The barrier to entering the retail market is high for a prospective store owner, between corporate control over which stores can even sell their sneakers, and required startup costs that begin at around $60,000.
“Resources are required to be successful,” Whitner said. “And not many of us have the resources or the business savvy, or the understanding of what it takes to actually win in this industry. Starting when you’re disadvantaged is hard.”
Ball traced the emergence of sneakers in pop culture to the 1986 rap song, “My Adidas,” by Run DMC.
“Sneakers have a history with hip-hop, Russell Simmons and Run DMC and the influence of their relationship with Adidas and popularizing sneakers and sneaker culture,” Ball said. “Hip-hop, broadly speaking, as a fashion force, in and of itself, relates also in general to Black people’s overall influence on American culture and popular culture. It’s been pointed out: There is no American pop culture without Black people.”
Black influence ignited the sneaker phenomenon, erupting when Michael Jordan emerged as a global sensation in the early 1980s. Between Nike’s creative marketing and Jordan’s soaring popularity, Air Jordan sneakers became a must-have for young people everywhere.
As West, the sneaker head put it, the right pair of kicks “tell a lot about who you are.”
Lowman, 45, said it bothers him that an industry driven by Black dollars and Black culture is not inclusive to Black business. He got started when he was 22, in 1998. He graduated a semester early from Morehouse College, and scrambled for resources to secure his first store. He used some leftover scholarship money, a loan from his parents (who took out a second mortgage on their home), earnings from investing in Yahoo and a small business loan to purchase his first store.
“It wasn’t easy, but I had a lot of support and was able to pay back my parents and buy other stores,” he said. “I’m grateful the Athlete’s Foot had a relationship with a bank that was financing franchises, because we know how much racism there is in banking.”
Lowman said acquiring a retail space now, however, is more difficult for Black people than it was two decades ago.
Nike, the behemoth athletic brand, plays a huge role because of its universal popularity, he said. It alone can determine a store’s profitability and existence. The shoe brand has implemented a direct-to-customer element that cuts out many retailers. It has also become more selective over which stores sell its products, often focusing on its own retail stores instead. On top of that, Nike is producing fewer shoes in recent years to drive demand even further.
“Back in the day, if you had a Nike account, you could open up a store pretty much anywhere,” Lowman said. “But now, it’s hard to get a Nike account. So that makes it a whole lot harder for people in the business to expand, and it definitely has made it a whole lot harder for people to get into the business.”
Nike did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.
Lowering the barriers
Darius Billings, who has worked in the athletic apparel/sneakers industry since graduating from Howard University in 1988, is a senior director of product and marketing for the Athletes’ Foot. Billings said he was inspired by a conversation with a group of family and friends during the Black Lives Matter-led social justice movement last year to consider how his company could be a factor in bridging racial inequities.
This past spring, he launched the Strategic African American Retail Track or StAART program, which is designed to address Lowman’s and Whitner’s points about helping create pathways for Black entrepreneurs to become retail store owners.
“The program is about fostering change within an industry that was really built on Black culture, Black influence and Black community,” Billings said. “And from a holistic standpoint, I looked at ownership and questioned myself: How many Black retail owners are out there in the sneaker space? Not many and not nearly enough.”
StAART recruits, encourages and supports Black entrepreneurs in the sneaker industry by educating, exposing and helping them clear the traditional barriers Black potential business owners face.
“I wish StAART was around when I got into the business,” said Jennifer Ford, owner of the sneaker boutique Premium Goods in the Rice Village section of Houston. Seventeen years ago, she became the only Black female proprietor of a sneaker store in the country that sold all the major brands like Nike, Nike’s Jordan Brand, Adidas and New Balance.
A friend in the business encouraged Ford, a buyer for a department store in New York at the time, to join in, and she used “every penny I had” to create her business.
“But if there was StAART around, it would have helped me so much,” she said. “It would have been amazing to have someone tell me to ‘Watch this’ and ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘Make sure you get a really good accountant.’ Also, I would have had more confidence to expand and have other stores. It has been hard for me to potentially risk losing everything I have built to get another store.”
Whitner said he has for years shared information with potential Black retail store owners through annual summits.
“Half our business is profit, the other part is nonprofit, and our whole goal was to bring people in our industry,” he said. “I’m working with business partners like Nike and from other industries like Bank of America, and we’re strategically working on summits, classes — anything that we can do to help bring Black people along to really help try to close the gap for our industry. Change isn’t going to happen overnight. But the work is being done every day.”
He added that Black potential business owners have to do their part, too. “When there are resources out there,” Whitner said, “we have to step into them and hold ourselves personally accountable to get to a place where we can break the system. We don’t break the system by just saying that system is against us. We break a system by succeeding in the system, then letting that system know what’s wrong with it.”
‘Camping Out’ For Sneakers
West said he would solely support Black-owned retail stores if he had more options. So ingrained is West in the sneaker-head underworld that he once spent four days in line outside of Whitner’s Social Status to be among the first to purchase a pair of Air Max 97s, a 2018 Nike collaboration with the esteemed shoe designer Sean Wotherspoon that was made partially of corduroy. Pairs can sell online today for as much as $2,000. They retail for $160.
West would not be alone spending dark nights to secure a pair of sneakers.
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