Leadership in the sneaker business has never looked as it does now. With the industry experiencing a massive shakeup in the C-suite ranks, more women than ever before have assumed control of the market’s top brands and retailers.
The boutique retail channel, however, has long had a powerhouse in Jennifer Ford.
Eighteen years ago, Ford opened Premium Goods in Houston and established the city’s first hub for local sneakerheads. Its reputation has only grown in the years since, with coveted product presented in an elevated environment.
This is not a small feat, given the lack of both gender and racial diversity in boutique ownership.
Ford struggled to name more than five sneaker boutiques — Premium Goods included — that are owned by women. (She called out Wish ATL, Sally’s Shoes and Makeway as some of the standouts.) The exercise even became more difficult when Ford attempted to name Black women storeowners.
“Myself, and most Black females like me, don’t come from generational wealth and don’t come from firsthand experience of entrepreneurs. And at the time I opened, we didn’t have access to the capital needed to open a boutique. There were a lot of things against us,” Ford said. “For other women of color to see that this is something possible, and for me to be able to mentor, help and guide them makes a big difference.”
She continued, “I had obstacles against me and was able to open and to stay open. Hopefully that is encouraging to others.”
While there is an obvious gender discrepancy among sneaker shop owners, Ford said she has felt mostly supported by her male counterparts. “People aren’t like, ‘You don’t deserve to be here,’ because if they did, I wouldn’t be open 18 years,” she said.
Indeed, her industry peers are full of respect for the tenacious entrepreneur.
“This is a brutal, shallow business and Jenn is the only Black woman who sits in the same room as me on my side of the table. That alone is incredible,” said James Whitner, owner of several prominent retail banners including A Ma Maniére and Social Status.
Other fellow businessowners have also provided crucial support for Ford, particularly longtime friend Clarence Nathan, who helped spark the business.
“Me opening the store, it’s all based on my friendship with Clarence,” Ford said.
In 2002, while Ford was living in New York and working in product development at Lord & Taylor, Nathan opened Premium Goods in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
At the time, in the wake of September 11, there was an energy shift in the city that left Ford ready to move back home to Houston. What’s more, she felt like there was little room to grow at Lord & Taylor. “I knew what I wanted for my life I was not going to get in corporate America,” Ford recalled. “The freedom, the ability to be 100% me, the friendships with people who were like me, it wasn’t going to exist.”
Seeing the success and freedom Nathan had as a storeowner, Ford decided to take a similar path. And Nathan’s support included encouraging her to use the Premium Goods name. (But while their stores share a name, Nathan is the owner of the Brooklyn door and Ford solely owns her Houston location.)
Nathan recalled, “I said it would be easier to open up accounts if she had the same name, because the name was already known. And I trusted her. It was like, ‘OK cool, we can do this.’ It gave the Premium Goods name a larger presence. It’s going to help everybody, it’s a win-win.”
Ford added, “It made sense to partner with someone in the industry and it looked good for both of us, like expansion but not necessarily. We have the name and we’re building a strong brand on two different coasts.”
After receiving help from Nathan to launch her business, Ford is now out to help others.
“Any time I do a panel, I’m quick to give out my email address,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people email me and ask to meet. I do Zoom calls with people all over the country at least twice a month.”
Ford said most of the people she speaks with are women, and the topic is primarily store ownership — specifically the costs associated with opening a store and the risks you must take. But her wisdom has been crucial to helping many people in the industry establish themselves.
“I have looked up to Jenn since the day I met her,” said Derek Curry, owner of Sneaker Politics, which operates multiple stores in Louisiana and Texas. “Without her push, I might have never attempted Politics. She offers a unique perspective in our industry. As a Black female in a predominately male industry, her place in the South is very important to our industry.”
He continued, “When I found out about sneaker boutiques, Jenn was the only person representing in the South. I would drive four hours to hang out at her store as often as I could. She was always in there with a smile and was super easy to talk to. She is a huge inspiration and a big part of helping me make that initial leap.”
MAKING HER MARK
During her near two decades in Houston, Ford has evolved her Premium Goods business by creating lanes once foreign to the market, such as the opening of a kids’ boutique in 2012. She noted that business has been especially helpful to establish a community in Houston.
“Whole families come to the store, and our customers are growing. I’ve seen my original 18-year-old customer get married and have kids,” Ford said. “I don’t think many kids’ sneaker boutiques exist, but kids love sneakers. I see it at my daughter’s school, I get stopped by her friends like, ‘Do you have these shoes at your store?’ She’s only 7.”
