Ronnie Fieg isn’t a designer, per se, though he’s more than just a retailer. The 39-year-old founder of Kith, a shoe store that grew into a brand of its own, plays many parts, but his single greatest talent may be knowing how to create a vibe.
While this is clear from entering any one of his stores, from Los Angeles to London, it is particularly apparent when visiting the company’s headquarters. Located in an industrial, glass-clad complex on the Williamsburg waterfront, the lofty, almost 60,000-square-foot space hums with 120 cool-kid employees looking like a cross-section of any fashionable Brooklyn coffeeshop. A long hallway is flanked by glass vitrines, their shelves lined with sneakers displayed like rare specimens at the Museum of Natural History; a glass-walled, triple-height wardrobe provides similarly museum-worthy storage for the brand’s clothing archive.
Fieg’s corner suite frames sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline with concrete beams and lustrous carpeting, marble and brass. Big-boy toys abound: A turntable is loaded with a limited-edition Kith pressing of the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, velvet upholstery is adorned with Kith x New York Yankees wool pillows, cacti are potted in Kith terra-cotta planters, a BMX bike rests on the credenza, collectible figurines by Bearbrick and plaster basketballs by Daniel Arsham—both frequent Kith collaborators—line the window ledges and climb up the wall, a walk-in closet brims with sneakers from floor to ceiling.
The whole thing is so perfectly staged as a millennial mogul’s playpen that it could seem contrived, but this is Fieg’s stock in trade. In the decade since he founded Kith, he has created a vernacular that goes beyond the products he carries. It’s shorthand for a certain strain of hip, design-conscious masculinity—the guy who wears sweats and a tailored top-coat, who collects retro coupes and Air Jordans—and Fieg is its beau ideal. Kith may be the name on the door, but what Fieg is selling is cool. And, for 10 years and counting, people line up to buy it.
“Today, your point of view is your number-one asset,” Fieg says, discussing the secret to Kith’s remarkable success, which saw stores open in Hawaii, Tokyo and Paris just since 2020. He adds: “I’m just trying to put my feeling in a bottle and give it to people, you know?”
Similar words have been spoken by many, though few have turned them into a global business with 12 locations drawing lines around the block on a weekly basis. Unlike the typical fashion upstart, whose buzz eventually fades into white noise, Fieg’s new-school ways have come to influence the old-school establishment. Kith’s list of collaborators runs from Versace and Nobu to Coca-Cola and Star Wars—each eager to bask in Fieg’s aura.
“We saw it as an amazing opportunity for BMW to be more approachable,” says Tobias Weber, a BMW marketing executive who worked with Fieg on both a limited-edition car and a capsule collection of BMW-branded clothing. “We need to open up to younger people, and that’s where Kith paid interest.” But Kith’s allure isn’t limited to sneakerheads and hypebeasts. The BMW M4 Competition x Kith, a 2020 release of 150 cars whose sleek design was inspired by Fieg’s grandfather’s BMW E30 M3 and priced at $109,250, was exclusively available for purchase online and sold out within 30 minutes of its debut. Collaborations with, say, The Godfather or the Knicks have similar cross-generational appeal.
Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, which houses a Kith shop-in-shop, shares the example of one longstanding client: “Loro Piana is one of the brands that he loves, and now he loves to come to the store, go to Loro Piana and then head up to Kith.” Discussing what made the brand a fit for arguably America’s toniest store, Pask says he was impressed by the way Fieg “could re-envision athletic-driven sportswear and sneakers in a very luxury-minded, highly aesthetic way.”
Kith’s flagships are high-design temples to Fieg’s obsessions from all arenas. Saint Laurent shirts and Maison Margiela sweaters mingle with Adidas and New Balance sneakers; Diptyque fragrances sit across from New Era baseball caps; there are $17,000 diamond necklaces by Greg Yuna and $30 socks by Calvin Klein. Kith’s in-house brand ties it all together with wardrobe essentials tweaked just enough to be covetable: tees and sweats garment-dyed in a sophisticated palette of dusty hues, varsity jackets in Italian suede and wool, track pants dressed up in corduroy or seersucker. They’re well-made and interesting enough, but judging them as individual garments misses Kith’s biggest draw: the world Fieg has created around them.
“It’s clothing with price points that are pretty entry [level] when you consider the designer landscape, but showing it in a very highly elegant space,” Pask says, pointing to the look and feel of Kith’s stores and the crowd that winds up hanging out in them—simply put, the vibe—as Fieg’s signature. “That just elevates the experience, elevates the customer’s point of view of the merchandise.” Even if some of the products, like Vans skate shoes or the North Face fleece jackets, can be purchased elsewhere, buying them at Kith imbues them with both more refinement and more street cred—an especially potent combo.
