Jon Buscemi Is Now A Brand: Exclusive Interview
After paying his dues in the skate industry at Girl Distribution and DC Shoes before co-founding the inventive indie brand known as Gourmet, Jon Buscemi has seen the industry from all sides. When news leaked out earlier this year that he’d left Gourmet, speculation went into overdrive. It’s fair to say that no one was expecting him to reappear toting a shoe with a padlock and a $785 price tag. Yep, Jon Buscemi is now a brand.
You recently left Gourmet, a company you co-founded six years ago. I know these things are a bit delicate but I have to ask, how do you feel about it all and was it an amicable split?
Technically we started seven years ago – around the time we trademarked the Gourmet logo and began the design of the collection. I remember when Greg and Greg went to Italy to develop the line and getting pics from the Loro Piana factory and working with the girls at Missoni. As far as me leaving Gourmet, I feel great. It was time for me to move on in my career. You get to a point where you need to ‘work on the next show’. I feel like I’ve been on a sitcom for seven years and my character got killed off. It’s healthy. No hard feelings at all as I am still an owner and want nothing but success for the brand I helped build.
I was thinking about the first time I saw Gourmet. I remember two things. You and the two Gregs wearing sunglasses and bald heads in your PR photos and secondly, the first canvas shoes you made. The fact they looked ‘a little bit’ like Jordans was also somewhat controversial. Now the dust has settled, can you finally tell that story?
The story is pretty simple when you think back on it. Greg Johnsen came up with the idea to make a Jordan-type sneaker but deconstructed. Essentially the idea was take a classic Jordan and produce it in the vein of a Chuck Taylor or Vans. I suggested we use the Keds vulc style sole because we all grew up wearing white on white Keds Champions. I think Lucci suggested the Jordan models 7 and 11, and off we went. It was a homage and an accessory to our high-style Italian-made sportswear. We got a federal trademark/copyright/trade dress lawsuit from Nike. Blah blah blah. We settled with Nike and they were actually really cool about it. At first they thought we were Ethiopian bootleggers selling Burberry plaid fake Jordan 8s on Canal Street. Once they realised who we were and the product was a tribute and us showing love, they moved on. And so did we.
Damn, it seems like a long time ago! So much has happened over the past decade. Broadly speaking, how do you see the last decade of evolution in the sneaker industry?
Following everything industry-wise for the past 15 or so years has been a humbling and very lucky experience. When I entered the industry I had a two-way pager and Motorola Startac, and no PC/Mac/desktop. Nothing. If you wanted to see new sneakers or find out when Jordans were dropping you had to go out and get that info. Be on the ground and at the stores, etc. Now you can set up an RSS feed and Google alert. It’s great, but it’s lazy. I feel bad that my son will never have to wait by a pay phone for a call or anticipate a magazine coming in the mail to see new things. It taught us patience, I think? Don’t get it twisted though, I enjoy Instagram and Twitter and all the blogs, new and old – it’s fucking amazing. Things are better from one standpoint, but only for convenience. As for Nike domination, I don’t see it that way at all. There is enough to go around for everyone but Nike just does it the best when it comes to style and tech. Flyknit is spectacular. I think Mark Smith (Nike designer) or Tinker’s brother (Tobie) took a basket weave class in 2000 and spawned this. They let people run with ideas there in the Kitchen, I enjoy it. As far as the volume of colabs, again, I enjoy it. There are never too many for me. You guys covered the Seinfeld GTS in the last issue, I love that.
It takes a sophisticated operation to build a proper shoe brand. How hard is it to keep an independent sneaker brand going these days?
It is a high degree of difficulty, to say the least. Retailers do not ‘need’ or depend on your business to sustain theirs. Having an indie label in a retailer of any substance is a novelty at best for them. Sometimes you hit on a shoe like Supra did though, and hats off to them. I think there is some luck involved too. But when a Vans or Converse or Nike opens an account with someone, that retailer needs them to keep their store open in most cases.
The sneaker biz is renowned for ‘recycling’ ideas. I remember some Gourmet posters that said, ‘Nothing is Original, Steal from Anywhere’. What was that all about? I always thought of Gourmet as an original...
Gourmet has always had an original mindset and way of thinking. The make-up of Gourmet is original and the thought process too. But when it came to the design side, it was always a twist on a shoe we grew up wearing or wanted to have growing up. The Jim Jarmusch quote was not necessarily about the shoes or products we designed. It was simply a poster campaign stealing a quote from someone whose quote was about stealing. Just having a bit of fun with it and not taking it seriously.
