L.A. Gear’s new creative director Alexander-John (the designer does not use a surname) is experiencing a full-circle moment and one that he expects to further his creative freedom.
With his latest deal, a one-year commitment, the artist and designer exemplifies how working with one company doesn’t have to affect freelancing with others. In addition to freelancing for various athletic brands, Alexander-John has ties to the gaming industry. He designed shoes for the Overwatch League, which will be released in March.
Having worked with tech companies like Microsoft years ago, the designer has more recently been approached by a cash-related app and online banking companies about streetwear collaborations as a means to get closer to consumers. “Streetwear has taken over luxury to a certain extent,” Alexander-John said, noting how street artists are increasingly working with luxury brands, as evidenced by Kim Jones’ Dior and Jordan collaboration with street artists.
“Different companies are contacting me based on them seeing the connectivities between fashion, sneaker design and consumers, and how it drives traffic. Some are about giveaways and they just want to generate a new following via sign-ups and some want to put out collections to test the market by doing unexpected collaborations,” Alexander-John said.
Describing the freedom he has as “unparalleled,” Alexander-John said a few friends who work in fashion have been unable to work for other brands for several years after their contracts expired. “This is where you see the difference with my relationship with L.A. Gear. There is freedom there for me to be all of me, which allows me to give them everything that I have access to. It makes our collaboration even more powerful versus it just being [under] narrow parameters.”
John’s first women’s collection, called “Light the Way,” will debut on Thursday on Ntwrk. Inspired by his six sisters, Alexander-John’s limited-edition capsule will coincide with Ntwrk Passport Los Angeles, which spotlights creators.
Started in 1983 as a store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, the brand has had its share of success and failures since that time. Known for its neon-colored activewear in the late Eighties, the brand’s launched blinking LA Lights shoes in 1991. That same year, the company defaulted on a bank loan. Overexpansion and off-base marketing decisions led to a loss of $51.4 million against sales of $296.6 million in 1995. Three years later, the company filed for bankruptcy. More than two decades later, L.A. Gear has come back in various incarnations.
More recently through a deal with Skechers, a collaborative collection was sold on the Skechers site. Even Alexander-John said he was uncertain where he could buy L.A. Gear for research purposes, when first approached about his new job. But he knew the brand well. As a 10-year-old growing up in Louisiana, John was drawn to L.A. Gear because the sneakers actually did something, as opposed to the hype of having a sneaker that was named after somebody, he said.
“When I walked out into the street at dusk, I could look all the way down to the corner and see lights everywhere. People were almost like fireflies. It was the coolest thing ever,” he said.
His plan with design and storytelling for the brand is “to create shoes that serve a purpose and do something.” There is a model of women’s running shoes that can be worn for nonathletic everyday demands. Designed with glow-in-the-dark panels, that means, “while she’s doing what she’s doing, she’s shedding a little bit of light,” said Alexander-John, adding that women who are doing amazing things will be highlighted.
With footwear being the foundation for an outfit, apparel is needed to finish the story, according to Alexander-John. A cropped hoodie, leggings, T-shirt, neck gaiter, leg warmers and a few accessories are being offered. Without such options, that would involve “leaning on other brands to finish your story and that could be distracting. If you want to hold the attention of the consumer, then apparel plays the important role of keeping the focus on the brand,” he said.
While some might argue that the last thing the world needs is is another sneaker or apparel company, Alexander-John said that could be true if the company only plans on making money off of communities without helping to build or rebuild them. With L.A. Gear, he plans to return to the places where he is from to give back, to help rebuild the concept of dreaming and to emphasize that dreams can come true. “This is a full-circle moment for me. I couldn’t even afford L.A. Gears as a kid. And now I am designing shoes that are affordable for people, who come from the communities that I come from. I don’t look at it as just another footwear collaboration. This one, for me, is different and it really hits home,” he said.
Virtual workshops that will highlight how creative thinking can be put into practice are in the works, as are socially distanced events. His grasp of high-end products and track record of storytelling to convey ideas through his customized designs should be beneficial now that he has “manufacturing at his fingertips,” he said. “I’m not just an artist. I understand the business side. I was a buyer as weIl, so I understand the purchasing strategies and visual merchandising…everything I have done just lines up really well.”
Alexander-John said he grew up in the projects and other low-income housing in different neighborhoods in Louisiana. “My mom had 10 kids and we weren’t able to afford the cool sneakers so customized was second nature and a solve for having cooler clothing.”
Based in Atlanta, he continues to design footwear and clothing for such brand as Puma, Foot Locker, New Balance and Adidas. While living in Cleveland years ago, Alexander-John also helped the founder of Prosportswear develop six store concepts that were rooted in sportswear and then expanded into streetwear. There was also an upper echelon venture called Ideal that was in the Tower City Center in Cleveland. That led to consulting with other retail clients, which tapped him to handle anything from buying to the design layout and launch.
As for what makes people spend now, it is “a need to promote themselves or an idea of themselves,” Alexander-John said. The pandemic has only intensified that on social media. (His own favorite take was seeing a shot of Jay Z photographing his customized shoes by John, while sitting courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game with Beyoncé several years ago.)
With L.A. Gear, he wants to inform people how the brand was among the first to give large contracts to nonathletes like Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson as brand ambassadors. Now Alexander-John wants to tell newer stories with today’s entrepreneurs through “really cool collaborations that will involve technology, high fashion and really good price points.”
Signed up for a one-year deal at this point, Alexander-John said there is the potential for a multiyear agreement. His freelance work with other brands will also continue.
Working in retail has its advantages, too. No matter how humble your beginnings, retail is the only place that you can count on being able to touch just about any type of person and in any field, and have access to their ear because they are coming to you for a service.” Alexander-John said.
Connecting with pro basketball players, hip-hop musicians, actors, actresses and other celebrities led to other opportunities, since many appreciated the level of service that he provided. “I love retail. If you’re somebody who understands the full concept of it, you can really go far,” Alexander-John said.