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Future Concepts: How the Boston-Based Sneaker Shop is Taking on The World

Imagine Dubai. Imagine miles of luxury shopping real estate, high-rise buildings that continue into the sky, all sprawling outwards into the endless heat trap of the Arabian Desert.

Now contrast this stereotypical picture of the Emirate city with that of a frigid afternoon in the town of Cambridge, Mass. Soon, these two seemingly disparate worlds will hold one thing in common – Concepts.

The wind is blustering through town on the day Vamp interviews Deon Point, general manager and buyer for Concepts, one of the true OG sneaker retail brands which, since 1996, has sat in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge.

Once only a shop-within-a-shop at The Tannery, a Boston institution in and of itself, Concepts has recently re-branded as Concepts International with the hope of becoming a global hub for sneaker enthusiasts. Last month, the company announced the appointment of Tre Lucas as president, who plans to take Concepts “from a local retailer to a standalone global brand.”

The cornerstone of this expansion will be a new flagship store in Dubai. Challenges have pushed the tentative store opening from spring to September of this year, but according to Point, Concepts is a brand that takes its time with everything it does.

“Nothing we do is ever spur of the moment, it’s very much calculated, so we’ve wanted to do this for a while,” he said. “With Concepts International, we wanted to get away from just being Concepts and wanted to show people where we were expanding to.”

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The Dubai store will be the third Concepts flagship location, following the company’s original Boston shop and its new Manhattan store, which opened last year on Hudson Street on the border of Tribeca and SoHo.

Having been with the company for over a decade, Point has helped assure the rise of Concepts in a luxury footwear space that is almost entirely dominated by big players. As the market has become increasingly crowded in recent years, he’s continued to push for unique offerings and unexpected collaborations with major brands that have kept the small, independent shop one step ahead of its imitators.

Part of this means taking risks. In 2008, Concepts invested over $75,000 of its own money into a bizarrely named Nike collaboration dubbed “the Blue Lobster.” That might not seem like much, but as Point puts it, Concepts at that time was still just “small fish.”

“And back then the sneaker industry nor the collaboration market was nowhere near as big as it is today, so we would knock and knock and knock until finally someone would answer.”

But the shoe was a hit, helping to lay the foundation for collaborations in both the athletic shoe market and with more unexpected brands. On the docket this year? What Point calls a “big, major” project with Adidas, as well as a new collaboration with Mephisto, an Italian maker of men’s business and comfort shoes. Not Concepts’ usual customer, but for Point, it’s all about finding connections where others fail to.

“It’s definitely not what our consumer is used to, but I think we’ll be able to educate our consumer about it. It’s all made and Italy. It’s really nice stuff.”

From its early days with The Tannery in the ’90s, what’s set Concepts apart from other streetwear retailers offering similar assortments has been in large part its loyalty to its Boston roots. While others were busy chasing an L.A. or New York aesthetic, Concepts was carrying Arc’teryx and Sorel on its shelves, bridging the gap between modern streetwear and a certain, very New England-centric outdoors vibe.

“So even prior to Barneys catching onto the sneaker wave, we were literally the first store in the world to combine Nike and consortium Adidas alongside the luxury brands.”

Recalling how his bosses tried to entice Burton to sell snowboards in the shop in the early years of Concepts, Point explains, “When Burton came in, they looked around and walked out. So [my boss] chases them down the street and asks them ‘hey, where are you going?’ and they were like ‘the f**k is this? We came here to open an account and this is a shoe store!’ And so the guys who were there at the time were able to make them come to an understanding, and so we started selling snowboards. That’s where we started to bridge the gap. It was out of the ordinary for the time.”

By the time Point joined Concepts full-time in 2004, he wanted to start making his own imprint on the brand. An afinity for luxury gave him the idea to bring Gucci into the store – not an easy proposition for a small streetwear shop from Cambridge.

“We went to Gucci maybe two or three times and got shot down,” he says. “But then finally we came to an understanding, and that’s eventually what helped us get Lanvin, Balenciaga, and Margiela. So even prior to Barneys catching onto the sneaker wave, we were literally the first store in the world to combine Nike and consortium Adidas alongside the luxury brands.”

As the specialty sneaker market continued to grow, Point tried to think of ways to differentiate Concepts from its competition that was becoming increasingly familiar.

“I think when we first started it was really exciting. Now all of the major department stores have followed suit, they all carry high-end brands and an assortment from Nike, Addias, Puma, etc., so it’s become watered-down. For us though, we have an insatiable appetite, so we’re never really complacent in one spot. As we noticed other stores catching on that’s when we started looking towards New York, because we knew we wanted to be there.”

Laying the groundwork for the permanent location that would eventually follow, Concepts debuted a pop-up shop in Manhattan. Part of the challenge was how to offer the New York customer a unique experience.

“How do we make it right, how do we make it meaningful, and if we’ve waited this long already, let’s wait until it’s perfect, and that’s how the idea of those pop-up shops came about. And again, others followed suit, but at the time when we were doing it only major corporations were doing it. There were almost no independent companies that really wanted to invest into themselves to the same level we did.”

Following a good reception in Manhattan, Concepts has continued to latch onto opportunities – but carefully. Late last year the brand had a limited pop-up in Costa Meca, Calif., but Point says that the brand is mindful of becoming overexposed. Sneakers are a game of perceived value, after all.

“I think stores in general tend to grow too fast. A lot of businesses want to generate income and they want to grow and become this overnight monster, and they lose sight of what got them there in the first place, so we’re very conscious of that,” he said.

In much the same manner as New York’s Supreme – another streetwear shop-turned-global brand – has slowly and methodically rolled out across the world, expansion to Concepts isn’t a matter of global domination, but rather an opportunity to add value to the communities they inhibit.

“When we wanted to take on New York it was years worth of research and work in order to fit in, and obviously we wanted to be humble being that we’re from Boston,” he said. “We’ve gotten opportunities to do Chicago, Miami and L.A., but we just really wanted to do something different, and I think Dubai kind of encompasses not just who we are, but where we want to go.”

With much painstaking attention being paid to Dubai, the brand is also trying to grow its own range of branded apparel, which it says will get a major push later in the year for back-to-school season. Point says the focus will be on classic, timeless pieces, adding that Concepts is not looking to chase trends.

Given that Point works with a core team of just four people, the scale of what Concepts has accomplished thus far is certainly impressive, and perhaps even a bit menacing to its competitors. But even from as far away as Dubai, Point says the core values of Concepts are never far from his mind.

“We’ve always done what we wanted to do, and you know it’s great having such a small team. Obviously it sucks when it comes to work time, because we’re ripping our hair out trying to get things done in a timely fashion, but the flip side to that is, being that it’s so small, we are all in agreeance that what got us here is a formula that works. I think we’re in a great space and have a lot of opportunity to grow. I think that sky is the limit.”