But Fieg doesn’t exactly see that as a compliment. Prior to our conversation, his publicist advises that Fieg isn’t fond of the word “streetwear”—not unheard of, as many designers find it to be a marginalizing generalization. Fieg turns brackish at the suggestion that Kith has helped elevate anything. “New York City has always been a mix of high and low… That’s not a new thing,” he retorts before challenging me to define streetwear. Kith, he says, is a “lifestyle brand”—a term so frequently dropped that it’s all but lost its meaning. What is the Kith lifestyle? For Fieg, the answer is irrelevant as long as it’s cool.
Such definitions have become more fluid, particularly in the decade since Kith got on the map. Not so long ago, it would have seemed preposterous for every—or any—luxury brand from Madison Avenue to Via Montenapoleone to peddle high-tops and hoodies. Today it’s a given. While no one person can be credited for the ascendance of sneakers and athletic wear, Fieg has been there every step of the way. His own career has mirrored the sneaker’s rise to fashion’s highest strata.
Fieg’s origins are mythic within the sneaker world: a fable of the boy from Jamaica, Queens who built his empire from Asics up. It started during his elementary school days at P.S. 178, where he began taking notes on what the older kids were listening to and wearing. His mother’s cousin David Zaken was the proprietor of David Z., a chain of New York City shoe stores. Fieg’s elder sister worked there, and he recalls being awed by her stories of selling to hip-hop artists of the day and by her Timberland boots, worn with the tags left intact. From his earliest days, Fieg saw shoes as the strongest currency of style.
“At the age of 13, I bought the Flight 95, the Jason Kidds, which are still some of my favorite shoes. That was the first shoe that I bought two pairs of, and I started collecting in ’95,” Fieg says, referring to a sneaker that the former Dallas Maverick designed in collaboration with Nike. “The beginning of a terrible habit—space-wise, at least.”
That year turned out to be a pivotal one. At Fieg’s bar mitzvah, Zaken approached him with the customary monetary gift. Already enterprising, the young Fieg turned down the money and, instead, negotiated a job at David Z. Shortly after, he began working in the Greenwich Village store’s stockroom, which afforded him the opportunity to handle all the new products before they hit the sales floor.
“The sense of individuality was super key back then, and that’s where I really developed my taste,” he says, noting that in those pre-internet days, one was forced to form one’s own opinions. This was also pre-sneaker boom, and brown boots were the thing at David Z. “Seeing a Clarks Wallabee for the first time, you don’t know how to feel because it’s not like a shoe, it’s not sneakers,” he continues. New Balance became the store’s first athletic footwear brand. “No one in Queens was wearing those.”
Fieg began bringing the styles he was seeing in Manhattan to his school in Queens and assumed the role of cool-hunting tastemaker—essentially, what he’s turned into a career. “At first they were like, ‘What is that? We don’t know if we like that,’ ” he says of the reaction to his initial experiments with ahead-of-the-curve shoes. “Then, later on, all those kids would show up at my store to buy footwear.”
Promoted to a sales position, Fieg was selling to the likes of Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Missy Elliott and a slew of NBA players. Jay-Z, he recalls, would come in weekly to pick up two fresh pairs of Timberlands. With each interaction, Fieg’s finger moved closer to the pulse of the zeitgeist—and knowing what shoppers wanted to sport below the ankle. That skill was really honed as he worked his way through the ranks to become head buyer for the entire David Z. chain.
Fieg could sense the tides were turning. “In the early 2000s, there was a big spike in athletic footwear,” he says, crediting milder New York winters for making boots—David Z.’s bread and butter—less ubiquitous. He began buying more and more sneakers and, in 2007, when he was 25, Asics offered him the opportunity to collaborate on a David Z. exclusive shoe. Fieg revived the Gel-Lyte III, a relatively obscure archival model with no particular cultural salience but that he remembered fondly from childhood. It was a limited-edition run of 252 pairs and a considerable risk for a store not known for selling sneakers. Sales were slow the first day, but through Fieg’s gift of gab, the shoe wound up on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and promptly sold out in a day.
Other brands followed, and soon David Z. was becoming a destination for the burgeoning sneaker market and Fieg was making a name for himself among sneakerheads. Zaken, however, still wasn’t sold on the category’s potential.
“It was art to me… I love certain footwear designs on the same level that people might like a Warhol piece,” Fieg says of his passion for sneakers.
“Would people look at it the way they do today as an art form or collectible? Not necessarily. I know I did. But when they were coming in, their love for footwear was crazy.”
