The first time I discovered Gourmet shoes was on a trip up to London several years back. Still relatively new to the world of fashion, my knowledge of footwear was as limited as most typical customers, but as a child of subculture and the streets I remained firmly rooted in my Vans Authentics and the occasional pair of creased up Air Force Ones. With a bit of disposable income and a fresh interest in streetwear thanks to my connoisseur companion Leo, my appetite had been whetted to the search for something off the beaten path; the desire to dress, speak, and be a little bit different.
Entering Selfridges to inspect the labels on offer, I headed up to the Offspring store to see what was on the shelves. It was at that point that I came across a crazy pair of canvas shoes that were totally unfamiliar. They looked sort of like a Sk8-Hi, but slimmer and less pronounced; a bit like Chuck Taylors, but without the cultural connotations. Most of all, they had these nuts holes in the neck panels and this tripped out Octopus logo that I just couldn’t ignore. My interest was piqued, and I decided to pull the trigger.
It wasn’t even until I’d bought the shoes and had seen the elaborately decorated box that i learned the brand’s name. A little extra research at home taught me about Gourmet, a brand that took traditional sneaker silhouettes and injected them with a healthy hit of Italian American flavour. Think Peroni and pizza; fine silks and shades; a fistful of rings and gaudy gold chains. You’re halfway there.
For all the energy that oozed out of the product, however, there was very little I knew of the brains behind the brand. It felt like a label that was dripping with the personal touches of a particular mind but the shoes continued to speak for themselves. In recent years, characters from the Gourmet family have stepped out of the shadows in one form of another, but none has been as consistently elusive than original co-founder Greg Lucci. Over the past few months the Gourmet Head Honcho has emerged from the background to put a face to his brand, and the moment I met him the last pieces of the puzzle fell right into place.
Hidden behind a pair of pitch black shades and a baritone voice, with rings on his fingers and steel-cap boots on his feet, there was no doubt I was dealing with a man who stood for self-defined decadence. What follows is a conversation between myself and Lucci about the origins of the Gourmet label, and what it really means to be the boss of a brand that writes all its own rules. Enjoy.
Gourmet originally started with American sportswear and leisurewear, high end luxury clothing produced in Italian fashion houses, what was the original catalyst for that venture?
Well it started with a theme, an Italian-American based theme. I think looking at what was going on in the world and fashion, most high-end fashion things were predominantly from Europe and American fashion was more known for sportswear and things of that nature. It was a heritage based thing when we started, my partners and me were American Italian kids who grew up on the East Coast in that culture, so the thought was to take that Italian and American DNA and cross-pollinate that and to do the same with high-end fashion and sportswear.
You even worked with Loro Piana if I remember correctly?
That’s correct. So when we started we made these massive clothing collections. The aim was to produce classic American sportswear in the finest factories in fashion. And we did that.
Looking at the current environment, even with Jimmy Sweats and the like, it feels like a lot of the original Gourmet menswear line was very ahead of its time, and some of the pieces I’ve seen continue to be so. Would you agree? How do you feel about that?
I feel two ways about it. Firstly, I feel angry about it because the stuff we were doing 8 years ago is so relevant today and still original, and now I get tonnes of requests for it, and, you know, it makes me angry in a way that I’m like, ‘Where were you 8 years ago?!’ Because it wasn’t that crazy…
But it was on point!
Yeh, we had tuxedo sweatpants, pleated sweatpants, bondage sweatpants. I mean, this piece that I’m wearing is Gourmet from 8 years ago, it’s essentially a Thinsulate-filled basketball jersey set up as a windbreaker, made at the Montclair factory! I mean, 8 years ago we made baseball jerseys like this, so our whole theme was very ‘Americana Sportswear’ and the places we were building this stuff – Dior, Loro Piana, the Missoni factory – they wanted everything to be so fitted and we were bringing them straight up American Sportswear blocks, know what i mean? They were all like, ‘This stuff is so ill-fitting…’ but we were just like, ‘Hey, it’s a different thing.’
So I feel like I know what the answer’s gonna be but I’m gonna have to ask; is reviving that apparel line, is working that back into Gourmet something you’d ever consider? Or is it just like, done and dusted, move on?
It’s funny you ask. Recently I think I’ve gotten over my Anger Stage and I’m going to, not in such a grandiose way, start doing some apparel again. It won’t be out until 2015 though. I’m starting to rethink where we were, some of these concepts that are relevant today, where my head’s at creatively now, and I’m going to try to take it back in and keep it on point.
