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Donny the Dybbuk is Demonstrating the Evolution of Sneaker Culture

Catching up ahead of the Jawbreakers release today

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Donny the Dybbuk

"My greatest design tool personally is to look at what that genre is doing and make it 3–5 percent different. It’s in a way, trolling," Virgil Abloh told the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture during a design lecture a few years back—a sentiment he would echo with similar language in a lot of his public speeches. He was always clear about the ways in which he wasn’t aiming to reinvent the wheel with his design; rather, he would make small tweaks to make a final product more true to his vision.

This ethos courses through most of my conversation with Donny the Dybbuk, who put me onto the quote during our conversation. Donny has gone from making customs in his living room to running a multi-million dollar sneaker brand, which now creates all of its products entirely from scratch. We had a chance to talk about the genesis of the brand, his favorite thing about designing sneakers and the drop coming up this Friday.

Getting Started

Donny never went to college or studied design formally in any capacity. “To this day, I can't use Illustrator or Photoshop or anything. I'm all physical, in hand,” he tells me. We take it back a bit: “I was boxing, and I started, for fun, doing customs in my living room. Over time, they got traction on social media unintentionally. And then one of them got reposted by SneakerCon and—overnight—I went from 200, 300 followers to 5000. And I thought that was a shit ton and that my life was gonna change. So I quit my day job. I still hadn't made a dollar on it.” At that time, he spent his life savings to get a studio and produce a run of shoes. “I spent 5 bands and made like $350,” he tells me, a great reminder to trust the process. “There was no turning back though, so I tried really hard to develop new styles, new things that people hadn’t seen yet.”

The Lucky 7s

From there, the brand started breaking even for about two years until they released the Lucky 7s. “Until something pops off, all your friends think you're dumb. So it's not only financial risk, but also personal risks of people thinking, ‘What the fuck. That's just another shoe with dice on it,’” he tells me of the nascent days and the need to take a risk to get to where he’s at now. 

His life as a skater influenced a lot of the design choices of the Lucky 7s, and the general ethos of the brand. “Skaters, kinda like basketball players, automatically learn about sneaker design because of the practicality of why you need something to perform,” he tells me, adding: “The average person is just buying a shoe based on, I like the way this looks. But if you're doing something like [skateboarding], you're already ahead of the game when you're looking into development.”

He really wanted to create a shoe that was an homage to the skate community that actually recognized them more fully than mainstream fashion. “Skateboarders, specifically, are the tastemakers of the fashion industry that never get credited or paid for it.” Donny was disillusioned with the fact that so much of high fashion rips off skate culture without compensating them, and when skaters have an opportunity to make money, they’re often making the money for a huge corporation that doesn’t necessarily care about the culture. 

Me being one of these skaters who's making these multimillion brands multiple millions of dollars, it was like, why don't we promote our own products and our own clothing?

- Donny the Dybbuk

If you’re not familiar, skateboarding in the 80s was a big part of popularizing Jordans, which weren’t nearly the hyped sneaker they are today at that time. “They were taking familiar silhouettes that were on sales racks, basketball shoes on sales racks that nobody cared about, and we took them, skated them, made them cool. And now they're reselling for however much, because we've made these things popular. And they're so far detached from the original designers and the origins of them, that now it's just people in suits cashing out,” Donny explains. 

Donny breaks down the ethos of the brand for me as: "It's kind of a Robin Hood thing. We just took it back for us. The story is deeper and the purpose is deeper. I think people really resonated with it because it wasn't just a money grab. I think that's why we sell so much.”

Throughout our conversation, Donny often mentions Virgil and Nigo as significant inspirations, for a few reasons. He references the below Nigo interview, where the designer talks about how his product is centered around lifestyle. “His whole purpose in product is lifestyle. The product doesn't have to change the world, but if it can enable him and the people who buy it to live a certain way, that's his goal,” Donny synthesizes it for me. 

The Future

When I ask Donny his favorite thing about doing this work, it’s about the opportunities he’s been able to provide for those around him. “I’ve been able to provide my best friend from childhood, brother, girlfriend and homies with jobs and opportunities. Life changes so quick and it's so crazy that I've been able to provide all of this for so many people.”

“I used to be all sad, classic black sheep shit. But now I feel like I have so much to live for, and I'm so happy because everything is exciting,” Donny tells me when I ask him about the future. He’s excited about making some proprietary designs down the line, “being able to develop new product that people will be able to understand that I have greater value in the design world than just familiar things is exciting.”

“And I'm excited to grow the circle of people that I've been able to provide for,” he tells me, going on to talk about how he wants to use this opportunity to hire formerly incarcerated people and those who are often not afforded a lot of opportunities by the traditional fashion world. His goal, most succinctly, is: “To build a brand that’s made by/for the very people who made the shit hot in the first place. I want to provide for the community that dictates the products value, not get hand outs from corporations that use us and throw us away.”

The Jawbreakers Release

Today, Donny is releasing one of my favorite pairs of kicks yet from the brand, an homage to a collaborative pair of kicks from Nigo and KAWS from the early 2000s. Called, “The Jawbreakers,” this pair is similar to the OG model, but incorporates some varying materials truer to the contemporary moment:

“There's one thing when you take a silhouette that people have heard of and literally just do it panel for panel. And then there's another thing where you tell the story and use materials, like the suedes and stuff, that are more true to skaters and more true to something I would prefer. If I was in the room when they were designing that shoe, I don't know if I would've said, ‘don't do patent leather.’ Because it was so iconic at the time. But nowadays, that I have a say, I prefer to see things created as they are more true to our voice.”

He closes with a little ode to Bape and something I’ve been thinking about a lot since our conversation. Bapestas were once just a “Nike rip” and now they’re one of the most iconic sneakers of all time: "People don't think of Bape as a fake Nike, they think of it is as Bape. So I hope I can get rid of the stigma and just be that one day.”

The Jawbreakers release today on Donny's site at 1pm EST.

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