Lester Wasserman knows how a sneakerhead thinks. In 2007, the son of Tip Top Shoes’ owner Danny Wasserman ventured beyond the family’s fashion-comfort roots and into the world of athletic and streetwear fashion with the opening of West NYC on New York’s Upper West Side.
Wasserman, who also serves as GM of Tip Top, has successfully evolved West into a destination for exclusive athletic footwear, apparel and streetwear that has attracted celebrity shoppers such as comedian Chris Rock. To stay ahead of trends, Wasserman keeps his eye on stylemakers, including LeBron James, Kanye West and Jason Sudeikis.
The president of West has also enticed consumers through sneaker collaborations with New Balance. Steve Gardner, GM of lifestyle at New Balance, said, “We have had a longstanding relationship with West NYC. It has been a great supporter of the brand. Recently, we joined forces for the West x New Balance 530 Lava. [It’s great] collaborating with a partner who is so in tune with the industry and trends.”
Here, Wasserman talks to FN about the challenges and opportunities facing independents today.
Best collaboration: “Our first, with New Balance — the New Balance MT580 in 2012. The color was great — a gray scheme. [They say], ‘If you build it, they will come.’ I didn’t realize what kind of power we wielded in the market until that day: We had at least 300 people on line. It was huge.”
Dream collaboration: “Nike would be the ultimate, in a running silhouette. There’s an authenticity to the [brand]. It’s an American company, and there’s a great history behind [it].”
Balancing act: “Tip Top takes up a lot of my time, but my love of the West-type business allows me to stay relevant and current [with athletic consumers]. I grew up wearing [many] of those shoes, from the Stan Smith Adidas to Air Max and Air Jordan.”
On family: “I’m very lucky. We have a wonderful working and personal relationship. We’re not in each other’s faces. We each handle a different piece of [the business], so we’re not encroaching on each other’s territory.”
Role model: “My father. He’s taken a small store and built it into a key independent retailer in the U.S. and [abroad]. Regardless of where people are from, if they’re in the shoe business and [visiting] New York, they come here. That’s something he built.”
Fatherly advice: “Stick to what you do best, keep at it and don’t give up. Keep fighting and keep working. The work ethic he instilled in me allows me to persevere.”
Celebrity shoppers: “Chris Rock. He comes in often. Most recently, he bought [Adidas] Stan Smiths. He bought a couple of pairs of Timberlands last time.”
Favorite in-store event: “We had Raekwon perform. It was pretty cool. I don’t want to date myself, but I grew up listening to that kind of [music] in the early and mid-’90s, so having him play live in my store was pretty special. He played for about an hour. He gave it the same [enthusiasm] he would have at Roseland [Ballroom] or [any] New York venue. It was amazing.”
Biggest sales driver: “Running shoes. Nike, Saucony and New Balance are the top three brands. Colorways, heritage and authenticity — they’re shoes with a backstory, and people like stories.”
Changing consumer habits: “There’s so much information available via Instagram and Twitter and whatever other websites are dedicated to the [athletic] lifestyle. [Consumers] know what’s coming out [today] and six months from now. You can have a wall full of great shoes, but if you don’t have [exactly] what someone is looking for, it becomes more challenging.”
Social media: “We’re on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. We’re constantly posting new photos. We’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing with respect to that. I wish [social media] didn’t exist and people would just walk into the store. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.”
New challenges: “First, exclusivity. If shoes we have are available all over New York as well as around the country, why would [consumers] come to us other than for the experience? [Next], increased competition and online sales. When we first opened West, [trend-driven athletic shoes] weren’t available as widely as they are today. Now, they’re at Nordstrom, Zappos, Foot Locker — everyone has the same shoes.”
Turning points: “For West, it was our first New Balance collaboration, the MT50. It really put us on the map. For Tip Top, it’s the [continued] relevance of Ugg Australia. The brand took us from being a traditional brown-shoe [retailer] and made us a bit more fashionable because the pendulum [had] swung in our direction.”