Thinking about the idea of Greg Lucci as a the man in the shadows, one of my first contacts with the Gourmet brand was reading about a decadent lifestyle of Italian-American swagger behind the product, but it’s only in recent years that you, as an embodiment of that character, have decided to step into the spotlight. Was it a conscious decision to put a face to the brand, or did the brand’s unique identity cultivate an interest in the characters behind it?
Yeah, I think the brand’s unique identity kind of forces you to be in that position. As a person, you know, I’m from an era of this space where your work speaks for itself, know what I mean? Now that we’re in such a marketing, social media-driven, Instagram-type world, it’s true that these are important tools and assets for business but they’re also things that sell product, and I think I’m from a time before where the product would speak on its own merit; when it showed up it either worked or it didn’t, know what I mean?
The other thing that came to my mind, particularly looking at a brand like Jordan Brand or a label like adidas and everything that happened with Run-DMC and the Superstars, one of the big things about sports footwear and casual footwear is this perennial identity that many of the brands have; Jordans are Jordans, and that’s it. As a smaller brand, did you feel the need to push an image or an idea? Is it harder to cement yourself in people’s minds?
I think it is, especially in footwear, I mean footwear is pretty much controlled by those six people and we all know who they are. For footwear, with Gourmet, what I think makes us unique in our space as a start-up brand is that we’re athletic. We’ve always had a tone of bringing all forms of footwear into the line, which is why we have things like full-blown lightweight running silhouettes and so on. It’s something that we pride ourselves on, but it’s also hard to crack into those top six multi-billion dollar companies.
I also feel like it’s interesting because, whereas those brands were born from sport, in my experience, having looked at you guys back in 2006/2007, your brand is one that was actually born from the streetwear scene as opposed to being adopted by the culture. Do you think that’s something that was advantageous to you?
It was something that was purposeful at the time, you know, it worked to our advantage and I think the sidecar of that is that we were athletic. It wasn’t the main thing, but when we set out to do footwear just like when we did apparel or any of those other things, it was a bigger ideology where we said, ‘We’re going to do this, but we’re going to execute it in a world where this does not exist.’
Footwear was the same thing, so as much as we wanted to carve our name out in fashion and to make it affordable, we also set out to do so in an athletic format, and every other format. It’s something that’s worked to our advantage over the years because we’ll go everywhere from casual shoes to athletics to vulcanised and it’s always been natural.
Whereas Jordan Brand is stuck in its mode to the extent that their customer says, ‘I really hate it when Jordan Brand does anything other than what I want them to do, which is what they were doing twenty years ago!’
Exactly, which is basketball. So our ideology was to break boundaries, to do it in a way that said, if we’re going to be invasive in your category – tennis, basketball, running, whatever category – our twist was always going to be the streetwear and the fashion, the affordability, and the fact that it looked more interesting and better than whatever everyone else was doing.
So through your career you rose through positions such as buying before progressing to designing bags and accessories. Do you feel that your experience in other areas of the industry contributed to your later perspective in creative and designing roles?
That’s a great question, and yes. This industry is not about one person, ever. My career has been very eclectic in this industry, mostly from a product standpoint which is where I specialise, but I’ve done everything in this industry from retail to development, to buying, to design, to creative marketing with a whole bunch of different audiences. I think the advantage is that you understand all parts of this industry from a working perspective and you know how to navigate.
It’s like this; we could have a great idea, it goes to somebody else to develop it, then to somebody else to manufacture it, and there’s so many parts of the process that can go wrong. Let’s say they all go right and then the wrong sales person walks in and gets the wrong account. Who’s more important in that process?!
And I suppose it must be reassuring. You’re sitting there designing Italian fabric-inspired running trainers with crazy patterns and you’ve got somebody going, ‘… Greg… you sure this will work?’ and you can just say, ‘I’ve done this.’ It must give you confidence to be able to envision your product at the beginning, at the end and at all the points in between.
It happens all the time, believe me. That’s the thing, that guided process of at least having a little experience in every area of the business, from a working perspective, comes into play whether you’ve succeeded or failed in those areas. You have your hits and misses, but I think over a long period of time those are the things that help you to have the confidence to guide the product from the weird idea in your mind to the product on the shelf.
So it feels like your first experience in fashion was an area more focused on the operative and functional. What brought you from utility and purpose – it must take a very rational mind as a product buyer to go out and spend somebody else’s money – to the ball-out aesthetic that runs through so much of the Gourmet product?
