With only two days left to visit the ’47 Brand and Black Fives pop up store in East London’s iconic Trueman Brewery, we caught up with founder of the non profit organisation bringing the history of African-American Basketball teams to light. Claude Johnson speaks about the humble beginnings of his foundation, the values it aims to teach a new generation of pioneering athletes both in America and internationally and the long term partnership the Black Fives have with premium Sports Lifestyle brand ’47 Brand.
Both The Black Fives Foundation and ’47 Brand not only aim to create apparel that digs into the most historical basketball teams, dating back to 1904 but aim to ‘Make History Now’ with exclusive pieces made available only in selected premium American stores and online.
Black Fives is a non profit foundation, what was the incentive to start it?
It started out as a commercial entity, called Black Fives Inc. but over the years I’d get called into schools and I didn’t want to charge schools to come in and talk to the students. I always had an arm of the organisation that was philanthropic and the Black Fives found would go into the community and do projects in the cities where these earlier teams once played. That would be Los Angeles, Chicago, DC, Cleveland, Harlem and Brooklyn. Eventually it just felt better to say, lets start over and morph this into a non profit, charitable organisation. That’s what we did in the beginning of 2013.
We donated all of our assets, which would be an archive of artefacts. Its the leading archive of this history in the world actually. Also the trademarks, Intellectual Property assets and logos, we’ve donated all of those assets of the old company and dissolved the company. So now its just purely non profit. What’s nice about that is, it just feels better and it aligns better. Suddenly from that decision the Brooklyn Nets contacted us because they were opening the Barclays Centre. They asked if we had any archives that were related to Brooklyn based African-American basketball imagery, so we put together a compilation for them and they ended up blowing them up to life-size murals and installing them permanently in the concourse of the arena. Anyone that goes there will see these beautiful images. Over the years I was in touch with as many of the descendants of these pioneers, including anybody that was in these images, the Nets allowed us to invite them to the Barclays centre at the unveiling of these images. About forty descendants were put up in the owners suit of the centre and they invited us all down to centre court during half-time, there was a plaque of awards and recognition.
Off of that we got into the New York Times and gained lots of press coverage as a result of that. The New York Historical Society museum contacted us and asked for artefacts because they were looking in looking at our collection. I didn’t know at the time that, I’d say know with confidence, we have this leading archive but, I didn’t know at the time what we had was special. I brought it all in and the NYHS museum were taken aback by the collection we had and wanted to work together on something. It all ended in a four month long exhibition in a bonafide museum, which that exhibition then got a full page superb review in the New York Times museum section.
And the irony of it all, based off that, ’47 found out. In the early days when I was still trying to do all of this I went to companies like Mitchell and Ness, Ebbets Field and Stall and Dean to try and find out if they’d be interested in licensing this archive I had; none of them were really interested at the time. But they were always friendly and would help with resources and a guy that used to work at Mitchell and Ness, Jared Wheeler is now the first-ever Sports Historian at ’47. So’47 was looking at different possibilities of getting into urban lifestyle and beyond but still within a sports realm. They put together a compilation of different choices and from those meetings they decided on us, which was a real honour and thrill for us. I got a call from Ryan (’47 Brands Consumer Marketing Manager), out of the blue, they came to the exhibition and we’ve since created a long term agreement which is more like a partnership. Its not just one collaboration for a store or a once off season. A collabo for me is like when Jay-Z makes a track with Drake or J Cole, this isn’t just for one album its multiple seasons we’re going to create together.
