Today, Counter Kicks brings you an exclusive interview with Rob Purvy, AND1 Basketball Company Executive Director. Rob talks about the AND1 Tai Chi re-launch, the Tai Chi Trilogy, plans for the Mixtape Tour, future Retro AND1 product offerings, the introduction of the Lo-Qi line, and what’s in store for the future of AND1. Continue reading for an in-depth look behind the scenes at AND1 Basketball Company with footwear industry veteran, Rob Purvy…
Counter Kicks: Introduce yourself to our readers on your backstory and career in the footwear industry.
Rob Purvy: I got started in the industry working as a store manager at Foot Locker in Philadelphia. That was my first real contact of having an actual job within the industry. From there, I got in contact with representatives from the different brands. And that was a completely different time than it was now. The whole athletic footwear industry was grounded and all of the brands were just beginning to make their mark. You know, I always tell people it’s kind of funny because when you look the brands that were dominate brands at that time and now, it’s like going down memory lane.
So, the first opportunity outside of that I had was to become a field service rep – some people call it a “tech rep” – for Reebok. I left Foot Locker and joined them to be kind of like the brand ambassador type-person in that same area – the Central part of Pennsylvania all up and down, the Eastern part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware – that was pretty much my region at that time. From that, an opportunity came to move to the Far East. Reebok was exploding at that time so the opportunity to come and learn production and work as a production manager directly with the factories was also an opportunity that I don’t think most people could even think would come about, but I was real blessed to have that chance.
I lived in Korea for about two years working on the production side of things. I got promoted by Reebok and moved to Thailand, which was something really relevant to the business model at that time. And I lived in Thailand for about two and a half years and then that’s when I really kind of figured out what I really wanted to do and what I wanted to be in the industry. I worked out of Product Development. That was real cool and unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – the Product Development opportunity actually pulled me back to the States. I moved to New England to the Reebok Headquarters for about a five or six year period of time and evolved into being the Global Managing Director of Footwear Development at Reebok. So that was real cool too.
The passion was just there and the opportunities kept presenting itself. And just out of a growth situation, I got a call one day and I learned about an opportunity to leave and move on and I didn’t really want to do it because I loved working at Reebok at that time but, long story short, I ended up leaving Reebok and joined adidas and I moved into a marketing role there. And at that time, when I was at Reebok, I worked with mainly Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson – the two top athletes at that time that we had on our roster. Then when I moved over to adidas, it was Kobe Bryant, Tim Thomas, Tracy McGrady, Antoine Walker, so that was another chapter in this journey, so to speak. So that was cool, and from there I actually was blessed to be a part of the very first e-commerce sportswear brand which was a company called Dunk.net that me and Rod Keller, who I work with now, we were business partners and when we started Dunk.net with Shaquille, it was kind of like a breakthrough thing. It was part of that whole dot com bubble that was going on at that time. We had Shaq, Rebecca Lobo, Oscar De La Hoya, and Mike Piazza, so we had a pretty impressive roster. I was there for a few years, and eventually I started my own design and development firm, did some consulting, and during that time actually consulted with the company that owns AND1 now. So, this is my second stint with this company, which is American Sporting Goods. And eventually, I moved into being in charge of Footwear Development for Vans and that was a great situation as well. And from there is where I came here to actually lead the charge to resurrect AND1.
CK: I remember the whole Dunk.net venture. I actually got a free promo pack from the site back in the day.
Purvy: Yeah, we were really cutting edge. One of the things is, I get an opportunity to speak to a lot of young folks, and one of the philanthropical extensions of AND1 is a company called Project WE. And Project WE is basically dedicated to giving academic and creative mentorship to foster kids. They focus primarily on sportswear and the entertainment industry. The CEO of Project WE, Jeff Penix, is one of my best friends in the world. And when we talk to kids, I kind of let him know that a lot of times, it’s equally damaging to be early than it is to be late. Because that’s really the lesson of Dunk.net. If I describe Dunk.net to somebody now, they’ll look at you like “OK, that’s how everybody is coming”. You know, before Amazon and before Zappos and all of those phenomenal companies that exist right now, we had this crazy, kookie idea of creating an e-commerce only, high-end sportswear line with Shaquille O’Neal leading the way. We actually founded that company in 1998 and it went on to around 2001-2002.
CK: Talk about the AND1 Tai Chi re-launch that’s happening right now. I know you’ve got partnerships with Foot Locker and Champs Sports among others.
