Al Harrington debuts his Protégé line during Fashion Week in NYC.
by Matt Caputo
It’s fashion week in New York City. The world’s premiere designers are on display in Bryant Park for a public preview of their latest collections. Wrapped tightly in a tiny box on the 18th floor of the Bryant Park Hotel, Al Harrington is on hand to announce the launch of Protégé, a high-end low priced line of footwear and apparel exclusively sold at Kmart. Not quite Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs or Z Zenga, but it could become a trend in this economy.
“I don’t know. Obviously, I hope not—let them stay in their lane and let us do what we’re doing where we are. But at the end of the day, people have to step back and realize that we’re in a recession, to be perfectly honest,” the Knick forward says when asked if he thinks he’ll force the biggest basketball sneaker brands to adjust their price points. “People just can’t afford $200 sneakers anymore. It’s just not happening, and I don’t know if it’s gonna happen for a long time.”
Basketball enthusiasts have heard this pitch a number of times already. NBA player joins forces with a family friendly retailer to produce a line of affordable, yet quality, performance basketball sneakers. In the 90’s, Hakeem Olajuwon endorsed his own line of $35 Spalding “Hakeem The Dream” kicks and Shaquille O’Neal still endorses – and outsells Lebron James’ Nike shoe with – his cost cutting performance pair, Dunkman.
While Olajuwon’s shoes never quite caught momentum, Shaq’s shoes have served their purpose and then some for over a decade. In 2006, the Chinese based footwear and apparel company, Li Ning, signed Shaq to a five-year agreement to produce the Dunkman for the country’s billion-dollar basketball sneaker market. Sources tell SLAM Online that the Chinese Dunkman is produced with top-notch materials comparable to those used by Nike and Adidas. Essentially, the success of Shaq’s shoe in the states created a demand in China. As of June of 2008, Shaq told Forbes.com that his shoes had sold over eighty million pairs.
Harrington’s Protégé has a lot of factors working in it’s favor right now. The economy is in shambles. Everyone is looking to save money. Protégé has been laying groundwork for nearly two years. Last summer they provided t-shirts and other apparel for the prestigious Five Star Basketball Camps. Stephen Jackson is the other half of the Protégé’s NBA on-court presence and comes with a fan base of his own. Too boot, Bronx, NY based rapper Fat Joe, has a personal shoe that Harrington says will be available for the fall collection.
“I always wanted to have my own shoe, through Nike or (laughs) something like that. But it never worked out that way. What inspired me to do this was my life experience,” says Harrington, a New Jersey native, now in his tenth year in the NBA and very much at home back in the Metropolitan area. “I’m in a blessed situation now and I wasn’t always in this position. There were times when my family and I struggled. Shoes are always a big part of kids being who they are and how they feel about themselves. You care about your shoes, so I just wanted to make a shoe line that was affordable.”
Inevitably, Harrington’s Protégé line will draw comparisons – especially in New York – to the Starbury brand endorsed by his absent Knick teammate, Stephon Marbury. Launched in September of 2006, Starbury initially caused a minor craze amongst almost every Steve & Barry’s store customer. At $14.98, the Starbury shoes sold strong and were voted by BusinessWeek as one of the best products of the year. Nearly three years since the launch of the Starbury I, the kicks are being sold on Ebay for nearly double their original price. Although Steve & Barry’s filed for bankruptcy in late-2008, Starbury lives on via their official website and Amazon store.
Like Marbury and Shaq, Harrington says his shoes perform as well as those made by Protégé’s more expensive competitors. While the quality of affordable basketball shoes has been of some debate – enough that 20/20 once saw fit to investigate the matter – Harrington and his supporters are confident in what they’ve brought to the table.
“People say they can cut through the shoe and all that—you can’t cut through my shoe that easy. I have a metal shank in my shoe. The technology on my shoe is totally different than—compared to—other people’s shoes. I’m not knocking nobody shoes, but obviously I weigh 260 pounds,” Harrington says. “You know how I play every night. If it’s a cheap shoe and a poorly built shoe, there is no way I can play in it night-in and night-out. And my shoe is built just like this one (pointing to one displayed on the table before him). There is nothing different. The insoles are the same.”
Kmart VP of Footwear, Nick Grayston, believes that the Protégé shoes are a better product than anything similar on the market. The Protégé “A3H,” the “Protégé 2” and the StackJack (Jackson’s personal makeup) are all now available for $34.99. Besides the basketball shoes, Protégé includes a series of casual kicks and number of different active wear styles. As evidence of their national television, magazine, street signage and Internet campaigns, Kmart is serious about the potential of their partnership with Protégé.
“We’re relaunching the Kmart footwear brand – it was managed by someone else and we brought it in-house. As part of the launch we have a new and exciting brand that represents great value and outstanding fashion,” says Grayston. “We’re happy to be partnering with Al on this giveback brand. Al works with a company called Eastman, who we buy shoes from and they’re a pretty good match. They came to us and said we’ve got this great idea for affordable shoes, it’s a giveback brand, it represents great value. We went from there. And we’re giving away a million pairs.”
In an added initiative, Kmart plans to purchase and donate to a cause to help get 10 million pairs of shoes to 10 million impoverished people around the world over ten years. Through Samaritan’s Feet, a global humanitarian relief organization, Harrington plans on handing the shoes out himself.
“That’s huge. That’s crazy. First off – I’ll give you the background: Samaritan’s Feet found out that there is over 300 million people worldwide that have never ever worn shoes. 300 million! So that’s everybody in our country,” says Harrington drinking a glass bottled water. “That’s 300 million who never had a pair of shoes. Samaritan’s Feet is trying to collect 10 million pairs in 10 years. So, I think its been two years or whatever since they began collecting. I was telling the people at Kmart about how crazy that is. Nick was like “I think you can help with that.” So, when he said that, I’m thinking we’re gonna donate 10 or 20 thousand (laughs). They stepped up and did a million. We’re about to affect a million people’s lives. Kids that never ever had shoes are gonna be able to do all types of things.”
At Madison Square Garden, after a Knicks February victory over Toronto, Harrington said the shoes play great and he was quick to point out that he doesn’t wear any special insoles, nor is his shoe padded with anything different from what they sell in the Kmart store just outside the arena at 1 Penn Plaza. Wearing Protégé’s, he’s averaging the best scoring numbers of his career and helping the Knicks fight for a playoff spot. It’s been a big year for Harrington, a St. Patrick’s High School of Elizabeth, NJ graduate who first played at the Garden as a high school sophomore, and efforts to push Protégé’s promotion into the summer are being planned.
“I just want it to be a brand that lasts forever. I think what we’re gonna do is sign different athletes from different sports—a football player, a WNBA player, we gonna try to get a track and field athlete, and a baseball player. We just gonna try to be a brand that’s like—you can say—like a Nike because it caters to everybody,” Harrington says. “It stands for giveback. With a shoe being 35 bucks, you know a kid could work a part time job, go ahead—shovel snow, rake leaves, or whatever and if they have a date that night they can go get some new shoes and feel good about themselves, you know what I’m saying. That’s what this shoe is all about to me.”