There’re a couple of things which are really unique about our partnership. One is, I’m fairly certain that we’re the only Sports license property in existence, thats a charitable, non profit one. I don’t think there’s anyone else out there like us, so that’s an industry first.This whole genre, is our brand, Black Fives branding but there are multiple teams that go with it. When I first discovered this history, I trademarked all the names and logos so it became this portfolio of Intellectual Property. I was trying to get people interested in this, I mean we did a program with Nike which was fantastic but short lived. We did something with Converse, which was also short lived, so this is the first time we’ve collaborated on something this long term. What ’47 did was so innovative with this collaboration because they identified seven amazing boutique retailers and asked each of them to create their own interpretation of that cities historical team from our archives, it wasn’t just that they sent our a jersey or singlet with a one design aspect, for example all the jersey’s having the team logo in one place. Each city had free reign to design whatever they wanted, so some jersey’s have two logos some, have different insets or just one logo, the development of that is pretty amazing. Also, the mere fact that they chose those particular retailers is incredible, because those specific retailers are the legends in their field, they’re all at the top of their game. Even at the New York launch, some of their mentors were there, to put all those people under one roof was amazing. These aren’t just apparel boutiques, these are the boutiques that stock the most sought after limited and exclusive items.
When you see the line, it looks like an amazing arrangement of different looks, not just a range of jersey’s in different colourways. The reason why that’s so important is because in America anyway, the consumer first looks for queues from these retailers and from there the word spreads about the a specific brand or collection, like ours. Usually what brands try to do is create a line and hope these retailers will pick it up, and some won’t for whatever reason. But what ’47 have done is give each of these boutiques the incentive to own a part of this because they’ve created it too, it’s like their own baby and they’re all proud of the collection they’ve created.
The irony is I’m still in an office at home, I want all fans of hip-hop, creative pursuits and kids to know that you can do something like this and literally be in your flat. All you need is a computer and some love that goes towards a topic and endurance because I’ve been doing this since 1996.
With the collection have Black Fives had any design input, apart from providing the imagery and the archive materials that are being used?
Through our partnership there’s an agreement and a system where we have to approve their designs and use of our Intellectual Property. Even though I have a background in merchandising from working in the NBA as part of their licensing department, Nike’s basketball category, working with Russell Simmons’ Phat Farm as an exec there and marketing for Benetton Sports System, I certainly feel like I have a desire to work with the design team. But I didn’t want to dictate to the guys at ’47 how to design everything because I’m not close enough to it. They do this everyday, I can only suggest some things from time to time.
Is this the first time Black fives have had an ongoing collaboration with another brand?
We’ve had Nike, where they did the Nike Airforce 1, 2 and 3, the Dunk, Legend, Blazer all in Black Fives teams with accompanying fitted caps, T-shirts, hoodies and other accessories for two seasons. We’ve never done anything this long term and never with this comprehensive roll out.
How are all your archives for Black Fives collected?
What’s so fascinating about this archive is for years I’ve been discovering this history. It was in 1996 when the NBA was celebrating its 50th anniversary, they published an 800-page book called ‘The Encyclopaedia of Bascketball’. In those 800 pages there were only 3 pages devoted to the black teams that played before the NBA, but I knew that there were dozens more because I read a book by Arthur Ashe, the tennis legend called The Hard Road to Glory: A History Of The African American Athlete, in it he had mentioned these teams and that’s what triggered me to search this history. The Hall of Fame didn’t know, nobody knew anything about these teams. While I was discovering this history through looking at micro-newspapers in the library I was also searching ebay and I’d find that I was the only one bidding on these items because nobody knew about them. I’d usually bid what I thought the value of that specific item was to me, be it a $1,000 or 99c and almost all the time I’d win bids for 99c. People still don’t understand the value of this archive like they do that of Baseball. Luckily, we are now in a position where we have a budget for acquisitions now.
Black Fives is about preserving, teaching and engaging kids in the history of Basketball pioneers and teaching them the same values and life skills such as; teamwork, discipline and so on.
Finally, what’s been your highlight of your trip to London so far?
Discovering Shoreditch. The vibrancy, the expression and creativity of the people, through the street art and retailers. And of course the pop up shop, seeing all that in full life and meeting the global team of ’47, they’re from everywhere, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Korea , Scandinavian countries, the US obviously, Germany and the UK. They have this amazing strategy, their owner came here to talk about the strategy of how Black Fives fits into this bigger picture for the company, they’re here to stay.
The pop up store will be open until this Sunday, 21st of June at The Old Truman Brewery, Unit 8, Dray Walk.