Purvy: That’s whats so exciting. You know, it’s funny because we mentioned Dunk.net, but the actual day we launched Dunk.net was the day that Vince Carter won that Dunk Contest. It was really crazy because I was at that Dunk Contest and that weekend was actually when we were launching Dunk.net. And the Tai Chi that Vince Carter wore kind of exploded. That was February 2000, but the shoe actually launched in Holiday 1999. And when that shoe launched, I was like “Whoa”. Because I’ve always had a passion and strong affinity for Eastern Culture and martial arts and all the things of that nature. So, I felt like, wow, somebody actually put together something that I saw that connected between Asian Culture, Tai Chi, martial arts, kung-fu, and all of that type of stuff with Basketball. But it seemed like, in that foresight, for whatever reason, it ended up being like a one-off, almost like a one-hit wonder. AND1 did have some strong silhouettes that came after that but I don’t think anything ever rivaled what happened with the Tai Chi. So you know, in a pretty unrelated situation, you fast forward almost 10 years later, I accept the opportunity and chance to actually resurrect this brand. When we looked at our archives, I said “hasn’t it been about 10 years since the Tai Chi came out? And it was almost exactly 10 years because right now, Holiday of ’09, is the 10 year anniversary of the shoe. So that’s really what we’re celebrating. To bring back, to educate, and to actually build a really compelling story around the rebirth of the Tai Chi.
The story is really called the Tai Chi Trilogy. The first portion of the Trilogy is the re-launch of the shoe. The second portion of the Trilogy – which will happen around All-Star Weekend – will be this very limited edition, really well spec’d out 212-pair version of the shoe. And we’re doing 212 pairs because there’s 212 Tai Chi moves and each pair of the 212 will have a hand-drawn hangtag of that particular Tai Chi. So whomever gets one of the 212 pairs, each pair will have a unique hangtag and special packaging that will go with it as well, and it will retail for $100. And the third portion of the Trilogy is the launch of the Tai Chi Low, because we’re going to come back with that as well. So that pretty much speaks to what the Trilogy is about. And the reason why we’re picking All-Star Weekend besides from the obvious reason is because February 14th is also the first day of the next Lunar New Year, and next year is the Year of the Tiger.
CK: On the limited 212-pair version Tai Chi, are there particular retailers that people can find that shoe at or how is it going to be distributed?
Purvy: Oh, I can’t tell you that yet, because we’re not there yet! That’s part of the whole mystique that we’re building around this whole story. If you get a chance to actually peruse the website (http://and1.com) as we just re-launched it, part of the mystique and the story that we’re building is that there’s this individual that’s almost an omnipotent individual that’s come along called the “The Prophet”, and he’s been responsible for a lot of the resurrection of the brand and so I don’t think The Prophet would be too happy if I was to actually reveal to you all the details of the re-launch.
CK: Can you talk about the concept behind “The Prophet” and is that something we’re going to continue to see as another character or brand logo for AND1? Is it something we’ll see on apparel or just something online?
Purvy: You know, that’s a logo, and we’re very, very excited about the Player logo because through this resurrection of the brand so to speak, the Player has become more prominent than ever before. So if anything, and you know I mean this all a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but The Prophet is actually responsible for the resurrection of the Player. So, The Prophet is less visible but he’s there, and again, if you visit our website, you can see that The Prophet is actually a part of the DNA of the brand now. The Prophet has its own Facebook page, you can follow The Prophet on Twitter. It’s just something that evolved out of the creative process and this really allowed us to build a lot of context and actually do an extension of what we thought was created with the Tai Chi shoe when it first came along in 1999.
CK: Talk about the performance changes that you’ve made on the new Tai Chi coming out.
Purvy: Real subtle. It’s a great shoe already. You know, I think everyone that knows basketball shoes knows that the herringbone pattern is pretty much used and perceived as what gives you the ultimate traction for playing the sport that we love. So we incorporated the herringbone into the outsole pattern which wasn’t there previously and we actually updated the lining material to a performance mesh as opposed to the original terrycloth lining on the original Tai Chi. Other than that, we never really tinkered too much with the shoe from what it was originally, because the wheel wasn’t broken.
CK: AND1 was huge at the beginning of this decade, with a very large percentage of NBA players wearing the brand on court. Since then, the brand has been somewhat dormant, especially these last few years. Can you talk about reviving the AND1 brand and what your plans are for that?
Purvy: Yeah, definitely. You know, one of the things that we wanted to do was to look at what the history of the brand was, what the access of the brand was, and at the same time, making it relevant to 2009-2010 and beyond. So the story we’ve been talking about with the bring back of the Tai Chi is part of what we thought would help bring the brand back and really put a strong focus on reestablishing the relevant retail partners that one needs to have in order to have a performance brand. So you know, as you alluded to earlier, it was really a blessing that we were able to get the brand back into Foot Locker, Finish Line, Foot Action, Champs, Hibbett’s, Shiekh. And as we speak, we’re having a lot of really strong conversations with a lot of key accounts across the state as well. So, that was really important to us and we tried to be really specific and really accurate in terms of the type of people we were going to bring in to represent us in the NBA, and at the collegiate level and the high school level as well. We have nowhere near the players that AND1 had in its previous glory days, but we think that we got the right guys to actually get this thing started and re-exploding the brand from here. So, we think this is a perfect storm right now, and we’re also looking very carefully at the impact on the consumer with this economy that we’re living in right now as well. We feel real excited about the fact that we’re giving people affordable, premium product.
CK: What’s the status of the AND1 Mixtape Tour and how that’s going to be handled going forward?
