Dime Q&A: Brandblack Co-Founder & Trend-Setter David Raysse, And Creative Director Billy Dill

One of the toughest things to attempt, and perhaps the most rewarding if you can pull it off, is to become your own boss. The upside is prodigious: You have the opportunity to fully realize your creative vision without fighting through layers of red tape and middle management.

That sort of freedom, however, doesn’t come without an enormous amount of risk. Working for a bigger institution with an established reputation brings its share of frustrations, but it also features an inherent sense of security. Nothing is too big to fail, per se, but things are a lot more difficult for an upstart than for a company that has developed a following over time.

That said, for designer extraordinaire David Raysse, the positives behind controlling one’s own destiny far outweigh the potential negatives. As such, frustrated with having been forced to sacrifice artistic integrity and premium quality for the sake of marketing, Raysse launched Brandblack, a fusion of basketball culture and high-fashion sensibility.

“I felt like I had gotten to a point where I could not design the kinds of products that I wanted to for one reason or another at other companies,” Raysse told Dime in a recent conversation. “There were always layers of bureaucracy and decisions that make it really challenging for new ideas to cut through because there’s a lot at stake.

“I think for me, I care very deeply about what it is I’m designing. I really care about the culture, and I care about good design, I think that’s the most important thing.”

Long a significant presence within the sneaker community, Raysse created the legendary Grant Hill II for Fila at just 22 years old. Later in his career, after studying under revered designer and architect Philippe Starck, Raysse developed the Go Run line for Skechers that Meb Keflezghi wore in the Olympics and while winning the 2014 Boston Marathon. In effect, he took a product that was a non-entity in running and helped shape it into a rising star in the industry.

You can easily see parallels with Brandblack, as Raysse attempts to carve out a niche in a basketball market nearly completely dominated by super-power Nike.

“We know deep inside,” Raysse said, “that what people have been offered so far is not what they actually want.”

Brandblack started small, available primarily online and in select boutiques. Over time, the brand’s physical presence and buzz have steadily begun to gain traction, helped by its partnership with Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. Events like this Thursday’s exclusive release of the FutureLegends J. Crossover sneaker at the Grove in Los Angeles will help to further build the brand’s cache.

Raysse doesn’t view what he’s doing as simply designing basketball sneakers. To him, it’s a “movement” — a new way of thinking for a generation that has grown up wearing the same thing as everyone else. With a line of performance-wear already on the market and plans to expand into running shoes in the future, his vision is starting to bear fruit.

“Nike started to do things their own way, then they kind of bent people’s will — they changed people’s idea of what is aesthetically right, how to market, what is cool,” Raysse said. “All of a sudden, the world is basically theirs in terms of the footwear game.

“If I may be so bold, we want nothing less than people’s wills in our direction, and to change everything. To have a new movement, a new type of philosophy. It sounds crazy, but I think it’s what we try to do. It’s why we hold ourselves to such a high level.”

Click to read the Q&A…

Dime recently had the opportunity to talk with Raysse and creative director Billy Dill about their modus operandi, the state of sneaker culture and what the future holds for Brandblack. (The interview has been edited and condensed for space.)


Dime: David, you were designing big-time sneakers for Fila out of your college dorm room — kind of like a sneaker Mark Zuckerberg.

David: Minus the money! (Laughs)

Dime: Right! So maybe a bad analogy. But what was that like for you at the time, being 22 years old, coming up with a sneaker like the Grant Hill II and seeing people wearing it?

David: It was an amazing time. It illustrates maybe how I’m a little different from other designers in that I was living and breathing the culture. I lived in Brooklyn; I played at Sole in the Hole and West 4th. I was a hip-hop kid, so at the time I had a Caesar haircut, definitely a different animal from designers at other companies. What was exciting at the time was I was the target demographic. I was making shoes that I thought would be cool for myself, and I didn’t have to interpret it. It just kind of came natural. I joke with Billy that I’m a silverback now, definitely not a young baller, but I still play basketball and love hip-hop. I think I’m still connected to the culture without having to pander to it or interpret it in any way.

Dime: You guys are running a pretty unique brand in terms of a fashion-conscious basketball sneaker. What put you on that path to do that?

Billy: We’ve known each other for quite a while, and I have a deep respect for David’s design. He came to me with the idea of doing a basketball brand, and it was loosely based on a fashion sort of premise. And the timing couldn’t be better, since guys are starting to be more aware of fashion. Before and after games, they’re dressing in designer clothes, they’re at the runway shows. And fashion houses are doing fusion lines, integrating sports. The one thing that I thought was lacking was kind of a true performance sports perspective in the fashion side of things, where they kind of mimic sports looks and ideas, but they’re not really performance based.

David: Yeah, you wouldn’t play ball in a pair of Prada sports pants.

Billy: As we built this brand over the last year or so, things have tightened up and changed direction slightly. I think we’re very focused right now and moving in a really strong direction.

Dime: There’s been a push lately to ramp materials in sneakers back up to where they used to be. Brandblack has paid attention to that from the start. What gave you the idea to leave off the bells and whistles and spend your resources on having a higher quality shoe?