I’ll tell you; as a kid I was always very athletic and as I evolved into retail and fashion, one of the underlying things has always been a general feeling; I never understood why most things that functioned really well looked so god-awful. I never understood why it had to be that way. That’s a lot of what you’ll see in a lot of Gourmet. It’s a functional lightweight running shoe but it doesn’t have to just be… navy blue, black, synthetic whatevs from China! It can be something else that looks good and works good, so it’s a combination of all of those things. To be very general, things that function well, don’t look that great, or if they look good they’re not adaptable, so that idea has always been an underlying component of the Gourmet product.
A large part of your career has been the time you spent working with adidas Originals, a brand with a really strong focus on heritage and road-tested product, a brand with a story. Was this a contributing factor in your approach to design in Gourmet? Were you consciously breaking away from the beaten path of ‘This is what our brand does, and this is how we roll with it’?
Absolutely, 100%, and if you’ve had any experience in Freelance Design or Creative Marketing for any company of that size on any level, when you have the opportunity to work with a company that big on any level you see a lot of things where you can see that the love and passion for the product has been watered down through so many people having their hands on it. At the end of the day, for me, when you look at the product in the store, it just doesn’t look fun anymore.
Sometimes you go into a store and you see a product and it makes you feel a certain way, and you can see that there’s love and that somebody had fun making it. It’s that kind of approach that I want. The corporate approach, being around that at different points in my life, made me understand how something that’s fun as a vision can get watered down. It’s not that the process is any different when you’re a smaller brand, but the product is yours, you still have that close contact, your hands are on the product.
Earlier models of Gourmet footwear often presented stripped down, minimalist interpretations of classic footwear silhouettes; the Cinque as a street-conscious deck shoe or the Uno as a reductive adaptation of the classic canvas hi-top. In recent seasons the brand has become more experimental with materials, patterns, textures and forms. Would you agree with this? If so, was it a natural switch or a conscious decision?
It really flowed into that. I think the ideology of where we started and where we are today is very much connected. One of the original shoes we worked on, the original Quadici Duckboot, that is really the true inspiration of the brand, doing all kinds of footwear. A reworked duckboot with a streamlined running silhouette on an airbag with a turf-cleap bottom! It’s the spirit of that! Everything for me at Gourmet starts with the shapes and the form.
The fabric, the colours, the patterns, no shoe is based around that for me. The shapes of shoes themselves, the nature of the outsoles, that’s what’s important, and I always try to make them as adaptable as possible. By the time you get to the fun part with the patterns and textures it’s easy because you have a beautiful silhouette to work with, but that same DNA is there, it’s all of the same feeling just translated into different footwear in different categories.
It feels more cemented as well, like there’s a much more cohesive identity across the brand. I remember having a pair of the all-black Unos a few years back and I loved them for the minimalism, but now you look across the collections and the message feels more clear. Minimalism is great but Gourmet seems to have found its identity as that brand that dares to be different. I’ve worked in sneaker stores and you see people come in, they pick the shoes up and you can see their face go, ‘… Pwhoo!’ They’re excited to see something new.
It’s always great to hear stuff like that. We’ve been at this for a long time and it’s hard with footwear as opposed to clothing; footwear is an investment, moreso than buying a t-shirt.
It’s hard work getting people to step outside of those six big brands!
Exactly. When it’s something that’s so tightly controlled it’s difficult. People have always appreciated Gourmet for what it represents and the originality it puts forward, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll buy it. They’ll look at it in the store and go ‘That’s nice’ but then they’ll go and buy their Nikes. I knew it coming out, I’ve got experience in footwear, but the biggest thing in Gourmet is that message and the staying power. People need to get familiar with us and still feel the same way. Five, six, seven years later, we’re still sat next to their favourite Nikes and Adidas and that stands for something.
And the interesting thing is, with Jordan Brand for example, you can go to France, England, Italy, America, Japan, it’s the same brand wherever you go, the same story, and people buy them. In your travels, do you find that Gourmet has had the opportunity to craft its own identity in these different places? Do you feel different perceptions as you move around? I’d be really interested to know how the Italians respond to the brand, for example, because it seems like the kind of thing they would dive into!
It’s different everywhere, it’s really funny. I think the UK and Europe in general is one of the areas in the world that has really grasped the breath of what Gourmet is, moreso even than the States. Obviously Japan and Asia is very clued up, they understand what we do, but you go to Europe and you’ll see a much wider selection of our product on the shelves. In the States there are the big skate stores and the fashion houses etc., but you’ll see one product in this store, another product over here, it’s totally different.
