School Footwear is trying to reset the market for status-worthy sneaker design with an accessible price point and a message that says “black brands matter.”
Originally conceived in the early fall of 2019, the DTC sneaker brand received its first samples in January after designing “frantically” for months. In June, the up-and-coming sneaker brand based in the United Arab Emirates’ glittering metropolis of Dubai launched a Kickstarter campaign to gauge public interest and get its foot in the door—but cancelled the raise on June 25. Production was slated to start in December if the campaign, which tapped out at $1,640, met its $57,081 goal.
Co-founder Tom Young said he paused the raise after advisors suggested manufacturing a small batch to get the product in consumers’ hands and generate word of mouth. They also prompted him to consider creating with vegan and sustainable materials in order to “capture the Kickstarter crowd,” he added. School Footwear is pushing forward on product development, Young insisted, but must “make sure we strategize better on how we promote our product.”
The entire concept of School Footwear is built on fighting back against the culture of forced scarcity in the footwear industry, aiming instead to produce footwear that is accessible to almost anyone while recognizing the role sneakers play in black communities.
“In black culture, it’s part of our identity,” Young, who also serves as head of design for School Footwear, told Sourcing Journal. “Wrong or right, they’ve always been a status symbol and continue to be.”
Young wants to leave the clout-chasing to pricier—and entrenched—labels like Jordan and Yeezy.
“This isn’t our space,” he said. “We’re about being accessible.”
The brand’s first product, the Marathon I sneaker, was set to be offered for $85 and is steeped in a retro aesthetic inspired by fashion and footwear from the 1980s and ‘90s. This led to the “simple but unexpected” design of the Marathon I, featuring bold-colored paneling and mixed material design including rubber, suede, plastic and mesh fabric.
Smaller details like spectacle-shaped eyelets hinting at the brand name and a 3M reflective strip along the side panel help differentiate School sneakers from the rest of the pack.
“Our brand taps into nostalgia and those timeless designs of old that seem to always resurface because there’s a certain look and feel that never goes out of style,” Young said.
Young said the Marathon I was set to be produced in a factory that manufactures footwear for New Balance and French shoe brand Le Coq Sportif.
Young is part of a team of three brothers behind School Footwear. Brother Ben leverages a background in business studies to handle the “numbers and red tape,” while another sibling, James uses his pedigree as the recipient of a British Design & Art Direction Yellow Pencil award for design to help steer the label’s creative direction.
The trio of siblings is working to build the brand while remaining cognizant of the challenges faced by minority-run outfit.
“From my personal experience funding and connections have been the main challenge [of running a black-owned business],” Young said. “Many black people or families rarely have that same nest egg and strong financial foundations and also institutional connections that a lot of white families have, from my experience, where they can turn to for financial support and backing.
“Many of us come from nothing, starting from total zero,” he added.
Young said his company is aware of the inequities in the sneaker industry, a sector where large multinational companies often market their products using the cultural influence and language of black communities while often failing to properly integrate black individuals and other underrepresented demographics into their businesses as stakeholders.
“I would say to these large industries that black people should be given more opportunities,” Young said. “We made the culture what it is today, we should play a bigger role in sustaining it other than merely being the end user.”
Being more vocal about the inequality in the sneaker industry, as well as in other sectors, could spark black interest in entrepreneurial pursuits, he added.
“We’ll need to start growing in an economical sense if we really want to change things,” Young said. “Because money is power in our current society.”