Lewi Brown Explains the Story Behind the Earls Collection x ASICS GT-2160

The NRL player turned brand owner is taking Māori culture global.

Man sits on stairs wearing Earl's Collection apparel and sneakers, with a close-up of shoes hanging beside

Image via ASICS

Man sits on stairs wearing Earl's Collection apparel and sneakers, with a close-up of shoes hanging beside

Content advice: This story contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know needs help, helplines are listed at the bottom of this story.

While other athletes have stumbled following retirement, former NRL international Lewi Brown is thriving. After leaving rugby league five years ago, Lewi didn’t follow the well-trodden path of coaching or media. Instead, he chose to follow his passion and establish fashion label Earls Collection. In only a few years, the brand has marked up milestones with well-received seasonal collections, collabs with major brands and, most recently, a new ASICS GT-2160.

Collaborating with the hottest brand in the game, on the GT-2160, no less, puts Earls Collection in rarified air. The brand from our corner of the world will join an All-Star lineup of international tastemakers including Dime, Gallery Dept, BEAMS, Cecilie Bahnsen, Hidden.NY and even Sydney’s own Above The Clouds as a collaborator on the fresh tech silhouette. The sneaker will see a product bearing the Earls name stocked in Kith and Dover Street Market. 

In his new career, Lewi Brown is creating a brand new highlight reel. His achievements in fashion are just as impressive as his try from dummy half in the 2014 Four Nations or that time he scored in the corner to put the Warriors into the 2011 NRL Grand Final. He’s making it look easy, but, as he explained to Complex AU, the road to get to this point has been anything but. 

Congratulations on the collab. I know you’ve always had a real affinity for ASICS, can you talk me through that?

It goes back to when I was a young kid. I grew up with a single mum. My dad was in my life, he was a good dude, but he was just a useless father. But I was very fortunate to have my mum's dad, my kuru, that's the Māori name for pop. He took me under his wing and treated me like a son as opposed to a grandchild. Last year in May I lost him. He was my best mate, my hero. And the craziest thing, bro, is that he wore ASICS his whole life.

My heritage runs back to a little island off New Zealand, the Chatham Islands. The only plane my kuru had been on, since leaving that island when he was 18, was when he came to watch me play for the Warriors.

He was traveling from Christchurch to Auckland and I got a phone call saying that Pop had a fall on the escalator at the airport and scratched up his back pretty bad. He got to Auckland, limped into my house and he said, "My back’s sore, but there's something wrong with my calf." The tough bugger had actually torn his Achilles. 

I remember running out on to the field that day not knowing if he was gonna be there. And then I looked up to my right and here he was in a wheelchair and a cast. Anyone who knows ASICS well knows that there's that 8mm heel raise in the back of the shoes that helps your Achilles, or any ankle and knee problems. So for the rest of his life, through birthdays, Father's Days, through Christmas, or anytime he needed a new pair, he wore ASICS and I got them for him. So he basically wore ASICS for the last 16 years of his life. And then the day after he passed away I actually got an email from Zacc and TK [from ASICS Australia] saying "Hey, could you come out for a meeting?"

What’s special to me about this collab is that so many sneaker releases reference something from US culture or they reference something from Japanese culture. This is the first time, as far as I'm aware, that we have something Polynesian. Can you talk a little bit about that?

I've always wanted to give back to my culture. I'd done that in sports by playing for the New Zealand Kiwis Rugby League team, and I also represented the New Zealand Māori in a game against England in 2010. I felt like this project with ASICS was a great way to display our culture to the globe and show them what New Zealand Māori heritage is. 

The Brown [on the shoe] obviously represents my last name and, also, in Māori culture we have a place of gathering called a marae. The wood carvings [at a marae] are brown, and you can see that on the suede.

The mesh represents harakeke weaving. We would weave flax to make bags to carry food and resources around. I felt like the mesh represented that really well. 