Purvy: The thing that was funny is, you know, I love the Mixtape Tour and I’ve got nothing but incredible love for all of the phenomenal players that built that franchise up over pretty much a 10-year period, but one of the main things we had to do when this team came into place was we had to look at what was really the most critical priority and we really, intentionally, put the majority of our focus into what I just described in terms of re-establishing the footwear, re-establishing the apparel, and re-establishing AND1 to what it really was: a performance basketball brand. So, that was priority number one. With the Mixtape Tour, a lot of people didn’t know this but we actually had a game in Japan, a 3-day experience in Tokyo, back in August, so we’ve still been doing some things Internationally. And we’re actually now trying to concoct and figure out a way to re-launch it hopefully as early as the Summer of 2010. There’s been a lot of talk on the streets and I’ve been hearing a lot of the scuttlebutt coming back to me. You know, people saying “AND1 got rid of the tour”, “AND1’s not doing the tour anymore”. We’re just back in the cocoon reformulating right now and we’re as passionate about the Tour as the founders of the company was, so we just want to make sure we do it the right way, and make sure that the Tour represents itself in a relevant way that speaks to the fact that we’re pretty much in 2010.
CK: You’ve said before that when you bring back a brand, a lot of times companies or people will try to change the original DNA of the brand and that’s where they run into problems. With AND1, what do you think is the core DNA of the brand? What are you trying to re-establish in bringing the brand back again?
Purvy: I think number one is passion for the brand. AND1 was an extension of people who loved basketball. If you just look at the logo, the Player, he’s the faceless, raceless player, and I think that he’s made AND1 so incredibly hot in its glory days before. That silhouette represents every player. It’s not a silhouette that represents an individual which I think when you look at a lot of logos from sportswear brands, it’s always just an extension of a specific person or player and I think you know exactly where I’m coming from. And I think that made it easy and I was real fortunate that it was almost like I was getting a pre-requisite to this assignment that was going to be handed to me because I knew a lot of the key individuals that founded the brand as well and I knew that we all shared that same passion. Again, you know, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. This started as a Philadelphia founded brand and I grew up in Philadelphia, so I knew what these guys were trying to accomplish, and I was proud of what they were accomplishing and I actually had a lot of passion and affection for what they did so it was almost like, it was our time to torch up and re-ignite this thing and continue the legacy that those guys were really blessed enough to be able to start back in 1993 when the brand was founded.
CK: We posted up a preview of the AND1 Disciple shoe recently (here and here) off one of the many Asian-based sneaker websites. I’ve noticed over the past several years that as AND1 the brand kind of withdrew from the U.S. market, it still has a lot of appeal overseas. I see new models still coming out in the International markets. Is that all handled by you as well or someone else?
Purvy: I oversee everything. That was part of what my deal was when I accepted this responsibility, so I work with that stuff too. The International market sort of kept the brand alive while the brand was sort of falling out, so to speak, domestically. And a lot of those products are products that we continue to make, but just didn’t have a home in the U.S. and I think after the Tai Chi re-launch, if things go well, you’ll start seeing a lot of those products in the U.S. as well.
That AND1 Disciple shoe actually was a shoe that Monta Ellis worked out in all summer. So, it’s not necessarily a signature shoe for him, but we built that shoe specifically for him as he was rehabilitating from an injury that he suffered in the 2008-2009 season.
CK: Have you had any considerations about bringing back other Retro AND1 product? What does AND1 look like moving forward?
Purvy: Moving forward in the future, we’re actually really excited about being able to reach back into a lot of the historic assets in really a 2010 spin on it in an AND1 way. And some of those assets would be re-launching our Trash Talking t-shirts. Also trying to re-emphasize the AND1 game shorts that were so hot back in the day. And the introduction of the Lo-Qi [pronounced LOW-KEY] segment which is basically our spin on a pre and post game shoe. We want to do that basically paying homage to the Tochillin [AND1’s best selling footwear model ever] while doing it in a more modern way in terms of what that type of footwear could represent today. The other thing we’re looking at as well is tapping more into the connectivity between Tai Chi, basketball, and the synergy that has manifested itself with the Tai Chi shoe as well. So we’re really excited about so many of the things we’re going to be able to tap into in terms of taking the past and spinning it in a futuristic way.
CK: Is the Lo-Qi a series of footwear models or is that kind of like a Lifestyle branded category within AND1? How is that being positioned exactly?
Purvy: Actually, both. It is a line segment that pre and post game shoes will actually rest inside of. So the actual footwear styles will have different model names as usual but the overall category segment will be called Lo-Qi.
CK: Is there anything else you’d like to get out to the Counter Kicks readers about AND1 and your plans for the brand?
Purvy: The main thing is we’re just glad that we’ve been actually given the opportunity to bring the brand back. When I first got here, we actually found there were over 9,000 unofficial websites dedicated to AND1. So, even though the brand has kind of maybe spun away from prominence in terms of being available at domestic retail, the passion for the brand is still really there. We just feel it’s our duty as a company and as individuals that love basketball to give people who are passionate about basketball what they want. We want all of our fans and all of the people who look up to the brand to know that we’re going to do the best we can to take care of it, nurture it, bring it back, and give these people access to the product once again.
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