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They wanted to bring a sneaker shop to South L.A. Then their dream got bigger

Akil West, one of the founders of Sole Folks
Akil West, one of the founders of Sole Folks, inside the sneaker store and Black-owned marketplace in Leimert Park Village in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Sole Folks was just going to be a sneaker boutique in Leimert Park.

Founders Akil West, Taz Arnold and Nika King wanted to bring a specialty sneaker store that would sell exclusive kicks to South Los Angeles where they grew up and where there aren’t many streetwear stores.

For the record:

4:51 PM, Jan. 25, 2021 A phone number listed in this story for Sole Folks was recently changed. The current number is (323) 815-1155.

When they were approved for a larger retail space, their vision for what Sole Folks could be instinctively expanded as well. It has since become a creative oasis for aspiring local designers and talent.

“This place is bigger than just a sneaker store,” said West, 47, who has been involved in the L.A. streetwear community since the late 1990s. “This is somewhere I can actually create an economic resource for a lot of entrepreneurs who have suffered through COVID-19.”

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A customer with a crew cap
A customer with a crew cap by designer Manny J Style of Thread Haus at the grand opening of Sole Folks in Leimert Park in August.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced businesses throughout the city to permanently close their doors, retail shops within the Leimert Park Village, a popular stomping ground for Black people to celebrate their culture through fashion, art and music, experienced record-breaking sales particularly during the summer months, according to business owners in the area. Sole Folks, which opened in August, is among the newest shops in the Village.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Black-owned businesses in the Leimert Park Village have been thriving this summer. Many owners begin to strategize on how to make the most of the historic moment.

Almost everything sold at Sole Folks was made by a Black designer, and prices are generally $25 to $350. As visitors walk into the two-story space, there’s a broad arrangement of merchandise ranging from screen-pressed tees that promote sartorial statements to Leimert Park baseball jerseys and bomber jackets that pay homage to Black icons such as the late former Laker Kobe Bryant and civil rights activist Angela Davis.

A wall in the space is dedicated to eccentric accessories and home goods including Afrocentric-printed hats, fitted beanies, decorative face masks and scented candles. Customers can thumb through a rare vinyl collection and get their sneakers rejuvenated or uniquely customized at Kicks “B” Clean, a shoe cleaning service that operates in the back of the store.

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A merchandise display
A display of merchandise at the grand opening of Sole Folks in Leimert Park on Aug. 1.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Upstairs in the Sole Folks Lab is where West, Arnold and King plan to host a fashion incubator program beginning this summer for aspiring fashion designers between the ages of 16 to 25, and across the hallway is where they will host podcasts and other media shows. A workshop room is located on the outdoor patio where students can sew and take photos of their work.

There’s a lot going on inside and outside of Sole Folks on a daily basis, but what makes the boutique stand out from other stores in Los Angeles is its ability to attract an intergenerational crowd of fashion lovers through its undeniable celebration of Black history and contemporary take on streetwear culture.

DJ Earry Hall
DJ Earry Hall spins records at the grand opening of the store Sole Folks.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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On a typical day, it’s not uncommon to catch a DJ spinning hip-hop records while people gather in a seating area in front of the shop to safely socialize or dance. The boutique also hosts a weekly food giveaway of organic produce.

“We want to inspire other designers and entrepreneurs to come” to Leimert Park, said West, adding that he envisions the community becoming a Black arts district in the near future. “The best way to do it is through fashion. We can do what Supreme did to Fairfax.”

As of early January, nearly 40 designers were selling their goods at Sole Folks through its consignment program. Because the shop is under West’s nonprofit, Black Owned and Operated Community Land Trust, the owners don’t have to rely on the sales of the merchandise to keep the business going. This allows them to give a large percentage of sales revenue — nearly 80% — to brand owners, West said.

Customers look through racks
Syheim Banks, center, with brother Naheim Banks, right, of Bellflower, look through merchandise at Sole Folks.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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Brand owners who would like to sell their products at the shop can submit applications via the Sole Folks website.

The idea to create a retail co-op space to help other entrepreneurs start businesses came to West while he was serving 14 years in prison for burglary.

While in prison, West, who opened a vintage hip-hop clothing store in the late 1990s and a coffee shop in 2000, often fielded questions from other inmates who were curious about his previous business ventures. A common thread he found in their stories was a lack of positive mentorship and resources to build their own brands. He began writing books and building programs to teach people in underserved communities about financial literacy.

Akil West, cofounder of Sole Folks
Sole Folks cofounder Akil West reflects on the purpose of the boutique, which is as a Black marketplace and incubator program for aspiring designers.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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“I vowed when I got home to create a resource space for young adults who are artists and wanting to be entrepreneurs or have that get up and go [mentality],” said West.

