Back in the 1980s, when sneaker culture began to materialize in New York City, many local sneaker shops were owned by Korean-American immigrants. A majority have since shuttered due to retirement or competition with online retailers. But Gene Han, a second generation owner in Brooklyn, strived to balance both the brick-and-mortar and digital ends of his family business—and ultimately build it as a hub that helps the Asian community and supports AAPI-owned businesses across the city.
After watching his father run a sneaker shop—first as Sneaker King in the late 1980s, then as Rugged Sole in the ’90s—Han created an extension of his store in the 2000s called Wealthy Hostage, which focused on limited edition and sought after models. But as premium streetwear continued to rise in prominence in global fashion, he felt his store’s identity needed a full revamp.
In 2013, Han rebranded to Alumni of New York, with two locations in Brooklyn (Crown Heights and Flatbush) and one in Queens (Flushing). In 2014 Han began to collaborate with Jaeki Cho, a Korean rapper known for directing and appearing in Bad Rap, a documentary about Asian hip-hop stars featuring Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead. In 2018, Cho would join Han (ages 31 and 38, respectively) as partner and co-owner of Alumni. They’ve developed a strategic approach to operating as a local business, as well as an e-commerce with a national following.
“We don’t do volume business,” says Cho. “We have a particular branding that resonates with the local community… The consumers of 2021 don’t need us to find the best prices… So, we create original content that speaks to consumers and many global brands tap us as strategic geographic partners.”
Brands ranging from Nike to Converse and Adidas view Alumni as an “image account” and support the partnership with special projects and exclusive releases. Currently the company has 15-20 accounts.
For instance, for the 2019 release of Carhartt WIP’s interpretation of the Converse One Star, the iconic brands tapped Alumni Flushing as North American launch partner.
The shoe’s military aesthetic signaled ‘90s East Coast hip-hop nostalgia, so Han and Cho invited rap legend Cormega and producer/DJ Large Professor (frequent collaborator with Nas) to perform.
“We also hired a local street cart vendor to serve free skewers,” says Cho. “This was one of many events we hosted that showcased our connection to Queens and the local creative community.”
Alumni is connected to the small business community just as much as the music industry. Its Instagram page, which boasts 30,000+ followers, launched a campaign during Black History Month to feature Black-owned small businesses across New York City, such as Brooklyn Tea and vegetarian cafe and lifestyle shop Uncles et Aunts. Alumni also kicked off Lunar New Year by teaming up with Welcome to Chinatown, which supports small businesses affected by Covid-19. In addition to spotlighting eateries like Meet Sum Cafe and barber shop 12 Pell, it’s helping to raise $200,000 for the organization’s Longevity Fund. He notes that more businesses are advocating for stronger relations between both communities, as a spike in Asian-American hate crimes have recently spurred the #StopAsianHate campaign, less than a year after the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“They are really more than just a sneaker store. They are a pillar of the community.”
Cho says serving both groups is something Alumni has done long before the movements, since its inception. “Honoring Black and Gold unity is just part of our DNA with our ownership in Crown Heights and Flushing, communities that are predominantly Black and Asian populations, respectively,” he says. “We are Asian owners who grew up listening to Black music and streetwear is a culmination of both Asian and Black design talent.”
The company got creative beyond live events and social media. Just as the Nike store in New York City had its own running club, and Reebok NYC had its own CrossFit group, Alumni launched its own Queens-based running collective, World’s Fair Run Crew, to boost local engagement and borough pride. Swiss performance brand On Running featured the run crew in an ad campaign, which led to future collaborations.
“After seeing the incredible toll of COVID-19 on the healthcare workers at Elmhurst Hospital, we also partnered with On Running to donate 900 pairs of shoes to the essential workers at Elmhurst,” says Cho.
Earlier this year Alumni of New York also teamed up with New York Nico (Nicholas Heller), a documentary film director and influencer, to launch a #BestNYShirt design contest (a follow-up to his viral #BestNYAccent), which saw more than 500 designs submitted and raised more than $65,000 to support local organizations during the pandemic.
“Couldn’t have picked a better partner for it,” says Heller. “They are really more than just a sneaker store. They are a pillar of the community. Throughout the pandemic they have done so much to uplift other NYC brands, particularly those owned by people of color.”
Says Cho, “There’s no direct correlation between the content and retail component but it’s stuff we do because we feel like we are repping our community beyond just the retail side. So we’re not just commerce but a creative hub, too.”
And with Flushing, Queens as an epicenter for Asian-Americans, these global brands also view the flagship location as a vessel for reaching the young, AAPI consumer. Focusing on this market has paid off. Alumni Flushing’s sales are up by about 70% in 2020 from 2019.
Alumni has supported other small NYC businesses with content, even though it was wrestling with its own woes in 2020.
While the total sales across its three locations and e-commerce have drastically increased, reflective of its pivot to e-commerce in 2020, the profit margins dropped nearly 22% due to commissions for online platforms and other investments in web development.
Due to the pandemic closures, the owners spiraled into debt with vendors/suppliers for about $160,000, of which about half was repaid by an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) loan from the Small Business Administration. The cofounders furloughed its entire workforce from March 16 to April 25. In May, they slowly brought back most of its original staff.
“We took on survival tactics by cutting expenses but we saw an increase in sales online,” says Cho. Before Covid-19, e-commerce accounted for less than 40% of total. Today, it accounts for 95% of sales. “It didn’t cover everything, but it was enough to keep the lights on in all three stores when it was time to reopen.”
He adds, “So we’re still very much in our physical store spaces but we’re continuously evolving online.”