LOADING THE KITH X HIGHSNOBIETY X PUMA COLLECTION

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KITH & HIGHSNOBIETY
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WORDS BY:
GARY WARNETT

Photography by
Ollie Adegboye / Giovanni Elao / Tyler Mansour / Nolan Persons / Marcus Werner / Robert Wunsch

Videography by
Joe Cavallini / Marcus Werner

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

Stop for a minute and think: what were you doing a decade ago?

2005 was an interesting time. Pre-financial crash, yet post internet boom – the street fashion landscape had some big hits and some real misses. Still, given the results-driven approach to product and marketing that followed, it’s easy to lapse into nostalgia for the naïvety of that period.

2005 was arguably the year that blogging broke through as an influential medium, becoming less “online diary” and more “information exchange.” It was then that David Fischer, posting from Switzerland via a basic Blogspot template, set out to create a regular document of those products, launches and exhibitions that were relevant to his interests. This online vision of contemporary consumer culture was given the strange but memorable title, Highsnobiety.

The following year the full website would take form, and, after a move to Berlin in 2009, David’s Titel Media publishing company began life as it is today. It was a business that would go on to grow massively in both size and influence, fueled by the growth of hype as a global currency. The same period would prove pivotal for Queens-bred Ronnie Fieg, who used such currency to build a formidable brand of his own. This then became the springboard for his pair of KITH retail stores. Yet, in the modern digital era, paths can cross without ever walking the same streets.

You could argue that the rise of both Highsnobiety and KITH was symbiotic…

— after all, an online magazine needs new things to write about, while fresh product can always use a promotional push. In a world where celebrities are as entrenched in the world of exclusive gear as the regulars of Harajuku or Downtown NYC, and the global fashion press is covering sneaker drops and skatewear brands, Fischer and Fieg’s respective businesses are much bigger than mere bedroom blogging or stacking up a stockroom.

A collaboration (of sorts) between the store and the site has been ongoing since both men first met. However, to commemorate Highsnobiety’s 10th anniversary, something more tangible was required. Following their first footwear project together (an ASICS GEL-Lyte III in 2009), they’ve joined forces once again. This time, it’s with PUMA.

Consisting of specially reworked versions of the R698 runner (originally released in 1993) and the Blaze of Glory, the collection plays on subtle cultural signifiers of Berlin and New York.

In short, it’s a tale of two cities, two distinct personalities and two businesses that have each helped the other make their mark on the world.

“THE EFFECT THAT IT HAD ON ME WAS INSANE. I CHECK
THAT SITE EVERY DAY. RELIGIOUSLY.”

– RONNIE FIEG
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Ronnie Fieg / Founder of KITH

Cast your mind back; what were you doing 10 years ago?

Ronnie: I was buying for a chain of stores. I opened up all the athletic brands that [New York sneaker emporium] David Z was carrying, and I was handling all of the athletic buys. I was working really, really hard. I was partners in a lounge in SoHo called Loft 529. Very quickly, within that year… man, there’s so many stories.

David: In July 2005 I went on a week’s vacation to Paris as the first feature I ever did for Highsnobiety. It was about colette. That was the first original content piece for the site — an amazing experience. Funnily, it was the one and only time I put a message on the site saying I was off on vacation and there’d be no news for a week. That was the only time in 10 years that ever happened. No holidays since! (Laughs)

David Fischer / Founder of Highsnobiety

How did you first meet?

Ronnie: It was at David [Zaken, owner of David Z]’s office, back in the day when he was in town. It was like, 2008. But I knew Highsnobiety since it launched. The effect it had on me was insane. I check that site every day. Religiously.

What did you make of David when you first met him?

Ronnie: David is a very smart man. He’s well-versed in this market, and the conversations I’ve had with him make me respect him on many levels.

What was your first impression of Ronnie?

David: I was impressed with how boldly he stepped onto the scene. He definitely felt like an outsider, but I liked him right away and I appreciated the hard work. Quite quickly it became apparent that he knew exactly what he was doing. It was during the financial crisis and it was timeless product that seemed right for the era.

You haven’t spent a lot of time in Berlin have you Ronnie?

Ronnie: The first time I was in Berlin was for [fashion trade show] Bread & Butter. I love the city, and I noticed that some people were wearing my stuff out there back in the David Z days when we didn’t ship to Europe. It was crazy to see that.

David, was New York a pilgrimage for you?

David: The first time I went was 1994, but I was a bit too young to be fully aware of what was there. Polo Ralph Lauren was my thing then, and I didn’t need any special shops for that. We did Los Angeles and Florida during that trip, but I was obsessed with the New York part.