Shortly after being released nearly two years ago, West tapped his longtime friends, Arnold, musician and founder of fashion brand TISA, and King, an actor on HBO’s “Euphoria,” to assist him with building Sole Folks.

Here are Black-owned restaurants, coffee shops, fitness centers, lifestyle brands and other businesses to support.

For Arnold, a self-proclaimed artisan who has worked in the fashion and music industries for more than a decade, it was important for his next business venture to have a social influence in the neighborhood in which he grew up.

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“One of the things that I think Sole Folks brings to the community is the experience and some of our wisdom in regards to the arts like fashion and music in particular,” Arnold said. “It’s a really unique perspective that’s sought out from other creatives and professionals who live all around.

Taz Arnold, cofounder of Sole Folks.
Taz Arnold, cofounder of Sole Folks, at the boutique in Leimert Park Village.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“So to offer that here for free to the community … and then to keep passing it along, maybe we can bring some type of solidarity … and financial circulation amongst the people in our neighborhoods,” he added.

When Arnold’s musical group Sa-Ra scored the soundtrack for a short film created by Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director Virgil Abloh in lieu of the brand’s traditional fashion show, Arnold brought the virtual experience to Sole Folks. During a soft opening event in July, a truck was parked in front of the boutique for passersby to watch the animated film. (Leimert Park was the first stop on the virtual tour in L.A., Arnold said.)

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Sole Folks has received other nods from bellwethers in the entertainment industry as well.

Shortly after opening its doors in August, the boutique became one of multiple Leimert Park businesses to be highlighted in Jay-Z and Pharrell’s “Entrepreneur” music video, which was released in August and directed by South L.A. native Calmatic.

Idris Muhammad purchases sneakers with help from Montage Taylor.
Idris Muhammad, left, purchases Puma BMW collaboration sneakers with help from Sole Folks partner Montage Taylor.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Elijah Simmons, a rap artist, fashion designer and community activist in Leimert Park, said Sole Folks has brought new energy to the already bustling community of Black creatives.

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“Their connections to the music, fashion industry and community have made them a reliable source and their collaborative efforts have brought opportunities to artists from Leimert including myself,” said Simmons, who goes by Six Sev. He was a moderator for a panel discussion about sneaker culture at Sole Folks in October.

“Akil has been a helping hand since the store opened, and Taz Arnold was always someone I looked up to, so to know [that] I can access them right on Degnan [Boulevard] is wonderful,” Simmons added.

Guests sit on a panel
Sole Folks co-owner Akil West moderated a panel about sneaker culture in October at the boutique in Leimert Park.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Gamel Zakoul, who started his brand Head Attire Trendsetter about a year ago, didn’t expect to be selling his products, which range from fedora hats to unisex apparel, at a bricks-and-mortar store so soon. He has been vending at Sole Folks for nearly five months.

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“It’s mind-blowing,” said Zakoul, 42, of Los Angeles. “It just gives me a chance to expand and I’m constantly finding myself designing more and more things because now I have to. I feel like I have to meet deadlines now.”

It’s also the first time that Ontario-based designer JaVonnie Bryant has sold her products, which include colorful pre-wrapped turbans, Afrocentric-patterned hats and luxurious dusters. Since Bryant started vending at Sole Folks about four months ago, she’s seen a slight increase in her brand’s sales.

Known as “Mallory With the Flowers’’ on Instagram, Mallory Browne has virtually documented her journey as a self-taught florist.

“For me, it’s crucial at this time” to be in a physical store, said Bryant, owner of Zevelyn Jean. “I feel like my biggest hindrance is visibility. I still feel like, for the most part, I’m somewhat invisible, and so this is just creating more exposure.

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“Despite the times that we’re going through, it’s been advantageous for me,” she added.

To get more creatives involved, West plans to start a 10-week fashion incubator program this summer, which will mentor aspiring young designers on how to make products and how to start their fashion brands. West said the program will also feature guest lectures from industry giants such as Fear of God founder Jerry Lorenzo and Union L.A. co-owner Chris Gibbs, who led a discussion in October about his latest Jordan shoe collaboration.

Union L.A. owner Chris Gibbs speaks
Inside the Sole Folks Lab, about 50 people listened to Union L.A. owner Chris Gibbs speak at Sole Folks.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

West hopes to collaborate with an e-commerce platform such as Shopify to sponsor students for the incubator program and other efforts he plans to bring to Sole Folks in the near future. Sole Folks also started a GoFundMe page to raise funds for the program and to redesign the retail space.

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As the Sole Folks team builds an army of young entrepreneurs through its workshops, West said it’s critical for each designer to continue the work that he and his partners started.

“More than anything, what have you done to reinvest into your community and hire people in your community?” he said. “That’s the biggest part of our cohort.”

Sole Folks, 4317 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 815-1155, solefolks.com


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