It doesn't happen often, but every blue moon one of our red-hot designers is "discovered" by the powers that be and spoon fed to the Kate Spades masses. Seriously, why must we wait for someone else to sprinkle the love when our plethora of budding designers and lifestyle entrepreneurs are bursting at the seams and busily creating products befitting for your toes, or table tops? Our columnist Deborah Gregory finds a few of the fierce ones flying under the radar, who are waiting for you to discover their style-worthy wares available somewhere over the rainbow, or right at your fingertips...
In just one year, Antonio Brown, founder of LVL XIII luxury athletic footwear for men, has singed the sole market with his heavy metal outsole--and is giving his mainstream competitors, LV, Louboutin and Zanotti, a righteous run for their marketing dollars.
EBONY: Antonio, you're killing it with your signature style. What made you take such a leap--stepping into the footwear industry after working in music promotions and celebrity benefits?
ANTONIO BROWN: I was hanging out in Baltimore with my friend Lawrence who was hyped about creating a t-shirt line. We were walking down the street, sort of aimlessly. I was really down--unsure of what to do since I wasn't going to have my book, Muted Dreams, published. At that time, I realized that I needed to shelf it, since it wasn't really the story I wanted to tell. All of a sudden, I blurted out. ``I want to do a sneaker line.'' His response was, ``You don't know anything about the footwear industry. What makes you think you could produce a line of sneakers?'' It was true that I didn't know how to sketch, nor did I have a design background, or a million dollars earmarked for marketing so I could compete with the luxury footwear brands already out there like Vuitton or Zanotti, but his response was unexpected--and it got me riled up. The second I got home, I started Googling: `How to start a sneaker brand.'' A whole world of information opened up. Steadily, my focus mounted and before you knew it, the universe started taking me seriously, putting people in my path who had information, or who could help me. In other words, people who did know the business. What I discovered in the process was the missing puzzle inside of me--I'm an entrepreneur and launching my brand brought it out of me. Turns out, this is the right business for me--and the luxury athletic footwear industry is a thriving business. All I had to do was to figure out how to tap into the marketplace.
EBONY: You've succeeded in tapping into the luxury athletic footwear industry. What is the concept behind your brand, LVL XIII?
AB: At the onset, I decided to name my brand, LVL XIII-- which means Level 13. The number 13 identified within the name and concept of the brand references throughout history that every creation begins at the level of thought and idea. This creative process lays the foundation for the level of expertise, design and fulfillment of LVL XIII brands--allowing for a far greater expectation than the average luxury brand. Also, for my first collection, I had 13 footwear styles. My luxury footwear is also more comfortable, as opposed to other luxury brands. That was important to me. I also know what I like--exotic skins, urban flair. And what I quickly realized is that in order to strongly distinguish your brand from another, you have to have a trademark feature. Think the red sole on the bottom of Christian Louboutin footwear. When you see that red sole, you know it's a pair of Louboutins. In short order, I created a trademarked feature for LVL XIII footwear---hence my metal toe on the outsole. It's on all my sneakers and that is my signature. When you see the metal hardware on the outsole, you know that is LVL XIII, or else it's an imitator who is infringing on my trademark!
EBONY: What's your favorite styles in your first collection?
AB: I love the first collection. All 13 styles. They are the shoes I would wear. Obviously, I favor black, and exotic skins. But I'd have to say one of my favorites is the Spartacus--orange and black natural fox calf hair. It's sleek and not surprising, one of the bestsellers. I was proud that my first collection was carried in Fred Siegel's in Los Angeles. Also, I love the Golden Dawn--all black embossed snakeskin with a chromed out gold toe.
EBONY: Designing footwear is costly. What lessons did you learn at the finish line?
AB: Yes, it's costly, alright. That's why it's mainly the big companies doing it. It took about $400,000 to build out my first collection, which I had manufactured in Hong Kong. It would have even cost more if I had succumbed to the pressure of having the shoes manufactured in Italy. Which I didn't. Thankfully. People are brainwashed into believing that Italy is the seat of luxury manufacturing. If it's made in Italy, it must be good. That's just hype. Quality is where you bring it. My vice president of manufacturing has relationships all over the world. After the Hong Kong experience, my vice president of manufacturing who has relationships all over the world gave me the option to pick where I wanted to make the second collection so I chose another country.
EBONY: Now your second LVL XIII collection is about to drop. What surprises are in store?
AB: I found out there is a production paradise in Brazil. I was able to make my second collection for less money, but without sacrificing quality. More importantly, manufacturing in Brazil also fits in with my global initiative: to provide work and empowerment in a third world country. It was an amazing experience to spend a month in Dois Irmos, a small town in Brazil, manufacturing my new collection. This one has 26 styles and I've expanded into drivers, oxfords, boots. I also created LVL XIII men's and unisex 17-piece apparel line: drop crotch pants, motocross inspired jackets, industrial feed denim wear and harem shorts. Amazing.
EBONY: Antonio, what's your next dream?
AB: I want to bring more manufacturing jobs to America. For starters, I want to be behind the initative to build a manufacturing facility in Atlanta. It would certainly be more economically efficient for my line, and for many others, and it would put America back to work. I would also like to finish my memoir, Muted Dreams, and continue with my initiative to protect children against sexual abuse. One day I will tell my story in a way in which I am comfortable.
LVL XIII luxury men's athletic ootwear can be purchased exclusively online at: www.carbonbazaar.com, the first Black e-commerce shopping site.