Interview: Greg Lucci talks about the foundations and future of Gourmet Footwear

Interview Greg Lucci talks about foundations future Gourmet Footwear The Daily Street 001

Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

While in London for the trade shows, Gourmet Footwear founder and general streetwear aficionado Greg Lucci spared some of his time to sit down with us and talk about the beginnings of Gourmet, his involvement in the creation of adidas Originals and his opinions on creativity and originality.

I’m fortunate enough to have become quite accustomed to interviewing people who I perceive as larger than life, whether it’s from knowing their work from childhood or through research. For some reason, Greg Lucci was quite daunting. Well, the idea of interviewing him was. When you read about someone’s extensive list of involvement in some of your most revered brands such as adidas or Supreme and the knowledge that comes with that, coupled with a steely persona in front of the camera, it’s hard not to presume that this is gonna be a tough ride. However this was shot out of the water the second I bumped into Greg in the stair well having a cigarette before we did our interview. I can genuinely say that he was one of the easiest people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing – one of those ones where you have to force yourself to stop the interview of you’d happily go on talking all afternoon.

Throughout our discussion, while sipping on a freshly delivered flat white from Taylor St Baristas, Greg told me the story of where Gourmet came from and what it means to him personally, as well as where he hopes it will be in five years time. Along the way, we also touched on the topics of design, the concept of originality and whether it truly exists, his history with adidas and adidas Originals and what he learnt from working with such iconic designers as Peter Moore, the balance of being creative but also running a successful business, and of course we had a good ramble about one of my all time favourite Gourmet shoes… the Dignan.

As always, I hope this interview gives you a window into the personality behind the brand and that you leave the interview feeling that on some obscure level you met Greg Lucci yourself. With brands being the materialistic machines that they are, and with us as consumers forever looking upon them as objects in the majority of time, it’s always interesting to get an idea of the people behind them and fortunately Greg didn’t disappoint …

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Gourmet as a brand originally incorporated luxury sportswear clothing and jewellery, but since its creation has quite quickly moved to become solely footwear. What was the reasoning behind that decision?

Well the original idea behind Gourmet was the combination of the highs and lows in life, meaning very basic cheap things that were great and very expensive things, whether it’s fabrics or pieces that were great and how those things from a style perspective meet or co-exist. When we launched the brand we were so ambitious and excited about this new vision that we did it in three different industries unfortunately [laughs]. We launched that concept in clothing, and the jewellery and the footwear was the combination of that concept together. The clothing was dumb, retro, American sportswear but executed by the finest fashion factories in Italy with great fabrication, so it was the hybrid of those two things coexisting in one product. The jewellery was done by a generational fine jeweller that does big high-end brand kind of stuff… combined with canvas footwear. You know what I mean? So you have cheap shoes, expensive jewellery, and then this stuff that looks like American sportswear but it’s Missoni yarns and Loro Piana cashmere [laughs]. I don’t know if it was a mistake… it’s just that we were very ambitious and I think all those years ago in 2005 we had this great vision and we shortly realised “Wait. Apparel, footwear, jewellery, they’re all completely different industries! And more importantly there’s not even a retail environment that exists right now that would even house this complete vision”.

Shoes took off at shoe stores and people had a hard time wrapping their head around American sportswear that was that expensive or executed in that way. And jewellery… nobody was trying to buy $50,000 rings [laughs]. Everything ended up being kind of a mess, but shoes was a business so we went on for a while, like 3 or 4 seasons, essentially with the success of shoes funding and piling money into the not-successful, really expensive version of jewellery and clothing and then we realised “What are we doing?”. So again, we just translated the bigger mission and concept for Gourmet into one product, which was footwear. So footwear became about the combination of high and low and how it works together, how things can hybrid together, and importing expensive fabrics done on athletic tooling, you know what I mean? Footwear became the immediate mission of how to accomplish that entire vision.

I think that mashup of cultures you’re talking about there is still pretty core to Gourmet as a brand. Has that always been a topic that’s fascinated you?

Always something that fascinated me. That’s why you see it with marketing… one day you’ll see a video of us hanging out with Jeezy and the next day you’ll see something fashion and artsy and St. Barts. For us, the world is a big place, the exciting things about life whether it’s fashion or everything else is how it all works together and how it intermingles and I think one of the things that has always disturbed me is how things are always categorised. Why is functional stuff so ugly? Why is fashion stuff so beautiful? Why can’t functional things be beautiful? There’s that and then it’s like “Ok, there’s a cool brand, but why does it just have to drive this one lane of aesthetics? Why does it have to just appeal to this person?”. The thing with Gourmet, with the combination of all the spirits of those things, was the responsibility of blurring the lines of all these things – cultures, things that aren’t supposed to work together, coexisting. That’s what Gourmet is. A true, blended, unique kind of thing.

