by Tracy Weissenberg
When you enter the Willis & Walker Atlanta showroom, you immediately notice the details. The room is made to welcome the customer, make him feel as if he is in his own domain, ready to purchase clothing especially tailored for him.
NBA veteran and former Hawks star Kevin Willis, who studied fashion and textiles at Michigan State, founded the company in 1988 with his college friend Ralph Walker. “Being seven foot, and not being able to go anywhere and buy anything. We weren’t even talking about fashion back then, as far as that sense of style, we just wanted something that we could put on and look halfway decent,” says Willis.
The first product was leather jackets, made after an impromptu trip to New York to buy the leather, which was then sewn by another friend. After seeing people’s reaction to the jackets, Willis and Walker took note of the immediate demand and recognized their potential niche. The company gradually expanded to suits, and in 2003, launched the denim line. Willis now solely runs the company with partners in New York, and talks about the brand’s evolution, saying, “Now it’s more of a lifestyle collection. It’s everything that a man can wear. From outerwear, to knits, wovens, suits, jeans, twill pants, leather, headwear, t-shirts, all of that.”
While one might wonder the steps a professional basketball player took to fully absorb and ingratiate himself within the world of fashion, he did what most other passionate and enthusiastic people out of college do: Internships.
Asked to describe his style, Willis uses the phrase “dynamic elegance” and “simple, classic, modern.” It is the same philosophy he has extended to his brand. And from the showroom, to the collection, Willis’ work is in the details. As he points out, even the company’s logo hints at the shape of a basketball going through a net. While unintentional, it could not be more fitting to reflect the merging passions of the former NBA All-Star.
NBA.com: Let’s first talk about the showroom. What was your philosophy behind this space?
Kevin Willis: I think it’s a gem, it’s a hidden treasure. The location is spectacular, right in Buckhead, it’s off Peachtree. When I came in, it was an antique store at first. So when the gentlemen moved out, it was just open floor. There was nothing here. Great space, beautiful windows. My mind really got going, I was very anxious to start proceeding with developing and building, and designing the whole showroom. Once I got going, it took about one to two months to get to where I wanted to be. We built the cabinets, all of the shelves, we painted, we did four walls, we did all of the glass walls upstairs, I put all that stuff in. I wanted it to feel like it welcomes the consumer. When he comes to the door, I want him to feel that this is speaking to him. I wanted him to feel that he is at home in his own closet, in his own environment, where he didn’t want to leave. That’s what I thought I wanted to create, and we did it. From the apparel, to the seating, the oversized chairs, the larger counters, the oversized sofa, everything is a scale for guys who are taller.
NBA.com: There are so many details that connect the clothing to the design of this showroom. Did you have a hand in all of the interior decorating?
KW: The interior decorating I did all myself. Everything from the very chairs that we’re sitting on, the benches, the artwork, the lights, the shelves that hold the jeans. Everything. Everything has this classic feel to it, where it doesn’t feel that in two or three years you’ll have to change something out because it’s outdated. That’s what I wanted to create. I wanted a timeless feel once you walk in here.
NBA.com: How would you describe your company’s style?
KW: It’s very modern. It’s classic. It has a timeless feel to it. Extremely comfortable. The garments are well-fitted. The fabrics are impeccable. The balance of the garment is really good, from the shoulders, to the length of the coats. The jeans are very comfortable. I offer maybe five different fits, and 24 or 25 different finishes, from washes, to raws, to different coated fabrics, to your clean 10 ounce all the way up to 12 ounce denim, both in salvage and American goods. I use four or five different actual denim mills to create this look, and it’s been fun.
NBA.com: We all take it for granted to be able to walk into stores and buy clothing off the racks. How big a novelty is it for a very tall guy to now be able to walk into a department store and purchase clothing that does not have to be custom made?
KW: I’ve been shopping those stores for many, many years, and I don’t get frustrated because I understand their business model. They don’t focus on guys 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 and above. That’s not their core customer. Their bottom line is to raise that bottom line, they’re about getting product out that door. My challenge was just to get them to understand there is a customer out there. I know you want that customer, but do you know how to get that customer? I sort of had to educate the buyers, I had to talk to the people on the sales floor and educate them about the actual product, who this customer is, how you could get this customer to come to your store maybe two and a half, three times a year and buy this product. Selling the product, I’m never worried about. It sells itself.
