Jon Buscemi and Ryan Babenzien of Greats Brand
A while back, before even so much as a product shot had been released, I spent a good few pages waxing lyrical about Greats Brand on this site. I did this, not because I was trying to suck up to anyone, but because I genuinely believed Greats have the potential to turn the footwear game on its head. So, we sat down with the two co-founders of this brand to ask them about everything from their first pair of sneakers to their disruptive business model.
First off, and mostly just because I like this question, what were the first pair of sneakers you ever bought with your own cash?
Jon: Nike Bruin Canvas. 1984. White with sky blue swoosh. I also purchased white and sky blue checker-board fat laces to match. Shopper Village was the store
Ryan: Ok, this is a technicality but the first pair of sneakers I made an effort to get was a white on white Adidas shell toe. I was 10 and my feet weren’t big enough so I settled for a White on White Kareem Abdul Jabbar Hi top. Technically it wasn’t my money but you get the point.
So you have a new brand called Greats. I explained, or at least attempted to, the ethos behind it on The Reference Council last week. Basically, it’s a high-end sneaker brand with affordable prices, right? It seems like the complete antithesis to almost all luxury-sneaker brands…
Ryan: That’s accurate. We’re eliminating a lot of the inefficiencies that are inherent in the footwear business, mainly having to rely on retail to get scale. That’s a fancy way of saying, we’re cutting out the middle man and selling straight to the customer. This cuts out a huge chunk of the price that the retailer would normally take and allows GREATS to get the shoe to the consumer at a lower price, without sacrificing any of the design and quality we want to deliver.
Jon: As a consumer of this type of product for over 10 years now, and from a timing standpoint, Greats in essence need to exist. When you see your favorite brand selling a shoe for retail $430 and you know for a fact , and to take it further, you have the same factory relationship, producing the shoe for $40, you start to ask yourself why. A shoe that costs $40 should be no more than $99 and that’s what we are doing….
The reason I like it is because it’s finally a brand that is being honest with its customers. Economically, most countries ain’t doing too good. Money is a bit tighter for most people. It seems like Greats Brand, without being some sort of political force, has an understanding of that and isn’t out to milk the consumer for every dollar they have. Or am I reading into things too much?
Jon: Absolutely correctamundo.
Ryan: Well you’re right about that. The global economy has got some challenges ahead for sure. But we’re not pretending to be the best do-gooders in the world or martyrs trying to save the world. We do know that the consumer is generally over paying for footwear. Before the internet, the wholesale/retail way was the only way and if you wanted to build a footwear brand, you needed to rely on retailers to get your product out there. That model is completely archaic though. The world has voted and they are more than happy to buy footwear online. GREATS will be the first men’s footwear brand that’s sold primarily online and pass the savings directly to them. We’re still going to maintain the necessary profit to become a healthy company, we’re just doing it in a different way than Nike or Addidas and the customer will benefit in saving money.
Initially, Greats Brand is only going to be available online. Will this always be the case if everything goes to plan?
Jon: We will offer the products online and on mobile only for the time being. We are also launching 2 pop-ups in Union Los Angeles and at HighPoint in Scottsdale,AZ. These pop-ups are to raise awareness and to get some face time with physical customers. The long term goal is eventually have a vertical business where we partner with the manufacturer or own our own factory down to opening up our own brick & mortar locations. We love what Warby has done and to think a company can launch online now and then move to a physical location due to demand is spectacular. Inspiring.
Ryan: We’ll add more presentation partners, pop up shops and eventually have GREATS stores where you can buy in a more traditional way. But we won’t be wholesaling our brand. As long as we can sell to the consumer directly be it our website or own store, we’ll be able to pass along the value to the consumer.
Am I correct in saying that your releases won’t be in line with the traditional Spring/Summer – Autumn/Winter model? Is that model becoming outdated? There seems to be an increasing number of designers who are putting out product when they feel like it rather than being dictated to by seasons.
