Peanut butter and jelly. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Bukowski and booze. These are all examples of two separate forces that have come together to create one beautiful outcome. But few pairings have had more lasting effects than the one forged between sneakers and hip-hop.
The history is deep and goes far beyond Reebok's collaboration with 50 Cent and Jay-Z, and even further back than Run DMC and Adidas. It goes back to the days before hip-hop was even called hip-hop, when heads were looking to stay fresh because it was an empowering stance in the face of poor economic times. That's where local sneaker connoisseur Krabby Rangoon comes into the picture.
A fixture in "streetwear" culture, Krabby helped turn an unassuming storefront in Wicker Park into an iconic destination for sneaker heads from all over, thanks in part to his contributions to the Saint Alfred brand (owned by Kicks Hawaii). Centerstage tracked him down to talk about his own personal favorite brands, how the majors are keeping up with the indies and where things might evolve next (after reading, head on over to the soccer/World Cup-centric Nike x Saint Alfred pop-up shop at 1529 N. Milwaukee).
Tell me about the Saint Alfred brand.
Saint Alfred as a brand is something different when compared to other "streetwear" brands. We focus on the clean and understated with subtle references to life.
What is it about a fresh pair of sneakers that can turn an average buyer into an obsessive collector?
Key factors for me are:
Design (Appearance) – For some reason certain things look better to us than others, and for the most part we all see things a little differently. Shoes like the Air Tech Challenge (Andre Agassi), Air Jordans (M.J.) are noteworthy standouts.
Technology – "Air," "Pump," "DMX," etc.
Marketing – The new Jordan commercial airing during NBA All-Star weekend (more anticipated than the event itself some years), Reebok's "Pump," Nike's "Just Do It," Converse/Larry Johnson's "Grandmamma."
What makes a good sneaker to you? Is there ever a compromise in terms of style over functionality?
A good sneaker just is, it doesn't have to be anything. Sneakers are like suits or watches in my opinion, they can be used in different ways. I like that. I'd rather have one thing that can do ten things than need ten things to do the same work. That's not to say that I only have one watch, I have several...some basics, some tech, some bizarre Japanese shit...different interests within each, they tell a story.
What are some of your favorite brands right now?
Shoes: Visvim (although I don't own any), Nike, Adidas, Vans, Stamp'd, Gourmet
Clothes: SSUR, Ransom, Alife, NSW, XLarge, Stussy
Accessories: Bape, Bounty Hunter (BXH), Futura Laboratories, Seiko, Stussy
Toys: Bounty Hunter (BXH), Kaws, Medicom
Style: Hiroshi Fujiwara, Visvim, Ransom, Undercover
With a host of new brands coming into the market, how has that changed the way the majors (Nike, Reebok, etc.) operate?
I think things are only beginning to change now, huge companies aren't able to react as quickly as they wish they could in retrospect. Production lead-times, a skewed focus on growth opposed to maintaining investor profits and their own hype are responsible. Until recently the big machines have been pushing like it was 2006 with more product than ever before. What recession? It would be interesting if the over-saturation of product in the market was by design; a strategy to box out the new guys, kill the buzz and make it harder to get traction...that's pretty heavy.
As far as the distribution of product there's definitely been some change. Nike's had the most movement of anyone, from the creation of the "Tier" product and the once coveted Quick Strike or "QS" account to the Hyper Strike product which doesn't release at retail (Jay Z 40/40 Air Force 1), Tier Zero accounts, and most recently their own concept/boutique stores called NSW (Nike Sports Wear). Each category is meant to define its product and identify its consumer although more commonly it's used as a marketing tool to generate interest in the product.
So sneaker culture is rooted in hip-hop. Is the relationship stronger than ever?
Yes and no. For the 30 years and older crowd it has the throwback aesthetic. Personally I don't feel like there is a strong connection these days, not with hip-hop. Rap has a relationship, but rap seems to run through trends like rappers do groupies; moving forward for the sake of moving forward without fully ever understanding where you're presently at, very little sustenance. It'll probably wind up like disco, but without the following. Most of the music is easily forgettable.
KRS-ONE said it best: "Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live."
Saint Alfred is always up for a good collaboration. What are some of your favorites?
The realization of our Saint Sweetness concept (one of our original t-shirts in 2005) evolving into an official collaboration with Walter Payton's family in 2009 to highlight the 10th anniversary of his passing was amazing. I always thought we'd get in trouble for that shirt, but it was all love and in the end we were able to raise money and awareness for the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation. What started as a conversation about something else led to Jarret, Walter's son, mentioning that Walter passed on All Saints Day. At that point it was pretty obvious what needed to be done.
Our first Saint Alfred/Stussy collaboration was dope! It had a pair of wings that some might say look like this other pair of wings that some company used a couple decades back. Stussy actually killed the tee's release because the company with wings got upset. I don't know what happened, but eventually we were allowed to sell them and they were gone very quickly. I remember getting a call from a friend at the angry brand, they said the shirt was the subject of an email going around their company and heading to legal for action.
My favorite collabs (to date) are actually ones that haven't happened yet and may never. I'll save the details in hopes that someday they get green-lighted. Collaborations are a lot of politics sometimes, it's not just doing cool shit. Funny how that works.
Saint Alfred is unique in that it's not just a shop that houses brands. You guys have embraced Chicago culture. How has that relationship evolved over the years?
Slowly. On the business side of things we immediately changed the face of Chicago fashion upon opening in 2005. When we opened we had a few different sneaker brands and 30-40 clothing brands, 90 percent-plus of which had never been available in Chicago; understanding the circumstances surrounding that is necessary to fully comprehend Chicago's growth/abilities in the recent past and current time.
It was a new time, sneakers were poppin' and they took priority as they sell out quickly only to re-appear on eBay with a 200-percent markup immediately after. A lot of attention and energy was put into trying to get sneakers, with clothing it was more like whatever. Also, Chicago wasn't a target on most clothing brands' maps. Saint Alfred, being owned by Kicks Hawaii, assumed the numerous friendships developed by Kicks/HI since opening its first store in Honolulu in late 2001. Long before this business model was popular, it was always cool. It was those friendships that Saint Alfred brought to Chicago. Suddenly things only seen online previously could now be touched, tried on and purchased at home. Emails from various clothing brands throughout the US started coming to us, then from overseas.
On the customer side of things it was a bit of culture shock. People in Chicago were largely unfamiliar with the brands we were selling and the trend was still being driven by sneakers. Clothing wasn't the priority for most and sales were slower than in other cities. I remember getting laughed at for wearing Bapes, and accused of wearing fake Air Force 1's (dunks don't say Air on the side) followed by the question "what's a dunk?" Chicago was set in its ways somewhat, not so much resistant to change as it was they hadn't seen it yet. Pharrell wearing an all-over multi-color Baby Milo hoody by Bape in Snoop's "Drop It Like It's Hot" video got their attention and Jay-Z dropping their name in a rhyme was all it took for it to get going.
These days clothing sales equal footwear sales, although that's a decreased footwear market. I think the two will be balanced for a while; clothing has an advantage as fashion evolves where footwear is somewhat based around function and then the styling to it. It's nice to see informed consumers, and contradictory to the bottom line it's nice to see people thinking more before they spend their money. We'll see where it goes...
When the Saint Alfred family isn't in shop, what are some of your favorite Chicago happenings?
My happenings tend to revolve around the shop and what goes on in it; planning, creating, lots of thinking...
Also food, sex, and showering fall around that...not in that order though.