Given the current basketball footwear landscape, it seems hard to imagine a new brand, particularly one just two years from conception, finding footing on such a crowded and dominated playing field. But in merging premium materials and high performance, California-born footwear company Brandblack is looking to claim its own place in the billion-dollar market.
At the head of the company sits founder and designer David Raysse and creative director Billy Dill.
The name plays on the power associated with the color black, along with product listed as black being of a higher tier. The simple and subtle jet logo is the side elevation of a Lockheed SR 71 Blackbird.
Raysse, who was raised in NYC and Paris, always had a connect to basketball—playing in high school and college—and fashion, as his father was a founding member of Kenzo and his mother a model. He’s served stints at Fila—crafting the Grant Hill II and Stackhouse II while in college—adidas and Skechers.
Dill has worked in the footwear industry for 10 years, in areas ranging from footwear, apparel and brand building to design management experience.
While the knowledge they gained over the years was valuable, there were also frustrations from trying to push past the boundaries of the safety nets of their employers.
“I look back at all the various shoes that I really loved at the companies I worked at that didn’t make it,” Raysse says. “They were always leaning too far to the fashion side for the comfort level of the brands. I think that in one way or another I was trying to build a Brandblack shoe.”
When Raysse approached Dill in 2012 about starting a brand that fused premium fashion with sportswear, it didn’t take much talking for Dill to see the opening in the industry to establish themselves, as players and consumers had grown more conscious and selective in what they wear.
While the names in the industry were the same, the business side had grown exponentially.
“Everything has changed,” says Dill. “There’s a new consumer, a new way to do things and it’s a younger, fresher, faster-moving target than it used to be.”
There was some trepidation when things got moving forward that proceeded up until the production of their initial collection. After seeing how other brands had come and gone by trying to replicate what established brands were doing, Raysse says the company looked forward to being the “black sheep” of the industry.
The first shoe featured studs that resembled a model from the Louis Vuitton line; pretty out there for a performance brand, but still sleek enough to draw the attention of those looking for something new.
“We were, like, either people are going to have interest in the shoe, there’s going to be a core following, or it’s just going to alienate everybody,” Raysse says. “On some levels, we were kind of OK with the idea of it being a little bit niche and out there. We felt like, if we’re going to fail, let’s at least fail epically. Let’s go Evel Knievel style. Either I’m going to clear this jump over the mountain, or end up in the hospital. But it’s going to be exciting.”
In order to legitimize their product and the brand as a true competitor, Brandblack needed an athlete willing to take a chance on them and help spearhead their movement.
Not being the biggest fan of marketing (just ask him) and how it’s currently utilized in the industry, Raysse didn’t want any athlete; he wanted one who had a natural appeal and who shared the attitude and direction of the brand.
“When we started looking at players who we thought would be a good fit for us,” Raysee says, “it had to be someone that had some flash, that had on- and off-the-court presence, whose game had way more swag than a regular guy. Jamal Crawford kind of jumped to the top and he was in our market, so we could work with him closely.”
For Crawford, it was perfect timing as his deal with Nike had expired in the summer of 2013.
Having already established himself as the most dynamic sixth man in the League, when Brandblack made their pitch, the guard said the decision to turn down the “safe choices” was a “no-brainer.”
“I could have been one of 200 players at another brand, but I wanted to be different,” Crawford says. “When I saw Brandblack, it was fresh and it was unique. I remember Reebok with Allen Iverson. I wasn’t really a Reebok guy, so to speak, until Allen Iverson went there and did the things he did. I hope I can have that AI effect on the new generation.”
With his input now highly valued, Crawford fully voiced what he always wanted and needed in terms of performance, insisting on a lightweight model that offered ultimate comfort with the sturdiness to keep his feet locked down whenever he broke into one of his patented mixtape forays.
While Crawford would begin establishing the legacy of his signature line on the court, Brandblack had to be sure consumers would be getting a product that performed, as well. They turned to wear testers, including one of the most notable in Chris Chase, owner/publisher of weartesters.com and more aptly known as Nightwing2303 on Twitter and Instagram.
If you’re familiar with Chase, he’s as honest and unbiased in his reviews as you would expect from someone spending their own dime on the product. Dill was a fan of Chase and took the risk of reaching out to him about reviewing the J. Crossover 1, knowing full well that it could backfire on the brand, if the performance was poor.
But Dill believed in the product, and after a thorough assessment, so did Chase.
“I played in the shoe and I wasn’t expecting anything because it’s a new brand,” Chase says. “After some wears, I was like, These shoes are actually legit. They’re light, super comfortable.”
Nightwing gave the model a 7.25 out of 10 and was dead-on with some of the issues he noted. Raysse connected with Chase and wanted to make sure he was involved in the wear-testing process for the brand going forward. From not even knowing anything about them until fans started begging him to review Brandblack, Chase says the JC 2 is one of his current favorite models to play in.
“For them being so new, it’s strange to see them take such big leaps and risks,” Chase says. “They went from fairly modern with the JC 1, with the synthetic fuse and jumped straight into a woven, which is really risky because your woven can be a cheap thread, or just not done right. These guys take the extra time to find the best material possible.”
Adds Dill, “I think first and foremost you have to love what you do and love the product. We’re not marketing guys, we’re not bullshit artists, we’re not pushing that ‘business side.’ We genuinely get excited to come look at design, think and create new ideas. To have the opportunity to work in an environment that we love, in a field that we love, making products that we love—that’s the beauty of it.”
While Crawford is at the forefront, Brandblack is also heavily involved in grassroots initiatives, sponsoring the Venice Basketball League, being involved with high school basketball players and even supplying the uniforms for the Seattle Pro-Am.
Most important for Raysse is that the attention the brand received has been organic and not due to any marketing ploys or fancy new technology.
“You can always tell when someone respects the culture and is a part of it and you can also tell if someone is just trying to cash in on it,” Raysse says. “I feel like basketball is the same as hip-hop in that there’s inauthenticity from brands that are sort of trying to dial into that. That’s why basketball fails for a lot of brands because it requires a real respect level of the culture and we really do respect it.
“I feel like the industry is kind of conning people with a lot of these products,” he continues. “They’re made out of crappy materials and they just spin it with some marketing nonsense that’s just not true. Half the time, it’s cheap and they tell you a good story and people buy it. I’ve kind of rejected that and want to just go back to using nice material and letting that tell the story.”
Crawford’s game already commands a lot of attention, but in just over a year of playing in his signature shoes, he’s noticed a difference in the awareness from his opponents.
“I always catch other players looking at my feet to see the shoe and what model I have on,” he says. “With just how different the shoe is, I had players from other brands really take to the shoe. They love the shoe, even some of the biggest names in the League. That makes you feel good because it shows that we’re doing the right things and it’s been received well from the public.”
While the limited quantities that were sold in stores and online did sell out, Raysse assures the driving force behind the brand will continue to be putting out the best quality product, and there’s no slowing down for them anytime soon. With the release of the JC 3 in August, new athlete signings, plans of going into running, making a hard push into men’s training and the release of their “super-advanced” apparel line, the movement is beginning to gain more steam.
“To use basketball as a metaphor, we’re a really strong rookie, but LeBron and Kevin Durant are still in the League,” Raysse says. “We’re not exactly taking the throne yet, so we have to tighten our game up and keep moving forward.”
Images by TJ Regan