In 2022, we did our last interview in Los Angeles with the founders of Brandblack, an independent brand that stands out for its quality, for constantly bringing innovation and testing new technologies in their products, without compromising its functionality. Tired of the restrictions and limitations of working for large footwear companies, David and Billy joined forces to create their own brand – Brandblack, which has the fusion of fashion and high performance in its DNA.
With a strong basketball background and almost a decade of existence, Brandblack has already developed a signature line of basketball shoes for Jamal Crawford (former NBA player), were the names behind the signature shoes of the Ball brothers for Big Baller Brand, in addition to collaborations with big names like Saleheen Bembury. David and Billy are constantly out to create products they believe in and doing it their way, bringing truly unique, high quality, highly functional shoes that range from casual to running to hoops.
Having the opportunity to meet David, Billy and Brandblack in person was truly a dream come true, and we put all of our effort and attention into this interview. So, be sure to read this interview full of valuable insights about design, sneaker development and the fascinating history of such an interesting brand. Special thanks to David Filar for connecting us with Billy and David out of pure kindness.
Billy I’m Billy Dill, I am the co-founder and creative director for Brandblack. I have been in footwear design, and footwear marketing for 15 plus years. My background is in design, but mostly apparel. I’ve worked for a number of different brands, from fashion to sports brands. I met David through a project that was around skateboarding and that’s how the two of us sort of connected, and from that connection, it grew our relationship. David came up with the concept, founded Brandblack and he came to me to rejoin forces, and here we are today. David I’m David Raysse, co-founder and CEO of Brandblack. I started in footwear almost 30 years ago as a college student working for Fila, where I did predominantly basketball shoes – like the Grant Hills and the Stackhouses. After that I left for adidas, where we worked on shoes for Kobe, Jalen Rose, Antoine Walker, etc. Then I worked for a lot of other brands. For a little bit I left footwear and worked with Philippe Starck doing pure industrial design. I was living in New York at the time and started working on the skateboard project that Billy mentioned, and he and I sort of connected. We were both designers on this project and I think we just vibed. We were both tasked with starting a performance division for this other company and from there, we eventually founded Brandblack in 2014. And Here we are now, nine years in.
How did you both get into design – did you already have a creative background?
David So both my parents were in fashion – my stepfather is a french fashion photographer, and my mother was a model, she’s the first African American model on the cover of Vogue. They were in Paris during the 70s and that’s where she met my father. They were the founders of Kenzo with Kenzo. They were in the heavy fashion scene, and that has always been in my life.
I played high school and college basketball, and since I was a sneakerhead, I really wanted to find a way to combine my love of sneakers with fashion. Even in my early days at Fila, I was always trying to push the fashion side of things – now we take for granted that sneakers are fashion, but they weren’t back then, it was performance. That was always the impetus, so when we founded Brandblack, because Billy had a strong fashion background as well, we really wanted to push the envelope when it came to fusing fashion and performance.
“I played high school and college basketball, and since I was a sneakerhead, I really wanted to find a way to combine my love of sneakers with fashion. Even in my early days at Fila, I was always trying to push the fashion side of things – now we take for granted that sneakers are fashion, but they weren’t back then, it was performance. That was always the impetus, so when we founded Brandblack, because Billy had a strong fashion background as well, we really wanted to push the envelope when it came to fusing fashion and performance.”
When did you first feel connected to sneakers, and what did that first connection mean to you?
David For me it was with the Air Jordan II. It was the first time that I identified design in a way I could understand. Tho, you know, the IIs were the ones that didn’t get a lot of love until the last few years.
I had to go to this place in Spanish Harlem, New York, it was an old school place where they wrapped the sneakers in plastic on the wall. That was the first time I remember seeing the Air Jordan IIs and thinking – I’ve never seen a sneaker so fucking crazy. They had the ones with the white upper, black midsole and black laces. At the time I played JV basketball, and the first time I wore them everyone was going nuts. With those sneakers, I feel like that was the first time someone said “we’re going to try something just completely crazy”.
That’s when I understood: this is design, you can express yourself and you can do something very different with it. At that time I was around 12, and that was also the same time I bought my first Hip Hop album – the Run DMC’s third album. It’s interesting to see those two things happening at the same time, an expression of culture and design.
