Seven minutes after Ronnie Fieg arrives in a downtown Manhattan studio, the Kith founder is eager to jump in.
Sporting a Kith color-blocked tech shirt and the Asics Gel-Fieg 3.1 silhouette from his recent New York Fashion Week collection, Fieg has a clear direction for his cover shoot in mind.
The retailer turned designer is more involved than most subjects — it’s almost as if he’s working on one of his famed collaborative projects. From the first shot on an unseasonably warm late September morning, he and photographer Andy Boyle trade framing suggestions, and from there, the designer’s input is constant.
Fieg makes it known if he loves something (“That’s the frame right there. Love that”) or loathes it (“I wouldn’t wear my hat like that; not feeling it”). He wants to create something fresh and new, vetoing ideas that may resemble other cover stars (“Maybe because you shot Virgil [Abloh] on the box, we shouldn’t do the box?”).
This acute attention to detail is emblematic of arguably his greatest asset: a point of view. “If you don’t have a point of view then you have nothing,” Fieg said during an interview later that day.
It’s this relentless focus that has helped Kith and Fieg quickly become household names among the fashion set. At a time when many stores are struggling and failing to attract interest, Kith has become the retailer and brand everyone wants to emulate — and rival.
“Ronnie’s been able to curate and maintain one of the most pinnacle sneaker assortments in the world, all while creating a global brand name that continues to resonate,” said New Balance global collaboration manager Joe Grondin. “No one has been able to do that at the scale that Ronnie has.”
Fieg’s business partner, Sam Ben-Avraham — who provided the space inside his Atrium stores for Fieg to launch Kith — believes his longtime friend is redefining the American fashion landscape.
“When I look at my days coming into the business, I always looked up to Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan. Those are my icons, the main people with vision who started with nothing. Ronnie is one of those people,” Ben-Avraham said. “He is the equivalent to them in modern times. He is one of those iconic people who is able to do big things.”
It’s fitting that Ben-Avraham brings up Hilfiger, who has been a mentor to Fieg since the beginning. After all, the veteran presented the rising star with his Collaborator of the Year honor at the FN Achievement Awards in 2017.
“Ronnie has the same energy I had when I first started my brand, and to be able to watch his vision and designs unfold is very exciting,” Hilfiger told FN. “What’s most impressive about Ronnie is that he always has his finger on the pulse. He is so tuned in to pop culture and knows what the cool kids want next. It can be difficult to stay relevant and ahead of the trends in fashion, but he handles it with ease.”
Although the Kith leader is firing on all cylinders, he admits he’s far from comfortable.
“I’m always critical of myself. Everything keeps me up at night. This conversation will keep me up tonight. I’ll think about all the answers I gave you and all the answers I didn’t give you,” Fieg said. “Everything is always in motion in my brain; it’s like open applications the way you would have in a phone.”
Sitting across from Fieg in his SoHo office, the word “streetwear” comes up in the conversation. It’s immediately clear that the designer isn’t fond of the now-ubiquitous term.
“Kith is not a streetwear brand. Streetwear is the worst f**king name to give anything,” said an impassioned Fieg. “If you break up the term ‘street’ and ‘wear,’ which is product that is worn in the street, then sure, it’s streetwear. But then every brand is streetwear because everybody is wearing the product in the street.”
While Fieg isn’t interested in jumping on the trend bandwagon, he has a genuine affinity for great product. “We are in the middle of designing suiting right now for next season, we’re producing outerwear on a very high level, we’re milling all new fabrics. This is a science,” he said.
Fieg then proceeds to break down the T-shirt this FN reporter was wearing: the white Kith Flock Box Logo.
“The shirt you’re wearing is 250-gsm jersey that’s custom milled in our factory. We went through seven or eight samples until we got the fit that you’re wearing. That’s a Flock Logo execution that went through another three or four samples until we got it right,” Fieg said with fervor.
That level of obsession only gets stronger when it comes to footwear.
“I’ll get a text from Ronnie randomly. He’ll be combing through archives, combing through old running magazines — or any magazines from the early ’90s — and start pinging me with pictures and clips like, ‘We should bring this back. This thing is amazing,’” said Colin Brickley, Asics America senior director of lifestyle sales and marketing.
When it comes to conceptualizing product, his mind is never turned off. “He is never not working. He has no problem calling you at midnight to tell you his next idea,” explained Grondin.
The depth of Fieg’s knowledge and research has even surprised his longtime brand partners, including Asics.
“He brought back the Gel-Mai, which was on nobody’s radar. We had to look into archives to even find out what it was,” Brickley said with a laugh. (Following Fieg’s first collab on the Gel-Mai, released in November 2016, Asics added the silhouette to its inline collection.)
Although his sneaker collabs are typically instant sellouts, Fieg doesn’t consider himself “the sneaker guy.” He prefers the title to encompass all footwear.
“My love for footwear stems from working in the basement in 1995 on Eighth Street [in New York City] at David Z, and the product that I started working with was not athletic, it was more brown shoes and boots, mostly hikers. That’s what I really fell in love with first,” Fieg said, referring to the chain owned by his cousin David Zaken.
As sneakerheads clamor for Asics and New Balance collabs, Fieg continues to deliver his takes on classic silhouettes foreign to the athletic market. He’s reworked the iconic Timberland 6-inch boot, given the retro Vasque Sundowner and Skywalker styles new looks, made Birkenstocks cool to a new audience and reimagined Clarks Originals Wallabees for multiple collections. And he ventured into the luxury space in February with the release of his line with Versace, featuring the archival Amico Trainer and the modern favorite Chain Reaction.
