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On the heels of yet another collaborative release with Reebok, entrepreneur-turned-brand strategist Rick Williams is a man that wears many hats. Introduced to the world of retail in 2007, Williams linked with ace Roland Coit to purchased the previously established Detroit-based sneaker shop Burn Rubber with hopes of bridging the global community of sneakerheads with the resurging Michigan metropolis. Now a staple among both, Burn Rubber has become the leading source for the latest and greatest in footwear as well as street apparel in a city that is looking to return to its glory days of economic development. In 2010, Rick then launched his brainchild creative agency DISTINCT LIFE with focuses on both branding and design for a wide array of organizations. A brand that encompasses all of his projects under one neat umbrella, Williams can be seen designing identities for various startups, creating imaginative marketing plans for Fortune 500 companies as well as designing apparel for his own line of Distinct Life Dry Goods. With DISTINCT LIFE’s Reebok Ventilator slated to drop April 6, Rick Williams sits down with the HYPEBEAST staff for a second time to discuss footwear, his various ventures, Big Sean, the revitalization of Detroit, working with Reebok, and much more.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Rick Williams, owner of the DISTINCT LIFE and co-owner of a sneaker shop called Burn Rubber based in metro Detroit.
Where does your original love of footwear stem from?
Much like most of my peers growing up, I fell in love with sneakers at an early age. I can still remember the first pair of “real” sneakers I owned, the Black/Infrared Jordan 6’s when I was 11 years old. From that point on I’ve been hooked.
You’ve also started something a little different with DISTINCT LIFE. What exactly is it?
The DISTINCT LIFE is a creative agency that I created back in 2010. At the DISTINCT LIFE we focus a lot on branding and design. We have a very diverse client base. On any given day we could be designing shoes for a prominent footwear brand, creating a brand campaign for a Fortune 500 automotive company, or designing a new line of Distinct Life Dry Goods branded products. Quite simply, the DISTINCT LIFE is the brand for all of my design projects and design work.
“At the DISTINCT LIFE we focus a lot on branding and design. On any given day we could be designing shoes for a prominent footwear brand, creating a brand campaign for a Fortune 500 automotive company, or designing a new line of Distinct Life Dry Goods branded products.”
Rick Williams on the DISTINCT LIFE
What has been some of your biggest roadblocks in the early years? Big Sean helped a lot in enabling you to gain visibility in the earlier years, how was that relationship before and how is it now?
Like any new entrepreneur, there are always roadblocks in the beginning. Two that stand out to me are the actual purchase of Burn Rubber by my partner and I in 2007 and then when I first started to pursue design clients with the creation of the DISTINCT LIFE. Building up my own brand and learning how to run a business and manage things like cash flow and employees at same time was a tough but invaluable and rewarding learning experience.
With respect to Sean, first and foremost, he is a real friend of mine. Our relationship started way before either of us was fortunate enough to experience any of our successes. Before Sean had become a household name, he was a regular at our Burn Rubber sneaker shop along with Mike Posner and other up-and-coming Detroit artists as Burn Rubber was (and is) a hang out place of sorts. We just built up a friendship from there and it was only natural for Sean to rock the Burn Rubber brand, and at the same time for us to help get his music out into hands of more people. Clearly as Sean’s career began to take off, the awareness of the Burn Rubber name and brand increased as well.
I am very proud of the career Sean has made for himself and how he is carrying the Detroit flag. Sean and I just had a long conversation the other day and had an opportunity to get caught up on a number of things. We definitely have plans of working together again in the near future so be on the lookout.
In the last few years, Detroit has been subjected to a lot of glorification of its demise (i.e. “Ruin Porn”). How did you feel about this?
I feel like there are a lot of cities that have desolate areas but clearly Detroit has had more than its fair share of hard times in recent years. At the same time, Detroiters are a resilient and proud group. I choose to be optimistic about the current situation and look at all of the positive things that Detroit has to offer.
Where do you see the city of Detroit now in terms of revitalization and growth?
There is a tremendous amount of momentum right now to move the city in the right direction as Detroit is filled with people who are VERY passionate about it and how it is represented. We’ve seen an infusion of young creative and artistic talent migrate to Detroit. At the same time, there are a lot of technology & startup companies setting up shop in Detroit creating a tipping point of sorts for other companies and young professionals to migrate here. I truly believe in 5 years we will be talking about the “Miracle of Detroit” and its turnaround.
