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In 2005, Undefeated became the first sneaker boutique to collaborate with Jordan Brand. The result, an ultra-limited olive green and orange colorway of the Air Jordan 4 inspired by MA-1 flight jackets. To this day, the Undefeated 4s are among the most coveted and valuable sneakers ever made. In 2021, sixteen years later, Jordan Brand collaborations have become the norm. Undefeated has firmly established itself as a pillar of streetwear with multiple locations around the world. And once again, the brand gets to say it is the first. Its latest collaboration is with the Arrow McLaren SP (AMSP) race team to outfit the #7 Vuse AMSP car in a special livery for the Indianapolis 500 on May 30. It marks the first time a fashion brand has designed a livery for an IndyCar.
“It’s interesting seeing a completely outside point of view with the car. Usually, we stick to relatively simple designs and camo liveries are for testing,” says design specialist for McLaren Racing Simon Dibley. “It’s awesome to see them bring a clothing design point of view over to racing and see what they can do with it.”
The paint job on the car that will be driven by Felix Rosenqvist at the prestigious Indy 500 later this month is unmistakably a creation of Undefeated. It covers the papaya vehicle, McLaren’s signature color, in black tiger camo stripes. White Undefeated five-strike logos appear over each back tire. The design also promotes the Vuse Design Challenge, a contest which will allow one lucky winner to design their own custom livery for the #7 Vuse AMSP car that will be debuted at the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville on August 8.
Ahead of Undefeated’s new collab making its debut on the track, we got a chance to speak with Undefeated co-founder James Bond about the brand’s latest opportunity, Undefeated’s Nike Kobe collaborations, his thoughts on streetwear and sneaker culture of today, and more. Check out the full interview below.
Can you just talk about this new collaboration and how it came about for Undefeated?
We did a collaboration with AMSP and their partner Vuse for the Indy 500, kind of selfishly, because we wanted to expand our viewpoint outside of our culture. We’re entrenched in streetwear. We’re entrenched in that culture that we’ve been a part of for 20 years. We wanted to walk away a bit and do something to expand the scope of our horizons so to speak and really take on a new challenge that no other streetwear brand has really been able to do at this point, get into something like the Indy 500 in this type of industry.
When it comes to the car itself, can you just talk about that process a bit? I know it features the papaya color and has the tiger camo and Undefeated logos and stuff, but did you immediately land on that being how you wanted the brand represented or were there other iterations that didn’t quite make it?
There were a few design concepts that we gave them, but we wanted it to be where both companies were represented. So the papaya colorway, that was theirs. The tiger camo, that’s what we’re known for. So we wanted to really use those two as the foundation. From there we built the color palette the right way. We figured out how to lay it on the car so that the car looked powerful. That repeat pattern that we use, we have the Undefeated logo kind of hidden in there, Easter egg style. Then, they dropped the five strikes over top when we finished the livery. We definitely have figured out a way to disrupt, but at the same time really make it look like it’s authentic. We should be there.
If you look at Undefeated’s history, in 2005 you guys were the first brand that had a Jordan Brand collab. In 2021, you’re the first brand that’s put their stamp on an IndyCar. You’re ahead of the curve again. What is your reaction to being able to not only achieve another milestone like this, but to be able to say that you’re the first ones to do it again?
What’s the old saying, ‘You never want to be the first.’ But I think in this situation, it’s great to be the first because you get to build something authentically. Arrow and their partner Vuse really helped us kind of come in and feel comfortable about it. They didn’t make us feel like we didn’t know what we were doing, which we clearly don’t know what we’re doing. We just wanted to give them something that was really fun. We were like, ‘Yo, can we grow with you? Can you teach us something that we don’t know?’ So, when everyone came together, it was super seamless. They really appreciated what we’ve done. They liked how we approached it. And vice versa. Like, we’re here at the shop today watching them build our car. So it’s pretty cool.
Going through this process, you mentioned them teaching you stuff. Is there anything in particular that you learned from this process and working within this world? Cause obviously it is a bit different than what you’re used to designing and collaborating on.
Well, I think you have to be more considerate of all the different layers of the business. So, you have it where it looks good, but there’s a reason why logos are placed the way they are. There’s a reason why these specific colors, it’s all these brands IPs. The way that certain business models are here within the building is really interesting to me because we’re still a young company in theory and we still kind of do whatever we want. We’re lucky that way. But here there’s reasons why certain things work. Learning that was really helpful as we continue to build our company as well.
The brand started back in 2002. It’s evolved over the years. Being one of the co-founders, can you just talk about how your role has evolved within the company over the years from when it was first starting out to what you’re doing today for Undefeated?
