One need look no further than the booming athleisure trend in all its cashmere-sweatpant-wearing glory to see that the once disparate worlds of fashion and athletics have been on a convergence course. That convergence looks a lot like Brandblack, an El Segundo-based label that launched last year with some serious, performance-oriented kicks — such as the sneakers Los Angeles Clipper Jamal Crawford sported all season.
For spring and summer 2015, Brandblack expanded into its first full men's apparel collection, which aims right for the sweet spot where sport meets style.
The debut Future Legends collection — named after the opening track on David Bowie's 1974 album "Diamond Dogs" — consists of a dozen pieces that from a distance might be mistaken for run-of-the-mill workout wear: baggy shorts, T-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants and the like. Up close, all kinds of fashion-forward flourishes become apparent: sleeveless tops and shorts are embossed to create the appearance of leather, a moisture-wicking T-shirt has a soft drape and slightly drop-tailed hem, and the grommet in a drawstring waistband gleams with a subtle pop of iridescent enamel.
The inaugural offering, which hit retail in mid-March, is being carried by a range of sneaker shops and boutiques including Blends, Conveyor at Fred Segal and American Rag, the latter of which has showcased the wares in the main window of its La Brea Avenue location for the last three weeks.
"It's a brand I think speaks to people who want to wear cool stuff," said Caleb Lin, American Rag vice president and buying director. "The first time we posted something about it, we started selling things instantly."
Lin said that although the high-fashion-meets-the-street take on athletic wear is hardly new (citing labels such as Wings + Horns), what sets Brandblack apart is its favorable pricing (sneakers start at $140, apparel includes $40 T-shirts, $100 sweatpants and $150 hoodies). "The Jet shoes are being made in the same factory that makes shoes for Prada and they're offering a really good quality $110 pant.... If you're an average guy you can come in here and pick up a piece without even really thinking twice about it."
Brandblack is the brainchild of founder David Raysse, and it's hard to imagine someone more perfectly positioned to meld the worlds of fashion and sports. "My father was one of the founders of Kenzo," says Raysse, "and my mother — her maiden name when she was modeling was Carol La Brie — was on the cover of Vogue [Italia, in 1971]. She was the first black model … before Beverly Johnson [was on the cover of U.S. Vogue]. Those were the people I grew up around. At the same time I was obsessed with sports — I played basketball in high school and in college — so I've always had both interests from the beginning. I've been trying to force this brand [concept] into every job I've worked at — and I've been doing this for 20 years."
By "this" he means the sneaker business. After briefly studying industrial design at Pratt, Raysse (pronounced like "rice") began his career in 1993 at Fila, where he worked on several high-profile sneakers, including the Grant Hill II and the Stackhouse. Four years later he moved to Adidas, where he became director of its basketball program and designed shoes for Kobe Bryant and others. He left the footwear world for a few years to work with designer Philippe Starck (where his projects varied from eyewear to motorized bicycles). In 2009 he was tapped by Manhattan Beach-based Skechers to launch that company's performance footwear category.
Although Raysse left Skechers in 2012 to start Brandblack, the company is a majority investor in the fledgling endeavor. Raysse describes the relationship like that of Volkswagen Group-owned luxury nameplate Bugatti. "The only thing we rely on them for is logistics and money," he said. "We're completely autonomous in every way — all of the day-to-day, the design, the marketing."
Most of that day-to-day brand building takes place in Brandblack's El Segundo offices, thanks to an employee base barely big enough to field a pickup basketball game (just eight employees including Raysse, creative director Billy Dill and an apparel designer who works out of New York City), and Dill says that basing the brand here has shaped the look and feel of it.
"We have a very L.A. aesthetic, and the weather is a big factor. If you're working at one of the bigger athletic companies in Portland or Baltimore, you're not going for a run or going surfing in the morning and then driving around in a convertible," Dill said. "Here you can play ball all day long. And there's a certain design aesthetic that's going on right in terms of the fusion between fashion and sports, and it just sits well in L.A."
Brandblack's first footwear collection of six silhouettes officially launched in February 2014, with almost no marketing effort, selling through just three retail accounts and the company's own e-commerce site. The next shoe wouldn't drop for more than a year.
Raysse and Dill say this slow pace gave them the opportunity to tweak their product offerings and let buzz build organically. The buzz factor was helped along by the fact that the brand had signed Crawford to be its face, complete with a signature basketball shoe called the J. Crossover. "We went that route because if we're going to create product that's so overtly not overly sporty there needs to be some authentication of what it does," Raysse said. "And there's a kind of quiet elegance to [Crawford's] game that we felt was a good fit."
The second iteration of that $140 shoe — the J. Crossover II — is as light as it is low-key, with one of the size 9s weighing in at just 10 ounces thanks to an all-knit forefoot construction and use of a proprietary foam cushioning dubbed Jet-Lon. It proved to resonate at the cash register too — when it hit retail on March 15, brick-and-mortar stores reported same-day sellouts and Raysse says that a special version released in late April to coincide with the Clippers' appearance in the NBA playoffs sold out at finishline.com in all of 15 minutes.
In addition to Crawford's signature sneaker, Brandblack makes three other basketball shoes, a running shoe and a stylish $160 off-court sneaker (the Jet) with the kind of nappa leather uppers that have it going toe-to-toe with any of the normcore kicks on the market today.
Raysse won't discuss specific sales figures but describes them as "minuscule." ("We've sold maybe 10,000 pairs of shoes total since launch," he says.) But while shoes are the foundation of the business, what distinguishes Brandblack from the rest of the pack is what's going on from the ankles up. Taking a page from the fashion playbook, each apparel collection will be inspired by a specific theme. Raysse points to the inaugural Future Legends collection. "We [all] aspire to be future legends," he said, "like the kid who's playing basketball at 16 wants to be Kobe Bryant and gets up earlier than everybody, trains harder."
Grounded in a color palette of black and gray, the dozen pieces share a minimalist/retro-futuristic vibe including a varsity jacket in what appears to be heather gray neoprene but is actually digitally printed, fully breathable, spacer mesh (the Dekkard jacket, $200). There are also sweatpants in the same material but in a silhouette inspired by military and tactical BDU (battle dress uniform) trousers (Vector pant, $130) and a weather-resistant pullover anorak shell with a cloak-like hood and colorful lace tips dipped in thermoplastic polyurethane (Sith hood, $150).
The already completed fall 2015 Strangebattlefield collection, which will add more running and training pieces to the mix, has a definite military motif, but the name also refers to the notion of competition. "Menswear takes a lot of cues from the military, the cuts, the details, so there's a nod to military inspiration. But an athlete can find himself running in an alley, a parking lot or a stadium," Raysse said. "So the idea is that wherever you are competing, that's your strange battlefield."
The collection includes running tights and fully engineered running shorts that Dill points out are constructed without creating a single seam. ("They're knit on a tubular knitting machine," he explains.) But the standout is a poncho-like piece that buttons asymmetrically that Dill describes as a running cape. "It was inspired by a Dutch military parka from the 1920s or 1930s," Raysse says, "Nike's not going to do [something like] this."