Billy The first time that I really felt connected with a brand was with Nike around 1977. I was around 8 years old, and at that time, the only place you could find Nikes was in core running stores, like geeked out weird core running stores.
That connection with Nike came from playing on the little league team and older kids having jokes on my shoes. When you’re a little kid, your parents take you to a shoe store, and they pick out your shoes, so you wear whatever Mom puts on your feet. So that was the first time I realized that shoes had status, they meant something cool. That day I went home thinking “I gotta get those Nikes”.
But the thing was, back then Nike was hard to find, and they only had 2 or 3 models you could buy. But the ones I wanted was the Waffle Racer looking ones in blue with the yellow swoosh. When my parents finally got them in my size, they weren’t exactly like the ones I wanted because they had a light blue swoosh. But I was like “that’s so cool, I got the Nikes!” I went to little league the next day, and I was so proud and psyched to show everyone my Nikes. But all the older kids were mocking me “you’re wearing girl shoes!” I was so small, the only shoes that would fit me were the women’s version. So that was my introduction to shoes (laughs).
As I grew a little bit older, I was into Vans from skateboarding. Back then you could create your own sort of Vans colorways, and that was your flex, we wanted to have cool shoes and interesting colors. I also remember the shell toes – the adidas Superstars. So adidas was it, and then, Stussy was kind of the gold standard of the time, bridging into punk-rock, hip-hop and reggae culture, it was the beginnings of streetwear as we know it.
All of a sudden sneakers were what made your outfit work. You can put everything else together – surf t-shirts, or go to a thrift store and find a cool jacket or whatever, but the sneakers were the anchor, and that always stuck to me. Throughout my whole life, and I’m 50 years old, sneakers are the first thing I think about and the last thing I take off.
“All of a sudden sneakers were what made your outfit work. You can put everything else together – surf t-shirts, or go to a thrift store and find a cool jacket or whatever, but the sneakers were the anchor, and that always stuck to me. Throughout my whole life, and I’m 50 years old, sneakers are the first thing I think about and the last thing I take off.”
You have worked so many years in the fashion and footwear industry. What made you decide to get out of all of that and create Brandblack?
David Just because we were sick of all the cool shoes never making it to market. It was so annoying. You work with so many people that are just there to collect a check. It’s a big company, they just want to get paid, have their lunch, their vacation and get their benefits. And that’s it.
Billy So it’s also less about the product, right? I feel like, especially from a design point of view, you’re really connected to the product, you get excited about it; you’re laying in bed at three o’clock in the morning, you get an idea, you get up, you sketch it down, and you’re excited about it. When you work for a really large company – and this can be anyone from Skechers, to Nike or whoever – at the end of the day, they’re selling products. It’s about how many can we sell and how much money is it going to make. There’s marketing guys, numbers, and everybody else, and from a designer standpoint, all you give a shit about is making really cool, interesting products.
So when you go into that meeting to show your new cool product, and everybody goes “yeah, but this is going to cost too much. We’re gonna get rid of this. Last year, we did that one shoe that had this bottom. So why don’t we take this upper and put it on that bottom?”. And next thing you know, your original pure idea has left the building. And that’s really frustrating for design.
David I’ll say something even more controversial. I can’t think of a single important design, or product or anything that the world has benefited from that was born out of marketing. The marketing’s job is to sell shit. That’s their job, to sell as much as they can to people, to find ways to make them like it, or tell them why they should like it, or convince them that they need it.
I think if your goal is to just create something, I mean, if the product is the most important thing, and you’re trying to change the world or whatever, it’s gonna be hard to do that in a world where you’ve got tons of marketing guys, tons of finance guys, because they just muddy the water. And that’s their job. It’s nothing against them, that is literally their job and it probably keeps the companies alive, I get it.
We had been doing this long enough and we were tired of all that. I didn’t want to do that anymore. If I want, I can go back, get a job and listen to some marketing guy tell me why I need to put fucking sparkles in the shoe.
