In the Jewish religion, a bar mitzvah is the ritual induction of a boy into manhood at the age of 13. It’s recognized as the time when he, not his parents, becomes responsible for his actions.
Ronnie Fieg took this transition quite seriously.
Fieg’s first cousin is David Z, a legendary sneaker and sportswear retailer in New York City. Fieg’s parents were paying off his bar mitzvah celebration with the gifts from the guests, and as is customary, David came to the celebration with his gift in hand: an envelope of cash. Fieg saw this as an opportunity and told David, "Thanks, but no thanks; I’d rather have a job working for you instead." The next day, Fieg started as a stock boy at David Z.
In the late 1990s, David Z was located on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, one of the most influential blocks in the country for street culture. All the big hip-hop artists spent their weekends hanging on the block. They would start on the corner with a Gray’s Papaya hot dog, maybe grab a pair of Parasuco Jeans in one of the lesser-known shops, and end up in David Z’s buying a pair of GORE-TEX boots. This was where Ronnie learned the business of sneakers and streetwear. As he tells GQ, “When Lauryn Hill spits ‘In some Gore-Tex and sweats I make treks like I’m homeless,’ the week that she recorded that album, I sold her the boots. And when you see Ma$e and Diddy in the ‘Been Around the World’ video and they’re wearing Dolomites, I sold them their boots. Anytime you’d see Wu-Tang with custom Wallabies, I used to get them custom-made for them. Jay-Z was there every weekend. ‘Cruising down Eighth Street’—when he spits that on the [‘Empire State of Mind’] track, that was him every Saturday, cruising down Eighth Street. I used to help him with his Timberlands every Saturday.” For Fieg, working at David Z was like going to the Harvard of street style.
Fieg worked his way up from stock boy to sales clerk to assistant manager to manager to assistant buyer and, eventually, buyer for multiple David Z stores at around the age of 25. As the head buyer, Fieg had direct exposure to the brands, and luckily for him, David Z moved volume, which gave him influence. He formed a relationship with ASICS at a Vegas trade show, and the brand performed well in the stores, so ASICS decided to give him the opportunity to design his own silhouette.
This was precipitous; back in the day, his mom had bought him a pair of ASICS Gel-Lyte IIIs at Tennis Junction in Great Neck instead of the more popular Reebok Pumps he wanted. At first, Fieg hated them, but eventually he grew to love them, wearing them until they had holes in the soles. He wanted to replace them, but they’d been discontinued. When ASICS gave him the chance to design his own, the Gel-Lyte III was his obvious choice. He pulled them out of the archive and created three versions, a total of 756 pairs. He called in some favors from a few friends, and they threw an event at David Z. The next day, they sold a few pairs, and he shared the story of the shoes with one of the buyers. The day after that, Fieg’s mother called him, exclaiming, “Your shoe is on the cover of the Wall Street Journal!” The guy Fieg told the story to was an editor at the WSJ, and wrote a story about limited-run sneakers. The next day, there was a line around the block. That same day, the president of Adidas America showed up and, as Fieg told GQ, “I told him the story, and that’s how we started talking about working on a shoe called the Black Tie.” Fieg had begun to build his following.