From the Ground Up: Artefact for Grailed
From the Ground Up: Artefact for Grailed
- Words Grailed Team
- Date April 19, 2018
What does it take to run an independent sneaker brand in 2018? Sure, that's a big question, but one we think is worth getting to the bottom of, especially as the men's footwear market continues to boom and shows no signs of slowing down. That's why we sat down with Armand Wilson, founder of Artefact NYC. Artefact and its minimal takes on classic silhouettes has carved out a distinct niche in the sneaker world, and represents the best of what small, entrepreneurial brands are bringing to the table. Read our conversation with Armand below and then shop a limited run of two brand new colorways of Artefact's Nº85 sneaker made exclusively for Grailed.
Photography: Christopher Fenimore
Model: Nate Brown
For starters, who are you and what do you do?
I’m Armand Wilson. I’m 29-years-old. I grew up in Connecticut, lived in Boston and been in New York for the past six or seven years now. It's what I consider home. In terms of what I do, I wouldn't really consider myself a designer. I would call myself more of a builder. I come from two parents that are super hard working, entrepreneurial. My dad was a self-made dude and the biggest hustler I've ever known, ever witnessed.
That mentality rubbed off on you I would imagine?
Yeah, I witnessed that firsthand growing up, and it was always something that was in the back of my mind. From a young age, I was always trying to aspire to be a creator and a builder and put stuff out there in the world. The first car I ever bought was this 1978 Dodge van. I converted it when I was 16. It obviously wasn't the coolest fucking car to drive, but I converted it into an ice cream truck and was slinging ice cream. That helped me put myself through college. I went to Babson College in Boston. It's known for its entrepreneurship program and that's what gave me the fundamentals, the building blocks to start Artefact.
Out of school, did you immediately start working for yourself?
I took a complete different path. I was under the impression that Wall Street was the way to go. I did that for five years and hated every bit of it. I just quit with nothing lined up. From there I just started to experiment on different stuff. This is still a side hustle for me.
It’s after hours? You’re moonlighting?
After dark. Exactly. You can’t survive in this city without hustling.
Where does your love of shoes come from? Have you always been into kicks?
I've always had this crazy passion for sneakers.
From more of a collector's standpoint or just an as enthusiast?
Mainly just an enthusiast but I've definitely collected over the years. It all started when I was a kid. I was really into sports, played basketball, obviously very inspired by basketball culture. I always wore basketball shoes growing up. This was the progression to Artefact. Eventually I got to a point when, as I got older, I got a bit more mature, I started to feel a bit young wearing those same shoes.
Exactly, that was the style I coveted in high school. I wanted something that I could wear with trousers. As I got older and started appreciating more of the construction and the materials that went into shoes, I just thought there was a gap, an area that wasn’t already filled with existing product.
How would you define that gap?
I think the biggest thing is that consumers really care about the design, the details, the attention and materials that go into a product. Also, I just want to wear sneakers that can match the versatility of my lifestyle.
It’s a grown ass man type vibe.
That level of refinement, that sophistication, just tweaking it up a notch, making the sole narrower, slimmer, and being able to compliment something that's more day-to-night and can be multifunctional.
It’s this idea of getting the most mileage possible out of your footwear no pun intended. You don’t want to have to change for the occasion as someone who wants to wear sneakers the majority of time.
It's a little less sporty. I think that as our style has refined, there’s less sport involved. I'm not wearing basketball jerseys to work anymore, so I shouldn't wear the same basketball shoes. It's all about personal taste. I think that there's a lot of mid-20s to early-30s guys who are, say, designers, producers, or editors, that all have this same love of basketball culture and sneakers. They want to wear something that’s comfortable in a meeting in midtown, walking around soho or out at night in BK.
Artefact is an homage to that world.
That’s exactly what that is. It's an homage to those roots, that DNA. I think that there's this connection and we want to draw this line, this really tangible line, by having an homage design that speaks to what we love in a real, authentic way.
How do you even go about starting a sneaker brand in 2018?
First, it’s just coming up with the idea and what we wanted to do. It's something that my friends and I always talked about. This thing was in the back of my head for a while. But trying to produce an actual shoe is clearly the most challenging bit of it all.
That’s the barrier of entry. That's why a lot of people don't just have their own sneaker brands, right?
Exactly. I think I’m inspired a bit by the rise of the independent apparel company and how it's had its moment over the last two or three years. I felt that the market was ready for something like this. We went out and, through personal networks, just tried speaking to as many people as possible, trying to find that initial factory that would make us a product. Of course, you end up going through two or three factories over the course of two, three years. 10, 20 samples later and you’re still not sure.
It’s a lot of trial and error.
It takes forever to get right. It really comes down to trying to make that perfect connection and putting yourself in a position to experience an almost serendipitous moment of getting in a room with someone and pitching your vision. Luckily, I finally found someone that appreciated the idea and what we were going for. A big part of it is communicating with people clearly and with intention, and reaching out and being honest. In a place where everyone's looking to get ahead or everyone has these ulterior motives, it really pays off to be forthright and straightforward when reaching out to potential partners and collaborators. I think you'd be surprised with the reception that you can get, whether it be from founders, CEOs or whoever you want to reach. Fortunately, we live in a day and age where everyone's really accessible and I took advantage of that.
You called yourself a builder, but I would imagine that there are design elements that obviously have to be brought in to make a shoe. Did anything in specific inform Artefact’s style? I think if anyone looks at the shoe, they can clearly see elements of other stuff.