With that in mind, when you’re approaching design and especially for a new silhouette, what’s your process of sourcing inspiration and turning it into an end product?

Process for me is always, always form and fit first, function second, aesthetics third. Meaning everything starts with the idea of a form for me, like how you want it to look. There’s great things about everything right? You may love this shoe or that basketball shoe, but it’s “this big” and it’s because it’s meant for something, it looks great but what if it fit like this? So everything starts with form for me, the rest of it is… I mean you can go anywhere with something once you nail that. It’s like “How can this fit right, look right with this, but still perform, and be wearable with other things?”. You know what I mean? So it all starts with the form and then the rest, to be honest, you can go anywhere with it after that because now from a form and a function perspective you’ve built something that can cross a lot of categories and function, so the upper now becomes endless in the fabrications.

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You’ve got quite a rich career history in design from before Gourmet. When and how did you start getting into design?

I got into it through retail. I was involved in a counter-culture, successful retail experiment when I moved to California that was straight counter-culture that turned in time popular. All these big companies, they go on these missions and when they land in L.A. they ask people “What’s the coolest thing that I’ve got to see here?” and for a while it was my spot, so I would meet the president of this company, this guy, this creative director, you know what I mean? They’d all be in my spot just trying to wrap their head around what the fuck was going on in there [laughs] and it lead to relationships and to phone calls and picking my brain for ideas. It just organically turned into more of a creative space, design orientated, always product related. Other opportunities for me.

And was that how your relationship with adidas came about? The relationship that lead to you being a part of the creation of adidas Originals?

Yeah. That was actually prior to anything specifically design orientated I did at adidas. It was just prior to that when I was in a transition where I was done with my retail experiment and one of my spots was near Fred Segal and I had a relationship with that family, so for a while I was working there and doing some of the buying for this fashion boutique and I met these adidas people because of the same thing… you get to L.A., you go to this store, to that store. So I met these adidas people and they sought me out in there and I had a meeting with them. It was two people from adidas North America, not from Germany, and they had this idea they wanted to present to me. They were like “What do you think about the idea of all the heritage stuff at adidas coming back?”. It was at a time where it was just new product and the corporate logo and the classic section had almost been forgotten and I loved It! I helped them identify product and fabric and colourways and some certain things. The interesting thing is, and I don’t know if it’s because of that project or the idea of that project, but for some reason or another those people got fired from adidas. They went back with this package and they got fired from adidas. I don’t even know how else to say it… I never heard from them again. On a follow up phone call from someone else I was told that those two people were fired. Never really thought about it again.

A year and half to two years later my phone rang – adidas had appointed a new Creative Director at the time in Germany, a guy named Michael Makowsky, he found that deck that was sitting around somewhere and my name was attached to it and I got a phone call like “We’re going to do this. Do you still want to get in?”. And I’m like “Wow! [laughs] Yeah, it’s still relevant”. So that’s kind of how that all happened, and then from there it lead to a lot of different other things.

While we’re talking about adidas and their corporate logo, I’ve read that you’ve actually worked with Peter Moore, one of the two guys responsible for the logo change at adidas back in the early ‘90s. What have you taken from working with great footwear designers like that over the years that you’ve put into Gourmet?

I just soaked it all in. Peter and other people like Peter from his generation that I was fortunate enough to work with, people that have done monumental things as well, they’re just like “Hey, here’s a protractor, a French curve, a pencil and an eraser. This is all you need to do footwear the right way.” You know what I mean? You’re talking about a time where it’s Apple and people are wrapping their heads around Illustrator. I would learn from these guys. I was just a kid and a sponge, trying to wrap my head around the idea that there’s a million ways to get something done, whether it’s the old way or the new way. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around that process and learn from it and take and borrow elements of that and combine it with the new. I guess I’m a hybrid of something different, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be around all of it. You learn from all of it and I think you end up being a product of all of it. It’s not that it’s just that school of thought for me of just the new one, it’s more all of it. For me, it works together in some weird way. I’m not the best person on Illustrator, certain things take me forever [laughs], but I have my own process I guess as a result of it.

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It sounds like with a lot of the story behind Gourmet and the shoes in particular, the inspirations are personal tied to you, where you come from and your life journey. Was it really important to you that the brand was very much a part of you and your personal history?

Absolutely. One of the underlying themes of the brand creatively, aside from what I told you, was the heritage in the background of me and my two partners at the time. We all grew up in America, in the North East, but we’re all American Italian kids. There’s a lot of stigmatisms and cultural things, from Italians first coming to America to modern day, and those were all topics for us. From sports to hardship to everything else. Yeah, so a lot of the product is dear to me in many different parts of my life, whether it’s a specific area where I grew up and iconic things from that era or fabrications or the idea of function meeting fashion, which has always been my interest in this industry. I remember being a kid and being an athlete all the best athletic stuff was always so god awful, hideous, and then there was things that looked good and just thinking “Why can’t those things coexist? Why can’t something that operates from an athletic perspective in a beautiful way be also good looking?”. It was always the interest and pursuit of those kind of things for me and I think that shows a lot in the product. A lot of if is taking things that have always looked good to me or to a lot of people in that way and trying to figure out a way to make it more functional or athletic or better looking or more evolved.

