“Tonguegate.” That’s what Chris Gibbs, the owner of tastemaking retailer Union L.A., calls the bizarre sneaker-world controversy he found himself in last month. The problems started when Gibbs’s new Union x Jordan Brand collaborative shoe—a funky, tropical take on the legendary 4—leaked in mid-July. All the focus zeroed in on those couple of inches underneath the laces. The tongue, which typically pops up on the 4, licking the wearer’s shins, was folded down. For longtime fans of Jordans, it was nothing less than heresy. “We were getting obliterated,” Gibbs says.
There was reason for the heightened expectations. The brands’ first collaboration, a patched-together version of the Air Jordan 1, was one of the hottest shoes of 2018: outlets like Complex and Bleacher Report put it near the very top of their year-end lists, and it still sells for close to $2,000 on secondary sites. That meant the circumstances around the second release were completely different. It didn’t matter if the shoe came in blue, red, chartreuse, or the “guava” and black colorways it’s being released in. It didn’t matter if the tongue flopped out of the shoe’s mouth like Jordan’s famous wagging celebration, or if Gibbs lost it entirely. For many people judging the shoe, it looked like nothing more than a Vegas chip: an item they could trade in for thousands of dollars. “They’re ass but I can’t wait to see the ‘these are growing on me’ posts when ppl hit on them lol,” a Reddit user wrote in response to the initial leaked photos. The still-unreleased shoe perfectly explains the machinations of current sneaker culture: the way shoes are judged, how much aesthetics and design even matter anymore in the context of ultra-scarce grails, and the religious fervor and dedication to provenance that separates the good shoes from the bad.
Tonguegate, for all its trouble, was a blessing in disguise for the ever-optimistic Gibbs. The outrage led to some last-minute adjustments. The sneakers were reshot, with pictures that emphasized the ability to unstitch the tongue. The new tongue alone shifted the tide of public opinion; it also offered a viable reason for flip-floppers who were initially out on the shoes to flop back in.
Leaked pictures of a single Jordan 4 stole all the spotlight, but the new project between Gibbs and Jordan is mammoth. In addition to the two 4s, Gibbs remixed a couple of Jordan’s newer models: a black AJ Delta Mid and guava AJ Zoom ‘92. There is a large collection of clothing, with cozy coach’s jackets and T-shirts printed with images of Jordan’s famous from-the-free-throw-line dunk. The centerpiece of the campaign is a short anime film. But the most pathbreaking portion of the project is Gibbs’s focus on helping local black-owned businesses: he’s letting them handle the allocation of raffle tickets to determine who gets the shoes, and paying them royalties from sales.
We caught up with Gibbs the day after the official images for his shoes—the ones showing the tongues fully unfurled—were released.
Are you feeling vindicated today?
I feel better. I’m usually pretty good at avoiding the trolls. When photos [of the shoes] leaked, I went on all the different blogs and we were getting obliterated. So that was tough.
I believe in the design of this shoe wholeheartedly. So I never was worried about that. The reality was this is a really dope shoe and I’m behind it 100%. But I did start to get concerned that perception would overtake reality. And if people perceive the shoe to not be good, despite never even seeing it, or touching it, or even seeing the real images… Because at that time the images that had gotten out were so bad we literally had a joke around the office like, “We should DM the guy who’s posting these images and send them a better camera.”
You know how America doesn’t negotiate with terrorists? Nike has a we-don’t-react-to-leaks policy. So there was the reaction: What do we do? It’s really bad. I could have done it if I wanted, they wouldn’t have stopped me, but they were at least trying to ask me not to react. We had a calendar set and the calendar was for us to start our communications on [August 6th]. So we had to wait it out.
One of the things that the leaks forced me to recognize is like, as much as you like the tongue the way you’ve designed it, a lot of people don’t. The good news is we designed it in a way where you can have the best of both worlds. And we were able to take additional shots in that period and highlight the fact that you can reveal the tongue for those who need to have their tongue revealed.
Why do you think there was such a strong reaction? People really lost their shit about the tongue being folded in that way.
This is the gift and curse and it’s much, much more of a gift than it is a curse. For Brand Jordan, the first 15 shoes are legends, they’re grails. The first five shoes are probably the most coveted designs of the 20th century. And people have grown up with those and they don’t want people messing with them. I respect that and that’s something that I’m always mindful of. How can you fix perfection? But I’m also like, “Well, if I’m doing a collaborative design, I want to bring my view to things.” And with that tongue in particular, I’m being honest, I would fold that tongue over and tie it down, like kind of choke it with the lace, because it was too high for the way I like to wear my shoes. That’s a very personal touch. We’re trying to have some fun. We’re trying to do something different. We’re trying to come with our own point of view. And that’s why I wasn’t really concerned about people not liking what we did. I get it: you want the 4 the way it’s always been made and you can get that. Maybe this just isn’t for you.
Totally, but you must have foreseen that people would be upset, and that’s why you included that detail where you can undo the stitching.
