OUT OF OFFICE

Ronnie Fieg: The Sweet Life

Kith founder Ronnie Fieg sat down with Rich Kleiman on the latest “Out of Office” to discuss his entrepreneurial hustle, the evolution of his brand, and what the future may hold.

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On a vibrantly warm, sunny morning in a massive, museum-like office inside an immaculate new building along the Williamsburg waterfront, Kith founder and creative director Ronnie Fieg held court in a white button-down shirt, navy shorts, a white baseball cap, white Kith socks, and navy and white New Balances.

Fieg notes that it took 18 months for Kith to design the enormous, modern, well-appointed space spanning an entire floor on Kent Avenue, and another 18 months to build it.

“We actually took the lease on the space before the company could afford it, just hoping and knowing that we could grow into the space,” he told Boardroom co-founder and CEO Rich Kleiman for the “Out Of Office” podcast.

“I’m really happy how it turned out. This is one of my favorite accomplishments so far,” he said.

As he celebrates his 40th birthday on June 15, Fieg discussed building Kith into a wildly popular fashion and lifestyle brand everyone wants to collaborate with, growing from a stock boy to a revered generational tastemaker, and learning to evolve and adapt within an ever-changing industry landscape.

The entrepreneurial evolution of Ronnie Fieg began on his 13th birthday when he started working at New York City’s David Z Shoes (the David Z in question is Fieg’s mother’s cousin.) Growing up in Queens in the 1980s and ’90s, Fieg described it as an era in which you had to form your own opinion about things. Toiling in store basements for hours on end to be able to afford the items he wanted, Fieg gained precious personal experience and the ability to view all the newest products as they arrived, enabling him to form his own opinions and tastes at a far earlier age than most.

“When I hit the floor, I started selling product and seeing why people liked what they liked and what they gravitated to,” he said, “that was my favorite part of my career. My taste for product started so early that I still love the same things I loved then. Didn’t change. What I loved then, I still love today. Obviously, it evolved, but that stayed constant.”

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Fieg started working full-time 23 years ago and has been logging 80-hour weeks ever since. He attended both Nassau Community College on Long Island and Baruch College in Manhattan, but ultimately left before graduating because he felt like he was in school for the wrong reasons.

He had always had something else in mind. And while Fieg said his father never really understood the concept of being an entrepreneur, his mother was a dreamer.

“My mom really wished for me to pursue my dreams and my dad was always like, take the safer bet, have a steady job, and do the best you can,” he said.

Fieg spent 15 years working for David Z, advancing his way up to store clerk, store manager, and ultimately the company’s head buyer by age 25. His goal was to key a transition from brown shoes and boots — which used to rule New York City — into more of an athletic footwear business.

One of Fieg’s biggest breaks came in 2007 while working at David Z on a collaboration with Asics to design three pairs of Gel Lyte IIIs that would come to be called “The 252 Pack.” The collab garnered interest from a local writer who ended up getting Fieg onto the cover of the Pursuit section of the Wall Street Journal.

“I want to offer a universe to people. That’s eventually the goal, right? I want to build a world where people go and have fun the way they would to Disney World or Disneyland.”

Fieg was biking to work on the second day the shoe was released when he got a call from his mom.

“She was crying on the phone, freaking out that it was on the cover of the paper,” Fieg recalled. “I didn’t even know. I was pulling up to the store, and then all of a sudden, I see the line wrapping around the block. I’ve never really seen that in my business before. It was shocking.”

In the aftermath, Fieg grew friendly with writers, editors, and bloggers within the growing footwear scene who helped him stay up on the next trends or products. As he became closer with them, they started taking interest in what he was doing and covering his products and projects that he curated as a buyer.

“That was,” he said, “the beginning of my career in design.”

In 2010, after designing on his own for a few years while still working for David Z, Fieg saw a need in New York City for a different type of shop; a welcoming, experiential space where enthusiasts could come and hang out. That’s why Fieg started Kith, opening two small retail footwear shops in 2011 in the back of existing retail locations of streetwear brand Atrium, one in Brooklyn and another in SoHo.

It was there that Kith quickly began to make a name for itself.

Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

“I took a huge pay cut,” Fieg said. “I was making a salary and I left to take half, and I was really worried about whether or not it would be successful in the beginning, like any other business that opens for the first time.”

Patrons started coming and hanging out, he said, and fans increasingly called for Kith to expand and become a standalone fashion entity; Fieg responded in 2012 by doing precisely that. Notably, Fieg prides himself on never taking outside money to fund his projects, ensuring that he can run a fully self-owned, self-made, self-sustaining operation. It was a sacrifice he’s made for a long time for himself and his family, he said, pouring everything back into the business.

“That’s the entrepreneurial spirit, and New York, I guess — like a New York hustler’s mentality of being so afraid to lose it,” Fieg said. “This business is tough, man. It’s cutthroat, having to weather a lot of different eras in technology and experiences and brands that come out of nowhere.

“When I speak on it with my friends, I compare it to how LeBron has weathered so many different superstars in his time in the league and how he’s still consistent and does what he does. And you can count on him. You trust him to do what he does.”

Fieg has always strived to make Kith into a trustworthy brand that remains true and consistent even as it grows over time. This project was never about becoming No. 1, but rather channeling his competitive energy and spirit to measure what he’s doing now against what he’s done in the past, making sure the brand never gets stale or stagnant — to try always to be the best version of Kith while also being disruptive, which Fieg said is in the company’s DNA.