Even from afar in New York, Nathan said he recognizes what Ford means to her city. “She’s the Houston darling. And she’s a nice person. It’s hard to not like her,” Nathan said. “She represents Houston, and they feel like they’re part of the journey. She put the city on the map and now they’re like, ‘We’ve got a cool sneaker store, too.’”
But Ford admitted the early days of running her own store were frustrating, especially when it came to merchandising.
Although leading brands have increased their focus on women as of late, the world of sneakers historically has made and marketed its pinnacle products for men.
“In the beginning, being a female storeowner and catering to men, it was depressing,” Ford said. “The shoes coming in would be so nice for dudes. I’m selling [Nike Air] Bakins to dudes and never in my size. And there was no clothing to go with it, so if I wanted to wear something to match my shoes in a specific color, it was very hard to buy.”
Fortunately, she said the options for women have improved greatly. And Ford even had the opportunity to create and release her own female-focused looks.
Last month, a pair of Premium Goods collaborations with Nike arrived both in Ford’s store and via the SNKRS app. She reimagined the iconic Air Force 1 Low to create “The Sophia” and “The Bella,” shoes named to honor her daughter and niece, respectively.
“The one message that I want portrayed with the shoe is a sense of luxury and beautiful things and that you deserve it,” Ford explained. “A lot of times you see something that almost looks too luxurious to wear — no, wear it, you deserve it, enjoy it.”
Both looks have nods to Ford’s former career as a costume jewelry buyer and her love of jewelry. “We used seed beads on it because it’s an affordable medium for jewelry. No matter what country you’re in, you’ll see seed beads being used. Especially in countries with native or Indigenous people, [the beads] are used to tell stories,” she said.
Meanwhile, the rose lace lock on “The Sophia” is in honor of the women in her family. “Every female who came after [my grandmother] had the Rose name. It was her name, it’s my middle name, my sister is a Rose, my mom is a Rose, my niece is a Rose, my cousin is a Rose and my daughter is a Rose,” Ford said.
And the design of “The Bella” holds great weight as well. “This one is for my niece through my husband,” Ford said. “It means a lot to me because at the time I got the opportunity to design, my husband’s brother was killed. I wanted to give her something I thought was special. The colorway is vibrant and beautiful like her.”
THE EXPANSION PLAN
Beyond footwear, Ford and her team are also growing a critically important area of the Premium Goods business — its apparel line. The store’s private-label collection, which debuted in 2005, has long consisted of T-shirts, sweatshirts and shorts, and has been a big success. Ford said it is her best-selling apparel brand and represents roughly 20% of the clothing business.
What’s missing, however, are looks that can dress up the sneakers, specifically for women. Ford confirmed this will be a focus looking ahead.
“I haven’t had the time or energy to put in to cut-and-sew [items],” Ford said. “You can sell T-shirts and sweatshirts all day, but where you stand out in private label is cut-and-sew — things with more movement. As a female, movement in your clothing makes you feel sexier, at least that’s what I feel.”
Additionally, the Premium Goods private label will include lifestyle items atypical to the sneaker world that tie into Houston culture. Ford pointed to the city’s rodeo culture and the relevance of ornate belt buckles as an example.
“If you’re a Houstonian, rodeo time is huge in your life. You can have the biggest sneaker collection in the world and wear them to the rodeo, but you’re going to wear a belt or cufflinks with them,” Ford said. “There’s a gentleman here who is a well-known silversmith, I buy stuff from him all the time. He makes beautiful intricate belt buckles, money clips, stuff like that.
Ford is looking to launch that category within the next year.
There are also plans to expand the Premium Goods physical footprint. “We’ve made our name, I have the time and energy, I have the staff now, so we plan on opening another store. Houston is too big to just have one,” Ford said.
The timing makes sense. Ford said Premium Goods has experienced consistent double-digit growth since opening, and the store has never had a year where it suffered a loss.
The goal is to open a second door before the end of 2023, and in a location similar to the store’s current home in the Rice Village shopping district, which is very family oriented. Ford said she is looking at real estate in the historic Heights neighborhood but hasn’t narrowed in on a choice yet.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to say I’ve been open 18 years — and this year will be 19,” she said. “I have 20 employees in one store, and at the end of the year I’ll have 30 or 40 who have families. This will allow people like me to work in an industry that they love. That means a lot to me.”