I’m gonna be really, really honest with you. One of the things I really appreciate about these collaborations is it’s a true collaboration. There’s a team of designers in Portland that I work with, and it’s not just me coming in saying, “I want this.” Maybe I have first right of refusal, or at least they like to make me think I do. I come in with my overarching ideas, but it’s very collaborative.
They saw that right away [there’d be a problem with the tongue], because I came in saying, “Let’s chop the damn tongue off!” That’s where I started. So if it were up to me, there would be no unstitching and unfolding, there’d be a short tongue and people would be hating. So I got to give kudos to them. Compromise is often used as a bad word, but in this case it ended up being a good thing.
If you’re going to do a collaboration, especially if you’re going to take a shoe like the 1 or the 4, there’s no reason to just make a couple tweaks, because in a lot of people’s minds you’re never going to improve on the original one. So you might as well do it in a “guava” colorway and change the tongue.
Yeah, we’ve messed with this shoe in a way that I think was slightly uncomfortable for some of the people in Portland [where Nike is headquartered]. So, the other thing that was in my mind was like, Hey, there are people in Portland who might not like what we’ve done and are waiting—maybe not waiting for us to fail, I don’t think people are rooting against us—but waiting to be like, “Told you you shouldn’t have messed with that. And now for your next potential project, we’re gonna pull the reins in a little bit.” So, I wasn’t worried about sales, I wasn’t worried about offending anybody. But I was worried about the fact I want to do a future project with Jordan and I want to have the same freedom I’ve had to date. Because for the most part, it’s been a really awesome experience and they’ve given me a lot of freedom. We’re working on other projects as we speak and there are some wacky Chris Gibbs’s ideas in the mix that might get preemptively struck down because of the whole tonguegate.
After having a shoe that was so beloved the way your Jordan 1 was, how does that affect the design of the second shoe. Are you more confident having done that? Are you more worried? Like, oh, God, now I have to live up to the hype.
I was more worried. People love that shoe. I love it too, don’t get me wrong, but they love it more than I do. How are you gonna follow that up? You can’t come out with like an okey-doke shoe and it’s a lot of pressure.
Do you feel like people are thinking about this shoe in a totally different way, too? With the first, you’re just coming out with a shoe you think is really dope and that you’re excited about and then it accrues this resale value but it didn’t come out with that kind of expectation. But people are only evaluating that shoe on a design level. Has that changed because now people are seeing it not just as this great sneaker, but they’re starting point is considering the resale value because they’re like, It’s a Union shoe, that means that if I buy it I can resell it and make X amount of profit?
Yeah, I was aware of that through the whole process: there are now going to be expectations on this that are unavoidable. It’s the gift and the curse; heavy is the head that wears the crown, and I can’t complain about it. We had a great shoe and people loved it and people supported it, the support and love for that shoe begat a second opportunity. The same people who hate on the tongue are the same people that gave me the opportunity to make this shoe. So I can’t really be that mad at them.
Do you have a problem with that value system where people are judging it less for the design and more for what they can sell it for? Or do you think I’m inflating the amount of people who are doing that?
No, I don’t think you’re inflating it. I think that’s a part of the world that I’ve grown up in: streetwear, supply and demand, limited availability. I’m kind of very comfortable with it, it’s pretty much the only world I’ve known for my whole adulthood.
There’s a couple different ways you could look at this. If you can make something and you put a value to that thing—an honest value—and you put it out in the world the value becomes four and five times that, that’s a pretty damn good feeling.
And if you want to look at it in a positive way it is definitely a factor in driving desirability around a shoe.
Yeah, you can’t separate the two. I can’t sit here and be like, “Fuck the resellers” and then be like, I want 20,000 likes or whatever the number.
They go hand in hand.
It honestly doesn’t apply to me as a designer, though. I’m not designing this shoe with any consideration to resale value. I’m designing it with consideration to sell. I want them to sell. I want them to sell out quickly.
You brought up sort of like an athlete cheering you on and how there’s a little bit of that in design. Does this feel competitive to you at all like, you had one of the best sneakers of the year when the 1s came out and now you’re trying to repeat?
Feel free to call my bullshit, and maybe I’m not being honest with myself, but I’m not really competitive. And the example I’ll give you is that for two years in a row now I actually had to follow Virgil [Abloh]. Virgil did the 1 then I followed with the 1. Virgil just launched his 4 and now I’m following with a 4. There’s a lot of reasons as to why that is. I won’t lie, a small part of me somewhere is like, “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to keep following Virgil. I wish I was on my own track.” But that being said, fully transparently, with the 1, I knew he was doing it and I had an open opportunity to do something different and I chose the 1 because that’s the shoe that I really wanted to work on. And the question was asked in the room in Portland, “Hey, are you sure you want to do a 1 because Virgil’s about to do a 1.” And I was like, “Yeah, I really want to do a 1.” He’s a tough act to follow but I’m not competitive—I’m speaking to you now wearing his 4s, not mine.
Explain to me what is bad about following Virgil. That you would get lost?
I suppose if I’m always doing a shoe after he does one, people might perceive that as me, like, following him. And somehow, I don’t know, copying him or not being as original as I feel I am.
