SNEAKERS & FASHION TRADING CARDS & COLLECTIBLES

Jon Wexler: From Kicks to Cards

How Wex went from constructing Yeezy with Kanye to creating the future of cards through culture at zerocool.

Few people in any industry can be recognized by one name, let alone three letters.

Jon Wexler, commonly referred to as Wex, has helped build billion-dollar brands with Kanye West before spurring the next wave of creators at Shopify. Now under the Fanatics umbrella at zerocool, Wex and StockX co-founder Josh Luber are taking the lessons they learned in footwear to the world of trading cards.

Jon Wexler speaks on stage during BoF VOICES 2021 at Soho Farmhouse (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for BoF VOICES)

Wex, a self-proclaimed hoarder, has rarities ranging from autographed Runaway posters to unreleased Adidas The Kobe III samples. His next step is merging the collectible cache of cards with a space wider than sports.

“I’ve always firmly believed that culture drives everything,” Wex told Boardroom. “When you use culture as your entry point, it grants you the license to look in any direction as long as it has an authentic center of gravity for storytelling. We’re without boundaries and that’s the beauty of zerocool.”

Building without boundaries is the ideal atmosphere for any creator. However, it took years of knocking down doors before Wex had the freedom to break down walls.

So, how did Wex arrive at the spot where he can call Pharrell for NMDs while simultaneously reshaping an industry that’s been around since the 1800s?

Step in the Arena

Jon Wexler started his journey in debt.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin, Wex’s love of hip-hop led him to book, host, and promote concerts around campus and back home in Chicago — from Souls of Mischief to A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill to De La Soul.

“We sold out those shows,” Wex says. “But we still lost all the money. We didn’t know the formula for success. That was sort of my MBA on how to navigate people: setting expectations and asking the right questions to get to the core of the opportunity to find the right path.”

Over the course of his undergrad, Wex worked to climb back to credit in an attempt to pay back the sponsors who helped promote his shows.

“Because I failed so miserably and lost other people’s money, I had no other choice than to work off the debt to the people I’d meet in what people would come to refer to as streetwear space,” he says.

Numerous stores in the Midwest met Wex through sponsoring shows, setting up a sales journey as a rep for emerging brands tied to hip-hop, graffiti, and the subversive new streetwear space. Canvassing the crowd at his events, a young Wex was able to identify what fans were wearing, wanting, and in turn, what would be next.

The relationships in hip-hop from college introduced him into a network of artists and designers as a young adult, foreshadowing the path he’d follow and carve for decades to come.

“I worked at FUCT and Pervert, was repping Kingpin NYC, Pornstar, Kickwear,” recalls Wex of his streetwear start. “My friend had all of Canada, and I had all of the Midwest. We would merchandise a bunch of brands to keep these boutiques alive. It informed the foundation for the way that I see trends materialize through subcultures and populate in the broader zeitgeist.”

By bringing coastal clothing companies to middle America, Wex proved a purveyor of knowing what’s next. After years on the road, it was time for him to take his talents to Portland, where the biggest brands in sportswear called home.

Stars & Stripes

When Wex arrived in Portland, the opportunities were endless, but the offers were bleak.

Applying endlessly at Adidas, Nike, Columbia, Solomon, FILA — any brand that sold sneakers or athletic apparel — the common response was either no or nothing at all.

“I was interviewing for a variety of positions that I knew I could do,” Wex says. “I just couldn’t figure it out.”

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After three fateful years, Adidas asked Wex to talk about a potential role in their basketball brand. The questions they were asking were ones he’d been waiting to answer for years.

“What would you do working with Sonny Vaccaro and ABCD Camp? Or Kobe Bryant? Or Jermaine O’Neal?”

Rather than word-vomit three years of suppressed ideas, Wex kept his cool and risked it all.

“I would actually look at the sixth man on the Toronto Raptors,” he responded. “This kid Tracy McGrady.'”

Diving deep into a teenage talent who rode the bench as a rookie, Wex spoke to McGrady’s mix of hoop pedigree and cultural significance. He suggested Adidas market McGrady across categories from Adidas Basketball to Adidas Originals.

Wex’s brazen answer, a radical embrace of crossover culture, would prove inception. That was where the brand was already heading, despite such signals not being publicly pronounced.

Wex was officially brought on at Adidas as part of their basketball business, working on orders and allotment for the signature ranges of Bryant and McGrady. He learned how to build a buzz in footwear, bringing in small orders of the avant-garde Adidas The Kobe as a means to draft demand for the upcoming Adidas TMAC 1. This thoughtful approach paved the way for the growth of another Adidas empire years down the road.

After three years of knocking down doors and finally getting on with the Three Stripes, an opportunity in Boston brought Wex into the fold at competitor Converse.

