Building Greatness: An Interview with Ryan Babenzien, Founder & CEO of Greats Brand

    Ryan Babenzien never thought he’d make sneakers. With an Economics degree from Fordham, the founder of footwear brand Greats figured he’d end up doing something conventional but secure. “Honestly, I thought I’d be on Wall Street,” he laughed.

    With the global recession looming, traditional jobs were now every bit as precarious as passion pursuits. So, Babenzien decided he’d take a risk. He applied for a job in the entertainment marketing division of German sneaker brand Puma, and before long, had made Global Director. From there, Babenzien would join American tennis brand K-SWISS in a similar role.

Ryan Babenzein, Founder & CEO of Greats Brand

Ryan Babenzein, Founder & CEO of Greats Brand

    While he had achieved great success working with established industry players, Babenzien was frustrated. He grew up immersed in the arts, sports, and style of the American West Coast, a blend of cultural influences he saw absent from the work of the billion-dollar brands. To Babenzien, the idea behind a product is as important as its final form. Simply producing a good shoe makes you a shoemaker; doing it for the right reasons makes a difference.

    In 2013, those thoughts took form. That year, Ryan Babenzien started Greats Brand. Their mission: provide the best for the most for the least. Greats is the world’s first sneaker company from Brooklyn, New York, a nod to heritage as much a vision for the future. Brooklyn is the cultural collider that both inspires and enables Greats’ unique approach to sneakers. By selling direct-to-consumer and forgoing traditional advertising (the brand spent $0 on promotion over its first nine months), Greats can offer its updated takes on iconic silhouettes for a fraction of the price demanded by larger brands. The Greats Royale (a hand-made Italian leather low-top sneaker) costs a mere $160, and is made in the same factory as luxury competitors marketed for over $400 per pair. Greats isn’t a good deal; it’s a paradigm shift.

    And while the revolution may not be broadcast, it’s safe to say the world has noticed. Greats has been featured everywhere from Complex to The Wall Street Journal, and was recently declared one of Hypebeast’s Top Footwear Brands to Watch. With a short-list of collaborators that ranges from LVMH Prize finalists (Orley) to style tastemakers (Nick Wooster) to superstar athletes (Marshawn Lynch), what Greats has built extends far beyond making good shoes. SHEI Magazine sat down with Ryan Babenzien this March to talk sneakers, start-ups, and the power of ideas.  

Alex Rakestraw (AR): How did you get interested in sneakers?

Ryan Babenzien (RB): I think it goes way back to my childhood. My father was a high school gym teacher, so sneakers were literally a part of his uniform. I kinda thought that everyone’s dad also had 20 pairs of shoes in their closet (laughs). Years later, I became Head of Entertainment Marketing at Puma, then eventually a Lifestyle Marketing Executive at K-SWISS, but those early experiences are where it started. I wouldn’t consider myself a sneakerhead - I was just into gear. Watches, bicycles, surfboards, things with details. Sneakers were just an extension of that.

AR: Your brother, Brendon, is a pretty well-known figure in streetwear. Did you know you wanted to go into the fashion industry?

RB: You know, not really. No one in my family was in fashion, or even design. It’s not even something we talked about growing up. We just grew up at a time when the crossover of cultures was banging: we surfed, we skated, we rode BMX, but also we listened to rap and played lacrosse. We didn’t niche out our lives.  No one talked about their career dreams of working in this industry; it just worked out that way. Brendon was at Supreme for 15 years, but that wasn’t part of some master plan.

AR: Is it fair to call the ideas that built Greats an organic synthesis?

RB: Exactly – I think that’s what makes brands stand the test of time. Being able to pull inspiration from so many different sources and somehow connect the dots between them all, that’s what’s important. You need to understand the reference points: where things come from, why they happened, and how you can translate all of that into an idea in a very precise way. And that’s art.

Then you’ve got the other side: making the product itself. Of course the stitching matters, but anyone can stitch shoes well. Building greatness is about merging art with science. It’s about what you do to make someone emotionally connect with what you’ve made that sets you apart. It’s like cooking: if you gave 10 chefs the same 5 ingredients, everyone will make something different. You’ve got to prepare the food well to make it taste good, but that you can practice. The dish that truly stands out is the one with both skills and soul.

AR: If you had to distill all of those ideas into one, what would it be?

RB: After launching the brand on our own principles, we actually found this quote by Charles Eames, who’s one of the most prolific designers in history: “The best, for the most, for the least.” He wanted the best product, for the most amount of people in the world, at the lowest price. That really resonated with us. We’re price-agnostic – no one set out to make a $50 shoe, because it’s just not about retail margins for us. It’s about providing the best price in the category for something with the science and art of all the others. That’s the core of Greats.

AR: How did you choose Brookyln as the place to bring that idea to life?

RB: When [Jon and I] first thought about building this idea, we knew we wanted to put it in New York. Then, we looked at neighborhoods, and we found Williamsburg. Brooklyn has become a global style capitol itself, but then Williamsburg within that is known as the neighborhood of style. We’re constantly trying to pull from all those different inspirations, so being in the stylish part of the style capitol just made sense. We discovered soon after that we’re the only sneaker brand in history to be based out of Brooklyn, New York.

AR: What’s been your proudest moment working on Greats?

RB: Just getting it off the ground, honestly. I have to check myself all the time – people think we’re much bigger, and much older, but Greats has only been “out of beta” for two years. Thinking of what we’ve been able to accomplish in that time is miraculous. It’s a lot of work to build a start-up and there are constant challenges.

AR: But those challenges are worth it, right?     

RB: Absolutely. Building anything good takes time and consistent effort. There’s no off switch, you know? The day you stop trying to improve is the day it all stops. This is my life’s passion, so I don’t have a problem with that.

But if you ever want to build something meaningful, you’ve got to acknowledge that not everything is fun. I love what we make, but not every day is easy. There’s no endzone in this: there’s just constant problem solving, then self-assessment, then more hard work. I’m lucky because I wake up every morning psyched to go to work, even though I know today might be tough. Being able to live a passionate life despite the challenges - that alone makes Greats worth it.

AR: Last question – you have to choose one watch and one pair of shoes to wear for the rest of your life. What are they?

RB: Oh man. Only one? (laughs) Shoes, the Greats Pronto runner in Black. As for the watch, my Rolex Daytona. You just can’t go wrong with a classic.   

Special thanks to Ryan Babenzien and the Greats Brand team for their help coordinating this interview.