I’ll say the overarching factor is typically Jordan has a shoe for a year that they’re giving energy to. And they draw on their quiver of designers to do their thing to that shoe. So I don’t think it’s gonna stop. And Virgil is, deservedly, probably their number-one collaborative partner. Maybe Travis [Scott] is number one and Virgil is number two. So, for my relationship with Jordan, I should probably just get comfortable with like, I’m the third. Maybe! That’s giving myself a lot of credit. But whatever, I’m gonna come after Virgil every season and that’s just what it’s going to be and I’m already comfortable with it.
To launch the shoe, you’re doing an initiative with five black businesses to handle the raffle for the shoe. Tell me more about that.
This shoe and this collection has been in design for almost two years. This release date was predetermined a while ago. Obviously, the world kind of went crazy in the last four months, and it changed some things for the better. People are going to see this now they’re going to think that it happened because of George Floyd, which definitely colored it. But the idea we landed on was really born out of COVID. I was sitting around my home and COVID feeling relatively comfortable that I could survive, feeling relatively privileged. And realizing like, “Yo, my community, my people, African-Americans in this country, are getting really, really hurt because of COVID and here I am relatively comfortable so what can I do to help?” I might not be able to come up with the vaccine or solve systemic racism in this country or in this world but what I can do is just start literally in my backyard. Let me start in my community. My wife is a big proponent, and I’ve learned from her that we’ve got to try and do for ourselves as much as possible. We’ve got to support our community. We got to stop looking to these outside forces to help us. They obviously aren’t going to—it’s been 400 years. They’re not going to help.
So we came up with the idea of trying to share our good fortune with other people in our community and pay it forward. But there’s also a call-to-action to other people who might find themselves in a similar position to me. So the name we came up with for the program is Spread Love. I’m an ‘80s, baby, so there’s got to be some hip-hop in there. We picked five independently-owned, black-owned businesses and people who are in a business that’s important to the community. We want to bring awareness to these businesses to hopefully raise their profiles.
Secondarily, the last time we did this release we made maybe 25% of our shoes available to L.A. only and we did that through a physical raffle here. One of the ways I thought it would be good to bring the businesses in would be to have them take part in how we do our raffle. So each business is going to do this in their own way. But just to give you the pie-in-the-sky version it’s like, “Hey, chef Alisa [Reynolds], who owns My Two Cents, sometime in the middle of August anybody who supports your business gets automatically entered into the raffle to purchase the shoes.”
[That’s] more to encourage people to support her business. And then we’re going to compensate them for helping in this project by giving them royalties on the sales of the shoes. Hopefully that allows someone who might have otherwise struggled through this time, and maybe even had to close their doors, to be able to survive and pivot to a better day.
What are the businesses you’re working with?
The businesses we chose are My Two Cents, which is a black-owned restaurant here. We chose Harun Coffee, which is a coffee shop and streetwear store in Leimert Park. We chose Gorilla Life Juice, which is a black-owned juice company and it’s a grandma, a mom, and a daughter, three generations running this company together. The fourth is Son. Studio, which is a really interesting new business. It’s one of the former docents of the Underground Museum owned by this guy named Justin. His father had a barber shop his whole life in South Central, and after going to the Underground and seeing this world of black excellence, he wanted to bring that back to his neighborhood. So imagine a barber shop that’s curated by the Underground. So you go in there and it’s not Sports Illustrated and XXL magazines, or, you know, GQ. It’s beautiful art books on dope artists. Then on the second floor of the barber shop, they have these workshops for people who want to know more about the arts or learn painting. The last business is from Lauren Halsey. She’s an accomplished artist and actually her story inspired mine. She was sitting around and thought, I’m just gonna hunker down [during the pandemic] and make a ton of art. But she was like, “Damn, what about my community?” So she started from scratch a food-donation service for the less privileged where she gives out 600 boxes of organic produce a week. She’s taking donations, but she admitted to me that she’s largely paying for that out of her pocket to make it happen. She’s buying the produce and has volunteers box it up once a week, and then she goes out to distribute it. I gotta tell you, I was boxing it up, and the produce is better than anything I eat on a daily basis. And I’m shopping at Whole Foods.
And this is just the start. We’re already working with Jordan to make Spread Love part of when we collaborate with each other. And I’m really happy that they’ve stepped up. Part of it is obviously giving back to your community and paying it forward. Another part is a call to action. There are other people who can be doing things just like this.
So Spread Love is not just a Union thing. It’s something whoever is collaborating with Jordan can do?
Exactly, yeah. And then the other thing worth noting is that typically the seeding programs go to the celebrities and influencers. We’ve carved out a program where we’re seeding the product to community leaders, first responders, and frontline workers as well. Now, some 60-year-old freedom fighter probably doesn’t want a pair of my Jordans, but younger people would appreciate that. So, we’re trying to offer a 360 program. It’s been a rough couple months, but I’ll tell you, it’s making me think on a bigger level and about bigger issues and I think it’s allowing for this release to be much more impactful.
The new Union x Jordan collaboration drops on Saturday, August 29th.