NBA.com: People will walk into Saks Fifth Avenue and see your finished line, but can you talk about the process that it took to get there?
KW: The process was extensive. It was a long road because the biggest challenge, I think for me, was trying to get the fashion industry, or the people in the fashion industry, to take me seriously. That was the biggest challenge. Even though I had a passion, they know Kevin Willis as the NBA player. The guy who played 22 years, or the guy who played with the Atlanta Hawks in my earlier days. I would never say that’s not him, because it is him because the NBA has afforded me to do what I’m doing right now. But I had to educate myself. It’s one thing to make clothes, but knowledge is the key — in any industry. I had to understand the lingo, speak the talk, walk the walk, learn the language, learn the industry. How to put the garments together, from the patterns to the washes, selecting fabrics. Dealing with the manufacturers, so they won’t sort of put your stuff on the back burner because they’re getting a larger order coming in. And build those relationships with those factories, and have a good rapport with those guys, and know how to deal with them since I was a smaller company. Once I did that, I had to start to establish relationships with people in the industry from the media, to the buyers, to the store managers, to the sales teams, sales associates. You have to build relationships with these people, because once the product leaves me, it goes into their hands. If you don’t have that relationship, or they’re not educated about your product, they can’t sell that product. If you can’t sell the product, then the store puts it on sale and tries it that way. If it doesn’t sell then, you’re out the door. Nine times out of 10, they won’t bring you back. My thing was to build those relationships first, because the product speaks for itself. Once I learned about the actual garment, the process, it just fell right into place. I always loved clothing and I wanted to bridge that gap. And I’m speaking for the guys who aren’t in the NBA, or NFL or MLB. They’re just tall men in corporate America or wherever, but they want fashion. They want to look cool, they want to feel sexy, they want to feel like they have not been sort of like outcasted and forgotten about. That was my mission.
NBA.com: That’s very true about lingo. How were you able to learn the fashion industry from the inside out?
KW: The NBA offers its players internships in the summer. When we had our annual meetings every year, every basketball season, two or three seasons go by, and I listened to the guys. One year, I broke my foot and I didn’t have to go to the meetings, but I never forgot in those meetings that we would talk about if you want to further your education, if you want to go back and do what you did in college, or if you have a desire to get to dabble into corporate America — any field, we can provide that service for you. We can get that done for you during the offseason. It was my offseason all year because my foot was broken. I remember contacting the league, and telling them ‘I want to do an internship in fashion, can you guys help me?’ They set everything up. They actually flew me to New York. I had to report to the NBA office, every morning at nine o’clock, fully suited. They would give me my schedule for the day. I would take that schedule, jump in a cab, and go to each one of those appointments, an hour, two hours, and learn everything I could. For four summers straight I did that.
NBA.com: That sounds like a unique situation because you didn’t have to just intern with one company, you got exposed to many different brands.
KW: They were setting me up with appointments with say a company like Perry Ellis. I would go into the Perry Ellis office, meet who I needed to meet, they would give me the everyday process from administrative, to back office, warehousing, distribution, fabrics, how the garment was constructed. Even going to the actual manufacturing plants, where they do all the sewing, and you see tons of stuff. So I had to go through all these different processes and channels and learn this. And they’d go from nine o’clock until five every day. And every day it would be a new company. One of the ones I really remember is called the Doneger Group, and they’re a forecasting group for the entire world. Anything that you need to know, what’s coming out for 2018, 2017, that’s their business. They have all these relationships with people all over the world. Retailers, anybody. They taught me a lot of valuable information that I carry along to this day. I’m still today in contact with those principals who helped me back in 1989.
NBA.com: Lastly, leave us with your vision for Willis & Walker.
KW: My vision for Willis & Walker is to grow it into a lifestyle brand where every guy who’s shared that common thread — I can’t find anything that will fit me — who’s afraid to go into Saks or any of these higher-end retailers, because he’s afraid to be turned down. He’s afraid that they’re not thinking about me. Once I build this brand, he will be able to one day go into those stores and buy something off the rack. Walk out of there with a smile on his face and say, ‘You know what, this guy has figured it out, Willis & Walker has figured it out.’ I want this to be a global lifestyle brand.