Rick Williams, owner of the DISTINCT LIFE and co-owner of a sneaker shop called Burn Rubber based in metro Detroit.
What are your thoughts on the current streetwear and sneaker scene?
I feel like things continue to evolve. Designers are continuously finding more creative uses for different materials and applications. I think that the culture as a whole is in a good place.
I also think the lines between what is considered “streetwear” and fashion/clothing overall are starting to be blurred, and I believe that is a good thing. I don’t think we should put a box around what we do and what we’re about. Similarly, I think the way that HypeBeast has expanded its subject areas is another reflection on the culture moving in a direction that has fewer labels and is more inclusive.
How would you define the local streetwear and sneaker community?
Similarly I would say the Detroit culture is increasingly open-minded and expanding their sights on different brands, products and styles.
How does it differ from other parts of America and the world?
I don’t see a big difference between the culture in Detroit versus other major markets. I can tell you though that Detroit is a big supporter of their own. I am fortunate to have a core group of friends, colleagues, and customers in the Detroit area that have supported the DISTINCT LIFE and its projects since day 1.
What’s your aesthetic toward design?
When I approach a project I have a list of criteria in my mind. I like to see the project end up as something that people can enjoy for years. I try to stay away from trends and focus on my gut and what feels right. I also have an affinity for the small things in life so when I design, I tend to focus on small discoverable details. I want the consumer to appreciate the product after they take it home and get a chance to check it out. In terms of an overall design aesthetic, in one word, “clean.”
You’ve diversified beyond just footwear into other platforms, how do you approach these differences in execution?
In many respects, whether I’m designing a shoe, an article of clothing, or a brand campaign for a new company, the formula is the same. I first try to embrace the roots and heritage of the brand, company, or product I am designing for. I next strive for introducing small, subtle details that authentically represent the brand. Lastly, I try to introduce design elements that will last the test of time and to the extent possible, stay away from “trends that are here and gone.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to extend this design philosophy to a number of different platforms beyond footwear in the last year or so. For example, I recently partnered with a company that specializes in vehicle wraps to create the DISTINCT LIFE Car Wrap Collection. Through DISTINCT LIFE, I’ve also had the opportunity to design a number of consumer goods with various partners including an iPad tablet holder (COMPLEX) and custom playing cards (BICYCLE) among others.
Footwear is definitely a passion and focal point for myself and the DISTINCT LIFE, but it’s not the only thing. I enjoy taking on new projects and diversifying my design experiences and subjects.
“When I approach a project I have a list of criteria in my mind. I like to see the project end up as something that people can enjoy for years. I try to stay away from trends and focus on my gut and what feels right.”
DISTINCT LIFE x Reebok Ventilator
Reebok is a prominent collaborator in your history, what is it about Reebok that draws you in?
When I look at a partner to work with on a project, I look at their relevance to the culture. Reebok has been one of the major footwear brands for as long as I can remember. They have some pretty impressive defining moments in sneaker culture.
It has been an honor to be chosen as a part of Reebok’s Affiliate program and to help Reebok continue to push the boundaries of design, innovation and authentically speaking to our culture.
How would you define the design of The Distinct Life x Reebok “TDL Camo” Ventilator?
I designed the shoe to feature TDL’s proprietary camouflage pattern debossed into rich maroon soft full grain leather, tan mesh and a gum sole. This shoe is a TDL project showcasing my personal brand outside of my Burn Rubber retail platform. It was important for me to have a platform that is expressive of my own likes in terms of design. The BAU component is call out to my friendship and affiliation with Frank the Butcher and BAU with lace lock and embroidery hits. It’s a TDL shoe first and foremost, just shouting out my crew. All family.
What can we look forward to seeing from Reebok in the near future?
The just Reebok x DISTINCT LIFE Ventilator is my first DISTINCT LIFE branded sneaker project. I really put a lot of design hours into making this classic shoe silhouette new and relevant to today’s consumer. Some of the unique features of this shoe include the subtle embossing the DISTINCT LIFE proprietary camouflage pattern into leather of the shoe and a custom designed foot bed and collar line.
Beyond that, Reebok and DISTINCT LIFE have some big projects on the horizon that I am not at liberty to share publicly just yet. So you’re going to have to stay tuned for that. Follow me and I’ll keep you posted. (Twitter/Instagram: @rickwlms)
“When I look at partner to work with on a project I look at their relevance to the culture. Reebok has been one of the major footwear brands for as long as I can remember.”
Rick Williams on Reebok