James Bond (yes, that’s his real name) co-founded Undefeated, but he usually prefers to stay out of the spotlight. That’s going to change this week, when he gives viewers a behind-the-curtain look at his Los Angeles’ boutique and his lifestyle on Esquire Networks’ “How I Rock It”. James took some time from his busy schedule to talk about Undefeated is turning into its own brand, the evolution of sneaker culture, and his favorite collaborations to work on. You can also catch him on “How I Rock It” when it airs on the Esquire Network tomorrow night.
Interview by Larry Gallagher (@Writing_Wrambler)
Now you’re going to be appearing in a segment of “How I Rock It”. You don’t always like to be out there in the public eye and you seem to prefer to be more in the background of things. With that in mind, how did the appearance on the show come about?
I’m kind of like a frustrated chef, so I was cooking at my friends restaurant and Baron Davis was there and he had an interview with a mutual friend of ours and he was like “I’d love to have you on the show”. It was pretty simple. He was into the food, so I don’t know, he was just like “Hey, I’ll put you on the show”.
What I found really interesting was a good amount of your segment is dedicated to your support of boxer Pedro “Lil Pete” Duran. You’ve definitely been there to support him and it seems that giving that support to someone who otherwise might not make it without that help is important to you. Would you say that’s a fair assumption?
Yeah, of course. You know I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a few people in my corner no matter what knuckleheaded things I had done as a youngster. So I felt that it was important that I live my life in the same way and treat people the way I had been treated. You know people looked out for me in a critical time where I really could have gone off and done nothing and that really helped me be who I am today. So with him I felt this great opportunity. Even in the beginning just meeting this amazing little kid who was so laser focused. I could never imagine being so focused at the age that he was. I was just like “I’m down to support in any way that I can”. It just grew from there, all of the respect that they gave me and I wasn’t in it for anything other than being supportive to a young man. It was kind of just building a family and it’s been a pretty amazing process. I try to do as much as I can and for Lil Pete, were always down to do as much as we can to help out.
I just feel that you’ve got to shoot straight and be honest, and that’s all you can do.
Yeah it really is crazy seeing him. I think he just turned 20 and I just can’t imagine having that type of discipline at that age. You can see it show in his work and his progress as a fighter.
Exactly. Just to have him on our team, it’s inspirational for our guys who are much older but are still like “Holy shit I can’t believe I’m still doing this” watching him doing his thing is just amazing stuff.
Now one of the other things you were saying and I think it has to do with your role as a mentor is the idea of how sheltered kids are today. For someone in your position, running a brand and having some influence on a larger level, how do you help put that idea of helping kids deal with reality into effect?
You know the name of it is escaping me, but Malcolm Gladwell has a new book that just came out and it’s just about that topic, 100 percent. It’s like, you know, okay maybe I didn’t grow up with the greatest life but I am who I am because of that. The whole flipside of that is all those things that we go through is what helps define you as who you are in your life. So as far as with running a brand, with my own employees I try to be fair and honest and not pat them on the back for mediocrity. It’s the same thing with my kids. I’m happy to support and encourage them but at the same time if I feel like it's B.S., then I’m gonna call it out for being B.S. And if I have to call them out on it then so be it. I don’t want them being out in the world thinking that everything they do is great. You know we have a lot of that in our society now. Like if you just look at social media, you have these kids who just think they need to do shit because the world needs to see it and it marginalizes real talent. It brings everything down to a scale. It’s like a bell curve getting quickly pushed up. I just feel that you’ve got to shoot straight and be honest, and that’s all you can do.
Those are always my favorite projects where everyone gets to participate.
Now as far as Undefeated goes, you’ve gone from a very underground subculture brand to something that’s well recognized and much closer to the mainstream. How do you maintain that balance of keeping your designs and what you do distinctly “your thing”, even as you grow to a much larger level?
I think part of that is my partner and I are both in our mid 40s now. So were from a different generation where we didn’t have the Internet when we started out, we didn’t have social media to promote ourselves. That tool allows you to move really fast and really kind of gauge what people like and what they won’t like. You kind of do what you do and become your own brand architect. We have a couple of things that have slipped through the cracks where were like “Oh, we probably shouldn’t have done that” but we also needed to try and reach out to other markets and other people. But for the most part I think we’ve done a good job staying true to our course and letting people come back to us and we can work with them that way. We don’t have to display our logos and do all of this other stuff. I mean I get what they’re doing, our way is a little bit of a longer road but the reward is much better. Sometimes it’s not the fastest one that’s wins the race, it’s the one with the most consistent pace.
Now as far as with your collaborations, anything that stuck out as your personal favorite?
Yeah, I’m really a big fan of all of the Converse stuff we have done. It’s such a hard project for the stuff that is real simple in design. It’s not that make or break kind of project. I just always really like working with Converse. We also just did the Beats by Dre; I really enjoyed working with them on that.
I always liked the “Poorman’s Weapon” from the Converse line. Just a simple, clean look.
Exactly, and those just appeal to a completely different type of sneaker person. More like no specific detail, just a nice steady project that everyone will be able to participate on. Those are always my favorite projects where everyone gets to participate.