I see your name is printed on the side of the new shoes. Are you officially a trademark now?
From ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to do my own label. With my family name. It means a lot to represent the whole clan. Cousin Steve has been holding it down for years on the big screen, now the fam has some gear to rock. So yes, it is an official trademark, whatever that means. The idea has always been to make things that I need or my peers would use in the daily routine. Enhancing the daily operations. Life accoutrements if you will. Buscemi is an accessories brand. For the first collection we made a deer skin leather coffee sleeve to replace the everyday cardboard one you get at the local coffee shop. We also made a leather weekend traveler bag with 18k gold hardware, along with a key chain and dog leash in the same vein. One of my favourites, and something I’ve always wanted to make, is a fully wrapped deerskin leather skateboard valet. Something special to throw your keys and smokes on when you empty your pockets when you get home. Lastly, to round out the deal, we made a sneaker.
Nice to see some quality leathers used on shoes these days. Are they made in Italy?
Italy it is. After spending so much time there in the past six months and visiting the premier shoe R&D and production houses, it was inevitable. It needed to be made there. They are simply the best on the planet. The shoe game goes back 500 years in some areas. The leathers we hand picked are from a tannery that supplies Chanel, Il Bisonte, Prada, etc. We pulled out all the stops and it shows. It feels good to feel good.
And did I hear a price of $700+? What’s the scale of the market in this price range?
The shoe is priced according to the quality of the product and elements included. Adding to what I said before, the trims, hardware, calf liner and leather are at the top globally. There isn’t any higher you can go other than making the metal from solid precious metals. The shoe is $785 and will sit nicely next to comparative brands.
I gotta ask about the padlocks. It reminds me of the old Troops with the cop badges, but the ultra-luxe fashion world is a better reference. How do you see the current movement of street kids embracing Euro brands like LV, D&G, Chanel and Hermes?
Where I come from, the scramblers had Gucci, LV and Fendi on when I was seven in 1981. I saw family members wearing Sergio Tacchini suits and Bally loafers in the 80s and that’s teenage family, not the older heads. Where I grew up and my surrounding areas, European luxury brands were around. The influence of Dapper Dan, 5001 Flavors and the Italian houses have always run through my veins just as streetwear has. We would walk to downtown shops like Antique Boutique and Canal Jeans and Unique and then train it to 5th Ave to see the Polo Mansion and pop into Gucci. The current movement is just a reflection of those times. Seeing kids from Harlem wearing Rick Owens and Balmain makes me happy. It’s not just about the label and the internet comments, it’s about expression and personal style. I love it all.
I’m trying really hard, but I can’t bring myself not to mention Kanye. What level of blame/credit do you put on his shoulders for all this high-fashion-high-street business?
First off, I listened to Yeezus 250 times in Florence and Paris this past week and thank you Kanye, you are a genius! As far as the question goes, there’s no blame in the slightest. Influence, yes, but no blame. Musicians have led fashion for decades and nothing has changed in my opinion. I think with the access to info all the time with Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the web we think there is a whole fashion revolution happening. For every 10 kids with a $1000 Lanvin white tee listening to Kanye, there are 100,000 kids wearing The Gap.
Rappers are blatantly using ‘sneakers’ as part of their marketing plan. Phoney or not, does it seem corny to you? How do you see it?
I think it is quite the opposite, as I know first-hand how sneaker companies target the musicians. It is corny on many levels, while a small amount of the time it is interesting. I always loved the 90s Reebok ads that played off the 80s Apple ads. Ice Cube in black and white wearing Workouts.
What did you make of Lil Wayne’s recent Supra shoe?
I appreciate the design and the envelope that got pushed. One question I have is whether it’s for skateboarding? Because if it is, I’m psyched. We used to skate in Air Force III highs and Avias that were just as big and padded. I really hope kids and Wayne skate in this. Plus, it’s always nice to see a designer create something that’s not within the status quo. Josh is a good friend of mine and he’s had quite a shoe design career already. I take my hat off to him.
Any finally, any last words?
I need to give special thanks to the one and only Rob Heppler for being a catalyst for the Buscemi label to take shape. And of course, thank you Woody and the whole SF team. Peace!
The Buscemi shoe features on the cover of Issue 28. Grab your copy from our webshop right now and add BUSCEMI as a note when you check out and we'll send you this special embossed cover!