Kith’s Ronnie Fieg Knows Exactly What You Want

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“I had to quit a long time ago,” said Ronnie Fieg, the founder, chief executive and creative director of the street wear brand Kith. “I was eating cereal a minimum of twice a day and each time was a minimum of two bowls, so I was was eating four bowls of cereal a day, every day, from when I was 11 or 12 until I was 25.”

Sitting in the passenger seat of a car en route to Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, which he attended, Mr. Fieg, 35, wistfully described the cereal-bowl recipes of his youth: Frosted Flakes with Rice Krispies and crushed Linden chocolate-chip cookies with chocolate milk for breakfast, and “just Frosted Flakes with milk” for his afternoon fix.

“It was tougher to quit cereal than it was to quit smoking cigarettes,” Mr. Fieg said. It could not have been easy, then, for him to open Kith Treats, a chain of cafes dedicated to cereal located inside of his stores. “I relapsed,” Mr. Fieg said.

A streak of obsessiveness runs through Mr. Fieg’s approach to most things. “With Ronnie, we’re either doing something and it’s 1,000 percent pedal to the floor or we’re not going to do it at all,” said Mikol Stambaugh, the head of development and production at Kith, whose team meets with Mr. Fieg every day.

Mr. Fieg said: “I always have to be doing a million things. Otherwise I feel unaccomplished.”

His intensity may explain how, in the course of six years, he has turned a pair of 800-square-foot sneaker shops into one of America’s most talked-about independent brands. Kith is both a store and a label (it has 178 employees): A sprinkling from recent collections includes cropped, monochromatic hoodies; plaid work shirts; streamlined track pants; hand-distressed denim; shearling parkas; soccer sneakers made with Adidas; and faux-fur-covered hiking boots produced with Fracap.

Kith is cited regularly in cool-kid publications like Hypebeast, Highsnobiety and Complex and has Reddit forums devoted to tracking its latest products. At its new three-story flagship store in Manhattan, which opened in October, customers regularly line up outside for the latest hoodie, jogger or sneaker, which typically cost $100 to $300.

Ronnie Fieg, the chief executive and creative director of Kith, at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, which he attended.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

“It’s really indicative of what is driving fashion today,” said Bruce Pask, the men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, where Kith has in-store shops and customers have lined up outside for nearly every one of its releases.

Mr. Fieg “takes things that are part of a broad cultural conversation, things we can easily relate to, and really elevates them to a kind of iconic status,” Mr. Pask said. “Pretty much every drop he does we have a line outside. Their fan base is growing, their customers are motivated and excited. They’re the new faces of young American design.”

Mr. Stambaugh said, “Traditional brands have a four-season calendar. With Kith, it’s basically 52 drops a year. Every single week we’re releasing things.”

Along with other companies that built their business models around the drop, such as Yeezy and Supreme, Kith has defined this particular moment in the purchasing patterns of tweens, teens, 20- and 30-somethings.

On Dec. 30 Kith will likely set off yet another frenzy with its take on the LeBron 15, a sneaker LeBron James created with Nike. The design features a wide strap that snakes around the shoe with “Long Live the King” printed on it. There are no laces; just a zipper on the side. Mr. Fieg expects the sneaker to sell “extremely well.”

The release will cap off a flurry of activity for the company. In the last several months Kith has opened an outpost of Kith Treats in Tokyo and a children’s store; put on its second fashion week show; and created products in partnership with Coca-Cola, Vogue, Bergdorf Goodman, Off-White, Nike, Adidas and the restaurant Carbone.

It is difficult to define the boundary between Kith the label and the man behind it. Asked what he likes to do in his free time, Mr. Fieg was silent for a moment, then turned to his executive assistant, Stacey Root. “I’m going to let Stacey answer that question,” he said.

Mr. Fieg with Coach Ron Naclerio and members of the basketball team at Cardozo High School.CreditRebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

“Ronnie has no time for anything but Kith,” Ms. Root said. “Kith is his hobby.”

“The truth is I don’t ever turn off,” Mr. Fieg said. “I’m not sure if it’s the most sustainable way to work. But right now I just think it’s a crucial time.” After a pause, he said, “It’s always a crucial time.”