He saw the need for a retailer that approached casual shoes with that kind of reverence. He also saw that David Z. was not going to be the one to do it. “I wanted it to be a little more niche, a little more special,” Fieg says. “Not a little more—a lot more, to be honest.” So, in 2010, he left David Z. to go out on his own, partnering with a friend who owned Atrium, a clothing store with locations in SoHo and Brooklyn. Fieg and his father built out spaces in the back of Atrium’s two boutiques with their own hands, creating the template for what would become Kith’s distinct visual identity: One room dedicated to sneakers was all black stone and neon lights, like a footwear department in Tron; the other, housing more rugged shoes by the likes of Red Wing and Sebago, was rendered in rustic wood and industrial paned glass. The designs pale in comparison to Kith’s stores today, but at the time, they felt like downtown’s most happening clubhouse.
Dealing in vibes is a tricky business. What Kith sells is desirable, primarily, because it has Fieg’s imprimatur. But cool, by nature, is ephemeral, and it takes constant motion to hold on to that edge. Many brands capitalize on their image—buy this shirt, jacket, shoe and you, too, can have entrée to our club—but where, for most, that image is grounded in a particular design aesthetic or point of view, Kith’s is more elastic.
“We have a really big following that has interest in different things, and we’re on that side of making sure we cover everyone,” Fieg says. “It’s not just ‘check a box’; it’s making sure that we speak to people in the way that they want to consume the info, and that’s continuously changing.”
That adaptability is one thing that makes Kith stand apart from contemporaries such as Fear of God and John Elliott (both of which are carried by Kith). “He’s incredibly encyclopedic with his knowledge,” Pask says of Fieg, calling his vision singular. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a retailer, designer, creative director like Ronnie.”
The name Kith, derived from the Middle English phrase “kith and kin” or “friends and family,” declared Fieg’s aim to create not so much a store as a community. When the company launched in 2011, it adopted “Just Us” as a sort of motto: a hipper version of the Olive Garden’s “When you’re here, you’re family.” Asked who he envisioned “us”—the Kith customer—to be, Fieg says, “It was a small group of my friends who just, you know, liked the same stuff… more of like a crew thing.” But, judging by the crowds Kith was attracting, he clearly had ambitions beyond selling to his buds.
In the beginning, Kith dealt solely in shoes, and the only Kith-branded products were the store’s exclusive collaborations. “The really intriguing part is that the consumer wanted the retailer to become a brand,” Fieg claims, suggesting that the Kith collection was simply born to meet demand. His first foray into clothing came in 2012 with a pair of cargo pants from Scotch & Soda that he took to a tailor to be tapered, adding ankle zips and elasticized cuffs—an ideal silhouette for showing off shoes. As Fieg began getting more compliments on the pants than on his kicks, he decided to try producing some for the store. The first run of 12 sold out in a weekend. So did the next run of 24, and the next of 100.
Such occurrences are standard for Kith. Unlike most fashion companies, which produce four to six collections annually, Kith operates like a streetwear brand, eschewing the traditional production calendar and releasing a weekly drop each Monday. Beforehand, Kith’s and Fieg’s personal Instagram accounts tease the new products, reliably drawing lines at Kith’s retail stores and selling out online. Pask says that even Bergdorf Goodman has had to learn how to manage lines out the door, a phenomenon the heritage department store had not previously faced.
“There is something incredibly democratic about what Ronnie does,” he observes. “Where it becomes more rarefied is that scarcity… price point is not a hindrance, but availability is.”
It’s a novel approach to luxury that may have begun with streetwear brands such as Supreme and Yeezy but has been adopted by the likes of Louis Vuitton and Prada. With Kith, Fieg helped bridge that gap: The stores, now designed by the artist Daniel Arsham and his firm Snarkitecture, which has done similar work for Dior and Tiffany & Co., gleam in white marble and chrome; the products—regardless of price—are displayed like any It bag on Rodeo Drive.
The most anticipated drops are usually Kith’s limited-edition collaborations, which occur at a dizzyingly rapid pace. The brand’s runway show for the spring 2018 season debuted no fewer than 15 partnerships with the likes of Disney and Moncler. As a Vogue review the following season put it: “The brand is a little bit Supreme on steroids… a collaboration factory—and hard to completely categorize, because of how full-court press Fieg is in terms of linkups and drops and fueling the flames of hype.”
Fieg bristles when I ask about the H-word, saying he’s “not really interested in talking about that.” Does he disagree that he has a knack for sustaining customers’ excitement?
“We don’t think about the business that we’re sustaining. Hype is not a conversation that we have within the company.”
But Fieg has been savvy about the way he’s harnessed the power of partnerships—savvier, it would appear, than he likes to let on.
By Fieg’s telling, the BMW collaboration came about after the carmaker approached him to do a fashion collection, to which he said, “Thank you, but no thank you… I would need to work on a vehicle to really tell a story here.” Yet, Weber, BMW’s head of relationship marketing, remembers it differently, saying that it was Fieg who cold-called them about a possible partnership. It’s not difficult to see how many of these collaborations are a symbiotic relationship: Established brands get to tap into Kith’s cool, and Kith is burnished by their pedigree.
