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Why Ronnie Fieg’s Focus on Community, Not Just Kith Product, Earned Him Person of the Year

Footwear News
Footwear News
 2021-11-29
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On Nov. 30, Ronnie Fieg will be honored as Person of the Year at the 35th annual FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Nov. 29 print issue about his big pursuits.

A week out from the FN Achievement Awards, Ronnie Fieg is perusing the magazine’s archives in New York City after his cover shoot, thumbing through decades of back issues. He perks after discovering a set of copies from 1996.

“Remember this brand? Nose?” Fieg said while looking at a two-page ad with a massive nose image. “I sold a pair to Missy Elliott at David Z and she wore them in one of her videos, but no one knew what they were.”

That nostalgia is understandable, given that his Kith retail chain is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year, marked by the launch of two flagships, in Paris and Hawaii — plus a 300-page collector’s book replete with memories from the past decade.

And in the spring, Fieg also revealed 8th Street , a category of his own creation with Clarks Originals that pays homage to his early days in the retail business on New York’s famed footwear street.

But among his many initiatives this year, perhaps the most near and dear to Fieg’s heart was when Kith revitalized tennis and basketball courts in his beloved Queens, N.Y., with the help of Wilson and Nike, respectively. The company also teamed up the House of Mandela, joined forces with the Christopher Wallace Estate to supply Brooklyn schools with materials for students and partnered with the Martin Luther King Jr. estate and his son, Martin Luther King III, to help spread his father’s message.

For his cover shoot with FN, Fieg, dressed in Kith’s fall line and an unreleased New Balance collaboration, is joined by longtime friend and artist Daniel Arsham (the man behind Snarkitecture, which designs the Kith stores) to reflect on 2021 and the decade that led up to it. Below are excerpts from their conversation.

HOW THE FRIENDSHIP BEGAN

Daniel Arsham: “We met through mutual friends — it was at your birthday party that Chris Stamp organized. That was a legendary dinner because a lot of people in fashion, sneakers and art were there. It was at Kingswood.”

Ronnie Fieg: “I remember Chris introducing us, and from there it was a wrap.”

DA: “Kith was open, but it was just the footwear room of Atrium. You said something like, ‘We’re expanding.’ I invited you to the studio a couple of weeks later and I basically was like, ‘I’m designing this store.'”

RF: “I remember that. You didn’t really give me an option. It was the first real retail space you guys were designing, and the ideas we put on the table were so unreasonable for retail, trying to take it where no one has before.”

THE POWER OF KITH

DA: “Ronnie is very forward thinking. I remember you talking about the 10-year anniversary at year three. Early on, it was much more of a multibrand shop, and as you’ve opened other shops, multibrand has reduced and the Kith core brand has grown.”

RF: “Where I wanted to end up in 10 years is exactly where we are, with stores in cities I travel to and am passionate about, and cities with cultures that inspired me. Also, focusing on what the collection should look like for men, women and kids, and expanding into lifestyle items, like working on the car [with BMW] — that was a big moment. I feel accomplished after 10 years, but I’m always thinking forward.”

THE GENIUS OF RONNIE

DA: “We have come up together, building our careers together. There have been occasions where we’ve talked like, ‘I have this opportunity’ or ‘What do you think about this thing?’ or collaborative projects we’ve worked on, and we’re both adamant about decisions we make. We’ve had screaming matches in your glass-walled office about design elements in the Kith stores. I think your insistence on design directives — and I’ve seen you do it with other people as well — is part of the reason why I think they’ve recognized you for this award. You’re driven in a certain way. To motivate yourself and the team, and to be consistent for so long, is difficult.”

BECOMING A NEW YORK BRAND

DA: “Kith has always been a New York brand, but it was less present at the beginning. In the last five years, you growing up in Queens and all of those things have become more important in how you communicate. Kith today feels like a New York brand globally.”

RF: “The problem was, beforehand, I didn’t have the product as the medium to tell the story. Once the product evolved, we became more of a lifestyle brand.”

DA: “And you were able to do collaborations with the Knicks.”

RF: “As we became a staple for people who shop in New York, teams recognized us as an option. But beforehand, we were selling a lot more footwear than apparel and it was harder to tell the story.”

DA: “Even something like bringing Sadelle’s to Paris is a major win.”

RF: “Getting Parisians to eat bagels, that’s a major win for New York. That’s one of my greatest contributions to that market.”

DA: “You’re welcome, Paris.”

COMMUNITY INVESTMENTS

RF: “The success of the company means more than just selling products. I want the platform to help where it can and push the envelope in the same way we do with product. We took on that responsibility in the past few years, and we brought on Sharifa Murdock, who is one of my favorite people. She’s huge in the community and has helped me create these projects and bring resources together to work on investments in communities.”

PHILANTHROPIC PLANS FOR 2022

RF: “Next year, we’re going to continue with the Black Artist series, which was incredible this year. It’s evolving in a great way. We have three great artists that we will soon reveal for next year. [And] we’re forming a foundation right now. It’s going to stand as a branch of the company.”

DA: “This is Kin?”

RF: “Yeah, the Kin Foundation. We have been working hard for the last year putting a program together that’s going to help kids who wouldn’t necessarily have the ability to go to college, or don’t have the means to go. We’re going to be working with an institution to create a curriculum, and also a program of working within the company, giving people opportunities. We’ll have more news to share in May, and this should start mid-September.”

HOW FATHERHOOD CHANGES THINGS

DA: “I have two sons who are 9 and 5, and Ronnie’s known them for their entire lives. It’s very new for him, and I’m shocked that you’re still standing up. But Shir is great and she’s in it with you. And your daughter’s super chill. I’ve never been there where she’s been crying.”

RF: “I have an 8-month-old and luckily, we have great women in our lives who are great mothers and help us as much as they do. It becomes a balance having to strategically map out your time. But it’s the most rewarding and the most fun time of my life, waking up with my daughter and ending the day with her and spending the weekend with her. A different type of happiness unlocks when you have a kid.”

DA: “As you get older, the thing that’s going to be particularly interesting is that so much of the Kith brand comes from your experience in youth, what you liked as a kid and teenager. My son Casper is picking out his clothing now. That experience of reliving that is going to be so inspirational for you, it’s going to come back into the product.”

RF: “That will be a whole different level of happiness. And your kids are also so smart — Casper’s one of the smartest kids I’ve ever met. Just being around kids, I’m thinking about them differently now, picking up on how they absorb and get into the things they like. At that age, that’s when I became a Knicks and Giants fan.”

DA: “Porsche, Pokémon.”

RF: “BMW, Nike. My daughter is going to be a crazy Knicks fan.”

For 35 years, the annual FN Achievement Awards ­— often called the “Shoe Oscars” — have celebrated the style stars, best brand stories, ardent philanthropists, emerging talents and industry veterans. The 2021 event is supported by presenting sponsor Nordstrom, as well as Authentic Brands Group, FDRA, Informa, On and Wolverine Worldwide.

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