Sole Mates: Rick Cao, Ky Cao and the Diadora N9000
The P’s & Q’s founders discuss the intersection of music and sneakers, Philadelphia street culture and what owning a store has taught them.
P’s & Q’s is a cornerstone of the Philadelphia sneaker and streetwear community. Founded by brothers Rick and Ky (pronounced “key”) Cao, P’s & Q’s has been open since 2012 and is located smack-dab in the middle of the city’s vibrant South Street district. Apart from offering products from Diadora, New Balance, Stüssy, The Hundreds and more, it’s a community center that has hosted talks with guests like Bobby Hundreds and Aaron Kai, thrown barbecues on its back patio, and, above all else, served as a street culture haven for locals and out-of-towners alike.
Rick and Ky’s passion for streetwear, storytelling and music lead them to open P’s & Q’s — as well as its predecessor Abakus Takeout, an ahead-of-its-time consignment store — and even though they’re deep in the game, those passions are as strong as ever. You can’t encapsulate someone’s entire life in a sneaker, but if Rick and Ky had to do just that, they’d choose two very special Diadora sneakers: the Packer Shoes x Raekwon x Diadora N9000 “Purple Tape” and the Packer Shoes x Raekwon x Diadora N9000 “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.”
For Rick and Ky, the “Purple Tape” and the “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” represent their love of the Wu-Tang Clan, the never-ending pursuit of fresh sneakers, a masterclass on how to weave a story into a design and the best conversation starter you can ask for. In this installment of Sole Mates, HYPEBEAST sat with the P’s & Q’s co-founders in their store and spoke to them about growing up in Philly, the city’s sneaker scene, the joy of wearing something “different” than Nike and adidas and more.
HYPEBEAST: What got you into sneakers?
Rick Cao: Growing up, Ky and I had the privilege of watching guys like Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon play. It was very influential to see NBA legends like that take the court, then go to school the next day and see your classmates wearing their shoes. When we were younger, we didn’t have any Air Jordans. Our parents couldn’t afford to spend over $100 on a single pair of shoes — we came to the US from a refugee camp in Hong Kong when I was one, and my parents were working really hard to take care of their parents, aunts, uncles and everyone else in the family, so something like expensive shoes was out of the question. We’d usually get shoes from Kmart, to be honest.
My first pair of really good sneakers was Dee Brown’s Reebok, the Pump Omni Zone II, and I was so proud of them. At first, I’d even put shopping bags over them when I went outside so they wouldn’t get dirty [laughs]. Then I got older, started working, and began buying everything I wanted as a kid but couldn’t have.
Ky Cao: Just like Rick said, sports, specifically basketball, are really what got me into shoes. It started in middle school, I think. When I went from the crates to the courts, I upgraded my shoes — my first nice pair was Jason Kidd’s Air Zoom Flight 95, which was super expensive at the time. That was the stepping stone for me.
What was the feeling of getting the first “good” pair like? Where you like “this is it, this is a feeling I want to replicate for the rest of my life,” or was it more of an in-the-moment rush?
RC: I definitely remember that feeling. As a kid, you try so hard to fit in. When you finally step out with the “right” shoes, that feeling is amazing. I was just so proud to be wearing nice shoes, because my parents had worked so hard to get them for me. I was like “this is it.” Then I was like “damn, I have to make these last the whole school year!” [laughs]
“We used to wear Diadoras in high school, and now we carry the brand at P’s & Q’s … people will come in to get a pair, and a lot of the time they’ll be like ‘oh man, I used to wear these in high school!’ It’s definitely common ground for us and our customers.”
Tell me about when you first discovered Diadora. Was that a brand you grew up with?
KC: It’s funny for me because we used to wear Diadoras in high school, and now we carry the brand at P’s & Q’s. To see the brand on our shelves is a pretty awesome full-circle moment. People will come in to get a pair, and a lot of the time they’ll be like “oh man, I used to wear these in high school!” It’s definitely common ground for us and our customers.
RC: Back when we were growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the people who wore Diadoras in Philadelphia wanted to be different from everyone else. You’d have people wearing the Reebok Classic, the Top Ten, the Air Force 1, but the Air Force 1 was more of a New York City thing and didn’t really feel “Philly.”
Frankly, a lot of folks who were wearing Diadoras were drug dealers who’d pair them with a fresh tracksuit. Ky and I grew up in the hood in South Philly, and we’d be like “wow, these guys are fly — they’ve got gold chains, fresh tracksuits and crispy Diadoras.” They were the cool guys in the neighborhood.
Let’s talk about the specific Diadoras you two selected, the Raekwon x Diadora N9000 “Purple Tape” and the Raekwon x Diadora N9000 “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” How do sneakers and music come together for you?
RC: At the high school we went to, people were listening to stuff like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I liked that kind of music, but I still remember the first time I heard the Wu-Tang Clan. I went to a basketball game, and this kid popped a Wu-Tang tape into the sound system. The school cut it off eventually, of course, but “C.R.E.A.M.” was blaring for a little while. I was like “what the hell is this? This is fantastic!”
I found out more about Wu-Tang after that, and it really meant a lot to me because growing up Asian was tough at the time. It was almost shameful because we didn’t really have an identity, so it was really cool to see that these guys loved the same kung fu flicks and enjoyed the same type of culture that I did. Ky and I love storytelling in sneakers, and music meshes really well with that, so that’s probably why we gravitated towards the “Purple Tape” and “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” N9000s so much when they dropped: they took us back to a really seminal moment in our lives.
Both of those shoes communicate their inspirations in a very obvious, yet very intricate and highly detailed way, which is hard to do. What do you think the “secret sauce” for nailing a collaboration like that is?
