As a kid, Jon Buscemi sat for hours outside his favorite New York sneaker boutique, waiting for the latest Nike Foamposite shoe to go on sale. When the doors opened, he’d buy one pair to wear immediately and one to wear when the first got dirty. He would buy a third pair as a keepsake.

These days, his name is on sneakers and well-heeled shoppers might pay $1,000 or more a pair for the collectible supple leather footwear made by hand in Italy.

“A kid that grew up in the south of France that went to design school and then got a big job at a fashion house, that’s not my journey,” said Buscemi. “My journey was I collected sneakers. I’m a sneaker maniac that has the opportunity to make this product.”

The men’s fashion footwear market is a $12.5 billion a year industry in the United States, but Buscemi’s niche is at the higher end, a section of the market where there is a greater opportunity for a brand to establish itself.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research company NPD Group Inc. in New York, said it’s a ripe time to be in the men’s luxury footwear market.

“Is there a growing demand?” said Cohen. “Yes, because it has been a fairly underserved segment of the men’s market, let alone the overall footwear market. The pendulum is swinging towards casual and luxury, and that’s good for them.”

He said it also gives consumers a reason to see their expensive purchase as an investment, kind of like a fine watch.

Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of menswear at Barneys New York, said the Buscemi brand turns very fast for the retailer, which sells styles ranging from $755 to $1,245.

“There is a bigger message here and that is the power of designer sneakers,” he said. “It’s really quite amazing how even in the designer shoe industry sneakers are the highest penetration of the sales. It’s a status symbol in some ways. The way bags are for women.”

While the idea of a $1,000 sneaker might stop many, Buscemi is unapologetic.

“You’re getting what you pay for,” he said. “The entire shoe is handmade in Italy with painted edges and plated hardware. The whole experience is there, where with other brands … it’s made in Asia and it’s on a production line.”

Indeed, his shoes are made at the same facility in Italy’s Marche region where luxury brands Chanel and Tod’s build their shoes.

Sneakerhead

Buscemi’s path from sneaker collector to high-end shoemaker took a detour through Wall Street, where after college he worked as an account executive for a brokerage firm.

But when the dot-com bubble popped in early 2000, Buscemi took the opportunity to leave finance and work in an industry he loved – sneakers.

He had friends in the footwear industry and moved to California to be a sales representative for Torrance skateboard and apparel company Girl Distribution Co.

“I went from being a 24-year-old kid making a quarter-million dollars a year to driving my Audi to these stores and pulling out two huge bags with rolling racks and show them clothes,” he said.

He hated the experience, but saw it as a way to pay his dues if he wanted to move up in the industry.

He moved to Huntington Beach sports brand DC Shoes – an experience he said was like getting a Ph.D. in footwear – only to leave three years later to co-found Gourmet Footwear in West Hollywood in 2005.

Though that business launched as a luxury sportswear brand, the market was responding to its less expensive offerings: sneakers priced around $100.

“We went from selling no clothes to like 20,000 pairs of sneakers,” he said. “And so we became a footwear company.”

He said the experience and reputation he gained with Gourmet served him well when he left to found his namesake business a year ago. It turns out that the credibility he developed with sneaker aficionados has allowed him to maintain a presence at more modestly priced outlets such as Union in Hancock Park as well as high-fashion stores such as Barneys and Neiman Marcus in Dallas. It makes his brand one of very few that can have a foot in both market segments.

Racing against time

Buscemi might be a newcomer to the luxury market but there are other brands such as Italy’s Giuseppe Zannotti Design, which also designs sneakers for men and women that retail at a similar price to Buscemi.

Tony Young, professor of fashion design at Otis College of Art and Design near Los Angeles International Airport, said time is one of the challenges for a small luxury brand such as Buscemi.

Young said the typical manufacturing lead time can be anywhere from 12 to 18 months before it hits stores, which can be difficult for a brand sharing a facility with a larger luxury brand.

“The smaller the company the more you have to get yourself in before the big companies,” he said. “They can have the most amazing product, but if they can’t get it made in time or if they can’t get it into the stores in time, they’re going to go out of business.” 

And a company’s revenue might not come in quickly enough to make the business sustainable, observed Mintee Kalra, professor of fashion design at Otis.

A fashion brand would put up the money to create a sample then it might wait about three months for it to be made. In that time, it would take orders from retailers.

“Then it’s probably 90 to 120 days before it’s in stores delivered,” said Kalra. “And your stores have about a net 30 to net 60 days to actually pay you. So, you’re really looking at a year before any money comes in the door.”

Inspiration

The shoe that launched the West Hollywood company, which employs nine and whose collections will be carried by about 80 retailers, found its inspiration in Buscemi’s marital strife.

“I had split up with my wife for a little bit, and she has a certain famous handbag,” Buscemi said. “So, I had a dream that I cut her bag up, this famous expensive bag, and I made a shoe out of it.”

Though he demurs when asked about that bag, the shoes – made of full-grain Italian leather with an 18-karat gold plated lock hanging from the top of the sneaker and an extended heel handle – bear more than a passing resemblance to a Hermes handbag.

It’s a look that has attracted A-List buyers including rappers Kanye West and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

Buscemi’s spring 2015 line, which he said is inspired by jewelry and Faberge eggs, is in the works and will be followed by the launch of a women’s line. The company also has a small line of accessories – a leather tie, a handbag and a dog leash among them – that make up about 10 percent of his business.

As the company gears up to launch the spring collection, Buscemi said he feels more than surprise at how quickly his business has grown and the reception from high-end retailers.

“The things that happen on a daily basis in this small office, I don’t believe it,” he said. “It’s a very surreal feeling because I’ve been doing 10 years of knocking on doors, in a sense, and now, I just sit in front of my computer and emails roll in all day long.”

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