Billy And you would make a lot more money doing that. And at nine o’clock, you’ll go home to your family. When you have your own company there’s always a lot going on. Right now our phones are going crazy. As soon as we leave here, we’re gonna go right back into email hell. There’s alot to deal with. David It ain’t all fun, but it’s tricky. It’s all about – what are you trying to do? Do you want to just be in the culture and be a part of it? Is that good enough for you? Or do you want to actually say something, or change something? I guess it depends on each person, what do you actually want out of it? So, for us, we wanted more, we wanted to do more, say more and you couldn’t do that in the machines that we were a part of.
“It ain’t all fun, but it’s tricky. It’s all about – what are you trying to do? Do you want to just be in the culture and be a part of it? Is that good enough for you? Or do you want to actually say something, or change something? I guess it depends on each person, what do you actually want out of it? So, for us, we wanted more, we wanted to do more, say more and you couldn’t do that in the machines that we were a part of.”
And what was the idea behind the brand, what did you want to bring that you wern't seeing out there?
Billy David started it, he’s the founder, and I came in shortly after. His background, all the way down to his family, he was a great basketball player who played high level through college, I’m sure he’s still quite good (laughs). And he grew up in high fashion, Paris fashion. So it was obvious that those two ideas that were entrenched in his basic nature, would eventually come out.
So when I got involved, that was his initial idea. He framed it initially as fashion and basketball, specifically, because his design background is in basketball performance. But as we started talking about it, it was really clear to see that, although it wasn’t really pronounced yet in the world, it was definitely a combination of sports performance and fashion, especially for men.
And you really didn’t see that at the time, even Kanye was a really good way for those two ideas to instantly come together. And everybody got it.
David Although I would argue that, you don’t see Yeezys on court. You don’t see runners running in Yeezys. It’s still a fashion item that happens to have the technologies of a performance sneaker but not necessarily functional. Y-3 was supposed to be that. But nobody is running in Y-3s.
And even Jordans back in their day were significantly more expensive than anything else, and that’s probably how they got to fashion – because they were status. Now, very few people are actually balling in them. Now take Ferrari for exemple, it makes performance cars that are track ready. And they’ll even do limited edition versions that are even more gnarly, right? You buy a Ferrari knowing that it will perform at the highest level on the track. Most people will never take it on the track, but it will perform on the track. That’s the important part, and that’s the key for what Brandblack is. Whereas some brands are making products that you couldn’t do the sport in the space that they’re in, it wouldn’t work. We have some shoes like the Moonraker which are pure fashion, but if we label our shoes as performance, they are pure performance and engineered as such.
Billy And there’s a performance value and an innovation piece in everything that we do, for example. This is our version of a vulcanized shoe but the world doesn’t need another Chuck Taylor or Vans, we wanted to have a shoe that fit in that zone that was from our brand because I like just a simple vulcanized shoe. We played around with the idea of doing one but it never seemed a correct fit. Why would we do it? Because we want to make money out of it? Or to fill another really crowded space with another version of something that’s never gonna be better than a pure Converse?
So Vibram showed us this technology called Wrap technology, and it looked nothing like that. Here’s a really different and possibly unwearable idea, but what we saw within that was opportunity. No other factory can make this, and we work with one of the biggest factory groups in Asia. They told us they actually want to stop making this tech because it’s so hard to do. But this is our version of the simple vulcanized shoe, that’s impossible for anybody else to do. And that’s the kind of stuff we love to make.
So I guess what I’m saying is everything we do, there’s an element in it that has a performance value, or some innovation to it. We don’t want to just make another product that looks like a version of something that’s already out there. We want to do something that’s never been done.
David And let’s not forget the unsung heroes that we’re not talking about – the engineers. They are as important as the designers, they make the crazy ideas work. And if you leave an engineer to himself, they will come up with something that looks so fucking crazy, and that shifts the paradigm. There’s something beautiful about engineers because they’re just looking at solutions. And to me, if you just design for the sake of design, it means nothing. To me it’s more interesting when, like Wrap Tech, you have a new way of building products, it’s a different way of doing things, you know. So I think it’s why we like to make functional products, because there’s something really cool about sort of being led by functional challenges that you have to deal with.
But the designers in us liked the fact that there’s a part of what makes vulcanized shoes cool, is that they’re rough. They’re not perfect. Nowadays everything’s so perfect. It kind of loses some character, a human touch to it, you know? That’s what got us excited about this technology.