KC: For those shoes in particular, and especially the “Purple Tape,” the attention to detail is really what brings it home. You have the tongue label with the “parental advisory” tag, the A and B hits on the insoles for side one and side two of the tape and way more, everything that was actually present on this really influential cassette. [hands shoe over]
“The right kind of music hits your soul. It’s really cool when that feeling gets translated into a dope shoe like these Diadoras.”
Oh wow, they’re signed too!
RC: They’re even made in Italy, which is a really nice touch. Ky and I had the privilege of visiting the Diadora factory in Italy once, which was a dope experience.
KC: There’s only like 5, 6 guys in there, hand-making each shoe.
RC: When we saw the process behind the product, it made us appreciate the shoes even more. It was very much a family operation, passed down from generation to generation, so that explained why the execution on the “Purple Tape” was so good. People gravitated towards the “Purple Tape” and the “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” because they connected with the albums, and the story of the albums was woven into the sneakers. The right kind of music really hits your soul. It’s really cool when that feeling gets translated into a dope shoe like these Diadoras.
Do you find a shoe like the “Purple Tape” or “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” to be a good conversation piece?
KC: Oh, yeah. Something like that is our common ground. People we do know, people we don’t know — doesn’t matter. It strikes interest and provides a gateway into a good discussion.
RC: I think our generation and your generation will love sneakers and talk about sneakers even in our 50s and 60s. It’s something that will continue to resonate as we get older. When I’m 60, I’ll probably be wearing some chino pants, a regular oxford shirt and something like an N9000. I don’t want to be one of those uncles at the barbecue that tries too hard to be young, but I will always be trying to get fresh. [laughs]
Are you glad that today’s whirlwind of hype, Instagram fit pictures and clout chasing hasn’t swept the brand up? Does that enable you to enjoy it in a more pure fashion?
RC: Diadora definitely isn’t the most hyped brand out today, but every brand has their turn and Diadora also has a lot of classics in its archive so it’ll always look good to those in the know. For a Philly-specific example, look at Mitchell & Ness. It was huge back in the day, and is having a resurgence in recent years as well, but has always had a cult following. Same with Topps baseball cards. Stuff like that is timeless — like that’s a great jersey you’re wearing [nods at interviewer’s Mitchell & Ness Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson jersey].
KC: Our goal at P’s and Q’s has always been to carry everyday shoes. You won’t see any really crazy colors or wild designs here, just good, solid, well-made products. Diadora has always made really high-quality shoes, and I think the pairs we carry fall outside the lines of “hype” and find favor with people who appreciate high quality and good design.
RC: Continuing from what Ky said, we do get special releases sometimes but nobody at the company is allowed first dibs. Our shoes are for the customers. We’d never touch them, because we’d rather let the consumers get them first. We love seeing that joy in their faces. It reminds me of the joy I felt when I got my first pair of Reeboks. We’re always looking for ways to consume less and enjoy more.
It’s often assumed that Philadelphia is an “us against the world” type of place, but when you come here the welcoming nature of the sneaker community is obvious. You’re are tight with the atmos team, the Lapstone & Hammer team, the Suplex team, the Common Ground team and more. Where does the warm nature of the Philly sneaker community come from?
KC: When we got into the game in 2008, our first shop was called Abakus Takeout. The other shops back then didn’t have beef, but they weren’t really cool with each other either — people would spread rumors about their competitors selling fake shoes and other things like that. We wanted to break that cycle of negativity because we felt we had to build together if sneaker culture was going to thrive in Philly.
When Abakus was open, there were probably eight, nine other boutiques in Philly, but retail is a very hard business to be a part of and most of those shops closed. We opened P’s & Q’s in 2012, and have always had a family atmosphere. A few years ago we even did a collaboration T-shirt with Ubiq [now atmos] and Lapstone & Hammer, showing people that we stick together because at the end of the day we’re all from the same community. We also donated 100% of the proceeds from that T-shirt to a local creative high school because we wanted to give back and build up the next generation.
You’re nine years in at P’s & Q’s and almost two decades deep in the game as a whole. Could you have ever seen making this your livelihood as kids, or does it still blow your mind?
KC: This was always what I wanted to do, ever since I was a kid. I used to shop on South Street all the time, even though I couldn’t afford much [laughs]. There were great skate shops like Sub Zero and Inferno, where I’d get Stüssy tees from. When we were doing Abakus Takeout, our dream was to get a Nike account. That didn’t happen, but we really embraced the beauty of other brands at P’s & Q’s and have been living it to the fullest. We have great relationships with Diadora, New Balance, Saucony, ASICS, PUMA and Tretorn, all non-Nike brands.
“The same way that Philly is more than just cheesesteaks, there’s more to sneakers than the biggest brand out there.”
Do you take pride in introducing your customers to new brands?
KC: Totally. The same way that Philly is more than just cheesesteaks, there’s more to sneakers than the biggest brand out there. You wear a fresh pair of Diadoras? You’ll be one of like five kids at your high school rocking them. You want to be rare, you know?
RC: We’re also proud to introduce people to our scene as a whole. We always encourage them to visit Lapstone, atmos, all the other boutiques in town.
KC: If you’re not from Philly and you come to our store, the first thing we’re going to do is give you the whole map on where to go. We’re one of the only cities where shops promote each other and help each other out.
RC: P’s & Q’s is all about the community. We’re here for the people, and that drives everything we do.
Last question: why are sneakers important to you?
KC: Sneakers really set the mood for my day. I have to dress from the feet up, even if I’m working from home. It gets me in my zone, no matter if I’m designing clothes or working on some content for the blog. A nice pair of sneakers help me seize the day.
RC: Sneakers are important to me because everyone needs a foundation, both literally and figuratively. Ky and I were street soldiers when we were younger: we’d walk everywhere, and there’s no better way to walk than in a fresh pair.