I’ve spoken to people in Scandinavia as well and I’m often told that the market is totally different, with one or two boutique stores stocking high-end fashion alongside the hot sneakers and there’s a premium price on all of it. I look over to America, one of the big stories that we’re seeing at the moment is the first Air Jordan exclusive store. What I mean to say is, while America is obviously pioneering a lot of things, I also get the impression that it can be quite restrictive, whereas Europe often has a reputation as a melting pot for mixing influences and cross-culture style. Is this something that you think has been beneficial to Gourmet?
Absolutely, I know it has because I can see it reflected in my business, and there are more stores in Europe that are ready to make a bigger statement with my brand, carrying more styles and more products, whether it’s the fashion accounts or the sneaker accounts. I think it’s because of that progression of the different worlds from high-end to low-end to sport. People are learning to put all this together, and it’s not that this doesn’t exist in the States, it’s just a lower percentage of people and retail is led by the people. I don’t think retail has caught up to the eclectic nature of that style. It’s either this, or this, or this, but I think it’s going to catch up eventually.
Many of the products you’ve released have totally pushed the boundaries and preconceptions of sneaker design – the Quadici duckboot, the Dignan, the Due’s full-zip upper. In a market of customers that are so often purist, conservative or entrenched in their traditions, have you ever felt constrained by what is expected of footwear? Is it difficult for you as a brand and as a designer to be consciously different?
That’s a really good question.
I mean, I heard about the Dignan samples and the back and forth with the manufacturers! ‘Just fuckin’ make the shoe! Let me worry about the rest!’
It’s a great question. I’m gonna say… sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s funny, as far as product creation goes, no, because I will go against the grain every time, but then as far as being loyal to a business, to stay in business, it becomes a percentage game, right? So, you know, you have shoes that are working, shoes that are keeping you in business, but your mind from a design standpoint is always looking to go to the next level, and these are the ones that end up being your little babies! Nobody really wants these weird things from you!
So you have to design into your business as well. It becomes a responsibility thing. You have a business, you have a following, and not everyone’s head is where yours is at, so you can do these crazy things but you do them with the smallest part of your business as you go on. What’s important, however, is that these things always exist. Things like the Dignan will always exist in this line because, whether people are ready for them or not, it doesn’t matter to me. I think there are things that, whether you buy them or not, they can be respected, and I always think it makes the basic parts of your line more credible if you’ve got the balls to be true to your own vision as well.
Moving on, I recently saw the interview with you and Jeezy, I’m not gonna go over questions that have been asked, how did that come around etc. As Jeezy said, ‘Hey baby, it’s what we do, it’s Gourmet!’ But going back to what happened with the Jordan flips you guys did at the very beginning of the brand, there was a bit of friction with the sneaker community. Jordans are an intrinsic part of Hip Hop culture, and now you’ve got a figurehead of Hip Hop working with your brand. It feels like things have come full circle. How has that whole experience been for you working with him?
It’s been really great. A big reason that we took our relationship to the next level is that from Day One – I don’t remember the publication – but he came out in a publication wearing a pair of our shoes and I always thought, ‘That’s bold.’ You know? You’re on a path to be one of the big names in the industry, you could walk out wearing anything and you’re wearing our shoes.
Throughout the years he’s been in and out and never really gone away, and like myself or anyone else in sneaker culture we have an appreciation, and to see that love and support was a big thing. I didn’t even know him at the time, he’d go out and find these shoes on his own, it really interested me. That relationship that we’re documenting is exactly that, it’s out of his respect for Gourmet and the years he’s been wearing it, and our appreciation for him and the work he does.
A lot of people ask about it thinking we have a financial deal or something and it’s just not that, it’s a deeply personal thing for me. The reality is a lot of people wear our shoes, we send shoes out to celebrities and they come in the office, the normal thing. I don’t often go out trying to market a relationship, it has to be something more for me, and that’s exactly what this is. He’s really one of those guys.
Wrapping it up, so eight years back you did the apparel, you had an idea and the market moved to that idea. That being considered, I’d be real interested to hear some of your thoughts. Is there an idea that you’ve got for Gourmet, something that you’re thinking, ‘This is where I think Gourmet needs to be heading’? Do you see anything coming?
I think, functionality in fashion has been something that has always inspired me. It’s why I’m in this industry in the first place, and I think whatever I’m making in Gourmet, be it apparel or footwear, any fusion of form, function and fashion will be the key for me. I’ll never do fashion just to be fashion, sport just to be sport. Whatever we do, for me, it has to be something more. As time goes on I think we’re going to see that become an increasing aspect of the industry, and I’m going to keep doing it the way I want to do it.
Greg writes regularly in this vein over at http://fcknyh.com/