David: In the early 2000s, with the advent of sophisticated production methods and new materials, basketball jumped the shark. In the heyday of the 90s, Jordans, Grant Hills, all these different shoes were leather, and there were still some vestiges of classic sneakers that were elegant and wearable on and off the court. As we started getting into thermoplastic urethane and things like that, the shoes started to get more technical looking. All of a sudden, the basketball sneaker now has 19 colors on it, a thousand different pieces of plastic. The only type of shoes that used to look like that were technical running shoes. Now, basketball has kind of taken on that aesthetic.

One of the prime motivators of creating Brandblack is that I reject that on some level. And I know enough that the majority of that aesthetic is marketing. It has nothing to do with the function of the shoe; we’re perfectly capable of making functional shoes that have all of the same lightweight materials, flexibility, support and structure without making it look like I need to wear it with a neon suit.

Dime: I can’t lie and say I don’t have some sneakers that look exactly like what you’re talking about!

Billy: (Laughs) Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when a few of them are like that! But our best-selling shoe last year was Jamal Crawford’s all-white shoe. Every retailer told us that in a sea of neon, it was the only shoe that was all white on the entire wall. All of a sudden, that becomes the radical one.

Dime: You see articles debating what sneaker culture is right now. It almost feels to me like baseball card collecting used to be before the bubble burst on it, where it’s not always necessarily what you like, but what is most limited or looks nice and shiny on Instagram.

David: I guess it’s like any collectible item. Once the secondary market starts to come about, it becomes less pure. It basically just becomes more about that than the love of it. It’s just the way things go, right?

Billy: In the late 80s, early 90s, people weren’t thinking, “I could put this on eBay and get $3,000 for it.” They liked that shoe, they rocked that shoe, they wanted to collect that shoe. I think things got a little out of control.

David: The positive is that you have people who are concerned with trying to elevate footwear. The negative is that there’s a kind of hegemony, a totalitarian aesthetic being defined by a very small group of people that are so caught up with Nike. A lot of times, I see brands doing things and people will say, “Man, that’s a bootleg of this and that from whatever year.” Actually, the shoe you’re referencing is a bootleg of an Adidas or Asics shoe from 20 years before that. If you’re going to comment on people’s stuff, at least know your history. But I guess at the end of the day, it’s better that so many people are passionate about it.

Click to hear how Jamal Crawford joined the team, how his game and outlook align with BrandBlack and a sneak peek of the J.Crossover 2…

Dime: I’ve been a fan of Jamal Crawford’s since his days at Michigan, and he’s definitely not what you would think of as a flagship signature athlete. But he kind of fits in with what you’re doing in terms of a unique brand. I don’t think anyone has ever seen him and not thought, “That guy’s a legit player.” Basically, he’s all about ball, so it would seem like a good fit. How did that come together with Jamal?

David: We agree with everything you said. Brandblack is quite consistent across apparel, footwear, imaging — there’s a feel and vibe for the brand, and we didn’t just want to arbitrarily sign someone because they’re good, and slap shoes on them and hope it works. It was important to find someone that fit the vibe of the brand.

Jamal’s game is so flashy, it’s almost like a playground game. One of our mantras is “Look good winning” — he sure as hell does that. He’s also played for every major market: He came from Seattle, went to Michigan, played in Chicago, New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He plays in L.A. for the only team that matter…for the foreseeable future. (Laughs) Once we looked at all that, there were probably three or four guys that ticked all the boxes. But we had a good rapport with Jamal, and he was really into the movement.

Dime: How helpful has he been in terms of shaping the sneakers? The J.Crossover 2 looks like a great sneaker, more breathable, and from what I’ve heard that came straight from him.

Billy: He’s a genuine, humble, awesome human being, but in terms of building a shoe for him, he’s a royal pain in the ass. (Laughs)

David: He wants it all, basically. He wants a flexible, supportive, super lightweight yet long-lasting shoe that feels like it’s been broken in. He only wears one or two shoes the whole season — literally the same shoe — because he likes a shoe that feels broken in. The challenge for us was finding a midsole that would feel soft enough, yet supportive enough. That’s one of the things that led us to the knit forefoot, that there’s no break-in period. We wanted lateral support, but without sacrificing flexibility. All those things are seemingly disparate and impossible, so it really challenges us to innovate and build better shoes.

Dime: How do you intend to carve out a space for yourselves?

Billy: Just rewind seven or so years ago with Under Armour. It was kind of a compression shirt at the time, just going after a Dri-fit idea. Now they’re in every major sport, they’re with all the big retailers. I’m not saying we’re drafting on their sort of idea, just that at one point, there was no room for anybody else to enter the sports market. Under Armour is definitely in that market now and playing pretty aggressively. There’s always room, there’s always somebody new coming up. We’re going to do it our way and see what comes of it.

Dime: It’s been a very exciting, very hectic couple of years. Has this been everything you’d hoped it would be?

David: Uh, yeah. It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done. There will be days when we come in and say, ‘Well, today’s going to be kind of a quiet day.’ No such thing. There are always a million things going on. It’s a lot of work. Nobody’s handing everything over to us, so we have to fight for every crumpet we get. That’s the part that’s probably been the most challenging, because if you have worked in big companies, then they did all the hard work 20 years ago, so they’re at the point where the red carpets are rolled out for them. So if you’re a designer at one of those companies, you can sort of get spoiled by that.

I feel like just now, in the past two months or so, we feel like this thing’s actually going to work and people are starting to understand what we’re doing. You know how a president looks after the first four years? We’re still moving at that clip right there, but at least … we’re not getting shoes thrown at our head.

What do you think?

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