Ryan Babenzien picks up a crepe-soled boot-sneaker hybrid, admiringly. He holds the leather shoe—one of the many samples on his large wooden desk at his company's headquarters in Brooklyn, New York—as if it were a tiny priceless sculpture. "It's perfect," we can't help but say. He nods his agreement.
Babenzien—whose brother Brendon is the former creative director of Supreme—started his brand, Greats, two years ago. According to Ryan, the company was born from a simple revelation: "The traditional wholesale market was broken," especially in footwear. To resolve that, Babenzien and cofounder Jon Buscemi set out to make a new, direct-to-consumer brand that reflected their passion: sneakers. Since launching Greats, Babenzien has utilized social media, as well as a continuous stream of smart collaborations (Greats currently shares a space, which they call the Field House, with Steven Alan's Williamsburg location), to position the company as one of the most exciting footwear brands out there.
One recent afternoon, Babenzien took some time off from changing the sneaker game to discuss his brand's work so far, his insistence on quality, and the importance of collaboration.
Why did you start Greats?
We saw a huge opportunity for men's footwear. We had seen a couple of [companies] go into this direct-to-consumer space. After observing Warby Parker, that was the last straw—that's when we decided to launch. We both have footwear backgrounds, so it was super-natural.
Who is the Greats guy?
He's the kind of guy that knows a lot about [fashion and style]; he's learning about us from his peers or our press. He doesn't necessarily need the big logo on the side of his shoe to make him feel better.
You clearly care about materials.
We use the best materials in the category, period. I could have used a different sole provider instead of [luxury Italian manufacturer] Margom. But the reason we use Margom is because they are the gold standard for luxury sneakers. Common Projects uses them, Lanvin uses them, Balenciaga ... all the way up the food chain.
What's the hardest part about being a CEO?
Every day has a challenge: one day a shipment is held up in Italy at customs, and the next day three designers are out sick. We don't have a deep bench, so when somebody is out, that's real, like, they're gone. We have three releases coming out in the next 10 days ... how do we do that? At the same time, that's the fun part. The mundane operations of a corporate entity are really boring to me.
What are some projects we can look forward to in the next few months?
We've got some stuff with a startup called École, which took two styles and flipped them very differently. It came out amazing. The Wooster x Lardini stuff—that's a long-term partnership—is coming out in the spring. Collaborations are a best practice. We'll continue to do that forever.
For more, see greats.com.