Ryan: That’s right. Again, the old model of having to sell in at a certain time when the retailers are buying for the future is a totally archaic model. It also makes it really tough for the footwear brand trying to design stuff so far away from when it will actually be in the store. We’ll be designing closer to season and not designing 12 months in advance, which tends to make many styles irrelevant. That doesn’t mean we’re selling winter boots in July just because we could if we wanted to but we’ll be designing shoes 6 months out instead of 12 or 14 months. We’ll be able to stay way closer to fashion if we want and use colors and prints and materials that will mostly be missed by all the big legacy brands. What we’re doing is beneficial in everyway for both GREATS and the customer.
Jon: The seasonal concept will never go away as far as styling but from a release standpoint it is not a guide for us at Greats. We are working with 45 days production lead times so we can release product whenever we want and how often as we want. We can react very quickly to the market. It’s exciting to know we can reorder a color or a style of a shoe that sells out in 45 days when other companies are nailed to the cross of wholesale. The footwear market is such an old man and we are like an alien from outer space taking over a planet.
What if Greats Brand really blows up, demand becomes crazy and the orders start coming in by the thousands. Can the quality of the sneakers be maintained? So often you see brands start off with a really premium product and then, as demand grows, the quality of their product starts to decline.
Ryan: Frankly, we’re anticipating that to happen lol. The quality shouldn’t be affected by the volume, no matter how big it becomes. We’re working with some of the best, tightest factories in the world and will continue to do so. The quality they turn out will be the same at 1 pair or 100,000 pairs and if it’s not, it doesn’t make it in the box, period! We’re using Margom soles from Italy as well as Vibram soles, both companies that are known for their commitment to quality. Jon and I are just hyper focused on quality no matter what so we’re not worried about demand affecting quality.
Jon: Working with vendors and manufacturers is always a challenge but what we will do is maintain a balance. Demand is great but we will work as hard as we can to never sacrifice the quality. Also once it scales and the volumes increase we will work hand in hand with our people to make sure the motto doesn’t change.
Style-wise, what can we expect from Greats? Will you guys be sticking strictly to sneakers? Or will we see stuff like a premium Wallabee or Timberland-inspired shoe?
Ryan: Have you been snooping on our design meetings? Lol. We’re starting with 2 styles, THE WILSON at $59 and THE ROYALE at $99. The Wilson is named after one of our investors, Adrian Wilson of the New England Patriots. It’s a canvas vulc shoe w a deerskin toe cap, elasticized laces, if your chuck got an upgrade the Wilson would be it. The Royale is more luxxe, deerskin leather, calf skin lining built on an Italian Margom sole. If this shoe was retailed in a store like Collette or Barney’s it would be $400 or more. As we roll out we’ll get into other styles, boat shoes, moc styles, etc. There’s no space in mens footwear we can’t play in.
Jon: Sky’s the limit in men’s footwear. Conceptual runners to shower slides to Oxfords to retro b-ball to tennis to boots. It’s all going to happen.
Where do you see Greats in 5 years time? Are you hoping your business will spawn new brands who also look to bring premium quality to the consumer at a reasonable price?
Ryan: First and foremost we’re building a BRAND so there are other categories we’ll be able to add when we’re ready. We’re launching in men’s footwear but that’s just the beginning. Clearly socks are a category we’ll be getting into as it’s about as complimentary to footwear as peanut butter is to jelly. But hats, t’s, sweats , accessories, it’s really limitless for GREATS. If we feel we can design and build what isn’t in the market and is needed in the market, we’ll consider it. Our biggest challenge will be to have restraint and grow into categories at the right time and make sure the GREATS brand is established before we add other categories.
Jon: 5 years from now is a long time. I see us in multiple footwear categories mentioned above and deep. We are dying to dive into the sock game and possibly headwear. I think there is a room for other brand licenses and collaborations as well. We have a few really great ones coming. Stay tuned and thank you….
Thanks to Jon and Ryan at Greats for making this happen. Check them out at GreatsBrand.com