Since then, Ronnie seems to have boosted the appeal of the running shoe back in the States.

David: It’s a big thing. His colorways have become really, really good over the years. He is taking that over to PUMA right now.

First Impressions...

"David is a very smart man. He's well-versed in this market"
- Ronnie Fieg

"I was impressed with how boldly he stepped onto the scene."
- David Fischer

Did you approach Ronnie to work on your 10th anniversary?

David: We didn’t have this huge plan for our 10th anniversary, but we knew we had to do something. We wanted to set up a project with some of the people that we’ve been working with for a really long time; we didn’t want to work with people that we’ve only written about for six months.

When did you start the project?

David: It was probably the middle of last year that we reached out to potential partners. It was really nice to see that most people did want to celebrate with us. It was Ronnie’s suggestion to bring PUMA on board, because he’d just started working a lot more closely with them.

The time involved in product creation is at odds with fast-paced content creation. Did you find that jarring?

David: It makes me so nervous. I’m like, “Come on! It can’t take that long!” It’s crazy. But there’s nothing as rewarding as holding a finished product that you’re happy with. Ronnie has become such a pro with this.

How much did David bring to the creative process?

Ronnie: Before working on the shoes, we spoke about the initial concept of it being Berlin and New York. David knows what my talents are and what he can bring to the process. When we got the first samples back, I was like, “Yo. These don’t look good but I’m gonna fix them.” The R698s were really light and leather, not nubuck. Now it looks a lot better. They did a great job with the nubuck — now the PUMA stripe wraps all the way around the heel, which they’ve never really done before. I also like the debossed pattern.

David: He took complete lead on design and turnaround, but always came back to me with everything. For him and his team this is completely business as usual. I don’t think I know any retailer out there with this amount of collaborations. He would show me a sample and I’d be like, “Yeah!” but he’d be like, “Ehhh.” Then he’d send me a picture of something else. Those are the situations where Ronnie impresses me and makes me say, “Fuck!”

Ronnie: But you need to visualize the whole thing. The reds and lining were off on the first one — the speckles were off too.

David: Let’s face it, Ronnie is at that point in his career where he’s not resting with picking the right colors. He has that trust with brands where he can change silhouettes. It’s amazing that PUMA let him create our own shoes like the R698 boot he did. Ronnie’s very much “now” — he lives, breathes and leads the sneaker market that’s now.

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“BEFORE WORKING ON THE SHOES, WE SPOKE ABOUT THE INITIAL CONCEPT OF IT BEING BERLIN AND NEW YORK.”
– RONNIE FIEG
“I FEEL LIKE THE RACE HAS CHANGED. THAT RACE WAS PROBABLY AT ITS FASTEST FROM 2009 TO 2012.”

– DAVID FISCHER

Would KITH be as popular now without the blog world?

Ronnie Fieg: I think that, without an internet presence, it would have turned into what I wanted it to be, but it would have taken a lot longer. Right now, I’m in year four, but it feels like I’m in year eight because of what the internet has done. Before, word of mouth would have had to stretch to other countries.

Do you remember the days when being on the blog was everything?

Ronnie: And you were depressed if you never got on it! Blogging back then wasn’t like a mag and it didn’t have ads. David was picking it, and if he didn’t like the product, it wasn’t on there. I feel that my name wouldn’t be out there and I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing if the blogs didn’t pick me up earlier in my career. They gave me credit and told my story early on. That was a big deal.

David, was the original aim to ultimately have a platform with that kind of power?

David Fischer: I’m not a designer and I’m not a skateboarder; I found my own way of getting into this world. In the beginning, readers were always excited, but brands weren’t. I remember flying to Vegas for the trade shows in 2006 as a shy 24-year-old and trying to meet some of the brands that I wrote about at the time. They were all cool, but it wasn’t a situation where they were begging to be featured on Highsnobiety. It was crazy how that dynamic completely changed around 2007. We kept on growing. I remember a time when I was being put in contact with the vice president of marketing at a company just to get pictures of a sneaker. It’s the craziest thing if you think about it!

In the digital space, one year seems like four years to me.

Ronnie: 100% true. That’s what the information highway has done. You can’t stop how fast this thing is moving — it’s a snowball effect. It’s an information time bomb; every day that goes by, there’s more of it. Ten years ago, I think it was more like a hobby than anything else.

David: But Ronnie had that ambition. At the time — and I have to be honest — there was this European voice in my head asking, “Why are you branding your collaborations with your name, dude?” That was so weird to me. Looking back, it was probably the smartest thing he ever did because he knew that the Ronnie Fieg brand would go with him wherever he went.

