Greats: The Footwear Company that could Change the Game

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Interview by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Sam Alive
Produced by: Dan Hwang

It’s a tall order to suggest that you can re-shape the sneaker world, yet that’s exactly what Greats is setting out to do. Spearheaded by Ryan Babenzien and Jon Buscemi, Greats is motivated by the desire to shift the landscape in the footwear industry by giving the consumer access to high-quality selections at the lowest prices in the game. With a vertical integration style, a direct sale method best seen in the success of eyewear upstart Warby Parker, these shoes up the ante even higher by producing some models in Italy and preparing to have others crafted right in the US. The objective is simple: reinterpret the classics with upscale, luxe details at a price point that can’t be beat. And with their August 2013 releases taking just 90 days to sell out, they’ve proven that consumers are ready to buy direct.

Their latest Greats release is a performance chukka called the BAB, after the surname of one of it’s founders, Ryan Babenzien, who came from a marketing background with Puma. Jon Buscemi, the other half of the brand’s braintrust, has footwear-specific experience with DC Shoes, Oliver Peoples, and Gourmet. With technical know-how and market awareness, the duo is plunging into an industry dominated by multi-national corporations and big-box retailers. With a unique pricing strategy for the BAB--one pair for $59, two for $109, and three for $149--the consumer gets a value-packed model stocked with technical and aesthetic pop. Each pair is crafted from a monochromatic HFD (high frequency weld) nylon mesh upper atop a lightweight white EVA midsole. Similar models for competitors can cost twice as much, with much of the markup funneled into the retailing process. This chukka is aimed to honor a classic silhouette without cutting corners on materials and details.

Other brands may have marketing plans with budgets the size of some countries’ GDP, but Greats is beginning to see trends that provide hope for the consumer who doesn’t need a storefront to notice the quality of an offering. With the BAB, the Royale, and the Wilson, Greats’ award-winning website displays the shoe’s deconstructed components, providing the buyer with the ultimate transparency. For their luxe Royale model, the outer boasts a supple deerskin leather, while the liner is comprised of a butter-soft calf-skin. Similar models from the likes of Del Toro and Lanvin can triple the $99 price tag on the Greats shoe, showing why the company is making waves across the industry.

With models that have been custom made for Kevin Durant and a visit and inspection of the goods by Kanye West, the duo seems poised to shake things up. We got the chance to see the duo in action and learn about a company whose bold coup d’etat in the sneaker world could have long-lasting benefits for fans of fine sneakers. In our chat with Ryan, we learn about the brand philosophy, the exciting challenge of battling the big dogs, and how early exposure to sport culture led to his passion in sneakers. Click through to get a look a company whose kicks you may find your feet in soon.

A conversation with Ryan Babenzien, Co-Founder of GREATS

Jesse: What motivated you to enter the crowded, notoriously-difficult footwear market?

Ryan: This is really good question with a really simple answer. We thought we could deliver a high quality sneaker at a better price than any legacy brand in the game and ultimately save the customer a ton of money. It really is the customer who we think of first.

What are some of the basic ways that your products differ from big-box retailer offerings?

The biggest difference is we simply don’t sell to big box retailers. That in and of itself allows us to make the same or better quality as our peers/competitors and sell for less. We sell direct to consumers, which lowers the end price. The math is simple, the execution is the challenging part.

Tell us your stories of how your interest in sneakers developed?

It probably goes back to my childhood days. My father was a high school phys ed teacher and football, lacrosse and basketball coach. Since his uniform involved wearing sneakers every day to work, he had about ten pairs, which back then you just didn’t do. He also didn’t want to wear the same sneaker everyday so he had different styles for different days, seasons, etc. Although my parents were divorced by the time I was eight, it was enough exposure to sneakers to set the interest for me. Later as a high schooler, I had a job at Suburban Sports, a sports store in the mall that had a heavy sneaker wall. Hip hop group EPMD used to shop there all the time since it was close to where they grew up.

Greats BAB

Greats BAB

Can you give us a few structural highlights for the BAB model?

The Bab is really a hybrid of a Chukka height and a running shoe. We customized the durometer of the blown EVA because we wanted it to have a nice rebound and not be too spongy. The upper is mesh so it breathes really well and is light as fuck -- perfect for summer months. The last is so smooth on the Bab it just looks amazing on your foot.

Ideally, do you see your company branching out to other performance footwear models?

We’ve got several more styles being released throughout the next 12 months, including more fall and winter styles, some amazing collaborations with two different 2014 CFDA nominees and more collaborations with Nick Wooster.

Who do you see as your ideal BAB customer?

The Bab is pretty versatile. The ideal customer ranges from anyone who waits in line for something to the guy who just wants a beautiful, light modern style for summer that doesn’t cost over $100. With bundles available at $59 for 1, $109 for 2 or $149 for 3 pairs - you get a ton of value from the Bab. It allows you to buy that extra color you might not buy if you could only buy one, more expensive sneaker from someone else and not feel guilty.

What do you think is the number one problem in the world of sneakers today?

Production always has been and likely always will be the number one problem! We’re doing a ton of stuff in Italy and we're also about to pull the trigger on some made-in-the-USA stuff, but production is definitely the number one area that makes what we do difficult. You can’t just figure it out, it takes years to do it well and we’re still learning as we go.

If you had your pick of any athlete from any sport, who would be the first you would choose to endorse the BAB?

Danny MacAskill. Dude just blows my mind.