Milestone: Q&A With Isack Fadlon

A funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse.

After co-founding Sportie LA as a freshman at U.C.L.A., Isack Fadlon went on to law school to become an attorney specializing in first amendment issues. That is, until sneakers became his largest client.

While jointly practicing law and working at the store, Fadlon began to see the potential of Sportie LA and increasingly dedicated more time to making it one of the country’s most influential sneaker boutiques.

Of course, there were bumps along the way, none more severe than the recession of the past two years. But Fadlon said the worst has passed and brighter times are ahead. “[The recession] definitely put a halt to our big plans [to add more stores],” he said. “We had to adjust accordingly, but I’m happy we’re coming out of this. We started seeing it in the last quarter of 2010 and it’s continuing.”

Fadlon said he intends to bow more locations, but is in no rush to do so. “We want to continue to grow but at a slow, methodical pace,” he said.

That’s not to say new ventures aren’t under way. Fadlon is in the process of developing an online magazine of original content centered on sneaker culture, including articles about music, art, film, comedy, events and the L.A. lifestyle. “We have something to say and we want to say it,” he said. “It’s not only going to be sneaker based; it’s about whatever revolves around sneaker culture.”

He also hopes to begin work on a museum for sneakers, showcasing the history and cultural impact they’ve had on mainstream America. “There is so much history, so much art, so much creativity, and we need a forum to express and curate that,” he said. “I would love to be part of it.”

As Sportie LA celebrates a quarter century in business, Fadlon is looking ahead and enjoying every moment of it. “This is such an incredible industry and I honestly love it,” he said.

FN: At its worst, how bad was the recession for you?
It was tough. When it was bad, it was the worst we have seen in our 25 years. We’ve had times when the sneaker industry wasn’t that healthy, but nothing to the extent that we saw in the last recession. Luckily, we lived through it, and I’m hopeful we’re seeing it in the rearview mirror and can look forward to better times ahead.

FN: What is the attitude of your consumer right now?
They’re definitely more willing to spend now than they were at this time last year. That is probably due to a combination of things. Some people are just tired of the recession and psychologically they just want to buy something new. Also, unemployment is down a little bit and consumer confidence is up. The prices people are willing to pay is going up. We’re seeing attitudes change. Now, is it drastic? No, but it’s changing.

FN: How has Sportie LA’s customer base changed over time?
The age range has broadened from when we first opened. People are wearing sneakers for lots of non-technical reasons and are wearing them to work. Fairly regularly, we get calls saying, “We are looking to dress an entire wedding party in sneakers.” Consumers are also much more sophisticated and demanding in terms of styling and color and materials.

FN: Has the Internet changed the competitive landscape?
The Internet is obviously changing the game a little bit. The fact that you can actually sit at home and hit 20 different shops with the click of a mouse and make selections in minutes from a source that’s not local has an effect. But I still think people want to feel and touch and smell the leather when they go into a shop. They still want to try it on and have that experience.

FN: Have vendors changed the way they deal with independent retailers?
It’s gotten better. With time, it’s changed. We don’t consider them just vendors; these are our partners. Outside the sneaker world, independents are dying, but inside, independents are thriving. One reason is that consumers want something different, so they come to us. The other is that footwear vendors allow us to differentiate ourselves with limited-edition product and they support us, and we don’t overlook that.

FN: What originally made you want to open a sneaker store?
My sister Orna and I grew up in an atmosphere of entrepreneurs, being around my parents. In fact, I don’t think I understood any other way of being a part of a business. My sister was in mortgage banking then and she wanted to leave. My parents [owned] the building. They had bought it a few years earlier when a vacancy came up. She started talking about starting a business. I was a fanatic when it came to sports, so when the subject of doing something with sports shoes and apparel came up, that’s when I was all over it, but it was more of as a hobby. It sounded like a fun idea.

FN: At what point did Sportie LA become known for limited-edition product and exclusives?
That was probably 1992 or ’93. That’s when people started saying, “This is where you can find these shoes, and only here.” We were at the right place at the right time. Call it a misunderstanding of inventory control that worked to our benefit, but we had the product and lots of it. Once we recognized what people wanted, we went out and hustled a lot to get more.

FN: Is that exclusive aspect still as important as it was?
: This industry in the last couple of years has changed so much. Limited editions and collaborations were [once] so essential for stores and vendors. Today, they’re less important. It has to be the right limited edition or the right collaboration to make any sense. A good example of what’s very strong right now is Adidas and Jeremy Scott. It’s a great collaboration with a great artist. There were just so many limited editions out there that they undermined the concept of what limited edition was.

FN: How has the sneaker business changed since you started?
Twenty-five years ago, a sneaker was more of a utilitarian item, more of an item that was a necessity. Today, it’s more fashion. More important, you see how pervasive [sneaker brands] are in our culture now. We didn’t have anything to that extent 25 years ago. People dress up in a suit and sneakers, and you didn’t see that [back then]. Also, 25 years ago you came in and bought one pair and wore them out and then came back in and bought another. Now people come in and buy multiple pairs and their closets are full of sneakers.

FN: How crucial are new brands to your stores?
Extremely important. We’re always looking for something new and we always want to showcase a new brand for the first time. We like to partner in that way, whether it’s showcasing the product, doing a campaign around a launch, or doing an event for the launch. That’s where we feel we can have an impact and be part of the whole ride and not just catch something when it’s on the top of the wave. Our customers come in looking for new products and new brands. Imagine if you went into the same store once a week: You want to see something new every single time you come in, and we have those customers. We have to be able to show them something new.

FN: What’s one of your favorite memories at the store?
We had a really funny experience when there was the whole craze for aerobic shoes from Reebok, and we brought in all the colors. Tourism [in Los Angeles] was huge at the time, especially from Japan, and these buses would stop right in front of our store. Literally, 30 to 50 girls would run into our little 800-sq.-ft. store just wanting the Reebok Freestyle. Everyone would be on the floor trying on the shoes in total pandemonium. It was one of those moments that still amazes me.

FN: Would you ever consider selling the business?
This is our baby. We couldn’t hand this over to someone. We do get approached for outright [buyouts] and infusions [of cash from investors]. It’s very flattering. It’s one where we could turn this into a 20- to 30-store operation with an infusion of money pretty quickly. But if we did that, there would be no question in my mind we would undermine — and water down the name of — what Sportie LA means. So, no. We’re in it for the long haul.

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