By  on May 21, 2007

NEW YORK — Young men will be able to match their favorite PRO-Keds sneakers to hoodies and T-shirts this fall, as PRO-Keds apparel line hits stores in time for the back-to-school season.

The collection, licensed to Damon Dash Enterprises last winter by the Stride Rite Corp., is comprised of two tiers: a younger, poppier set of apparel that matches the brand’s brightly colored retro sneakers, and a more upscale Heritage group, called PRO-Keds by Damon Dash.

“The PRO-Keds for the younger demographic are more themed-up,” said Dash, showing off the collection in his spacious office in the old Tommy Hilfiger building. Sets of hoodies ($75 retail), T-shirts ($50), hats and sneakers share themes like Bomb Pop—illustrated by the classic red, white and blue ice pop—Wonder Bread, or Milk & Cookies.

“Kids are wearing things that are a little bit louder, but we wanted to keep it old school and relevant in the hood,” he explained. Dash is targeting urban specialty shops like Sportie LA or Underground Station for distribution.

PRO-Keds’ higher-end Heritage apparel is anchored by outerwear, such as a wool and leather varsity jacket ($300 retail). It also includes T-shirts and hoodies that correspond with the more classic kicks under the PRO-Keds label, and some specialty items like a navy jail suit—a twill work shirt and matching pant—since PRO-Keds first appeared on the feet of convicts. “That’s just real,” said Dash of the brand’s authenticity. “And that gives PRO-Keds its cool factor.”

The Heritage Collection is intended to retail at upscale specialty and department stores, like Jeffrey and Nordstrom, where Dash’s upscale PRO-Keds for Jeffrey footwear launched last month.

The classic PRO-Keds apparel collection is a vast departure from Dash’s old Rocawear stomping grounds, where fashion-forward hip-hop looks continue to drive the business that he cofounded. Although Rocawear’s remaining owners recently pocketed $204 million by selling their brand to Iconix Group, Dash believes he got out of the business at the right time when he sold his share of the company in September 2005 for $22.5 million in cash. “I wouldn’t wear that stuff,” Dash said of Rocawear. “This,” he said, pointing to the PRO-Keds Heritage Collection, “is more about who I am. I’m old school.”

Although some of Dash’s other ventures, including a young men’s line, CEO, and an upscale clothing brand, Damon Dash Collection, are slow to gain traction in the market, he has turned PRO-Keds into a $22 million business at the end of last year, from just $8 million when he took over the license in 2004.

Still, Dash seems serious about building his portfolio, which also includes the critically acclaimed women’s collection by his wife, Rachel Roy. He recently hired Marianne Tessler, formerly of Nike and Givenchy, as president of Damon Dash Enterprises, and credits her, along with Roy, with helping him improve his infrastructure, organization and discipline.

“You don’t build a brand overnight,” said Dash. “It can take years to validate yourself. It’s got to be the best. It’s great if it makes money, but if it doesn’t, then that means people aren’t ready for it, or I haven’t made it the best I can make it yet.”

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