“The Kith wall will always represent the best of footwear the way I see it through my lens,” Fieg said, “which is brown shoes, boots, hikers and athletic footwear.”
Kith and Kin
In eight years, he’s created a collection with LeBron James, collaborated with Bergdorf Goodman and partnered with Coca-Cola and Nobu, among many others. But for Fieg, his biggest accomplishment has been building a winning team.
What started as a small operation in 2011 has transformed into a large-scale company. Today, Fieg employs more than 350 within his eight storefronts and his SoHo office. With more doors to come, that number is sure to grow.
“Winning alone, you might as well not win at all. It’s not a good feeling,” Fieg said.
Many of the people by his side on day one are still standing with him in year eight. “We speak on a daily basis; we have amazing conversations,” Ben-Avraham said. “Whatever Ronnie needs from me, I’m there for him.”
With Kith approaching a decade, Fieg is relishing the opportunity to step into the mentor role. One of his most valued employees, director of content Austin Scotti, moved to New York for an internship at Kith in May 2014 after attending the University of Central Florida. “Austin, pay attention to what he’s doing here. This is good angle work,” Fieg said to Scotti during the cover shoot, directing him to learn from Boyle’s technique.
The professional dynamic alone isn’t what makes Kith special, according to Scotti. The rising leader said Fieg understands and values the need for a healthy work-life balance and has created an atmosphere where the people he employs treat each other like family.
In fact, it’s that environment that encouraged Scotti to seek full-time employment at Kith.
“It was a [San Antonio] Spurs playoff game in 2014 and they were like, ‘Yo, we’re at Bleecker Street Bar.’ Ronnie’s in there with everybody watching. A few weeks later it was the World Cup,” he remembered fondly. “And somehow, as we’ve grown to the level that we have, there is still that family-oriented tradition.”
As he continues his rapid rise, Fieg is steering clear of the noise of detractors. Social media can be brutal, and with an elevated and growing profile, the commentary can get ugly.
Following Kith Air, for example, scathing comments were peppered in with the praise, and Instagram critics took aim at the ideas (“grasping at straws”), the originality (“tired old Kith, nothing new here”) and the variety (“For a ‘collection,’ this s**t is all over the place”).
Over the years, however, the designer has built a thick skin.
“I don’t respond and I don’t want to respond. I don’t spend thinking power; I can’t turn that mode on. It’s not in me to do that,” Fieg said. “I don’t want people to think I’m arrogant, but people draw their own conclusions regardless of what I say or do. If they’re going to do that, I can’t spend any time trying to deflect or challenge that because it’s not important.”
Avoiding negativity is a mantra he extends to his personal relationships. “A lot of people don’t believe it, and I’m being 100% honest: We never raised our voices at one another in the 10 years that we’ve worked together. Not even one time,” Ben-Avraham said. “If we disagree on something, we go to bed and wake up the next morning and either it’s gone my way, his way or somewhere in between.”
One thing Fieg does want to be clear about is how Kith came to be. He recalls fictitious narratives of privilege that surfaced, each one stranger than the next, after he debuted the business. “A big rumor when Wikipedia became a thing was people edited [into my entry] that my parents owned Yellow Rat Bastard. I’ve never even stepped foot in one,” Fieg said.
Breaking through was actually much more difficult than most people know, according to Fieg, dismissing preconceived perceptions about him. “If people only knew how I was [viewed] as an employee working at David Z,” he said with frustration. “Because I was a distant cousin, I was treated harshly. I started in the basement and worked in the stockroom for two years before I even got to sell a shoe. I was just a kid. I was ripped because I was lifting boxes; it was crazy.”
Still, the experience left an indelible impact. “I worked harder than anyone I know, and I struggled for a long time. I worked for a business that I was not a partner in for 15 years. That’s a long time. And I was very loyal and I cared about it like it was my own — and I still care about it today even though it’s nonexistent — because it’s such an important part of my path.
But Fieg isn’t interested in sharing much more about his struggles publicly. He’s got more important ways of spending his time.
“I’m not so inclined to make this a story that I tell and shout out from a mountain top. I’m more interested in shouting from the mountain top with product,” Fieg said. “I want people to see what we build because we put so much time and effort into it.”
Kith and Fieg move at a feverish pace. The collaborative projects are seemingly endless, the popular Monday Program drops are consistent and the seasonal collections are robust.
And the frenetic schedule won’t slow down any time soon.
“Maintaining the pace is difficult to do because we’ve been moving at a million miles an hour for a very long time, but it’s also a part of what we do. I’m comfortable at this pace,” Fieg said. “There’s a method to the madness and I’m fortunate enough to have a team where it’s sustainable.”
Still, he admitted the pace is catching up to him, and the need to continually produce and eclipse what he’s done before is taxing.
One of the moments where he felt it most was days after his recent New York Fashion Week presentation, Kith Air, a grandiose show that took over Cipriani’s near Wall Street. “Imagine working on the type of show — 97 looks and the kind of production that we had — finishing the show and then literally three or four days pass by and I already need to start thinking about what the next show looks like. It’s exhausting. It’s definitely taken a toll on me. I’m 37, it’s about 2020 and I started in ’95. It’s almost been 25 years. That’s a long time,” he said.
Despite the exhaustion, Fieg continues to push. The Kith leader is bolstering his presence abroad with a flagship in Paris that’s coming soon.
While the entrepreneur makes moves and the accolades pile up, he hasn’t lost sight of what’s most important to him. “I don’t care about where people place me or where people rank me. I just want this brand to be the best it could be,” Fieg said. “If I didn’t feel like this piece can help the brand, I wouldn’t do it. It’s not for myself; it’s for the brand.”
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