Inside Kanye West’s Epic Shoe Empire — 6 Things We Learned About His Business From His ‘Forbes’ Cover Story

Kanye West Ralph Lauren Show September 7, 2018
Kanye West at the Ralph Lauren show during New York Fashion Week on September 7, 2018 in New York City. Gonzalo Marroquin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Kanye West is a man of many talents — rapper, producer, designer and all-around creator. But his biggest earner on his resume is by far his sneaker line, Yeezy.

So for the August 2019 issue, Forbes talked to the man behind the billion-dollar empire, diving into his history of the brand, the creative process and how he holds on to so much of it’s capital. After all the line — which launched in 2009 with Nike before moving to Adidas in 2013 — is expected to top 1.5 billion in annual sales for 2019.

From the first shoe he sketched to his unprecedented Adidas deal, we pulled out 6 of the most interesting facts from the interview.

The first shoe he sketched was a Jordan One.

When the interviewer stepped into the entrepreneur’s house, West informed him that the shoes he was wearing, black-and-gray Air Jordan high-tops, were the first one he remembers sketching. “God does have a way of lining things up,” the “Gold Digger” singer said.

He explained that he often got in trouble for drawing sneakers in middle school, so even though he might have gotten his start in the music industry, his love of design dates back just as far as his passion for music.

Hedi Slimane — YSL and Dior Homme’s creative director — was an early supporter.

Thanks to his musical fame, the designer was able to create shoes for a Japanese apparel company, A Bathing Ape, in 2007. It was during this time that he met many people in the fashion industry, including Slimane who encouraged him to continue designing kicks.

According to the rapper, the creative director said to him, “You’re going to do something really strong in shoes.”

He showed the Nike CEO his sketches on a plane.

Thanks to Slimane’s support, he felt confident enough to show the Nike CEO, Mark Parker, his notepad when he sat next to him on a plane.

“When he saw me sketch, he said, ‘This guy’s interesting, let’s do a shoe with him,’” West said.

He’s always been inspired by the Lamborghini.

He recalls becoming obsessed with the Lamborghini Countach after his dad (a former Black Panther member) would take him to car shows when he was a kid. “There’s a little bit of Lamborghini in everything I do,” West told the publication. “Yeezy is the Lamborghini of shoes.”

West left Nike when they wouldn’t let him keep royalties.

After the Yeezy II release, things really boomed for the brand. “It was the first shoe to have the same level of impact as an Air Jordan and I wanted to do more,” West told the publication. “And at that time Nike refused to give celebrities royalties on their shoes.”

Since he had always insisted on maintaining ownership of his brand (he still owns 100 percent) he worked with Adidas and Scooter Braun to cook up a deal that allowed 15 percent royalties on wholesale as well as a marketing fee. This was nearly unprecedented as Michael Jordan’s royalties are thought to be about 5 percent.

The key to maintaining sales is to keep things exclusive.

Celebrity products are a hot commodity. That is, unless they become too available, something the Yeezy and Adidas partnership respects.

“We are continuing to manage volumes in a very disciplined manner so that 2019 Yeezy sales will not make up a significant share of Adidas’ overall expected sales growth,” the company’s chief executive, Kasper Rørsted, said. “Not because brand heat is decreasing but because we have a disciplined approach to managing volumes and product lifecycles.”

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