Things had more time to breathe back then.

Ronnie: There was like, three blog posts a day.

Five seemed a lot.

Ronnie: In two very different worlds of business, what we do share is big releases. Not just our product, but with the other lines that we carry at KITH. It can be like, three major releases every weekend. That kind of shift is comparable to the blogs and how their business has grown tremendously — more blog posts means more work from an editorial, design and management standpoint.

Yet, these days, retailers can blast something out there now without blogs. You could argue that the power is in the hands of the retailer.

David: Totally. I have that conversation a lot now — everybody is trying to be everything. Every store wants to be a news site, and every news site wants to be a retailer. It goes further with news sites wanting to be everything, like Mashable opening a fashion channel, or The Verge and Refinery29 writing about politics. Now, if you own an audience, the new thing is to give them everything.

Ronnie: Yes and no. Yes in that we have a following that’s interested in us and is looking at what we do next – and looking at us solely. But on the Highsnobiety side, you get to see our product alongside other product, and that gives you a feel for the market as a whole. You get context.

David: The one thing I always say is the reason that we’ve stuck around so long certainly isn’t because I’m a good writer! I’m not an educated journalist or even a native English speaker. I think it’s consistency in what we offer.

“I FEEL THAT MY NAME WOULDN’T BE OUT THERE AND I WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO DO WHAT I’M DOING IF THE BLOGS DIDN’T PICK ME UP EARLIER IN MY CAREER.”

– RONNIE FIEG

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“EVERYBODY IS TRYING TO BE EVERYTHING. EVERY STORE WANTS TO BE A NEWS SITE, AND EVERY NEWS SITE WANTS TO BE A RETAILER.” – DAVID FISCHER

Nowadays it feels like cynicism has increasingly crept in as the consumer has evolved.

David: It tends to be that the ones that shout the loudest are the most negative. It’s just a lot easier to be negative than to be positive. You’re absolutely allowed to say something negative, though — I’m not saying you shouldn’t be critical.

Has the criteria for coverage changed at all over the years? At some point it seemed the blogs were constantly competing to feature things before anyone else.

David: I feel like the race has changed. That race was probably at its fastest from 2009 to 2012. It was about getting it up first and being the only one — that was the currency and it was the only thing that mattered. Then we arrived at the point where, if we put it up now or two hours later, it wasn’t important. The most important thing we’ve learnt is that those two hours are better spent devoted to one great article than rushing out another few average ones.

It’s a science now.

David: It is! We look at the craziest stuff — best time, best formats, best social platforms, best wording. You sort of hate yourself for it, but what can you do? That’s the market we’re competing in, and it’s our living.

In fact, to find something yourself is a luxury.

David: The biggest joy is the find, whether it’s in real life or virtually. It’s so exciting when I find something I haven’t seen before.

How has Highsnobiety maintained its place for a decade?

David: We really had to fight our way into this. Then that next wave of blogs, online magazines… whatever you want to call them… didn’t have to fight so much. In their case it was an easy in, but it was just as easy to go out.

Would you ever put yourself out there like Ronnie has?

David: It was never my thing. Comparing myself to Ronnie, there’s this European versus American thing. That’s just my personality. My goal was always to create a brand, and I think we’ve achieved that. It was important that the brand stood above everything else and wasn’t about a single person. Ronnie is very good at it though.

Ronnie: I know how people think because of how much time I spend at ground level. I’m the consumer. I know how people will act and I like it when people act negatively towards something at the beginning. I think I’ve got to a place, after 20 years in this business, where I know as well as anyone who follows me whether or not a product is good. If I’m gonna put something out, that means I think the product is great.

Do you ever worry that, given where you’ve got to now, people approach you with an ulterior motive?

Ronnie: Yo, that is a great fucking point. I have long talks with my father and he always told me, “Be careful of anyone who wants to pick your brain about anything these days.” He told me, “Money changes things, but success changes more.” That stuck with me, and the circle has gotten very small.

Sound advice. Do you wish you had a mentor back in the early days of brand building?

Ronnie: I do. I almost feel ashamed at the fact that I can’t spend more time mentoring the youth — it’s something that I wanna do so badly. I speak as much as I can, but speaking in front of people and Q&As isn’t going to actually help — I want to take people under my wing and show them what’s up. But I’m still building. The people I’ve taken on are helping me run this brand, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.

