How Nike and a Changing NYC Led to the Downfall of Alife Rivington Club — and What’s Next for the Storied Retailer

Alife Rivington Club delivered the best in footwear and streetwear to New York City for 20 years, all while hosting culture-shaping events on the Lower East Side. But abruptly, the era has come to an end.

Last week, Alife GM Treis Hill revealed to FN that the store had closed on April 1 and would not reopen. Hill broke the news of its closing on his personal Instagram account, offering his perspective on what Alife Rivington Club meant to the city, the community it fostered and its impact on fashion.

Now, Hill is opening up on what led to the demise of the famed store, which included the loss of its Nike account in 2012.

“We did a lot from 2012 to 2018 — some of our best Alife Sessions were then, a lot of events. We watched the A$AP kids grow up there, Bari hanging out all the time and Yams — rest in peace — and A$AP Rocky would come by all the time and Nast. A lot was happening culturally for the city and downtown youth. Sneaker-wise, we just didn’t have the premium sneakers that we used to and fought endlessly to get them back,” Hill told FN.

Aside from losing the Nike account, Hill explained how the LES — which once provided the atmosphere Alife needed to support its community — had changed and no longer offered what once made the neighborhood special.

But the store’s closing did not mark the end of Alife retail. “We are looking for the right space for us,” Hill told FN last week, “something that can live another 20 years.”

Here, Hill further detailed what the future of Alife retail will look like, reminisced on his favorite in-store events and detailed why the closing of Alife Rivington Club was inevitable.

What were the events that led to the closing of Alife Rivington Club?

“I’ve never really spoken publicly about this, but in 2012, after the global economic crash, we were in a situation with Nike where we were on on-credit terms, we needed some kind of reprieve for one week, we reached out to the guys in marketing — who were always on our side — and they were like, ‘We’ll help you whatever way we can.’ We ended up asking them for some help and then the Nike credit rep came back and was like, ‘Please don’t reach out to marketing, reach out to us directly.’ We paid the bill that week, and probably three months later we needed some help again because a lot of things were just running amok in leveraging business — we had our Alife business, we had five or six stores. We asked for help in terms of cash-in-advance, in the weekly payments that we were making to them. From that point, I made another request of the credit rep and she decided to take it upon herself to take our account away. That was 2012/2013, she closed our account. We didn’t have an account with Nike from that very day. We fought from 2012 until we stopped pushing in 2018 or 2019 to get Nike back on board. Not being able to get Nike at that location was tough. And we got [close to landing a Nike account] in 2016/17 and then Extra Butter was opening up down there and they didn’t want too much competition. We never found a way to get our account back, and that was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back. That store — without having all the sneaker brands — was really never the same.”

Alife Rivington Club
Inside the famed Alife store on Rivington Street in New York City’s Lower East Side.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Alife

Is it possible to exist as a sneaker store today without a Nike account?

“I think so, absolutely. I mean, we’re doing it now. Alife was [one of the] first sneaker boutiques in 2001, so we were ‘young pinnacle’ in that sense. When we were on Orchard Street — and I wasn’t there at the time — but Nike would send guys to the Alife Orchard Street space to dissect and take notes, they had clipboards and questions and it reached a point where the previous founder and partner, Arnaud [Delecolle], told them to leave and get out of the store. If you’re not going to work with us, you can’t basically being a sponge. They just loved everything that was happening with Alife back in ’99 and 2000. They were all about it. Nike was great. They were immensely helpful as partners early on, but without them, I don’t think you can make it — especially not in New York. As a brand, I absolutely think you can. But as a sneaker store, you need not just Nike but you need the right Nike product and you need them to embrace you — and you need Adidas as well.”

What do you make of Nike, as well as other powerhouse footwear brands, pulling out of some big-name and boutique retail stores?

“They’re very strategic and a multibillion-dollar company, so on a shareholder level, it’s smart. They’re able to improve margins and maximize their dollar. But there reaches a point where there’s that innate organic untouchable, which Alife has, which Supreme had before when they were more tangible, if you will. There’s that intrinsic value small shops get that you can’t emulate. It’s very risky to get rid of that. You need stores like that, whether it’s Kith or Aimé [Leon Dore]. These stores bring value that no brand — even as big as a Nike or Adidas or New Balance — can capture. Those stores are essential. I don’t think Nike or Adidas will ever get out of those types of stores, but to make sure you solidify or cement your account, you have to make a lot of noise and create a lot of attention. That’s what Nike wants to hear. They want to hear you moving the needle and then they come knocking. But if you’re not moving the needle, they’re not coming to your support.”

Alife Rivington Club
Alife home goods inside New York City’s famed Alife Rivington Club.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Alife

How long have you and Alife co-founder Rob Cristofaro been discussing the idea of closing?

