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GREATS’ Ryan Babenzien Talks Breakdancing, Dominant Silhouettes and Vachetta Calf

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Ryan Babenzien and Nick Wooster at Nordstrom Toronto Eaton Centre

Brand new to Nordstrom is GREATS, the exciting Brooklyn-based sneaker brand shaking up the American luxury market, led by Ryan Babenzien. Perhaps you know the Babenzien family name because Ryan’s brother Brendon was the creative director of Supreme, the defining streetwear brand. Now it’s the other Babenzien’s turn to influence style.

Ryan is a visionary, pushing GREATS into the fashion consciousness with ambassador/consultant Nick Wooster at his side—a must-follow menswear icon—and designing with an open-source philosophy about silhouettes. He makes sure GREATS is competitive with other luxury brands (made in Italy with premium leathers) but sells at a lower price point. GREATS generally sells direct and does not wholesale its product—our partnership is an exception.

We just launched GREATS as a limited run in all our Canadian stores. They’re also available by phone: 1.877.794.5304*. You might want to place that order now; our initial buy will sell out.

Check out our interview with Ryan Babenzien below about his background, his business and his brother—and learn where the name GREATS came from in the first place.

*We ship free nationally. International orders are subject to customs and shipping fees.

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GREATS seems split between a business idea and a style idea. Where did it start for you?

Really it started from a style position, specifically style and price. How can we make a premium, luxury sneaker at the most disruptive price? That was the genesis.

Why did you go into business with footwear?

Because I knew it. I was a marketing executive at two legacy brands [K-Swiss and PUMA] and had been within the footwear and street-style culture for a very long time. It was a business that I knew; that’s the simple answer.

With you leading this company and your brother leading NOAH and having guided Supreme for all those years, what was going on in your upbringings that positioned you to follow these paths?

On the surface, nothing. We had no relationships related to building brands or footwear or clothing. But we grew up at a time of this mash-up, where we were drawing on cultures that were colliding. We surfed, skated and rode BMX. We spent winters in Florida, where we got to ride at parks in Cocoa Beach, and then we’d go back to Long Island, where people were listening to different music and going into the city where hip-hop was happening. There was a lot of style coming out of all those cultures.

We grew up in a traditional, bucolic little town, and it was pretty safe. We were bringing urban cultures into that environment: breakdancing, wearing Lee jeans and graffiti-ed jackets. That was something two white kids from our town just didn’t do. I think that was the inception of our interest in design and style. I surfed at a time in Long Island when that was not a popular sport in the Northeast, but I was so enamored with California life that that’s what I wanted to do. I played lacrosse and football with my brother, but my passion was around these individual sports that were happening somewhere else. It’s a mix. If you think about what we do at GREATS, what Supreme did, what NOAH is, you can extrapolate it from all that.

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In designer sneakers, it’s increasingly popular for silhouettes to be similar and unbranded…

Let me comment on that. We came up with GREATS, the brand, by saying, “Here’s the market: a handful of silhouettes used by all these brands—and it’s been that way for decades.” There’s this perception that there are new silhouettes that come out and dominate the market. It’s incorrect; it’s just wrong. There are cool, new styles from brands, but that’s a small percentage of what sells. The bestsellers from Nike are decades old. There’s a reason the Cortez is in their top ten, and the Air Force 1 and the Dunk. That was our thesis, that every brand has an iteration of each other’s styles. For example, we sell a slip-on. People think Vans invented the slip-on; they didn’t. The silhouette came from an independent boat sneaker that nobody ever heard of in the ′60s. It’s an open market, open-source silhouette if you will. So we said, “Let’s take the greatest silhouettes in the world, design our own DNA on top of it and disrupt the price.”

Wow, so that’s where the name comes from.

Right. Our design theory was: we’re going to take the greatest silhouettes in the world. That was literally written on the board, and we said, “Why don’t we just call it GREATS?” Sometimes the best ideas are the most obvious.

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How do you achieve that disruptive price point?

For the most part, we’re a vertical brand so there’s not the markup of selling wholesale. As far as our partnership with Nordstrom, it’s just that, a partnership. We don’t make the same margin that we do when we sell direct, but there are other benefits. From the beginning, we’ve said we’re not a pure digital business. The goal is to be as vertical as…well, mostly vertical. Even if we opened 100 doors at Nordstrom, we’d be 95% vertical. But there’s a balance. There are many things at play when it comes to building a brand; customer acquisition is one of them. That’s the progression of growth. We’re in that stage.

What’s the GREATS relationship with Nick Wooster exactly?

He’s an employee and an ambassador for the brand. Nick gives us great intel on what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in the market as far as color, material and design. We’re on our fourth collaboration with him. He’s out there as the face of the brand in the world.

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If not price point, what’s your definition of luxury?

It’s a good question. Luxury is being redefined around the world. It’s not our doing; it’s just happening. Up until recently, luxury was defined by the most expensive product, with a logo. The Internet has changed that because you no longer need to spend the most money to get luxury-quality goods. Pre-Internet, pre-vertical brands, things cost a certain amount of money. If you use vachetta calf and you make a sneaker in Italy, this is what it costs to sell it in the traditional distribution channel. We use those exact same materials, many times better than our competitors—from the sole, making our own lasts, to the vachetta calf to the suede—and we’re able to sell it at less than half our competitors. Our shoe is a luxury shoe; it’s just not a luxury price. And it’s subtly branded.

I feel like luxury is more of a personal interpretation now, with people making up their own definitions, versus this association handed to the customer by a brand.

That’s part of it, too. That’s a really good observation. Luxury traditionally was, let’s call it, a pushed strategy. I see the ad, the book it’s advertised in, the celebrity they’re using: must be luxury. Today we don’t need those things to create luxury. We can create luxury product with a different price structure and promote it on social media. This evolution and redefinition of luxury is something we’re living in right now.

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