Jamie Thomas and Mike West at the LA Dodger’s Stadium Club.
Jamie Thomas, the man who took the legendary Leap of Faith, founded Zero Skateboards, Fallen Footwear, and Black Box Distribution, sits by himself for a moment in the box seats of the LA Dodger’s Stadium Club overlooking the massive construction project that is changing the face of Dodger Stadium. It’s Friday afternoon, January 4, 2013 and while Thomas works his iPhone with tattooed fingers, construction crews on the field below put the finishing touches on the 25-week-long $100 million stadium improvement project. Thanks, Magic Johnson. Behind Thomas, inside the Stadium Club proper, a select crew of skate media, core style shop owners, and employees wait for the rollout presentation of Thomas’ latest collaboration–New Balance Numeric.
The venerable 106-year-old footwear company, famous for its dedication to style, fit, and comfort, is (thanks, to some serious encouragement from Westlife Distribution and 686 founder Mike West) finally pushing into the skate shoe market. New Balance has enlisted Thomas to not only put his skateboarding stamp of approval on every detail, but also to act as Numeric’s distributor.
We all know why New Balance (and West) would want Thomas involved, but our biggest question was why Thomas, who experienced huge success in the early days of his distribution company, would be interested in helping to launch another brand that will likely take a bite out of an already overcrowded skate shoe market. Especially seeing that he already owns one footwear brand, Fallen.Seeing Thomas’ moment of solitude with his white iPhone as an opportunity to get the info straight, we jumped in and asked him why he got involved with New Balance Numeric.
“I think from our point of view it’s an opportunity to even the playing field in the footwear game,” he says, leaning in. “The landscape has drastically changed over the past five to seven years. My allegiance is to skateboarding, skate shops, and skaters, so I need to continuously find ways to have our distribution support that. Obviously in order to do that we need to stay relevant. With the way things have gone it’s very difficult for a very small skateboarding-only brand to really make an impact and be able to continue to support skateboarding. I feel as though this project with New Balance will enable us to continue to be an established distribution company that is progressive and is moving forward.”
Though some may criticize Black Box’s partnership with New Balance Numeric, it doesn’t appear that Thomas is getting involved simply to add another brand to his stable. This move is one that he and Black Box CEO Frank Messman, have thought seriously about. Thomas seems all too aware that every business move he makes puts his credibility as a skateboarder on the line. And while the majority of heavy lifting on shoe design and production will be handled by Westlife Distribution, Thomas is staking his reputation on this deal. And he is backing New Balance pretty hard.
“New Balance is a really respectable brand and I’ve always appreciated it,” Thomas says. “The fact that New Balance is independently owned and they’ve done everything the way they want to do it. I can identify with why they’ve done the things they’ve done. I feel like they stand for something. It’s a perfect opportunity for us to be able to work with someone who has a much larger appeal than what we’ve been able to do on our own. That’s really important right now. This partnership gives us the best chance to be able to stay strong through this interesting period.”
But the obvious question is: how will New Balance Numeric fit in with the Fallen brand? Can Black Box make it work with two different skate footwear brands? And this is where things get interesting.
“Mainly, I want to figure a way for the New Balance/Black Box relationship to support Fallen and to help Fallen’s position in the market,” Thomas explains. “Fallen is my passion and something I created and I want to continue to see strive. This collaboration will give us the opportunity to have two different styles of brands that really complement each other perfectly.”
In a marketplace where retail shoe display space is already at a premium, how will the brand stories differ?
“The story from Fallen’s point of view is that Fallen is an authentic, true, skateboarding brand that is created by skateboarders for skateboarders,” Thomas says. “I think that the New Balance story is performance based and carries on the tradition of comfort, fit, and quality that New Balance has forged for 100 years. Those are two different stories. One, obviously, has more of an athletic aesthetic and Fallen needs to become more Fallen and less like everything else.”
This is where Thomas admits he and his team at BlackBox have some work to do. “We are going to have to re-identify who Fallen is as we go through this process to make sure that Fallen and New Balance are different. That’s healthy. It’s healthy for Fallen vs. all the other brands that are out there, as well. We need to start explaining the Fallen story all over again because we have a new generation of kids. 2013 marks Fallen’s 10th year as a brand—that’s a good time to reinvent what Fallen is and make sure the story is very complimentary and different from New Balance’s.”
We all know Nike has been handing skate shoe brands their asses lately so it almost goes without saying that fighting the Portland shoe giant must have played into Thomas’ plans.
“Nike was the catalyst for the landscape change, but the landscape has changed in other ways, too,” says Thomas. “Lifestyle and skateboarding kind of merged together into this all-encompassing fashion style. So it’s not just what Nike’s done, it’s also the landscape of trending, popularity, and what’s going on whether it be Supra, Nike, Vans or all the other brands. They all have their way of going about doing it. And they’ve all contributed to the landscape change, but we can’t just sit around and act like things are the way they were ten years ago, you know? Discovering ways of reinventing Fallen by partnering it up with a brand [New Balance] that has an amazing potential, amazing heritage, amazing integrity and putting it together with a brand that a lot of artists and musician already have a passion for only makes sense.”
Thomas also believes that New Balance shouldn’t be written off simply because of its heritage as a running shoe company. “There are ingredients in New Balance that correlate more closely to skateboarding than there are at some of the other brands. Like about how much they’ve cared about the running industry, and how much they’ve cared about all the sports that they ever gotten behind. That is much closer to a skateboarding story than the fact that one of their shoes just happened to be good for skateboarding at one time. So, that’s kind of the way I saw it coming into it. There are already a lot of artists and musicians and people who want an alternative to the main sporting brands who wear New Balance as a comfortable, alternative lifestyle shoe. It’s been that way for 20 years. I think that we’re starting there and then just making sure that the silhouettes, the brand, and the presentation is right. My role in the whole project is to make sure that it’s authentic as it possibly can be and from an executive level making sure that it is going in the right direction. My experience from running Fallen and running the skateboard brands is what I lend to that.”
The best news for everyone involved is that the New Balance Numeric shoes look good. The design remains true to the New Balance 574 that inspired them. The company’s iconic “N” logo fits in perfectly with the rest of the shoe, and most importantly, from a sales point, Numeric designer Michi Bretz wasn’t afraid to take cues from the brands they’re going head-to-head against. Take that and mix in a little PJ Ladd and you have a mix that could be very successful. The shoes first drop in July 2013 with a fourth colorway on each of the shoes launching in September 2013. All that’s left is to see how the market responds.