“That was my first chance to get into true marketing, and it was great,” Wex says of the Converse pivot. “We worked on the original Dwyane Wade campaigns. There’s still a lot of fulfillment that I get when I think of that time in Boston. Adidas had a subsidiary model, and when I came to Converse, they had a licensee model. I learned different business approaches.”

In his two years at Converse, Wex explored its deep catalog and attended factory visits in Asia. All that overseas travel was enriching professionally, but strained a growing family. It was time to go back to Portland.

Drive to Survive

The Wexlers headed West in a return to Oregon, and after arriving, Jon received a series of phone calls that would change his life.

“I was interviewing at both Nike and Adidas at the time,” he says. “I was in my driveway with the moving truck, and they both called. The whole thing worked out, but it was definitely an interesting time.”

Nike was pursuing Wex for their lifestyle line later known as Nike Sportswear. Adidas Originals, the parallel path for Adi, wanted Wex to help build their casual category. Adidas offered, Nike did not, and the rest is history.

At Adidas Originals, Wex was able to build a brand within a brand that housed everyone from Jeremy Scott to Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry to Big Sean.

“Jeremy Scott was styling Katy Perry with his products that we were co-creating at Adidas at the time,” Wex says. “His product was housed in the LA office. He’d go, ‘Welcome to Jeremy Scott studios!'”

Scott’s makeshift recording space soon became a hot-spot for convergence culture, playing host to the creation spot for songs attributed to Kanye West, Future, Big Sean, Rick Ross, and more. Theophilus London would host an album listening party where Kanye’s creative colleagues in fashion soon became regulars around Scott.

“The whole Donda creative team would come to the office, and they would go through all the products,” Wex says. “They’d always gravitate to the Jeremy bay.”

The late 2000s into the early 2010s allowed Wex to build the Originals brand into a true totem of culture. Outlandish sneakers from Scott startled boutiques and lit up the runway. Advertisements featuring Nicki Minaj, A$AP Rocky, and B.o.B. brought a new energy to the sportswear space. With the mounting momentum, Adidas Originals collaborated with Rick Owens and Raf Simons, cementing itself as a fashion brand.

Soon, they were strong enough to sign Pharrell. However, Wex bonded with a fellow Chicago kid that came on board.

Yeezy Season

In sports, we’re well aware of when an athlete is unhappy with their situation. A superstar player and their agents begin offering clues and quotes, spouting off on social media or planting stories with journalists. Soon, executives across the league swoop in like vultures.

In sportswear, it’s a little different.

Coming off an unprecedented run at Nike Sportswear, Kanye West was not happy. Having had two silos sell-out and cause commotion with no promise of more product, West went to radio stations and the stage of his Yeezus Tour to take out his frustration.

Always additive, Wex saw a world where Kanye could create at Adidas with the reach and support he so desired. After months of masked monologues and behind-the-scenes conversations, the most-influential artist in sportswear divorced the Swoosh for Three Stripes.

“There are no words to describe the creative lightning in a bottle that existed from November 2013 to February 2015,” Wex says, regarding the timespan of signing Kanye to debuting the first Adidas Yeezy collection. “I’ve tried to find the words in the past, but it was just the greatest exposure I’ve ever had to creativity and the process itself. How things twist, turn, and ultimately result in the most powerful outcomes possible.”

“Everyone was doing their part [on Yeezy] in addition to their actual full-time job,” he adds. “There were so many people trying to deliver on the level of the expectation and promise that a partnership of working with Ye could deliver. There was a whole dynamic of really pushing the boundaries forward.”

A close up shoe detail from the adidas Originals x Kanye West YEEZY SEASON 1 fashion show during New York Fashion Week Fall 2015 (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for adidas)

At Adidas, the likes of Rachel Muscat, Paul Mittleman, Nic Galway, Dirk Schoenberger, and countless others worked with Wex to handle the business and marketing end of the Yeezy Adidas partnership and rollout. Just like Kanye called RZA, Jay Z, Q-Tip, and more for the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy studio sessions, the likes of Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo, Justin Saunders, Salehe Bembury were brought into finish the introductory Adidas Yeezy Boost 750 and Adidas Yeezy Boost 350.

While the world waited on a hit-or-miss from Kanye and Adidas, Kanye and Wex always saw the partnership in a much larger realm than crushing the launch release. Historically, endorsement deals in sportswear with collaborators are touch-and-go. In this case, those deep in the trenches truly saw the beginnings of what’s now a billion-dollar brand.

“I think people look at that business today and think that was what it was intended to be,” Wex says. “I think that’s what Kanye intended it to be. I think I intended it to be that. But I’m not sure that was the plan upfront. Those businesses were typically thought of as three to four SKUs, small product collaborations. Move in, move out, and transactionally roll through whoever is the shiniest person or brand is.”