Yeah. You know, when we started, I was working in the shop with Fred [Lozano] and Alex [Bruzzi]. Today, Alex and Fred really help us run the company, but it’s more, I’m a de facto advisor. I sit at the board. I kind of keep an eye on making sure we stay in our lane. We veer out here and there, but for the most part, those parts where we veer out are really my doing, looking to expand and go to do other things, whether it’s through the gym or collaborations like this. Over the 20 years, we’ve been able to put people in place to become more professional, to become more of a corporate entity, so to speak. We’re just kind of overseers at this point, but you know, still I’m here every day.
When you and Eddie [Cruz] co-founded Undefeated in 2002, did you ever imagine that the five-strike logo and the brand in general would be synonymous with this world of streetwear, or that Undefeated would still be able to have this presence that it does two decades later?
You know, I hate to say, ‘Yes, we always knew we would be here.’ We really didn’t, but who we are as individuals, we always wanted something that was authentic and real to whatever we did. And I think that’s resonated. So 20 years later, that we’re still here, it stands for something that we talked about over 20 years ago and what we’ve worked for. The timing, the pattern of how we laid out the business, how things have evolved over 20 years, it wasn’t too fast. It wasn’t too slow. I think it was just the right pace so that it wasn’t really a sprint. It was more of a marathon that we’re still running.
One of the things I’ve always admired about the brand is that all the projects seem authentic, whether it’s working with New Era on a hat collection or your work with the LA Kings, or this project you’re doing for the Indy 500. It all fits within the ethos of the brand. But given the landscape of streetwear and sneakers right now, was that ever challenging? Does the hype culture and everything make it harder to avoid falling into trends and stuff?
Of course it does. I mean, it’s hard, but we’ve never tried to be the hype brand anyway. We never wanted to compete with that. We never felt like we were those guys. I’m not out every night. I’m not hanging out, same with Eddie. We come from a different generation. We just always want to bring something to the table that everyone is comfortable with. When you see it you’re like, ‘Oh, that makes sense. That fits into what I’m talking about.’ The word undefeated means so much to so many people. We wanted the brand as well to mean so much to so many different people where you didn’t feel like you were “in a box” because you wore our brand. You didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I’m part of that crew.’ You felt like, ‘I’m adding to my kit.’ So it’s always been like that. As we are able to work and grow with the bigger companies and do collaborations with more established foundations, it just speaks to the fact that they’ve also grown with the brand. We’ve grown up. They’ve grown up. Guys that are now putting us on were fans of the brand. So it was kind of like, ‘Oh, I remember this when I was back. Can you come in and get down with us?’ So, I think it’s just a constant evolution and growth.
Another recent project that you guys rolled out is the Kobe sneaker to help honor his Hall of Fame induction. You guys have done a few Kobe projects in the past. Being a brand from LA and just the massive legacy of Kobe, can you talk about what it means to you that Undefeated has gotten to be a part of the Kobe sneaker legacy, especially considering that it seems like that relationship with Nike is over at least for the time being?
The Hall of Fame pack was supposed to have come out before now, but unfortunately he passed away. It’s kind of the last homage to who he was. It’s kind of a drop the mic moment where everyone was really psyched on the shoe. Vanessa [Bryant] has been really cool with us finishing out the projects. We just did a drop for her and the Mambacita Academy a month ago. It has been a great relationship with Kobe, from when we started doing the Kobes. He liked our brand. He really resonated with it. We’re both from Philly. He was kind of like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ He would come into the store in Santa Monica and he was like, ‘Cool. I want to get down and do a project with these guys.’ He kind of gave us leeway to do things on his shoe because he knew that we were coming from a place of not really trying to reinvent the wheel. We just want to make this look better. We want the people to really resonate with it and catch kind of that vibe with the shoes. He had fun with it. It was really sad to see [Kobe’s Nike deal] end. I don’t think it’ll be long. I think they’ll be back together. Vanessa will be back with Nike. They go hand in hand. So, hopefully it won’t be too long of a break.
Undefeated has kind of always been ahead of the times, whether it’s the Jordan 4 or even the placement within pop culture when you had the Entourage cameo. It seems like the whole world of sneakers and streetwear has kind of caught up and is the mainstream thing now whereas you guys were kind of doing a lot of this stuff way back then. To that point, what is Undefeated’s influence in this whole world of streetwear and sneakers, in your opinion?