Mr. Fieg has been developing his tastemaker status since he turned 13 and asked his second cousin David Zaken, the owner of the David Z chain, for a job at one of his shoe stores instead of bar mitzvah money. He began taking the F train from the final stop on the line, near his parents’ house, to the West Village, after school and on weekends. At the time, the block where he worked, Eighth Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was a gathering spot for some of the decade’s biggest stars.

“On the weekend the cars were parked diagonally on the block,” Mr. Fieg said. “The cops would let it ride.” He ticked off the names of customers who came in while he worked on the floor and in the stockroom: Biggie Smalls, Busta Rhymes, Nas, Missy Elliott, Tyson Beckford, Wu-Tang Clan, the Fugees. “Jay-Z used to come in every Saturday and buy two pairs of construction Timberland boots from me,” Mr. Fieg said. “He would leave his old pairs there and buy two fresh pairs.”

From customers like these, Mr. Fieg would learn about the cool new thing and bring that knowledge back to Cardozo high school. “I’d come in dressed a certain way and get laughed at, and then all of a sudden everybody is wearing the same stuff,” Mr. Fieg said. “New Balance was the thing back then, and they’d be like, ‘Why are you wearing orthopedic sneakers?’ And I’d explain, ‘These are premium, made-in-U.S.A. runners.’”

Mr. Fieg has an intuitive understanding of what his customer wants because in many ways he is his customer. “I want a Bergdorf Goodman varsity jacket, and I want it to be multicolor in these regal colors, and then I make it and I wear it,” Mr. Fieg said. And then his followers wear it, too.

Before he was even a teenager, Mr. Fieg desperately wanted a pair of Reebok pumps, but his parents couldn’t afford them, so his mother bought him a pair of Asics Gel Lyte III sneakers instead. Mr. Fieg was disappointed at first (“I was crying,” he said), but he eventually came to love the shoes and wore them into the ground. When he asked for another pair, it turned out they were discontinued.

In 2007, when Asics offered him the chance to bring back one of its archival models, Mr. Fieg immediately knew which one he would resurrect. The collaboration and the story behind it brought Mr. Fieg a lot of attention and established him in the sneaker scene.

His foray into apparel similarly started from his desire to make a thing that he wanted to own. In late 2012, he received a pair of Scotch & Soda pants that he thought didn’t fit well so he tailored them to make them look like twill joggers. “People were asking me about my pants more than they were asking me about my shoes, and I’m always wearing the best shoes, so it was weird, right?” Mr. Fieg said.

After some small-batch experimentation, he hired Mr. Stambaugh and started producing and selling clothing in earnest, using the same limited-run model that has worked so well for him with sneakers.

“This is the way of the future: passionate, small brands, where scarcity is an element,” said Lawrence Lenihan, the co-founder and co-chief executive of Resonance, a company that invests in early-stage fashion brands. (Kith does not have any investors). “This is art. You don’t buy a painting and there are 150,000 versions of it. There’s one. I think it’s a viable alternative to these fast-fashion giants that are crushing everybody.”

But Mr. Lenihan noted that “cool is a depreciating asset. The more you use it, the faster it depreciates.” Surprise collaborations are only exciting while they remain surprising. “As more of these collaborations happen, the energy disappears,” Mr. Lenihan said. “It becomes, ‘Oh my God, another one of these.’”

Mr. Fieg acknowledged that there is pressure on him to stay ahead of the curve, to know what his customer will want long before he wants it and to choose whom he works with wisely. “The hardest part about what I do for the brand is really controlling where we go and where we don’t go,” he said. “I’m working on projects for a year from now. The market and the whole concept of retail is continuously changing by the day.”

Outside of the high school where he first began the work of spreading the Ronnie Fieg style gospel, Mr. Fieg reminisced about the days of riding bikes, skipping class and hanging out with his friends on the basketball team. “What I would do to go back to that time,” he said. “Having the brand be as big as it has gotten, I have a lot of responsibilities now. Back then it was a free-spirit thing.”

He was distracted from his memories by the sight of about two dozen students congregated by the bus stop. His eyes went straight to their shoes, and he scanned the Timberlands and the Nikes. “Not as fly as when I was here,” he said. “But you know, that’s the Ronnie effect.”

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