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APL courts success by taking its basketball game to the halls of fashion

APL courts success by taking its basketball game to the halls of fashion
Identical twins and APL founders Adam, left, and Ryan Goldston. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Adam and Ryan Goldston, the 28-year-old identical-twin founders of breakout Los Angeles sneaker line Athletic Propulsion Labs, sat at a small, round table earlier this month in the glass-fronted showroom of their office. The space, outfitted with a pingpong table and sneaker samples, was tucked inside the tower of the slick Los Angeles Center Studios production complex near the 110 Freeway in downtown L.A.

In the showroom, colorful sneakers, including APL's originals, lined three walls, mounted in precise rows. Ryan, the more voluble of the duo, talked about the impetus behind the APL brand, which the brothers founded in 2009, a couple of months before graduating from USC, where they played basketball and football.

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"We felt for a long time that fashion is becoming more casual and performance-focused in terms of the textiles, the fits and the technology, and that performance was becoming more fashion-focused," he said.

The TechLoom Pro Metallic at $160.00 from Athletic Propulsion Labs.
The TechLoom Pro Metallic at $160.00 from Athletic Propulsion Labs. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Wearing a striped T-shirt that hugged his toned biceps — the brothers work out daily — Ryan talked about how APL, which started out as a basketball-shoe business, ended up becoming a high-fashion favorite. APL footwear — the sneakers generally range from $140 to $225 — can be found at luxury retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Intermix and Net-a-Porter.

"So many people spend their time outside of the office since they've got cellphones and their other devices and they want to be able to do things seamlessly throughout the day," said Adam, wearing a fitted gray knit shirt and sporting a severe clipped undercut and exaggerated beard. "And where our brand sits, you can wear it to go to the gym but you can also wear it to dinner. There's no real separation now."

What he's getting at is how casual dressing has become, as typified by the somewhat creaky term "athleisure" adopted by the fashion industry to explain people who wear athletic-inspired apparel for every aspect of their lives, not just for the gym. And it appears this segment is booming. According to market researcher NPD Group, the athletic footwear industry in the U.S. grew by 8% to $17.2billion in sales in 2015. Overall, consumers, NPD Group reported, spent $323billion in 2014 on apparel, accessories and footwear in the U.S. This 1% increase over 2013, which represents about $2billion in sales, largely came from spending on activewear and bags.

In L.A., the athleisure look is practically second nature, with moms wearing Lululemon Athletica yoga pants to run errands and men in Under Armour running togs as everyday attire. However, what those athletic brands haven't been able to do is get fashion-world cred as a crossover success in the way that APL has. And unlike sneaker behemoths such as Nike and Adidas, the Goldstons made a purposeful design choice early.

"There aren't any big, blazing logos," Ryan said. "Our logo is no logo."

The brothers have stuck to making quantifiable athletic performance the core their fashion brand. It also didn't hurt that their sneakers have been worn by Kim Kardashian West and other members of Kardashian-Jenner family as well as by Justin Bieber, Michael B. Jordan and Shay Mitchell.

To continue growing their brand, the brothers have had to stay focused and committed to their goals. The Goldstons, who were born in New York but grew up in California, say they were competitive with each other as children and they still don't know who's older because their mother, fashion blogger and APL managing partner N.J. Goldston, doesn't think it's wise to tell them.

In late January, the Goldstons ventured from L.A. to Paris during men's fashion week to celebrate the launch of their newest retail partner, Sporty Henri, an upscale European e-commerce business, founded by former professional handball player Henri Tai, that's devoted to sports and style.

The Blade at $225.00 from Athletic Propulsion Labs.
The Blade at $225.00 from Athletic Propulsion Labs. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

They also went to New York to show their line to buyers during women's fashion week and traveled to London to celebrate the fifth anniversary of retail partner Mr. Porter. They're now making plans to go to Israel in April for Forbes' 30 Under 30 Summit, having been recently recognized as being bright, young entrepreneurs by the magazine, which reported revenue of the Goldstons' privately held company is up 3,500% year on year.

Perhaps the most poignant business journey of their year, however, will happen this month when they travel to Hong Kong again. Their first trip there was during the holiday season in 2012 when they first discovered Asian luxury retailer Lane Crawford.

"I turned to Ryan," Adam said, recalling the day they made a promise to each other. "And at this point, we're only selling men's basketball shoes online, and said, 'This is the most amazing store. If we're ever selling in this store, I'll know that we've made it and built something really special. Imagine if we could be in that store some day.'"

They will be taking over Lane Crawford's shop-in-shops, a rare achievement for an activewear brand for an installation that tends to put a seasonal spotlight on luxury fashion labels such as Chanel and Céline.

Having played college basketball, they started with a single product designed with a proprietary spring compression for higher jumps, the Concept I basketball shoe, which they patented under the moniker Load 'N Launch.

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In the summer of 2010, the Goldstons started selling the sneakers online with boxes of shoes crowding their first tiny downtown office and their studio apartments. With inventory to sell, taking their wares to the NBA seemed like a natural fit, especially if APL could get teams interested in the sneakers.

That's not how the NBA saw it. The basketball association banned the brothers' shoes from pro basketball in October of 2010, citing the shoe technology for "undue competitive advantage."

The NBA ban turned into worldwide headlines for the twins, garnering more publicity than they had ever dreamed of despite basketball players not being allowed to wear their shoes on the court.

Now the APL line includes men's and women's shoes for running, cross-training and men's basketball with a new design called the Blade, crafted in the company's TechLoom, a lightweight knit that's a signature of many of their shoes, including a unique gold and silver metallic version of their runner Pro, almost sold out at Intermix this season.

APL also plans to launch a full line of performance-based active sportswear for men and women later this year, testing select items such as seamless running shirts to lessen chafing, jersey running shorts and tights at men's online retailer Mr. Porter.

A fashion week collaboration this season with buzzy New York women's label Creatures of the Wind has put APL on the radar of Vogue magazine. APL's trainer from the runway, the unisex Cielo ($495) in leather and suede, will debut in May as the brand's first Italian handmade sneaker style and be available at L.A. boutique Just One Eye as well as Lane Crawford, Saks and Shopbop.com. (APL's other sneakers are made in Asia.)

And what's next? The Goldstons remained a little guarded about the future of their brand, only hinting at the future, which might include opening their own stores.

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The brothers said feedback from customers and their retail partners has them eyeing full collections that move beyond athletic apparel into full-fledged fashion territory. "We're working toward that," Ryan said. "And when we do it, it's absolutely going to be right."

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