The frequency with which these tie-ins happen ensures that the brand always has a simmering buzz. “It’s a way to constantly have intriguing newness,” Pask says, noting the amount of work it requires. “It’s a way to build up great brand loyalty and repetitive visits to the stores.” But that’s not to say it’s all strategy—the partnerships are born of Fieg’s genuine admiration for a brand, and that connection is an essential element in Kith’s appeal. “It needs to touch home,” Fieg says of his chosen collaborators. “If my heart’s not in it, we don’t move forward.”
Fieg’s choices are sometimes charmingly unexpected, such as a holiday capsule featuring Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Kith-branded Cap’n Crunch cereal. Fieg has the ability to pluck overlooked cultural detritus and make it strike a chord anew. And given the breadth of its collaborators, Kith is the rare streetwear brand that offers a point of entry for an older generation that might not be hyped on the latest Nike sneaker but has nostalgia for Star Wars or The Godfather.
“It’s luxury goods, but speaking to a wide variety of customers. I think almost anybody can go in there and get something that they want and leave happy,” says Brahm Wachter, Sotheby’s head of streetwear and modern collectibles. To that point, in 2015, Fieg launched Kith Treats, a cereal and soft-serve ice cream bar, to enable anyone to walk out of his stores with something, even if just for $7. It’s not dissimilar from what Ralph Lauren has done with his restaurants and coffeeshops, and Kith was there before Gucci Osteria and Tiffany’s Blue Box Cafe. As Wachter says, “[Kith] has really influenced the overall culture a whole lot.”
Last year, Sotheby’s made streetwear a permanent category within its offerings—giving sneakers and skateboards equal billing with watches, wine and the rest of its departments. It was the result of a series of blockbuster sneaker sales, including a pair of Michael Jordan’s game-worn shoes that fetched $560,000. Streetwear is now the auction house’s fastest-growing category, and while he can’t disclose exact figures, Wachter says the department more than tripled its goal for last year.
These sales, on average, draw 55 percent of new clients to Sotheby’s, but Wachter notes that they also have existing clients of contemporary art or even Old Master paintings getting into the streetwear game. “As a new generation comes into wealth, these are the items that they’re placing value on,” he says. “That’s why the market is driving them up.”
It’s a shift being felt in the primary market, too. According to McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2022 report, the broad-based sportswear category accounted for 42 percent of the overall fashion industry’s profit contributions in 2020—out-performing all other areas. “I absolutely believe we’ve seen this kind of blending and blurring of customers, of lines, of interests,” Pask says about the evolving definition of luxury.
But when I bring this topic up with Fieg, he is adamant that streetwear has always had a place in the luxury landscape, saying, “I’ve never seen a separation between the two.” Sure, but isn’t that division part of what’s made Kith so influential: giving so-called streetwear a luxury platform? When I suggest that Kith has been unique in its ability to speak to a diverse range of customers, Fieg gets defensive.
“When people can’t figure you out, they try to label you,” he says, an edge in his voice. “We sell out of product at a very high price point for consumers who are not necessarily who you think they are.”
Although he seems to be agreeing with me, it becomes clear that discussing Kith as a business does not fit with Fieg’s image of the cool guy just making things for his crew. Instead, he falls into the cliché of the tough kid from Queens who’s got something to prove. It’s a similar response when I suggest that, purely from a production standpoint, Kith’s Monday-drop model must make it challenging to create novelty on a weekly basis.
“It’s not,” he says bluntly, adding, “We probably need more Mondays to make sure we reach all of the people who follow us, so we could touch their hearts and get them to feel what we feel.” This is the cult of Kith: People turn up week after week to get a piece of the vibe. That’s certainly a factor with any luxury brand, but unlike the traditional houses, which are bolstered by the craftsmanship and material value of their products, Kith’s cachet is primarily dependent on cool—a particularly fickle muse. For Fieg, image is everything.
This observation becomes apparent the morning that we meet at his office to take the photos for this story. Fieg arranges to have his own in-house photographer on set to keep watch over the proceedings, presumably in case the photographer actually taking the pictures lacks a Kith eye. When, afterward, Fieg isn’t confident he’s happy with the results, he asks to get approval before the images are published and offers to hire his own photographer to reshoot the pictures. (Robb Report declines both requests.) Anything that deviates from his carefully crafted image seems to be a threat.
After our conversation, and agreeing to do a follow-up, Fieg is unresponsive for over a month. When he finally does get in touch, his emailed responses mostly read like a thoroughly vetted press release. There is, however, one answer that rings true: “I wouldn’t say I’m ever content. Not sure if I know what that feels like.” Keeping cool, after all, is a full-time job.