David: The one thing we had – and it seems like nobody will ever have this again – is time. Ten years ago, nobody expected Ronnie to create a massive sneaker business in a matter of two years. Nobody expected me to turn Highsnobiety into a blog with millions of readers in just a year or two. Now people start things, and if they’re not killing it in a matter of months then it’s assumed that they missed the boat or they’re doing it wrong. They’re not considered successful. It was such a luxury to take our time to build something.

“RONNIE’S VERY MUCH ‘NOW’ — HE LIVES, BREATHES AND LEADS THE SNEAKER MARKET THAT’S NOW.”

- DAVID FISCHER

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“I THINK LIFE HAS BECOME DISTORTED; THERE’S A RESURGENCE OF APPRECIATION FOR REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCES.” – RONNIE FIEG

Do you think “blogging” has become a dirty word?

David: I don’t know. Jeff [Carvalho, Fischer’s partner at Titel Media] was always like “Don’t call Highsnobiety a blog — call it an online magazine!” I’m like, why the fuck can’t we call it a blog?

Perhaps some people view blogs as having eroded the exclusivity of the scene?

Ronnie: As a person who cares about business last, I don’t think it’s a good thing that product is available everywhere these days. I wish regions had their own product. In the old days, if you got something you could be a lot different to anyone else on the block. That got diluted. Eventually it’s gonna go back to that — it has to. Regions are getting big enough to support their own collections.

David: Yes. You see a bit of it in Japan. It’s the only market where you can Google a brand and still not find anything about it! It’s amazing. There’s brands where I just don’t understand the economics. I’m not saying that the money is everything, but I don’t understand how some brands can survive. Still, that’s what makes them so great. You get that feeling that it’s being done because of passion.

What about the use of platforms like Snapchat to promote product?

Ronnie: I’m on Snapchat, but not for promo purposes. I think that it’s getting too much. I really think that getting stuff in print is the most important thing.

Why is that?

Ronnie: Because it’s forever. The older I get, the more I understand how important tangible things are. It’s like when someone goes on a juice diet — for seven days you’re on juice, and by day three you miss chewing.

David: For us, the print magazine has been an amazing journey. It really set us apart. As Highsnobiety becomes more pop culture-driven, the magazine is very much about that traditional core of fashion and lifestyle.

Do you not worry that the reach of a magazine article is a fraction of what it could achieve digitally?

David: The main thing that the magazine has done is teach us about creating high-quality content. Suddenly we had to proofread text and take beautiful pictures because, in print, everything is so definite. You can’t correct things. This process really pushed the quality for the whole website.

“ULTIMATELY, THE THINGS THAT YOU CONNECT WITH THE MOST EXIST IN THE REAL WORLD. OUR LIVES SHOULD NOT, AND WILL NOT, BE EXCLUSIVELY ONLINE.”

– DAVID FISCHER

Do you think the reverence people have for magazines is down to a slight distrust of digital?

David: Ultimately, my parents only respected what I did once I had it in print! (Laughs) It legitimizes so much of what I’d been doing for so long. Suddenly it was like, “What do you do?” And I could slap it down.

Ronnie: I think life has become distorted; there’s a resurgence of appreciation for real-life experiences.

David: Ultimately, the things that you connect with the most exist in the real world. Our lives should not, and will not, be exclusively online. Thankfully!

What about the role of social media in keeping people informed?

David: The other day I asked our intern where he gets his news, because I was looking for new sites, and he said, “You know what? Mostly Instagram.” Now I feel like we’re competing with social media as well as the other blogs. It’s a strange new competition — if you ask people which websites they visit every day, how many people are still doing that? These days we’re fighting to be a square on somebody’s news feed.

Ronnie: I turn notifications off. I can’t see it. It’s too much. When I think how far communication has come over the last few years, it’s crazy. I just think that the whole digital era we’re in now is so different from where I’ve come from that it’s detrimental to my personal experience.

Would you prefer that the real world and digital mix be a little more balanced?

Ronnie: The best case scenario today would be to mix both — a little bit of the old school mentality blended into how things are done today. I think Supreme does a good thing with marketing their products. It’s direct, clean and they give you the bottom line.

Finally, do you think we’re coming to the end of a boom for athletic footwear?

Ronnie: I’ve seen the cycle three times. I think that we’re hitting the end of one now — boots will have their moment this fall.

David: It’s a good question. Right now, I can’t see how sneakers won’t play a role over the next few years. It’s too big. But it will have to change eventually. I remember starting in 2005 and sneakers becoming bigger and bigger, then BOOM, everybody was wearing white Common Projects or Red Wings. I was like, “Boat shoes? What the fuck are you talking about?” We’re not that far away from that. But since then, sneakers came back stronger than ever. You can never rule them out.

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