“What that proved is that when you have the cultural significance, thought leadership, and design leadership all in one location? You can push the entire market and bring in the broadest level of interest imaginable.”

Jon Wexler and Kanye West attend the Kanye West Yeezy Season 4 fashion show on September 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Yeezy Season 4)

The energy around Adidas Originals over the course of Wex’s reign led to the signings of Beyoncé, Bad Bunny, and nearly Drake, if it wasn’t for an ill-timed diss track. Prophesying years prior that “artists were the new athletes,” the man who once couldn’t get a call back had just assembled sportswear’s super team.

In 2019, Wex moved all-in at Yeezy and became the brand’s general manager. During his courtship with Kanye, Wex inverted the idea of exclusivity in footwear — creating a world where Adidas Yeezy Boost 350s are worn by athletes, rappers, and soccer moms. It totally upended the rules of hype as we know it.

Learning lessons from his early days working on allotments for T-Mac and Kobe, Wex was able to merge his gut instincts on cultural trends with that of his hard-number business sense. Much in part for this, Kanye West is a billionaire with the ability to put out product to fever pitch anticipation and other-worldly sell through rates.

After years of commuting from Portland to Calabasas to Wyoming and back, Wex saw it was time to empower the next generation of creators from the ground up. The move was surprising, but most good ones are.

Providing a Platform

Years at Adidas and then creating with Kanye taught Wex volumes about the assets, infrastructure, and logistics needed for companies and creatives to succeed. At Shopify, he saw an opportunity to take his high-level tutelage and bring it to small businesses.

“The best part of working there was helping creative people find a way, almost similar to how we helped reverse engineer things for Kanye,” Wex says on his time at Shopify. “It was a really analogous track trying to help creatives realize their dreams. That was super fulfilling and I learned a lot of problem-solving.”

Joining the team in the fall of a tumultuous 2020, Wex had the space to work remotely but touch talent around the globe. From Jimmy Butler’s Big Face Coffee to Steven Victor’s Victor Victor line, creatives who long sought the infrastructure Kanye enjoyed at Adidas were granted the same structure at Shopify — only at a more streamlined scale.

“The building blocks are being curious and trying to add value to ecosystems so that everyone benefits,” says Wex. “Victor Victor is one of my favorite things to see happen over the last year. To be able to say that I played a part in that somehow? That was so cool.”

Victor Victor foreshadowed how Wex was yet again ahead of the curve on the next hottest trend.

The New School of Collector

Today, Jon Wexler holds a new job inspired by all his past work, experiences, and interests.

In 2022, Wex is now the executive director at Fanatics Collectibles, joining Luber at zerocool. Looking to transcend culture through trading cards, the passion points and signs all align with Wex’s latest leap.

In theory, this move is more of the same for the sportswear icon. He graduated from promoting shows and streetwear brands to building billion-dollar companies with Kanye West. The tale of the tape shows that Wex’s recent work includes adding infrastructure to creatives both big and small at Adidas and Shopify.

This time, rather than build up or down, he’s looking to build across. At zerocool, Wex sees the cultural cache reserved for sports and music shifting to a new space. Not shoes or shirts, but trading cards.

“When people think of trading cards, they go to an immediate visual in their head of baseball or a Jordan rookie,” says Wex. “That’s for a reason. This industry was founded because sports were the most culturally relevant thing at the time. That has transitioned. Whether it’s social media, entertainment, music, art, crypto, or digital technologies, there’s just a myriad of ways to gain cultural significance now.”

Trading cards still live mostly in the space of sports with the exception of Pokémon and a few others. This is all the more exciting for Wex and his colleagues at zerocool.

“I’d like to think that the real opportunity to lift all boats is to really open up and unlock the non-athlete side, which has been largely underserved and overlooked,” says Wex. “Think about the various phases of Pharrell and his growth. If this construct had existed back during the Skateboard P with the gold Blackberry days? What would a Pharrell rookie card look like? What kind of ecosystem could you create around that?”

While Wex says that particular play isn’t in the cards, that doesn’t mean that both the past and the present aren’t part of the future plans for zerocool.

Working with a Fanatics family that calls cultural pillars such as Jay-Z partners and recently acquired Mitchell & Ness, Wex has a chance to work with a world-builder like Luber on the daily.

“His superpower is finding the blank space in all opportunities,” Wex says of Luber. “Seeing the way that he thinks about opportunities and lands on the ‘it’ thing? I’m always like, ‘Oh, that’s genius!’ That’s happened multiple times so far, and that’s no exaggeration. … I’m always inspired by his perspective on how to help find solutions for problems we might solve. He is really a light-finder, and it’s been a lot of fun.”

For a college kid who started his career in debt, fun has been a common theme for Wex even when the times were tough. Always willing to bet on himself and always aligned with how culture shapes and shifts trends, it’s fair to bet that more fun is on the way for Wex at zerocool.

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