Basketball, more than any other professional sport, is synonymous with style. Michael Jordan changed the way we look at athlete’s shoes and the Fab Five of Michigan ushered in a whole new attitude on the court. Sneaker culture, streetwear and rap helped basketball transcende into urban and youth culture like no other sport could. Most of us can’t walk around with Allen Iverson’s gravitas or shoot like Jesus Shuttlesworth, so we collect their shoes and jerseys. No brands really focus on sportswear clothing that is specifically geared towards the NBA head like TBJ favorite UNDRCRWN.
Blending sports and hip hop with fun graphics and casual apparel has led UNDRCRWN to not only their own successful collections but collaborations with major names like adidas, Starter, Rockport, Mos Def. Recently, I was in New York City and caught up with UNDRCRWN founder, creative director and head designer, Dustin Canalin and the rest of the small but mighty UNDRCRWN crew in their SoHo office. We talked about everything from brand building to designing for the NBA’s most high profile sneakerhead, Gilbert Arenas, to the state of the NBA and why Kevin Garnett yelled at him.
Megan Wilson: What is the UNDRCRWN brand philosophy?
Dustin Canalin: We’re a fashion lifestyle brand that represents champions. We want people to gravitate towards our brand, to have that aspirational feeling. Champion is a metaphor for accomplishment and confidence.
MW: Why did you decide to start UNDCRWN?
DC: Really, UNDCRWN was started out of a void. I really felt in 2004-2005 when we were building the brand, there wasn’t a brand that looked at sport through fashion, it was always fashion through sport. You can put alligator skin on an Air Force One, but you’re not building something with a fashion intention and with the comfort of sport and the casualness of sport. I wanted to blur those lines and give people sporting clothes with the function of any lifestyle … a casual young men’s brand. If you look around today, that’s what everyone is doing. There are footwear brands that make wingtips that are sneakers and there’s hoodies with wooden buttons and there are all of these things that transitioning more and more between fashion and sport where that was kind of our whole goal, to get that to be one thing.
DC: Basketball was the first cultural lifestyle that was created out of products, mainly by Nike, Adidas and Fila — all the brands of the early 80′s to 90′s were able to build this new category and it wasn’t based in sport it was specific to basketball and I think as it evolved other sports got introduced too. You know for me growing up around those times, Jordan’s and the adidas from Run DMC and that kinda stuff, that whole genre, it kinda made it easy for the platform for a new brand — just two take the cores and make them into one.
MW: Where do your ideas for graphics and designs come from?
DC: Where it started from was all in ideas. Ever since I was in college I had the idea of doing a fashion lifestyle basketball brand and I was the one who always had a Jordan shirt but they didn’t make it in cool colours like purple, everything was so team based so there was always a void in those aspects so it was an idea that got translated into sketches then into clothes. If you go back to 2003 or 2004, or other companies that I worked for, I’m not doing anything different. I just think the lifestyle and the brand we were able to create defines it a little better. Every time we go and design something, we try and make the two consumers that we have understand it. You might not know the Ice Cube quote, but you know Magic Johnson. Or you might not know Magic Johnson but you know Ice Cube so those two people get addressed at the same time.
MW: How does designing for UNDRCRWN differ from your work with AND1 and when you collaborate?
DC: I get to do what I want. Anyone who really knows me before UNDRCRWN, or after, they get it once they do meet me because I am really a fan of clothes and of design in general. It’s the type of people that we deal with where it’s pretty exciting to me to appeal to all of those types of people. Growing up, it was never like that. I had a certain type of friends that I could talk about sneakers with, a certain type of friends I could talk sports with, and a certain type of people I could talk about design with and they’re all different, so now, it’s pretty cool that you can educate all sides with one thing, with just the brand. I always thought that our brand is a lifestyle, and that there are a lot of people out there like me, like us, we just wanted to provide products that talk to them. Everyone makes a hoodie; why is ours different?
MW: Is that what inspires you when you get work on collections?
DC: The inspirations come from everywhere. It’s a super cliche answer. It’s kind of feelings of the moments, there’s always so much going on. There’s some stuff that’s seasonal, but then there’s some stuff like Greek Gods, I don’t even know how that came about. The good thing about design is that you get to dive into the research, and that’s always the funnest part, that’s where everyone kinda gets involved and it’s like wow, did you know this? Then you find out why the Tennessee Titans are called the Titans and why Nike is called Nike and why Ralph Lauren used the wing foot, there’s all of these things that evolved from something that a lot of people don’t know how they got it. I’m part of the crew that thinks that everything’s been thought of and now you’re opening the box of where all this stuff came from. So it’s pretty funny just to see the reactions to people that they just figured out it’s not original. You might think we’re biting this person, but they’re already biting that and so it’s just how you put your twist on it.
DC: I’m salty. (laughs) I think there’s a fine line of being inspired and I think when you take an idea and mass market it, and you do it on purpose, like that’s your strategy? I don’t think that’s good. They could call UNDRCRWN and they could say “Hey we’d like to do a collaboration and do dynasty t-shirts” but because they have the access and they have the big machine, they can pump out a million of them and take out the essence of what we did just to make money. We’re five people, we all have feelings. All the big brands, they’re just the machine.
MW: Do you feel like you compete with the big sportswear brands?