The Nº85 is definitely built on a familiar foundation of design language. There's no doubt about that. We see how mutated a silhouette like the 1 has become since it’s inception. More than anything, we want to dig back into those origins and simultaneously elevate it into a place where, again, we feel comfortable wearing it as a more refined and up-specced style. Finding the right leathers, 100% leather lining, having semi-waxed laces, finding the perfect gum bottom, these are all things that were part of the process of really tweaking and shaving down the last in order for it to be really wearable. Those are the things that we knew where we wanted to get to, and we also knew where we wanted to start. We worked through that entire process to get to where we are now.
I feel like the idea of the minimal, upscale sneaker is one that is extremely successful. Take one look at the market and it’s quite obvious it's something that a lot of guys were looking for. What's it like being a brand in a bit of a crowded space? Is that something you guys relish or maybe it’s a bit frightening?
I think it's crowded, but there’s also tons of opportunity. I think today the consumer is more educated than ever and cares about things like where a fabric is from. It's becoming more important. Just look at Grailed. You guys have a community of really educated people that want to learn and are seeking out information. I think that just nurtures that kind of market. I also think we're not trying to position ourselves in a certain part of that marketplace where there are already brands like Common Projects. Sure, there are the people that are selling out $500 shoes, but we're trying to sit in this middle range where we think we can provide the most value to someone by offering a truly quality sneaker for $200. While we've flown all the materials in from Italy, a lot goes into an Artefact sneaker, we still don't feel like we're competing with the top tier of that market.
As far as the origins of your shoes, they're made in China and there's some stigma attached to that, often from an uninformed perspective.
Our shoes are being made by highly-skilled technicians that have as much experience making shoes, if not more making sneakers, than of many of the Portuguese and Italian factories that were once dress shoe manufacturers that are now being tasked to make cup sole sneakers. I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to source Italian leathers, bring them all the way to China, and manufacture them at what I believe is surely the highest level possible anywhere on Earth.
Is the onus on you guys to educate your consumer about what goes into your shoe and, if so, how do you go about doing that?
Providing details and information for the consumer to sink their teeth into is something that we constantly want to provide. Taking those who want to learn more for that long walk through the product is something that I know we enjoy doing. We want to converse with the consumer and have an open conversation. So much of what the big footwear brands do is so behind-the-scenes and hidden. And when they do open up, it's so staged. It's like a Potemkin village. Whenever they try to peel back the curtain, they're really just showing the next curtain that happens to be behind it.
For you, it’s a true labor of love.
We’re building product based off of one idea. We’re building really small batch runs. We're often talking 10 pairs of shoes at a time, something that not many factories are interested in making. These shoes are all made in a sample room, truly made by hand. That’s how small these batches are. That is really important to Artefact and what we stand for.
The exclusivity that comes with buying shoes from Artefact, but not at this crazy, unattainable price point is what appeals to your customer.
It's about having something that you can really call your own. I think that there's this identity that Artefact creates by having a limited amount of pairs in the marketplace, and something that our consumer can then attach themselves to, creating an emotional bond with the product that we're building.
What's special about the limited run Artefact is doing for Grailed?
These two colorways have never been executed before, they won't be executed again. It's the first time we actually used a supplier in Northern Italy, so it's not the same supplier that we have for our Italian suedes or leathers. We’re using a nubuck that's has a spectacular finish. You can see it as the nubuck turns over really beautifully in rich oxblood and this soft, gray, neutral taupe that you can style with a lot of different looks. I think that's important.
Speaking of styling, do you envision your sneakers being worn a certain way or is it one of these things where once it's in the hand of the consumer, they can just go crazy?
It starts with trying to design something that we want to wear first. It's always looking in our closet, thinking about what’s missing. I'm wearing my Artefact shoes with slacks. I'm wearing my Artefact shoes with some denim. I'm wearing them with some basketball shorts. We want to make something anyone can tailor to their individuality. You want them to have something that they won't see everywhere that’s special to them. However they want to wear it, we're cool with that. It lends itself to a choose your own adventure, but there is something to be said for a strong perspective to start off with, to build upon.
Do you guys feel like you've arrived or is there still a lot of work to be done?
The result of good work is more work. Each step in the right direction opens new doors, but it's also created more hurdles. I think that it's a process. Like anything else, it’s one big journey and I think that we'll be in this process for the entire duration of Artefact's existence.
There’s more work to be done for sure.
Much more work to be done. We want to build a bigger team, build a stronger brand. We want to constantly evolve. That was a big reason for choosing to go direct to consumer. Not only can we sell our product at a more accessible price point, but we also control the conversation and feedback loop with our customers. We want our customers to feel ownership in the brand - that they’re helping evolve and build Artefact from the ground floor.
Is there a roadmap in place?
Right now, it's not on paper. It's very much instinctual. It's like, we're moving with the rhythm we’ve always had. There's no one that we're doing this for except for ourselves, which is the most rewarding thing you can do in life. That being said, we hoped to be able to make that next step very soon, and start putting out plans that solidify our future. We want to remain dynamic and show up in places that you wouldn't always expect us. We always want to be as dynamic as possible and be spontaneous with how we bring our product to the market.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to kind of, either dip their toe into this world, or dive in head first?
Building your own wave is all about reaching out to others, being clear with your intentions, and really being earnest in the way that you can provide value back to them. That's something that people unfortunately don't do the best job of doing.
It’s a lost art these days.
There's this ability to just connect with people that has been lost. I think that that's one of the things that Artefact wants: to reach out, connect and share a story that's impactful.