He told Kleiman that Kith not only has to cater to the consumer who’s been with the brand for all 11 years, but for someone also just discovering the company now, creating a product assortment where every item has evolved in that decade-plus.

“It’s always a test,” Fieg continued. “Can you make it better? Can it continue to get better? And being the consumer, always having been the consumer of the product that we’re building, has allowed me to keep a consistent eye on the progress that we’ve made.”

Fieg and Kith have always been inspired by trips around the world he’s made, starting with a 2013 visit to Miami that led to a capsule collection called the ECP — East Coast Project — with a Knicks-meets-Dolphins colorway. There have now been over 15 such trips, from Tokyo and Brazil to Wyoming and Paris, where concepts and collections are born and friends are invited along to enjoy the journey.

“I’ve worked my whole life, so I’m trying to include my friends in the wins, seeing people enjoy product around me that we work so hard on. That’s a great feeling,” Fieg said. “So I love incorporating these trips within my business, to be able to launch product through an experiential trip and wearing the product in the setting it was designed for.”

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Footwear News

Like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Nautica before him, Fieg has used Kith’s experiential ethos as a differentiating factor in setting the brand apart in a cramped, crowded, and competitive space.

“They were set designers for worlds that they built, and their clothing fit within the set,” he said. “That’s a different type of emotional connection that you have to brands like those who weren’t on the internet, but you were seeing those products in magazines, on commercials, on television, and then you chop them within bigger concessions in department stores. And it let your imagination roam.”

Fieg’s had to create both the physical stores and the online spaces in a way that still permitted fans to feel like they were hanging out in a relaxed atmosphere while enabling them to engage with (and ultimately love) the product just as much as he does.

Kith Treats, a fully formed global franchise selling ice cream and frozen yogurt at retail locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Miami, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Paris, London, and Tokyo, provides an extension of that experiential mindset. It’s an accessible entryway into the broader brand for consumers of all ages and backgrounds.

“I stood there the first day that we opened in the first Brooklyn space and just watched the first 100 people,” Fieg said, “and every single person took the first bite and smiled. That’s how I knew it was the right thing to do, whether it made money or not.”

Kith plans to open its first standalone ice cream parlor in the near future, Fieg said, further extending the brand as he strives to offer a universe to people, building out a space for everyone to enjoy.

“I want to offer a universe to people. That’s eventually the goal, right? I want to build a world where people go and have fun the way they would to Disney World or Disneyland,” he said, “where ‘this is where I’m going to spend my time today.’ For me, it’s always needing to be one step ahead to make people feel like we’re invested in their time.”

Kith’s many brand collaborations, from Supreme and Coca-Cola to Looney Tunes and BMW, are a major part of how Fieg balances the work he’s put in for 27 years with fun and fulfillment. Kith worked with LeBron James on a custom pair of Nike LeBron 15s that the superstar wore for the 2018 NBA All-Star Game (at which he’d win MVP honors). There were both on and off-court versions of the shoe, in addition to a documentary that Fieg produced. In a book celebrating Kith’s 10-year anniversary, there was a photo of James in those shoes soaring for a dunk.

It’s a moment, Fieg said, that he’ll look back on his whole life and say he can’t believe that they got to work together.

“My taste for product started so early that I still love the same things I loved then. Didn’t change. What I loved then, I still love today.”

“I got to get to know LeBron on a really personal level, what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and what makes him tick,” Fieg said. “Not many people will have that opportunity and that’s something that I will forever cherish.”

Those collaborations aggregate to the wins Fieg said he needs to remind him why he’s running such a demanding, taxing business, something he still calls extremely difficult and challenging.

“People may assume it’s all fun and games,” he said, “but 75% of it is not fun at all. And the 25% that is fun needs to outweigh the 75% of my time that I spend on operations, logistics, finance, and all of those things that are not fun at all. Those wins need to be really big to remind me of why I do that.”

And no win compared to his collab with the New York Knicks last year.

Kith not only designed the team’s black 2021-22 Nike City Edition uniforms, but the court itself at Madison Square Garden and a 17-piece Nike capsule collection.

“That’s my single greatest feeling in my whole life, replacing the Knicks logo with Kith in the same font over the basketball on that vintage logo,” Fieg said. “The company is like my child. I remember the first time I met John Starks. Some of my childhood heroes, those were the biggest starstruck moments for me.”

Fieg and his wife, Shira, now have a child of their own, a 16-month-old daughter. And ironically, he said that if there was any business he can make sure she avoids, retail would probably be one of them. But if she really wanted that life, she’d have to learn and work her way up from the bottom, just like Ronnie did.

At 10 physical stores right this second, expansion will come gradually for Kith so the importance of the experience can continue to take precedence. Fortunately, continuing to exist as a private, self-funded company means there’s no undue pressure to expand rapidly, allowing Fieg to grow the operation at his own pace.

Now, on his 40th birthday, Ronnie Fieg has never looked at the 27 years he’s spent in the industry as work despite such a huge chunk of his life having been devoted to it. He’s looked at his accomplishments more as an evolution than anything else, as maximizing the potential to improve every single day. That approach has allowed the brand and its visionary to chart the next several decades as deliberately as they please.

Through immense and intense effort, everyone seems to want to exist in Fieg’s orbit in the worlds he’s so carefully crafted. And like any good universe, it’s a fact of natural law that this one will keep expanding.

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