Jon Buscemi On What It Takes to Make "The Finest Sneakers In the World"
On the eve of his first-ever store's grand opening, the designer dishes on how he "started a company that makes luxury basketball shoes and maybe one day will make steamer trunks."
A “sneaker head” with a mind for business, Jon Buscemi is self-assured about his 3-year-old brand’s future in a saturated shoe market. “We make the finest-made sneakers on the planet,” he told Pret-a-Reporter confidently over the phone from his new Soho store, which will host a grand opening cocktail party on the first Thursday of Fashion Week. “And I know that for a fact because I’ve been a consumer of sneakers since I’ve been in the third grade. Every day, every breath, every move we make is to try to outdo ourselves and make the best sneakers in the world.”
Indeed, thanks to made-in-Italy craftsmanship and the kind of gold-plated, turn key hardware you're just as likely to see on a designer handbag, Buscemi’s new luxury kicks have developed quite the fan base among athletes (Cam Newton), celebs (Kylie Jenner, Jennifer Lopez) and musicians (Future). However, he has yet to see fashion stars Andre Leon Talley, Iris Apfel or Karl Lagerfeld in a pair, which he notes he would love to see. “One day...” he says.
The 40-year-old made the leap into the fashion world following a career on Wall Street and is newly bicoastal, having just purchased a home in upstate New York where he plans to stay during the half of the month he isn’t working out of his Melrose office in Los Angeles. But though the East Coast-native has new roots in the West Coast, Buscemi doesn’t currently have any concrete plans to open an L.A. shop. Rather, a SoCal store is simply another item on his detailed checklist, which also includes plans for shops in the U.K., Europe and Asia.
For now, the businessman is focusing his attention on the grand opening of the Soho store on Wooster St., which will carry his shoes (naturally) as well as belts, wallets and a couple in-store exclusives: a dog collar and leash — “all handmade with Italian caftan leather and 18kt gold-plated hardware” — and a hand-painted leather coffee sleeve, “so you can be the coolest person in your meeting with your pour over Ethiopian single malt coffee or whatever.”
Ahead of the grand opening, we caught up with the sneaker king to talk inspiration, Nile crocodile kicks and streetwear’s place in the luxury market.
Pret-a-Reporter: Tell us about your store and the art installation you are planning. What will that look like for the grand opening?
For the grand opening we’ve done the installation ourselves, in house. It’s an homage to early luxury, I guess you can call it. We took inspiration from Egypt and the pyramids and the original kind of luxury. Basically the installation is inspired by the idea, “worthy of kings” — that’s the buzz phrase we’re using. We’re starting from the beginning of civilization. This is our first store so it’s the beginning of our journey in New York City.
As an emerging luxury streetwear brand, where do you see the luxury market headed? Do you think that these new streetwear labels will eventually trump the old school European heritage brands? Or do they each have their own specific consumer?
I see it in a few different ways. First is, I think the Buscemi brand is part of a movement of access. You have a few people like myself that have started brands that have access to pretty much the identical capabilities of other big, old fashion houses from Europe and other luxury brands around the world. We have access to the same manufacturing capabilities, to the same marketing capabilities [and] we have the internet, so it’s a level playing field.
Fifteen, twenty years ago the access wasn’t there. It was very hard to break into [the luxury sphere].
On the other side of it … let’s just talk about a brand like Givenchy. You have a brand that was started by Mr. Givenchy, who was making runway and couture and ball gowns for let’s say Audrey Hepburn in the ‘50s and ‘60s, right? Now, you have a guy who’s my age, 40 years old — Riccardo Tisci — who was born in the streets of Sicily. [He has] streetwear, like a street luxury aspect, and he runs Givenchy now; and now instead of ball gowns they’re making sweatshirts with Rottweilers on them.
So we’re kind of mixed up in this world of trends and access and the thing is, if I had the ability to work at one of those large fashion houses, I’d do the same thing I’m doing now, but I would be cheating, because I’d have the name Givenchy behind me, or I’d have Louis Vuitton behind me or whatever.
For me, why my brand is so special is because I built it from the ground up from nothing, and I’m competing right alongside them, and playing their game the same way without any name, and I think that’s why I think it’s so special.
You used the word “cheating” to describe the way luxury brands hire and utilize their creative directors. Can you elaborate on your use of that word?
I do say that. But also, I feel like… Let’s not use any names. Let’s say creative director “X” at fashion house “Y” — if that person went and started their own brand at the same aesthetic, the same design, the same quality, the same everything but with a different name; would it do as well? That’s the question we all have to ask ourselves.
I feel like an underdog in the game. It just motivates me more to know that we started this from the ground up. I didn’t start a company that made steamer trunks and now makes street basketball shoes. I started a company that makes luxury basketball shoes and maybe one day will make steamer trunks. That’s the cool part about what we’re doing.
You have quite a few celebrity fans. Do you think you owe any of your success to celebrities and their visibility on social media?
No question about it. And that goes for most brands, even before social media. I don’t think that’s changed, it’s just on a hyper level now. It’s just much faster.
But also to that point, most brands bombard celebrities and athletes with products. I think the cool thing is these celebrities and tastemakers on social media have been buying [our] product on their own and evangelizing the brand on their own. And the buyers at the retail level, they’ve supported us from the beginning because of the product. So the product really is the star of the show and the reason everything has been working.
What’s the most expensive style you’ve created to date?
I don’t know off the top of my head, but I can’t give you a ballpark. We make a made-to-order Nile crocodile hundred millimeter that’s sold at Harrods, and I believe it’s just around 7,000 GBP ($9320 at current exchange). It’s benchmade, handmade Nile crocodile which is very, very rare, and it has the 18kt gold hardware, hand-painted edges. It comes in a cool box.
You’ve talked about legends in the industry being inspirations to you. Is there a specific time/place/event on the streetwear level that continues to be a source of inspiration for you?
Fortunately for me I was pretty much a part of the entire New York City streetwear movement from the beginning, when it started from Triple Five Soul and Stussy and Supreme in New York City that kind of blazed the global streetwear scene.
So I’m inspired by everyone, all of my peers and friends who have been in this industry since the beginning, especially on the skateboard side. I think my inspiration in this world is kind of stuck in the late ‘80s to mid-90s, that period. Because you’re really lucky to grow up in New York in that 10-15 year period where you had punk music and hard core music and hip hop music and the art scene in New York City, the graffiti scene, the contemporary art scene — everything just combining and colliding together, and the byproduct of all that was a style, and all the fashion that came out of that was my DNA.
So I’m just inspired by that all the time. The great thing is it doesn’t get old.
47 Wooster St, New York, NY 10013