Is It the Shoes? Steph Curry Hasn't Made Under Armour Cool Yet

Crossing over into casual fashion takes more than the biggest NBA star and a blizzard of sneakers

Ron Graham woke up on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend thinking about Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry. The 53-year-old put on gray and pink Curry high-tops, a Curry T-shirt, and a somewhat incongruous San Antonio Spurs hat for his trek to the Under Armour store in SoHo in New York City. Already the owner of 15 pairs of Curry’s basketball shoes, he wanted to snag the latest release: a red, white, and blue version selling for $130.

Under Armour, founded two decades ago on workout shirts sold to suburbanites, has been trying for years to push into the sort of sneakers snapped up by the urban shoppers that have long set the standard for cool in athletic footwear. Chief Executive Kevin Plank has set the goal of making Under Armour the "biggest, baddest sports brand on the planet." With the release of the Curry One in February 2015, Under Armour finally had the makings of a crossover.

The debut was superbly timed to the moment Golden State's scrawny guard blossomed into a Most Valuable Player, and the company's star endorser is now vying for a second straight championship against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Under Armour has milked Curry’s success with the release of new styles and colors via launch events, known in the sneaker world as drop dates. There have been approximately 60 different versions of Curry shoes released over the past 17 months.

That’s why Graham, a flower deliveryman who lives in Washington Heights, a mostly Hispanic and black section of Manhattan, was headed to Under Armour’s only New York City store. He arrived 30 minutes before the opening—a long wait is a fixture at high-profile drops by Nike and Adidas—only to find absolutely no line at all.

“I’m a Curry fan,” said Graham. “I love his sneakers.” And what about his friends, his children, his neighbors? “No,” Graham replied. “But I coach basketball in the summertime, and all the kids love Currys.”

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Photograph by Eric Helgas for Bloomberg

Therein lies the promise of Under Armour—and the major hurdle the company faces in its bid to catch Nike, which remains eight times bigger at $32 billion in sales. Under Armour basically sells gear to sporty suburban white kids and their parents. Dick’s Sporting Goods, a suburban superstore mainstay, is the brand's single largest customer. Currys are mostly worn for playing basketball, which is a problem for Under Armour's designs on becoming a casual-fashion staple.

The vast majority of athletic shoes—the industry believes as many as 85 percent—aren’t worn for their intended purpose, according to sportswear analyst Matt Powell at the NPD Group. Sneaker brands take off when they cross into fashion and become everyday footwear, showing up on city streets and, more than ever, in casual-dress offices. Converse’s Chuck Taylor, Nike’s Air Jordan and Air Force 1, and Stan Smith from Adidas stand as famous examples of this pattern. Crossing over opens a brand to new distribution—from department stores, to sneaker boutiques, to children’s shops—and new sales to people who neither play nor care about sports. Under Armour is in roughly 11,000 stores across North America, less than half of Nike’s 24,000.

To put it simply: Currys aren’t cool, at least not yet. Just looked at what happened when Under Armour released a new version of its highest-profile sneaker last week, in the middle of Curry's star turn in the NBA Finals. The all-white low-tops were roundly mocked on social media as better suited for retirees and lame dads.

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Photograph by Eric Helgas for Bloomberg

Even a Golden State fan such as 22-year-old Zak Johnson isn't moved to adopt his hero's shoes. The day after attending Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, in which Curry scored 31 points in a season-saving victory, Johnson was hanging out in downtown San Francisco dressed in a pair of Air Jordans. “If I played basketball, I’d consider them,” he says of Currys. “But just wearing them around, for the price, they’re not really worth it.”

About 10 blocks from the Manhattan Under Armour store is a shop called Flight Club, exactly the sort of sneaker shrine that exemplifies the power of fashion taste in the athletic footwear business. Tourists take selfies amid walls of classic Jordans going for $500. Justin McCray, 29, walked out with $180 Nike Air Prestos. Under Armour wasn't even an option; Flight Club doesn't carry any.