And do you think as a whole that Sportswear brands are managing to do that better these days?

Yes. Obviously. I mean the big brands, it’s still kind of a science experiment to them. Those categories that exist, that are dedicated to the pursuit of that, for these bigger brands they’re still really the smallest part of business that they do. The other thing about it is it’s an evolving idea and it’s an endless resource of highs and lows and things that look good or look bad and bad meets good and putting it together. Any form of that can have a success here and there, but it’s the constant pursuit of that and evolvement of it that ultimately has created new ideas in product.

While we’re talking about experimental footwear, I want to talk about the Dignan. I remember being at Bread and Butter in Berlin in what I guess must have been 2010, when you debuted that shoe there, and a couple of us from The Daily Street were walking through the stand and I pointed at the Dignan and was like “What is this?!”. I loved it straight away, but the guy I was with couldn’t get this head around it, thinking it was ugly. It was definitely a love/hate design, but it’s now out of the Gourmet line. Why?

I appreciate that. It’s because it doesn’t sell. It’s another part of that pursuit that I can’t let go of. As you have a business you have things that sell that you just keep recolouring and fabricating and trying to bring a different interesting twist to, and then the smaller part of what you do has to become the original point of view, because the original point of view is scary for people. There are the people that look at it right away and get it and go “I can really fucking appreciate that”, but let’s be honest, that doesn’t translate to it now selling out. The Dignan was one of those things to me. Quite simply it came from the aesthetic of ER scrubs that you put over your shoe in a hospital. I always loved the way that thing looked. It basically looked like a pleated, ruched bag on your foot and I was looking at it and I thought “Man, if that was refined and done on a proper last and maybe had a functional running sole to it… Imagine what that aesthetic would look like on a sexy running sole!”. It was just playing with the idea of that and the exploration of that that that shoe came out of and I personally love the way that it looks. But that registers as kind of nuts to people [laughs]. That’s one of those things where you have to see somebody wear it the right way. You see that thing alone, sitting on a shelf without a foot in it, it’s kind of like “Oh whoa”.

This might make you happy… The pursuit of that shoe, I have never stopped. There was an original idea for it that could never be executed. I had to make short cuts in the way the final product came out and I’m now pursuing the original version of that and it’s gonna come back again. It’s gonna come back in it’s original form because now I have the capabilities to do it the way I always thought in my head. Before, I had to do things for construction on that shoe that compromised the aesthetics and I’m at the point now where I don’t have to. It’s coming back [smiles] and in a lot of different heights.

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As a designer and running the brand yourself, where do you draw the line between being experimental and pushing boundaries as a designer and not thinking about whether people are going to accept it or not and running a business based on sales?

Well it just becomes a responsibility, meaning you now start looking at your line and you’re like “Well this is the business” [slams his hand to the table in a chopping motion]. It’s like a percentage game, you grow a business and every season you’re looking at your line and how your business is growing and you look at 85% of that and you’re like “This is my business”. The responsibility is to continue with that business and to evolve that business. The other 15% of that is the “I’m gonna make this and I don’t care what it does, but I’m gonna show it to the world”. It will always be a part of what I do. I can never go all in to the business and abandon the free thought of something original and I fight for it all the time. As your business gets bigger it’s a harder fight because nobody wants to see the weird thing that’s not going to book any numbers, but I tend to know that it’s not going to sell so now I’ll do a marketing piece on it so that at least somebody sees it [laughs]. That becomes another battle… “Why don’t you advertise the shoes that sell?” and it’s like “Yeah, well we do that all the time, but I want to advertise this one”. It’s about vision, so whether you make it or not, I’m starting to put more attention into showing what it was so at least it gets seen.

With a brand like Gourmet, where a lot of it’s reputation is based on it’s vision, that’s definitely important. The flip side is that it’s got to be a successful business as a whole. When Gourmet launched here in the UK the price point was quite memorably high and over time it has come down to a more competitive price. What was the thinking behind that repositioning of the brand? Was it out of necessity?