I mean, I would hope that when it’s all said and done that they appreciated the effort of curating a lifestyle, curating a culture. It wasn’t just what sells or what’s the hype. If you lay it out, it’s the art from the billboard project that we’ve done since it first started, the Undefeated Foundation to give back to places in our community. When you walk in the door, it’s like you walked into a community center. We have a loyal staff. A lot of our guys have been around for a while. So you know what you’re going to get when you walk in the door. At the end of the day, I’d hope that we’re seen as someone who really put in for the culture. From art, to music, to just being a meeting place for people to come and feel safe, to not only shop, but also to express their views or feel the opportunity to come somewhere where they need some help. That mental health part is really important, especially with this last year. We’re starting to see a lot of our people come back just excited to walk into the store and see a familiar face, or walk into the gym and work out and be healthy. I think it’s really important for all of us because it’s really helped us. We want to make sure that we’re helping the community that’s always supported us for the past one year.
To this day, there’s a ton of people that whenever they see an olive and an orange colorway on a sneaker, even if you guys have no connection to it, they call it an “Undefeated” colorway. Is that flattering to you? Are you annoyed by it?
No, I mean, we’ve always wanted, like, Supreme owns red, the red box. They’re synonymous with that. So, it’s an honor that somebody would give us a color on the spectrum of colors and be like, ‘olive is Undefeated’s.’ If you come at it with olive, it will be like, ‘Oh, that’s too Undefeated or that’s a knockoff.’ So, I’m psyched people know that olive is what we’re going to come with. One of our first color palettes that we did for the car here was olive, and it was like, ‘No, we’ve got to kind of keep it true to what the collaboration is.’ So it’s the same thing, you know. I’m psyched that we own the color in the spectrum.
Can we expect Undefeated to do more projects in the IndyCar space in the future?
Yeah. I mean, I’m hoping that they’re really happy with the end result of this project and that they want to keep moving forward. You’ll definitely see more of us asking to flex more on our side of the spectrum of the color palette, less graphics. Cause I think that olive is more of like a graphic for us to be known for. So yeah, we’d love to see an olive running on the track.
On the streetwear and sneaker side of things. As someone who’s been around this world for as long as you have and is a veteran in the space, what are your thoughts on where everything is at right now as far as the hype behind everything, the reselling, the bots, just the whole atmosphere of it. What are the biggest differences between now and how things were in 2002 when you guys were kind of starting this up?
Without sounding like an old guy who is like, ‘Oh, back at my day,’ I think it’s how the business has evolved. Kids have found ways for sneakers and apparel to be a tangible asset to sell. It has value we’ve never seen before. That’s great. It’s good to see that kids are coming up and they’re slinging sneakers, and T-shirts, and hats instead of other illegal substances, right? So that’s great just off the jump. Businesses are really built around having that hype shoe, having a line in front of the store, having less product, more sought after type of things. It’s interesting that that’s really become a business model. It’s giving kids that normally wouldn’t have an opportunity an opportunity to build on life. That’s really the most important thing for me. So if it’s selling sneakers or T-shirts, good for you. It’s a great way to learn the business from the essence of it. Supply and demand. Pricing things. How to promote yourself. If you have a good reputation you’re going to be the best sneaker reseller. You’re not selling fakes or known for jerkin’ people. I think those all are really great life lessons. And if you’re doing that at 14, 15 years old, you got a leg up on it. Cause I didn’t do that until I was in my late 20s. I’m all for that.
Is there anything that Undefeated is doing to ensure that it’s catering to its loyal customer base or the shopper that really wants the product, to fight the bots, or whatever it may be?
Outside of the technical part, we’re based in Los Angeles and in Japan. We want you to travel to see the spots. I think that’s one of the only drawbacks of this business is the world has become so attached to the computer and traveling the world through the internet. I think it’s more important to go out and physically see stuff. So, sometimes we try to do an initiative just for our China stores or just for the Japan stores. We don’t expect you to go to Japan to get it, but we want you to think in your mind, at some point, ‘I want to go to Tokyo to see the stores,’ or ‘I want to go to Europe and see Europe.’ Supreme just opened in Milan. People were gassed to travel again. I think we need to find ways to help people break out of that. Let’s get on a plane and go see things again. It’d be nice if the pendulum swung all the way back to that early 2000s where you got on a plane, you went to go get those exclusives only at such and such, even if that’s just going to Chicago to the Footaction and getting the exclusive Jordans that were done for Chicago. I personally would like to see people get out and explore a little bit more once we come out of this pandemic.
I know you’re originally from Philly. Having those roots in Philly, has there ever been a consideration to bring Undefeated to the East Coast in any way?
Selfishly, yes. I’ve always wanted to run that 95 corridor from Atlanta all the way to Boston and have stores. Hopefully, as we come out of this, we start looking into some new areas. We’d love to find some opportunities on the East Coast. Not just for selfishly opening stores, but again, talking about these opportunities and getting back into some of the communities and help rebuilding as we go forward. I think that’s important for small businesses, to thrive again, and really kind of get into some of the communities to help in some of those areas. It’s very important for us. So we’ll be looking to do a lot of that in the next couple of years.