Don't blink. That was the text accompanying the first teasers that French-Algerian model Younes Bendjima posted about his New Balance 992 collaboration. The captions popped up under images of the shoes and scenes from Algeria, where they find their inspiration. The advice is fitting given how limited the sneaker is.
Only 250 pairs will be sold, all of them exclusively through Studio FY7, Bendjima's brand and creative agency that gets top billing on the project. The Studio FY7 x New Balance 992s release on Saturday, Oct. 24, at 9 p.m. Paris time, right when the city shuts down for Covid-19 curfew. Blink and you will miss them. Before the launch, which was originally planned for yesterday, the website was already crashing after being flooded with traffic.
"I literally have four dudes fixing everything," Bendjima says of his site as he preps for the release of his first shoe, "they're changing the backend link. I don't know shit about all this website business. They told me, usually what they do, they find the backend link and then they try to buy it the day you drop, maybe five minutes before."
After overwhelming demand caused issues with the site, he decided to delay the launch by two days. The ticking hours before the finish line are frantic, but the 27-year-old Bendjima is focused. He has a story to tell.
His New Balances are a reflection of his own background, the tan suede sections cresting like sand dunes of the Sahara, and the circular cuts in black representing the architecture of Ghardaïa, a city in Algeria. That architecture inspired works by Le Corbusier, who brought what he saw during his time in North Africa back to France. The relationship across the Mediterranean, the echo of Mzab shapes in France's banlieue suburbs, and Bendjima's place in those stories, inform the sneaker.
Here, Bendjima discusses the Studio FY7 x New Balance 992 ahead of its release. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Are you ready?
For sure, I'm ready. I'm super excited. You know, we don't have much—we are very limited, first program with New Balance, which is never that much units. So I mean, usually, I think JJJJound the first time they dropped they had 150 [pairs] with the 990, and I talked with Joe [Grondin, who manages New Balance collabs], to at least have 250. And that's what we got, so [I’m] pretty happy. But I'm sure we're going to make some happy people and some really mad people with all the comments I see right now. They're really, really mad that there's only 250 pieces.
How long have you been waiting for this? How long has this been in the works?
So we started working exactly a year and two months ago. That's when I saw Joe for the second time in L.A., and we spoke about a collaboration that we can do together and then, boom, we just started working on it step by step.
The sneaker's tied to your roots in Algeria. When you started the design, did you know immediately that that's what you wanted to do?
I'm going to say yes. 70 percent of when I knew I was going to do a collab with New Balance was it had to be meaningful. I didn't want to do just one dope, colorful sneaker that didn't really have any meaning behind it. I really wanted something meaningful. I was thinking either the way I grew up...my childhood...something related to my family...and at the end, boom, I just got it all. The shoe is related to the way I grew up in the suburbs of Lyon, which is the third-biggest city in France. So, we have a pretty big hood there, and a mix of the architecture and the culture of Algeria and North Africa. Just a mix of everything. Basically the shoe is literally, like, me. If I was a shoe, that would be what I would look like.
Do you think about that a lot with a project like this? Is it on your mind that it's kind of a rarity for someone of North African descent to get to design their own shoe?
When I made the shoe, to tell you everything, I just wanted to represent the young person of color who could never imagine the possibility of collaborating with a brand like New Balance. A brand that they've known their entire life. It makes me happy 'cause I want them to know that it's possible and necessary to maintain your identity in your pursuit of any dreams. That makes me happy, to just give a hope, even though it's not the biggest contract ever or anything, but this is enough for me to make me happy.
And you really kept on it. Even with the imagery, you have the guy who has Africa shaved in the back of his head.
Oh yeah, of course. I got inspired by an old editorial from the '90s that I found. I really wanted to do a really meaningful editorial, like campaign kind of vibe. I decided to take this young 17-year-old Moroccan kid, so part of North Africa, and dress him with a very '80s, old vintage suit from Yohji Yamamoto. I really wanted him to be very chic, but at the same time, just running the streets of Paris just, like, around the block. Just looking at the camera, just chilling in his environment, but very well dressed.
Before we talked, I sent you this artwork, it's from a French-Algerian artist named Kader Attia. So he has this sculpture of Ghardaïa that's done all in couscous and at the installation he also put up these pictures of Le Corbusier and the French architect Fernand Pouillon, two men who borrowed from Algerian architecture but didn't totally acknowledge the source. In a way, I feel like your shoe is making that connection more explicit.
A hundred percent, not a lot of people know that. A lot of people know Le Corbusier when they're into architecture, interior design, and all that, but they don't know that Le Corbusier got inspired a lot by Algeria and North Africa in general. I really wanted to give this information to people, you know? I read a lot of things about Le Corbusier and how he even used to paint young kids in Algeria. He spent a lot of time there. So yeah, I really wanted to make this connection.
You mentioned the suburbs, too, that guy Pouillon, he ended up doing work in social housing in Algeria and later contributed to the French banlieue. So there's a connection there, too, I think.
A hundred percent. I'm definitely more attached to Le Corbusier, because I just love everything he did in terms of interior design. I could mention Pouillon the same way I mentioned Le Corbusier. For me they are two, kind of like, legends.
I want to talk about some other legends. I know you want to send this shoe to all your friends and you have connections all over the world. One name that came up was Vincent Cassel, who to me is such a legend. Why was it important to you that he has a pair of the sneakers?