McCray, who won't call himself a sneakerhead, has in the past spent $650 on sneakers from European fashion house Balenciaga. “I like some of Under Armour’s workout clothes, but the sneakers aren’t appealing,” said the union carpenter from Queens. “You can’t really get fresh with an Under Armour sneaker. You get fresh with Jordans. You get fresh with some old-school Adidas.”

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Life as a performance brand has hardly been bad for Under Armour, with sales doubling over the past three years to about $4 billion. Despite slowing down, the company expects almost to double revenue again by 2018, reaching $7.5 billion in time for its 22nd birthday. When Nike was that old, in 1987, it had about $2 billion in inflation-adjusted sales, and the Air Jordan brand was only beginning its rise.

A decade later, after becoming entrenched as a staple of casual fashion, Nike’s revenue surged to about $14 billion. Last year, Nike hit $30 billion in revenue and expects to reach $50 billion in 2020.

“If you go onto the field anywhere in America—soccer fields, baseball fields, football fields—there’s as much Under Armour on the body as Nike,” said Bob Butler, a longtime shoe-store executive with stints at Foot Locker and regional fashion outposts such as the northeast’s Jimmy Jazz. “They are already perceived as the real deal, so how do you take that and morph into the next play?”

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Photograph by Eric Helgas for Bloomberg

Taste-making still flows from cities, Butler said, whether it's entertainers, designers, and athletes or even Instagramers with massive followings. Just look at pop star Kanye West and his collaboration with Adidas, which has been credited with helping revive its casual-fashion business. “The African American consumer, through music and sports, has a disproportionate influence on fashion worldwide,” Butler said. “That drives the whole brand to the next level.”

Treis Hill has been in the shoe game for more than a decade as general manager of Alife, a pioneering boutique on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nike's chief executive officer, Mark Parker, shows up there on occasion, and Hill's shop has helped turn a running brand such as Saucony into fashion. Alife has never sold Under Armour, but Hill is reconsidering. “It’s going to take a lot of work to get them to be cool,” he said, “but I think they’ll get there.”

Curry hasn't always been seen as the best-suited frontman for the transformation of Under Armour. He's slight by NBA standards, dwarfed by the larger-than-life LeBron James, who sells sneakers for Nike. And Curry has a family-man image—his wife, Ayesha, and 3-year-old daughter, Riley, are famous in their own right—which has sometimes seemed at odds with being an avatar of cool.

But Hill believes pop culture has evolved. “Look at rappers,” he says. “It was baggy pants. It was talking about guns. It was you got to be hardcore. Now Drake sings. A$AP Rocky wears Ferragamo. Kanye wears long shirts that look like dresses. And these are the biggest rappers out there. Then you look at the athlete side. No one fights. Everyone is cool with everyone else.”

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One major move in Under Armour's fashion crossover strategy will come this fall with the debut of UAS, a sportswear collection of clothes and shoes crafted by award-winning designer Tim Coppens. The casual, preppy clothes will be sold in high-end fashion stores. It’s the brainchild of Ben Pruess, a senior vice president of sportswear who joined Under Armour last year after running Adidas Originals, the company's fashion sneaker business.

Pruess calls UAS the "tip of the spear" to change the brand’s perception. Thanks to Curry, who will likely help market UAS, Pruess believes shoppers are already beginning to see Under Armour as a part of casual fashion. “We just haven’t come to them with the necessary elements that they are looking for in their fashion consideration.”

Back in SoHo at the Under Armour store, Ron Graham epitomizes the path Pruess hopes millions more will take. He’s been a Nike and Adidas devotee for years and owns 75 pairs of sneakers. Currys were his first Under Armour purchase, and he skipped over the whole performance thing.

“I wear them for fashion,” Graham says as he picks out two pairs of Currys, the patriotic ones he had set out to find and a black-and-gold version he doesn’t have yet. “I don’t work out.”

With Jeran Wittenstein