“Our lease was up in May of this year, and last year, even before the pandemic, the Lower East Side was becoming a wasteland, to be honest. During winter 2017, you could really tell. Because of the internet, you never had to come around anymore. Other stores started to go away like Reed Space, so there was no real reason to continue to walk east for tourists. On top of that, to be a destination for retail, you need the best product [but] we didn’t have that account anymore. So it was like, where could we go now and plant a flag and do something different? In January [2020], we were thinking, ‘Do we give it one more go and do a two-year lease?’ And then COVID happened and we were like, ‘We’re out of there.’ We’ve been shopping for spaces since September of last year. We were very close to getting something in November and then it didn’t happen. Now, we’re actively looking for a space, something that can be long-term and if not, we’ll probably do something potentially short-term. The goal is to sell sneakers in an area where we can be a retail destination for the next 20 years.”

When do you expect to have a new retail home? 

“We’re hoping soon, but we don’t know. Alife has always been about flipping the game on its a** and not doing the normal. The normal thing would be go to Nolita [the North of Little Italy neighborhood] because of the ‘fish where the fish are’ type of mentality. But who knows? We could pop up in Brooklyn. We just don’t know yet what’s out there and the next steps for the brand. But the goal is to open up and land accounts and move forward. A lot depends on our partners, our investors as well, to see what the focus and plan is. Our hope is that we’ll have a store in a year in New York and then we’ll move out to L.A. and have a second store with either a footwear component or just an Alife-branded flagship store.”

What has the reaction been so far from the Alife community?

“A lot of the reaction has been, ‘Wow, this is what it meant to me and other people,’ and feeling honored and thankful that we were around for 20 years to hang out and enjoy a piece of sneaker and streetwear history. People grew up in Alife. I remember sometimes being annoyed, like, ‘Please leave, we’re trying to work,’ but later on realizing that this is what makes the shop a shop — it’s the shop talk. It’s shaped a culture of kids in New York. They grew up with a place to go and hang out, a clubhouse, if you will. Guys would buy a lot of footwear just for the ability to be allowed in the back in the courtyard.”

It seems you are approaching future retail possibilities with a positive mindset. How are you able to have this after closing down a legendary store?

“On a personal level, the sorrow and the emotion went away almost two years ago when the writing was on the wall. I’ve been in the space since 2005. I’ve seen John Mayer, Three 6 Mafia, I’ve seen Drake events. There’s no way you can recapture that glory. I watch documentaries about things like CBGB, and you just know when it’s time. It was time and we’re OK with that. The Lower East Side, in a sense, has regressed, but it’s also going the other way and gentrifying, so it’s tough for retail. To me, it’s not a place for retail at the moment, and it’s time for Alife to move into the next phase. We’re not sad, we’re just excited for the next chapter. We don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but we’re plotting.”

What would you do with Alife Sessions, if anything, in a new space?

“We’ve been thinking of different ways to do that, and it would be some form of art or public work, perhaps. Without giving up too much, we want to be able to show things in a different way. Sneakers can get boring. There are only so many ways you can show a sneaker, and people see sneakers online. What’s more exciting than that is showing what all of this means in a different light. We sell, and do well, with accessories and art. Sneakers are still a driver for a lot of retailers, but people are into books more and they’re into culture. Our goal is to push art, Alife has always been about that, and the goal is to do that in a retail store.”

John Mayer Alife Sessions
John Mayer performing live for Alife Sessions.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Alife

What are your fondest moments in Alife Rivington Club?

“There are so many. We’re working on a documentary to tell stories because there are so many of them. For me, it’s the friends I’ve met. I’ve been at the store since 2005 and a lot of my friends are from that store. A lot of the Sessions are memorable, the moments and how things came together. We’ve had John Mayer back and Nas and Drake twice and Pusha T twice. Alife has always created the ‘how the f**k’ moment, like ‘How did they pull this off?’ Having that level of talent in the back of the store is so intoxicating that it will never be emulated in the city again. The one achievement that we had and a testament to the power of the city and Alife and what streetwear was back then was early on, we never paid for any artists. Nas came and did his thing, John Mayer did his thing, Cypress Hill did its thing — and never asked for a fee or a check. Drake performed for free. He wanted to be there, he grew up watching us sell clothes in the back of the store and going to our L.A. shop, he was friends with Dice [the God] and Tommy [Campos], and we never had to pay anyone any money. The way the industry shifted, you approach certain guys and it’s like, ‘Yeah sure, I’ll do it for $30,000,’ and it’s hard to generate some sort of return on investment off paying $30,000 for a performance for two hours where we can only bring in 100 people. It won’t ever be the same because the industry changed and people are more capitalistic in nature.”

When will this documentary come out? And where will it live?

“Don’t know yet. We’ve never done one, so we’re talking to a few different people to help in that process. There are a few documentaries that can be done — a documentary about Alife or one about Sessions. Alife, in itself, is a story of a time where everything was wide open, and Alife Sessions could be the history of it. We would love to put one out at some point, in 2021 or 2022, to talk about the impact of the store and what it meant. We’re working on drafting it. We’re in the early stages of being able to tell that story. Virgil [Abloh] and Heron [Preston] and other guys have been at Sessions; you’ve got Kevin Garnett at Sessions — there are so many people who have been to these events. For the Drake event, I remember having Raekwon and A$AP Rocky waiting for the performance and hanging out in the backyard at 1 a.m. It was a fun time.”

Drake Alife Sessions
Drake during an Alife Sessions appearance.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Alife

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