And then the green symbolises where I'm from, my tribe—Ngāi Tahu. We're from the South Island. The green also represents pounamu which is the necklace that you might have seen a lot of Māori people wear. When you cut pounamu, it comes in different shades of green and different shapes. And, actually, you can't buy it for yourself. You've gotta be gifted pounamu. It gives you strength and protection. And it can only be found in the South Island rivers, which is where my roots lie. 

Then the finishing touch that I love the most is the paua shell. In Australia you call it abalone, in New Zealand we call it paua. It was me and my grandfather's favorite seafood to eat together.

I love it, man. We’ve had some amazing local sneaker collabs lately but this one hits a little different with those really personal touches. 

It isn't just about the shoe, I want it to impact the culture. To show young kids— whether you're Polynesian or from any Indigenous background—you can do what you want.

And I feel like we've done it the right way. We got the shoe blessed. When you get pounamu, you’re meant to bless it. That way it protects people. It's called a karakia, which is a little prayer to protect people and give them strength. The people who get to wear the shoe, every time they pull it on, they're protected and they feel safe. I just wanted to make sure I did all that stuff right. 

This project was something I didn't think would ever cross my desk. But I always made sure that if something like this did arise, I'd give it everything—I wouldn't take any shortcuts and I'd make sure it represented my people, who always had my back when I played sport.

Earls is riding high right now but I’d really like to acknowledge the story behind the brand, which is really heavy. Can you tell me about that?

I was away with the Kiwis. We were playing in the Four Nations final at Anfield against the Kangaroos. We'd got absolutely pumped. It was like 36-4. We played against a crazy team that had Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis. 

I hopped off the field and my sister rang me. I thought she wanted to talk about the game. She said, "It's Dad. He's taken his own life."

So as you can imagine, the next few days, getting all the way from England back to Christchurch, there was a lot of stuff going through my mind. And when I got back to the funeral, things were very different. I [experienced] a side of me that I didn't know. It was a side I'd never met before. 

As the day went on I found out that my dad, my grandfather, and great-grandfather had all died by suicide.

The only thing we all share in common is the middle name Earl. And, if I go back to my early days, I hated that middle name. I really did. If anyone asked me what my middle name was, I'd always say I didn't have one. It gave me bad energy. But I don't know whether that had anything to do with what was happening, or if it was just the association with my dad because he was this guy on the other side of the city that didn't want anything to do with me and my sister.

At what point during all of this did you start the brand?

It got to the point where my dream was becoming a job, bro. My dream was always to play rugby league and I believe your dream should never become a job. When it starts to become a job, it's time to walk away. 

I was meant to go to the south of France for a three-year deal on a Friday. But, on the Wednesday, I decided to retire. And on the Monday I reached out to a production company and started Earls. 

I thought to myself, “I'm just gonna give this a shot.” It started off as a hobby. And 'cause I was sick of spending so much money on other people's clothes. 

You were always into streetwear and fashion, even in your playing days.

Bro, when I played, I used to cop it all the time, like Ivan Cleary always said to me stuff like, “Bro, why are you wearing that cardigan? It's terrible.” But he'd always have that smirk on his face, because that's who I was. I always dressed the way I wanted to dress. I dress differently. The boys would gimme stick and then we'd go on a tour, and some of them will pull me aside and be like, “Hey, like my girlfriend's asked me, can you take me shopping? 'cause she wants me to tidy up my wardrobe a little bit and look a bit, just a little bit like you.” 

Once upon a time when I was playing footy, I was an ASICS athlete. So to be able to wear the product and then, go to your next life, your next journey, and to be still involved with them, to have them reach out to me is amazing.

I'm really happy with the way we're heading. Like we're a very small brand and we're still learning. We're still learning so much. But I've realised in life that if you put your mind to it, you're passionate enough about it, and you work hard enough for it—good things happen to those people.

That's the story of Earls. This is our third collab, and every collab we've done [ASICS, New Era, G-Shock], it's all been something that I wore as a kid. It's all about that full circle moment.

Mental health resources


Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander crisis support line 13YARN on 13 92 76
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
Headspace on 1800 650 890
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
ReachOut Australia

United States:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on Dial 988


Find other international suicide helplines at Befrienders Worldwide