NEW YORK — It’s easy to imagine loving shoes, but imagine loving shoes so much that, at 13, you’d rather spend time with them in a stockroom than hang out with friends. Now imagine, 10 or so years later, partnering with Nike, Asics, Adidas and others to rework the designs you used to study in that stockroom. And then imagine finally selling those shoes and wearing those shoes, but, to your surprise, they don’t quite fit. This is how Ronnie Fieg, creative director and chief executive officer of Kith, feels at the moment.
“Where I am right now is like walking around in a pair of shoes and they look fly and you love them, but they are too small. Well, actually, they are too big now. It’s not too big. I don’t want to say that, but the business is a lot bigger than I imagined,” Fieg said in an interview at Kith’s brand new SoHo office in Manhattan, which is a stone’s throw away from its recently opened store on Lafayette Street and a couple of floors above Kering’s New York headquarters. “I’m always uncomfortable because I’ve never been here before. There is no formula. There is no guideline. I can watch Ted Talks all day, but there is no one who can advise me on exactly what it is I should be doing.”
The Kith business and its quick, upward trajectory is an anomaly that neither his mentor Tommy Hilfiger nor his idol Ralph Lauren can probably comprehend. For one, the blueprint for launching and running a successful fashion brand changes by the day, and the pace at which Kith produces and releases product is unconventional to say the least.
Although Fieg, who is 35, has worked in the business for more than two decades, Kith has only been around for six years. Fieg’s original vision was to create the best footwear boutique in the world. That quickly escalated into multibrand apparel and shoe emporiums — two in New York and one in Miami — along with shops-in-shop at Bergdorf Goodman and now Hirshleifers on Long Island, N.Y. Kith has fully realized women’s and men’s collections, which started from a pair of jogger pants Fieg had custom-made when that silhouette wasn’t the norm. And he just introduced Kidset, a shrunken version of the Kith line that has its own store on Bleecker Street, and Kith Treats, the soft serve ice cream and cereal concept with its own sherbet-colored capsule collection and a stand-alone shop in Tokyo.
Fieg has had the benefit of working with Sam Ben-Avraham, his business partner who co-owns Liberty Fairs trade show and was the founder and owner of Atrium, a well-known chain of boutiques with locations in SoHo, Brooklyn and Miami. By 2016, each of the Atrium outposts had been converted into Kith stores and with help from the design firm Snarkitecture, Fieg has completely transformed these shops into his vision for retail.
Fieg has a very precise, consistent vision when it comes to spaces. He likes Carrara marble, neon signs, clustering together white cast Jordans and making sneakers appear as if they are floating. Kith stores are glossy but inviting — the ice cream shop helps — and ready to be photographed at any moment.
“The building is a space that’s built off one concept, ‘What are you doing today? I’m going to Kith.’ It’s not: ‘What are you doing today? I’m going to SoHo and stopping by Kith,’” Fieg said. “With the multibrand product I get, a lot of it sells itself, but we’ve invested in our shops because I’m trying to send a message to the consumer that the shopping experience shouldn’t be: walk in, ask for product and walk out.”
Fieg grew up working and shopping in less considered environments. In 1995 for his bar mitzvah he asked David Zaken, his second cousin and the owner of sneaker chain David Z, for a job rather than cash. Fieg started out in the stockroom, worked his way up to sales associate — he sold Jay Z his wheat Timberlands every Sunday — and eventually became head buyer. He first collaborated on sneakers under his name with Asics in 2007 and then eventually broke off from David Z. Initially Ben-Avraham offered Fieg a stake in the Atrium business, but he wanted more, and in 2011 Ben-Avraham agreed to give him his own Kith shops next to Atrium’s New York outposts with separate entrances.
Fieg has also had great timing. He started his business just as sneakers and streetwear brands were drawing larger, more diverse audiences, which aligned perfectly with Kith’s ethos. Fieg is all about friends — kith means friends — and opening his world up to as many different people as possible. He has relationships with his contemporaries such as Virgil Abloh of Off-White, Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God, John Elliott of his eponymous line, and Chris Stamp of Stampd. Fieg invites them to his fashion shows, collaborates with them on products, sells their clothes in his stores and names Kith Treats after them. (Abloh’s flavor is called The Flat White, his DJ name; it’s made from Cinnamon Toast cereal and toffee crunch.)
“Leaving any conversation with Virgil will have me thinking completely differently on life in general, but I don’t know if any conversation with any of my friends has changed what I plan on doing with the business,” Fieg said. “I think the relationships that I have are a very big part of the DNA of the brand. It’s not competition.”
Fieg does note some commonalities. He describes this group as the next generation of designers who don’t consider themselves traditional designers but more so people with great ideas. They didn’t attend Parsons or Central Saint Martins, but they have a sharp understanding of what people want to buy and how they want to buy it.
“At the end of the day we aren’t reinventing the wheel. So we are all in the same boat in that way. But where we want to go is obviously different from person to person,” he mused.
Kith is probably the most accessible and scalable of the bunch. The apparel is familiar with Kith flourishes that resonate with his customer. Fieg said he creates everything from a timeless point of view — so the clothes make sense on a 48-year-old Wood Harris, the actor known for his role as Ace in “Paid in Full” who modeled pieces from Kith’s collection with Bergdorf Goodman, or the young kids who line up when the brand releases products.