Not out of necessity. What it really is is that when you’re small and you can’t make a lot of things, it costs more to make them. When you can produce more and you grow as a business, you can make them for cheaper because you’re making volume of them. Part of it is that, the other part of it is just being smarter in the way of importing fabrics. I can make a shoe made out of 24 carat gold… who gives a shit though? [sarcastically applauds] Congratulations. Always the point of Gourmet was the hybrid of the beauty in the low end of things and the beauty in the high end of things and the combination, the price version of that was “How do you import something luxurious and beautiful, make something well, make it functional, but don’t rob people at a price?”. So yeah, I can make a shoe that costs $3,000. I can also make a shoe that’s $30 that’s a pile of crap. The point of Gourmet was “How do you make the best thing that you can, that combines all of these worlds, and get it to somebody for an affordable price?”. That was us. Having a great shoe that you can buy over and over again that’s around $100 or a little more, that’s the zone we always wanted to be in. The unfortunate part about that is when trends come and go it’s like “Oh the cheap vulcanised is trending!” or “Everybody wants $1,000 sneaker!”, but literally the idea of Gourmet is always to be in the middle and be something that’s interesting that’s affordable by all. That’s always been the mission and that’s where we try and stay.

While we’re reminiscing about the beginnings of Gourmet… I remember those fluro posters you did with “NOTHING IS ORIGINAL. STEAL FROM ANYWHERE.” that were pretty attention grabbing for a young brand at the time. What was the theory behind that campaign and how does the original Jim Jarmusch quote appeal to Gourmet?

Well it’s something that again is in the DNA. A lot of things you’re affected by from your upbringing or classic things or new things or technology or functional things or just pure fashion things, they’re all things that exist and the aggressive quote was really about the idea that all these ideas of these things exist. What Gourmet is about, aside from its original product which is a small part of what we do, is about “How do all these things get combined to make a new product?” and so that’s what it goes into. It’s just an aggressive version of “It’s this world, it’s that world. Let’s steal this iconic thing and that iconic thing, but let’s put them together and let them make a baby on this thing”. But also it’s a dirty little secret of the industry… everyone has an ego and everyone likes to think “Hey, my shit is unique” but it’s like “You know what man, people been making T-shirts and jeans for a long time bro” [laughs]. It’s not that deep. So part of us is a little tongue-in-cheek with just putting that language out there. It’s like when lifestyling became a term, we did a whole campaign called “lifestyling” just kind of making fun of lifestyling. What is that?! A sports category?! [laughs]. We like to be a little aggressive and tongue-in-cheek about it, but it’s the truth. I mean, whether this guy’s made a pea coat or that guy made a pea coat, people have been making pea coats for 25 million years. What, because you did a red one you’re awesome? Everything’s from somewhere in a way. [laughs].

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Your shoes are picking up pretty good traction with women in the UK at the moment. Did you ever see that one coming and would you have ever regarded your designs as unisex?

Umm we always thought about it, just because of the fashion stand point we took behind our brand. We did it one time four years ago where we got a lot of interest from women to simply take down some of the styling that we were doing for men because women liked it and we actually opened up women’s toolings and lasts and kind of paid some attention to that and then just did design takedowns and it didn’t work, which was interesting. Flash forward to today and we got that interest again and so we opened up a couple more toolings and the one we had before and it’s working. I think it’s all timing. A lot of it’s timing. The first time we did it, it was really before a lot of women were wearing sneakers from a fashion perspective, so it was kind of hit or miss. Now, a lot of what you see going on, even in fashion, is athletic driven and so there’s a lot more women wearing sneakers with fashion looks and different things.

Talking about being aware of the right timing and being an experimental brand, do you find there’s a risk of being too ahead of the curve and that you have to be aware of not being too far ahead because it will fail before it’s time comes?

Absolutely. We’ve done that time and time again. We did it with our apparel… to be brutally honest with you, the apparel that we did all those seven, eight years ago outta Italy, it’s really relevant and unique and timely for right now. You learn these things right? It is timing, but I think also when you’re the type of brand we are too, you go back to the business side of it and with the business side of it you do the timing. With the other part of it you just go where you need to go and you don’t worry about timing. I think something that looks good, that’s a fresh thought, that’s unique, regardless of the timing is at least respectable and that’s more the mission that means something to me than timing to make money. There’s always going to be a way to time something and make money, but to put something out there and at least be respected for it, whether it works or it doesn’t, or thought of as “Hey, that’s a risk, but that’s an interesting thought”, that means more sometimes. I think if you’re a brand in our position, in that way sometimes that means a lot more to us.

In general, it’s been really interesting watching the brand develop and shift as it finds it’s place since it’s creation. Where do you see Gourmet in five years from now?

I mean I would like Gourmet to be just a more successful version on the train that it’s been on. I would like it to be a true form of actual athletic function stuff meets better looking stuff, and I would like it to be the leader in how that feels and how that looks. The road we’ve been on, the DNA that we have, it’s in the pursuit of that. Sometimes we’re limited by the size of who we are and what our capabilities are, but it hasn’t stopped our journey. I have a pretty viscous appetite for that [laughs].