So, you know what, it's really funny. His wife is a really good friend of mine, her name is Tina. I didn't know if Vincent wanted the shoe or not. We only had like 50 pairs for seeding, so it really goes crazy. You know, I have a very big family. So I have one for my dad, one for my little brother, one for my mom, one for my cousin. So it was really quick, I'm already at 12 just with family. And I really had to double-check for everyone that was on the seeding list. And then Tina, she calls me and she's like, "You know, I just reposted the first picture of the New Balance that you just shared." And she's like, "Vincent is asking me who did it. And I told him it was you." And she said, "You have to send him the shoe." And I said, "Wow, I'm so sorry for not thinking about him." Because he's such a crazy classic French character.
And even there, it takes it back to the banlieue. If you think about Vincent in La Haine.
A hundred percent, a hundred percent. And I thought about it, too, it actually made me happy. Because obviously, I don't have a big team for Studio FY7, I like to do everything myself. So I'm with the guy that develops the website. I'm at the factory, I'm taking care of the warehouse, and I'm literally taking care of everything 'cause I have a hard time relying on people. I like to do everything myself so I'm sure that things are doing well.
When she reminded me, she was like, "Vincent loves your shoe." I was really happy. That's such good news, because Vincent is just this legend that is the main character in La Haine, and La Haine is one of my favorite French movies.
And right beside him, Saïd, a North African dude who's going through the same stuff.
And the last one, what's his name?
Hubert, yeah of course, how could I forget that? Just talking about it right now with you, I just want to, after this phone call, play it. I just want to watch it.
Who else is on that seeding list? I know you don't have a lot of pairs, but who else do you want to get the shoes to?
Frank Ocean is on the seeding list. Rihanna is on the seeding list. I also have some friends from London, like Jordan Vickors. Or this American artist Aminé. I have Tremaine, a really good friend of mine. Like I told you, I have some family—just checking the list right now so I can tell you a little more about it. Some friends from Paris, some friends from London. The list was really based on people that inspire me. But that really, also, know how to dress in general. It goes from friends to family to some cool stylists to some really famous people. I have Kim Jones from Dior because I work a lot with Dior, and Thibo [who] makes all the sneakers for them. It's a pretty cool list, I'm pretty happy with it.
I'm assuming there are more ideas that you have that you want to express through sneakers and Studio FY7. Do you think you and New Balance will be working together again?
Hopefully, I hope so. That's funny, because I was thinking about it the past few days. Even right now, 'cause people are like, "Damn man, you only have 250 pairs this is crazy. [What] am I going to do if I can't cop?" I even have some funny people that are like, "Bro, if I don't cop one I'm gonna throw up." Kids from L.A., kids from New York, they're just so crazy with sneakers. It's so beautiful to witness that you really have some people that love sneakers. That really tell you, "The sneaker is dope, it's a classic, it's just fresh." It's something that has a meaning behind it. I think that's why people really like the shoe, because there is a meaning behind it.
That's what I love about it is that no matter who's going to be able to cop the shoe—someone from India, then someone from America, or someone from Paris. Wherever they're going to walk with the shoe, I know that the shoe has such a strong meaning and this is what really makes me proud and happy.
But yeah, to go back to your question, I hope so. I really hope so. I have to talk with New Balance, hopefully we can develop some crazy sneakers and some clothes. Whatever we can do to just work together and drop some really cool stuff.
What was the sneaker scene like in Lyon where you grew up?
The sneakers in Lyon it's like—what people need to know is that Lyon is really the old-minded city. By that I mean that they really stayed stuck in the '90s. They would drive this, like, old BMW from the '90s, '80s with the yellow light, the leather jacket, the 501 Levi's, with the Air Max TN or the Air Max 97, 95. I still see some people—I don't know if you know this brand Sergio Tacchini.
Of course, that's what Saïd had on in La Haine.
Exactly. They still wear some Sergio Tacchini. They wear a lot of Lacoste full tracksuits. No one wears a full tracksuit [from] Lacoste anymore. So yeah, my city, they're really old-minded. The sneaker scene is really classic. Of course, you have the fashion kid coming up. What's funny is that it's always the same. You have the street world that always wears same sneakers and then you have the one that's gonna go and skateboard and follow the hype. That's going to wear the 990v4, the 992. It's pretty street, they are pretty hood in terms of sneakers.
Would you say you're from Lyon? I feel like it's a difficult question for you to answer where you're from and there's not a lot of information online about it.
I grew up in Lyon and I was boxing until I was 17. And then I went to Chicago. Chicago was like, it was just not for me at 17 years old. I don't know why I was going there. I went to go and try boxing and then I ended up in New York because my cousin was there. I ended up staying in New York for, like, four years back and forth, because it was hard to make your visa back then. The first time I got there, I got scouted for modeling and this is how I was making my living at 17 years old. 'Cause you know, in New York, 17, you don't speak English, $300 in your pocket. It's really tough. It's really tough on you. I had to find a solution and I got scouted with modeling and this is how I started making a little bread, just to survive in the Big Apple.
Did you live in Algeria at all during that period?
No, never did. In my life, I went to Algeria maybe five times. And I really want to go back, but for now, with Covid and all that, the country is closed.
It seems like this sneaker is very much an answer to the question of where you're from. It being between France, between Algeria, and in the U.S. in some way.
Exactly. It’s just a mix of where I was born and my origin and the places I've traveled to. America obviously has a big inspiration, 'cause I just spent the past nine years between New York and Los Angeles. It's really a big mix of France, Algeria, and America.