Fieg used to be one of those kids. He was born and raised in Queens, N.Y., and for his 13th birthday his parents, who are Israeli, bought him Jason Kidd’s Nike Air Zoom Flight 95s, his first pair of expensive sneakers. He loved them so much that when his sister asked him to tag along on her first shopping trip with a credit card, he bought another pair to collect. More than 20 years later, that fervor for fashion products still exists. He lights up when talking about the details of an upcoming drop and speaks warmly about the suit Hilfiger made him for his wedding earlier this year.
His sleepy eyes can give him a disinterested disposition — it is possible that he gets bored easily — but it becomes clear that he’s always observing, processing and then reacting. He covertly notices the shoes one is wearing. He notices an area in his store that might need some reconfiguring — after the shoot for WWD he talks to an associate about how clothes are selling in that particular spot. He notices when Vogue posts an image of Bella Hadid wearing a pink shearling coat that he produced with Iro but didn’t credit Kith. He also notices how people might receive what he says, so he’s thoughtful with his words and frequently corrects himself mid-sentence. At one point he called Moncler the best outerwear brand, then paused, shifted and described it as the best luxury outerwear brand. He’s spent the past two decades vigorously scanning his surroundings and using it all to inform his business.
Inside a Kith conference room, which is serving as Fieg’s temporary office, the walls are lined with CADs of yet-to-be-released products. He said the design process for apparel starts with a concept he conceives and then he exchanges ideas with his design team to get to the final look. It’s a somewhat similar operation for him and his footwear team, which includes three people who have worked with him from the start.
He just released pieces from his collection with Moncler, which recently ended its Gamme Bleu and Gamme Rouge collections that were designed by Thom Browne and Giambattista Valli, respectively. The Italian company is continuing its co-branded assortment with Kith. The line is a case study in what happens when heritage labels go through the Fieg filter.
A regular Moncler coat is sophisticated and functional with a small logo patch or the signature red, white and blue stripes. One has to know what Moncler is to know it’s Moncler. A Moncler coat designed by Fieg maintained that function, but emphasized everything the 56-year-old company usually makes subtle. Fieg blew up the logo and imposed it with his own. He homed in on the red, white and blue color scheme and made it the focus of the collection, and he tinkered with the silhouettes to feel more street. He promoted the line by documenting a trip to Aspen, Colo., with him and his friends, who snowboard and eat a steak dinner while wearing the line. This method worked. The collection sold out within a few days.
But Fieg said that despite his track record with collaborations, it’s still a creative negotiation when working with brands.
“I try to make brands feel uncomfortable with certain ideas because in today’s market people want to see you push the envelope,” he stressed.
He uses that same approach with his fashion shows. In September 2016, Fieg joined the official New York Fashion Week schedule for the first time and presented Kithland, an almost 45-minute spectacle with close to 100 looks from a host of brands and performances from Fabolous, The Lox and Mase. Last September for his second show, titled Kith Sport, he still presented around 100 looks, but streamlined the format and replaced the musical acts with surprise appearances from LeBron James and Scottie Pippen.
“We worked on that show for over six months,” Fieg said. “We’ve put ourselves in the position where it has to be better than the last and I don’t know how we are going to do that. I’m not saying it was the best show, but I don’t know if we can work that hard again.”
If he’s not interested in outworking his friends, he’s ready to outwork himself. This calendar year, Kith collaborated with at least 25 brands and dropped product almost every week. Aside from his own brick-and-mortar spaces, he’s held experiences ranging from Cap’N Crunch-themed pop-ups to an activation with Coca-Cola in the Hamptons. And for 2018, there are more brand partnerships in the pipeline, including a big one Fieg said he wasn’t ready to do until now.
But the question starts to become: Is this too much or is this what consumers expect from brands today?
Streetwear is in a precarious position. It’s the hot category everybody wants a piece of — see The Carlyle Group paying $500 million for a 50 percent stake in Supreme — but as with most things hot, there’s the possibility of a flameout. Designers are having to create their own game plans and balance growing with remaining cool. Fieg believes he operates his brand based on demand and staying top of mind for customers.
“Information moves way too quickly and people forget things easily,” he said. “The thoughts that you have about product come and go because there’s so much product, but the experience you have at a certain time can live in the memory bank in a different way.”
In late November, WWD’s sister publication Footwear News awarded Fieg with a fitting title: Collaborator of the Year. Tommy Hilfiger presented him the honor, which almost seemed like a passing of the baton. When asked if he wants to be a household name with stores in the Midwest like Hilfiger and Lauren, Fieg didn’t offer an explicit yes or no — maybe because he’s not sure of the road ahead because, remember, he doesn’t have a blueprint — but he knows he wants his brand to be as influential.
“Both Tommy and Ralph are my inspirations because they were able to build a world and that inspires me. I want to have a bigger impact on people’s lives than just the products they are buying and that’s why I think the experiential portion of what we do is what will separate myself from those who inspired me,” Fieg said. “But at this point, I’m still not satisfied. I’ll ultimately be at peace when I’m dead. But until then I have to keep pushing to continuously get better and also leave my mark on what I think retail should be for the consumer.”