Going back to something from the episode of “How I Rock It”, you mentioned growing up being robbed for your Jordans and you kind of smiled and laughed like it was a nostalgic memory. It made me laugh too because for me, growing up in the NYC area and being into sneakers you almost always have at least one story where “you got caught” or you saw something go down like that. You never want to see something like that happen, but what is it about our sneaker culture where we just accept that as part of what happens?
Yeah, you’re 100 percent right on that. You know I don’t know anybody who has completely gone “untouched”. It’s just something that’s happened to everyone. It’s something you just learn. I was a latchkey kid from first grade. I grew up in Philadelphia so I used the public transportation system and you just knew there were certain things you just don’t do and there were sometimes you just weren’t paying attention and you just knew like “Okay, I gotta take that hell”. You know, you go and throw the ball deep into double coverage and there’s a pretty good chance you’re gonna get intercepted. That’s just what happens, maybe you get on the wrong train or get off at the wrong spot and you just have to “take em off”. Just say look, go ahead and take everything and keep it moving.
As long as you win more than you lose, you’re good to go.
It stings, but it’s a way of life sometimes.
It’s true. I worked in I Goldberg, right there on Chestnut street in Philadelphia and we’d see kids when I was there come in with socks on and no jacket in the winter, and they’d just have to get a new jacket and sneakers, it just happens. As long as you win more than you lose, you’re good to go.
Now as far as having people get to know you a little like in the episode, is there anything you think people would be surprised to find out about you?
You know what? I don’t know. It’s so hard with those pieces they do on you like the episode. Because sometimes you cover so much and it gets cut down to snippets and sound bites. I think they did a really good job showing that not only with myself but with Undefeated as a brand, that were really trying to have professional athletes on the roster. We really want to be a performance brand that competes with the big brands like the Nikes and the Under Armours of the world. I think we have a lane as our business model changes that we can be more than just lifestyle. That we can be an on field and off field company at the same time. I hope that’s what people get out of it and see that’s where were trying to go.
Is that a focus of yours? To have that Undefeated logo reach out to this younger generation and have it really mean something to them as they grow up?
Yeah, you know. I think that where we’re gonna be okay is that were able to do some things right now that maybe Nike and Under Armour can’t do, just because of the brand vibe. You know, were not gonna go and put “Fuck You” on a t-shirt but we can still get away with something a little more grittier and edgier than Nike and that helps us resonate with a younger audience and build our core at this age. That’s what Under Armour did, they were hitting high schools and colleges, “cherry picking” those athletes off of those teams and then all of a sudden Cam Newton or Brandon Jennings were becoming Under Armour athletes just by default because they were there with them when they were younger athletes in high school and college. So with Undefeated it’s the same thing in a way, for a lot of the guys now its resonating in sneaker culture and they’re starting to ask for more apparel and they love the stuff they’re wearing in practice and some stuff they’re wearing out to play on the field so as we grow and get more athletes that have a strong presence who get empowered and have a voice you’ll be able to see us on the field more and more as time goes on.
So the year is coming to an end. We’ve seen a ton of big sneaker releases this year. Anything particular that you really liked or a list of some of your favorites?
I mean, lately, I have to tell you man, Jordan has been dropping stuff on us every weekend that has just been crazy. I mean I have my kids’ friends and their parents are emailing me, slowly coming out of the woodwork saying “Hey, could you get me on a list to get me some gammas or some of the packs that have been dropping?” and I’m looking back and being like “what the hell is even out right now?”. I mean Nike has just really done so much; their holiday game is just crazy. You see all of these different releases. We’ve done some things for the holidays, not shoes but the Beats headphones and the Mr. cartoon t-shirts have been good for us as these good “quick gifts for the holidays” type things. We’ve just been really fortunate that we’ve been on the radar for so many people right now. I don’t have any specific shoes that I can think of that were my favorite.
As we grow and get more athletes that have a strong presence, who get empowered and have a voice, you’ll be able to see us on the field more and more as time goes on.
It’s definitely overwhelming at times. Growing up, maybe you had 2-3 big shoe drops every month or so and now it’s reached the point where were just bombarded with weekly releases of shoes you want.
It is, it’s just on a weekly basis. People are able to keep up too, which is crazy! I remember before, you would be real strategic about what you got and now they’re just firing so much great stuff that they’re just going hog-wild on them. The economy is good again, go out and get an extra pair of sneakers (laughter).
Okay so last question. In 2014 what’s next for Undefeated and where do you think sneaker culture as a whole is headed?
For Undefeated, we want to be able to be consistent and do what we say were gonna do and that’s what will be able to allow us to keep our doors open. I think as long as we keep offering the product that we offer and stay true to our brand, were gonna be okay. For sneaker culture, I mean it’s so cyclical. It’s about 18 month cycles. We’ve had a strong, good, I’d say 2 years at this point. The sneaker business is in a very precarious state though. You’re right, they’re bringing out a lot of retros but that doesn’t really allow for new models or new styles to really have a chance become one in their own. It’s a weird position that they’re in. You start to push more models and less hybrids and you keep going back to the well. By the time the well is dry, there’s gonna be a whole new set of consumers. The companies are gonna be fine but it’s just hard to be consistent and grow a brand in that environment sometimes. There’s always going to be a consumer and as long as we do our thing at Undefeated well still continue to be relevant and stay a step in front.