“Now take Ferrari for exemple, it makes performance cars that are track ready. And they’ll even do limited edition versions that are even more gnarly, right? You buy a Ferrari knowing that it will perform at the highest level on the track. Most people will never take it on the track, but it will perform on the track. That’s the important part, and that’s the key for what Brandblack is. Whereas some brands are making products that you couldn’t do the sport in the space that they’re in, it wouldn’t work. We have some shoes like the Moonraker which are pure fashion, but if we label our shoes as performance, they are pure performance and engineered as such.”
It's really interesting how you both come from different backgrounds, you're both creatives, and you work together to create these amazing products. How does the dynamic between you two work?
David It’s tension, which is key. (laughs)
Billy And respect.
David Yes. So, if an artist doesn’t have somebody to fight against, argue with, then the work becomes uninteresting. And when an artist becomes too powerful, and they can do whatever they want, the work always suffers. I’m not going to name those artists, but we can all think about who they are.
You need somebody to challenge you, to push you, to make you question yourself, you need somebody to fight against and be like “fuck him, I’m gonna show him”. We live for that, and that tension is important. If you don’t have that, the work is mediocre. You need somebody to check your ego, it’s the most important thing.
You guys have done some really amazing shoes over the years, so why out of all the Brandblack sneakers, you chose the Kaiju, MOONRAKER and Tabi for the interview?
David So I chose Kaiju and MOONRAKER because it’s a perfect example of both arms of Brandblack. It’s performance, fashion and how they can coexist. And then the Rare Metal II, which is our latest basketball shoe, would sit right in the middle of these two, it’s the transition. I think each one represents a pillar of what we believe in.
I think that the Kaiju, the running shoe, maximal lightweight, supercritical foam, has a Kevlar sheeting in it instead of a carbon shank. Super technical and advanced. That’s probably a great example of our performance on the sports side. It was our first real high level shoe, and we put a lot of time and effort into it, and we actually sent it to quite a few running blogs that have given us feedback. We changed the design, the mold, we really spent a lot of time, effort and money on this shoe to get it as high as we could. And we’re pretty proud of that.
And then the MOONRAKER represents the fashion side. It’s obviously an homage to the Air Force One, but done in such a specific and unique way. It’s done in a factory Portugal, so it’s very high level with beautiful materials and finishing.
Billy I brought the Tabi because at that time it was something really unique to the brand and even unique to the world. I was in Copenhagen for Fashion Week, and I met this designer Willy Chavarria. We connected and had similar ideas about fashion and the industry, product ect. We decided to do a collaborative capsule of apparel around racial equality, gender, all these sorts of topics that are huge topics today. So we built this capsule of apparel around them and, being a footwear brand, we felt like we had to top that capsule off with some footwear product that made sense for Willie’s world. When I met him the first time he was wearing Tevas (sandals) with socks, like a German tourist, and doing it in such a fashionable way (laughs). He was just rocking it, the way he wore that was so unique.
When we were putting it together, I was talking to David, and we were working on the Gama, a shoe we did that was made using a circular knit. “What if we take the Vibram bottom, the strapping, and put the two ideas together to make Willie’s crazy shoe, but in a technical way?”. So we did that. And that’s the reason I brought this shoe, because I felt like it says something about the brand and how we look at a product, and try to challenge ourselves into making it something interesting. We DWR (durable water repellent) coated it so it’s water resistant, it’s antimicrobial, there’s all kinds of components in it even though we don’t really see them all, it’s very quiet. When we first brought it out, everybody said, “you guys made a shoe with a sock?”. It’s harder to make them looks (laughs).
And for the future, are there any plans of opening a Brandblack store?
Billy We’re small in manpower, there’s five people that work for Brandblack total, and we’re small in the sense that all the money that we make, goes back to the company to expand. And as you know, footwear is very expensive, molds cost a lot of money. There’s just a lot of logistics that goes along with it, so it’s tough.
For me, that’s the reason there aren’t a lot of small shoe brands, there’s a million apparel companies, but not a lot of small footwear brands. The big guys, they do it well, and they’ve got the factories, the means, they’ve got the right people. So everything that we do has to be small. About opening our own store, we’d love to. That’s in the business plan, but the world has to normalize a bit first. I don’t really love selling in the old retail model anyways, so I think a mono store makes total sense because you control the narrative, you control the identity of the brand.