DC: I think we definitely do — we inspire them. Everyone I know wants to do what we do it goes back to the other question, I get to do whatever I want, you don’t. You balance creative freedom versus being part of a machine. If I want to do something stupid on a t-shirt because Baron Davis got chubby (laughs) you know what? I can. Everyone that’s at those other companies envy that. The funny thing is that those ideas get watered down, instead of coming to the source. We want to be like we are right now, we want to be able to do whatever we want, we like that we’re not a super mega, well-known brand. The people that know, know. We have that core audience every single season, that means a lot to us. We’re not in a position to pump out product and cash in off of it we’re just trying to keep our core and keep it super saturated and when the time is right we’ll grow bigger and bigger and bigger. But for now, it’s so fun to do whatever we want and write our own rules.
MW: What was it like to do Gilbert Arenas’ shoe and have it grow into a whole line and to have an UNDRCRWN specific shoe in the line?
DC: The whole story of that shoe is very characteristic of UNDRCRWN and me especially, I only wanted to do his shoe. So, when they asked me, they wanted me to do something else and I was like “I only want to do Gil’s shoe because I only like him” out of everybody that they wanted me to do. And they ended up liking the Gil shoe so much, [it was like] “OK we HAVE to do all the other guys.” Chauncey Billups, KG, T-Mac. The fact that I personally got to work with them, build those products and show it to them that was cool. And the fact that Gil wore it, in a big game, that was the coolest thing. The Gil shoe was by far the best shoe. It was the purest idea.
DC: Gil just wanted what no one else had, and as his project turned into twenty shoes and at that level, they’re just looking for another level to talk shit in the locker room. “Oh you have three shoes? I have twenty. Yours are blue? OK, I had blue ones two years ago.” At that point, whatever. Now, the practical jokes and the things that they do… “You know that thing that you did cost you ten grand or fifty grand?”.
MW: Now the younger guys, like Jennings, are thinking about fines. That’s why Jennings didn’t wear those Halloween Under Armour kicks. It’s funny how things change.
DC: Yeah, but I’m sure Under Armour would have wrote that check. It’s so funny. It’s all planned. It’s too forced down my throat. I think that everyone we talk to about the brand we’re not looking to enter into that space as a competitor, I think what we do is help elevate the culture and allow them to keep doing what they’re doing and us trying to keep things as pure as possible. Because you know we don’t have the money for the research and development or the scientists to help you jump higher or make lighter shoes. We can make it look cool. At the end of the day one of Gil’s greatest comments on him wearing low top’s was, “Ya well, people back in the day wore Converse, so I really don’t care if my shoes make me more stable or anything.” He would wear a smaller size shoe just to make his foot look smaller, like girls. At the end of the day, people just want to have cool looking sneakers, they want them to be light, but Michael Jordan jumped higher when he wore heavy shoes than when he wore light shoes.
MW: Is there anyone in the NBA that you think would be really great to work with on a project?
DC: I haven’t really thought about it, I’m more of a critic of the young guys than anything. It would probably be Jeremy Lin of the Warriors. He’s the Havard grad, Taiwanese, grew up in the Bay area, so there’s a personal connection there. Honestly, I like the old guys. I would love to do something with Tim Hardaway or Rod Strickland, the kind of guys that were very popular to the people that knew. Xavier McDaniel, all of these second tier guys that were dope back in the day, they’re like the Rondos of back in the day. Now, there’s too much dancing.
MW: (laughs) Did you like Wall’s Dougie?
DC: No, I think he’s mad corny. I think all of those guys … it’s just a different generation. I don’t get it. I’m starting to appreciate Kobe more cuz he’s all business.
MW: The older I get, the more I like Kobe. He’s just playing ball. What did you think of LeBron’s decision?
DC: I’m not mad at LeBron. They’re so taken care of, they don’t have to think while they’re growing up. This is his first big real decision, whether to go to college or the NBA was a joke. But for him to change teams, he was so nervous and that he’s still a young kid and he handled it wrong. But at the end of the day, I’m not mad, I’d rather watch the Miami Heat than the Cavaliers. So as a fan, he’s the best to me so you know, I watch him and Miami is nice so I’m not mad at that either.
MW: As a designer, are you mad at Dan Gilbert for using Comic Sans?
DC: Yeah, he totally could have picked a better font. I thought it was hilarious. I’m more inspired to watch basketball than last year, maybe because of the drama. I’ve always enjoyed going to the game and hearing people play. If they can get 3D, we’ll be fine and mic them up. But they’re just so racy…
DC: He yelled at me! He didn’t like our shoe. He didn’t like the first one. Only because he had no say in it. And I had worked with KG before at AND1 and I did all of his logos. And he was like “THIS SHIT IS WACK,” and told me to leave. I was like, “I’m sorry.”
MW: Where do you see the brand going in five or ten years?
DC: There are so many untapped categories right now. Our goal right now is define who we are, bigger than just basketball. As we move forward in the next five years just like every other lifestyle brand is just to introduce different categories like bags, hopefully collaborating with people outside of our space to bring our flavor into their world. Before, we did a lot of everything, and you really didn’t know what our core values were. But once our values our set, we’ll start introducing who knows, skateboard, basketball equipment, furniture, there’s all kind of other outlets like I said, I have a lot of friends who don’t get basketball but get fashion and vice versa, but the fact that you can educate those two worlds with stuff and it doesn’t exist right now. It exists in spots. But we’re small enough that we’re young and hard headed enough not to listen what everyone tells us what we’re supposed to do. We’re excited, five years! When we’re ten, we’re gonna be big!
MW: Any anniversary plans?
DC: All-Star is going to be big for us. Our spring line is a relaunch of ourselves, we’re taking all of the good that’s happened over the first five years and hitting you over the head with it over and over again. Starting in February, we have 12 months of brand new product. Before, it was concept cars out there and now, we’ve figured out what people want, and what we want to be and what works for us. It’ll be exciting this year, let alone in five years.