, who wanted to do some projects with me. I went out to the magic show and started seeing everyone with the Disruptor 2 on, but this time instead of moms, it was hipsters. Imagine being at the magic show, and your own shoe comes walking up next to you.
Then, I started paying more attention, and there were armies of this shoe walking around. I was on the train once, and I saw three blond Primadonna girls with mini-skirts and Disruptors on, and thought, now wait a minute, FILA was never that brand. They must be selling a lot of these. What’s going on here? To think, I wanted to stretch my wings, and I could only get one wing open while at FILA. Now, they’re all the way stretched out. It was almost like a redemption moment.
It sounds like far more than that. You tried to box me in and trap me as this scary urban designer. You didn’t want me to spread my wing because you didn’t want to see what I was capable of. And this one thing that I gave 70% to — because I didn’t even give you my full juice — is now the number one selling shoe for white women. That sounds like more than a redemption moment to me. It sounds like a f**k you.
Come on now, Jaz! Once the industry started comparing the Disruptor 2 to the Chuck Taylor and Stan Smith, I knew I had to do something. So in 2016, I tried to go back to talk to FILA in hopes that they would honor their two points (2% royalty), but they never did. At first, I didn’t push because designers don’t have any leverage. But then, I started reading the email communications and thought, “Who needs a frenemy?” So, I pushed more. I even tried to strike a deal with them, hoping they would get me back and make it right in the form of some work, maybe a project or an investment. I mean, ideally, it would be smart for them to do a collab with me! But nope.
The friendly conversations I was having with Jon started to turn, and all of a sudden, he couldn’t get any projects together. It was a bunch of talking and nothing happening at all. We did one more thing together, and it was so monstrous, I stopped being on speaking terms with them. First, it started with the offer. I was making $125K at the time and that was okay in the first meeting, but in the follow-up meeting, they said, “We don’t have the money.” So, I agreed to do it for half. I was working for $60K! But then, I didn’t even work for FILA. These fools set me up through a temp agency. They wouldn’t allow me to work directly with the factories. I haven’t had that happen to me ever, I think.
So, I’m not in the company. I can’t communicate with the factories. And the design director is suppressing all my designs, all my concepts, all my sketches. My samples were all messed up and late, and the suppression was overboard, like Keystone Kops. They made me sign a waiver, and I left.
What I’m hearing is that you went back into FILA 20 years later to see if things had changed, and not only were you unsupported and facing discrimination, but it was worse than the first time.
Far worse. So in 2019, I reached out to the owner of FILA — who I have a relationship with — Gene Yoon in a different way. I said, “How about you make an investment in this project I’m doing?” thinking that way would be a way for him to put the math together on the royalty and make it right. Nothing. That turned into me saying, “Hey, do you actually know who I am? How are you going to tell me, ‘Thanks, but no thanks?’ Heads up, I’m about to rock ya’ll.”
So, I aggregated the numbers for the Disruptor 2, and between 1996 and 2019, the Disruptor 2 has sold on its own over 3 billion dollars. It’s made over 3 billion dollars for FILA! And I’m actually conservative when I do estimations and projections, as you should be. But a friend of mine, the west coast sales rep for FILA, Pete Davis — he was there when I got there, and he was there after I left — said, “I sold millions of pairs of the Disruptor 2. And that s**t sold way more than 3 billion dollars.”
FILA’s paid me less than… FILA actually hasn’t paid me anything. I got the salary that I got when I was there before the shoe started to sell, and they didn’t pay me anything.
Plus, they have not given you credit. They won’t publicly address you. You have yet to be seen and there’s no royalty. They haven’t honored you or your work. That’s not even talking about the mistreatment, the suppression and not being able to be supported within the organization. And on top of that, your attempts to resolve it amicably were then met with, basically, additional head-patting. So, now we’re at a point where you’re kind of forced to lift your voice.
Once things started getting heated, Jennifer Estabrook (FILA USA CEO) came off her high horse and set aside a couple of hours because she said she needed to know more about me. I believe Gene sent her to try and avoid the worst. She didn’t do the right thing either, but I told her. In the 1990s, I was the creative force behind FILA’s resurgence. So this is actually extra messed up because of that.
For me to take this course, it’s not something that I do easily. I don’t take lightly going at people like Gene Yoon, who I consider family members. But, that slap right there, with the royalty? I don’t want this on my legacy. I don’t want my son or the next generation who grows up to learn that I took that without doing anything about it. That’s where it crosses a line.
If we are looking at FILA needing to honor the position you played in their extraordinary growth over the past five years, and not only that, but the contributions you made to additional silhouettes that achieved success for the brand over the past 20 years, what does making it right look like to you?
The right thing for me is to credit me, publicly, for the fact that I designed the Disruptor 2. Don’t try and play me, and act like it wasn’t me. When I first started to open the conversation about me being the designer, some of them tried to pitch a fight. Like Jennifer Estabrook tried to act like she didn’t know and then, later on, was like, “Okay, okay. I get it.” Even Gene did that in the beginning, like, “A couple of people contributed…” But a couple of people didn’t contribute to nothing. I designed the shoe, and people have been doing spin-offs of my design ever since.
In sneakers, if it’s a big enough shoe, the companies will credit the designer for it. And this is your biggest shoe. You’ve credited people who designed smaller shoes, so you can credit me for my shoes.
And then, make right on the royalty. Some type of a bare minimum. But, you’re not going to get away with zero. I personally think that in terms of the royalty, you need to stick to what you said. I know we didn’t have a contract, but Jon Epstein and Dr. Frachey promised me that I would be paid 2% of what I’ve built. So 2% of 3 billion is 60 million dollars.
What would make it ultimately right — if I was in FILA’s position and I realized the errors of my ways — I would say we need to collaborate. We should be doing collaborations. They should’ve done it then, and we can still do it now. And obviously, it should be paid and credited. That would be the right right thing in my opinion.
The Disruptor 2 was designed by Cyrus Davis in 1995, released in 1996, and accounts for 95% of FILA USA’s sales. While the silhouette reinvigorated the brand and drastically increased its valuation, unlike Tinker Hatfield and Virgil Abloh, we don’t know Cyrus-El’s name. Not only has Cyrus-El been denied recognition and compensation by the brand he helped build, but he has spent decades being placated, silenced, and abused in the sneaker industry.
Conversations between Cyrus-El and FILA concerning the bigotry, abuse, and unpaid royalties he faced ended on May 22, ironically at the height of today’s social and political revolution. On June 1, while actively fighting this discrimination case, FILA donated $100K in support of Black lives, though they continue to evade Cyrus-El and celebrate his. FILA, we need answers.
To keep up with the #FILAScandal: