San Francisco 49ers Trent Williams’ partnership with Black-led footwear brand pays off with trip to Super Bowl LVIII

Garfield Hyton February 6, 2024 (Andscape)

Omar Bailey wants to be a disruptor. 

The co-founder of Los Angeles-based FCTRY LAb plans to “democratize” sneaker production. The lofty goal started with the company designing a football cleat for Miami Dolphins cornerback Jalen Ramsey. It continues at Super Bowl LVIII thanks to a partnership with Trent Williams, offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers, for the brand’s Knight RNR foam slip-on.

Footwear partnerships with offensive linemen aren’t exactly common. Bailey said a chance meeting with Williams worked in his favor.

“We met last year at NBA summer league and then again, right as the [NFL] season started,” Bailey said. “[Williams] was already aware of some things I’ve done with Jalen and saw a lot of the press I received. So, there was already a familiarity there, and, you know, all the guys in the league talk to each other.”

Williams’ agent told him FCTRY LAb was a new company creating shoes for athletes and creators. Williams liked Ramsey’s shoe and has been talking with FCTRY LAb about something similar. “Before I knew it, I had three pairs of the Knight RNR slides in my locker, and I have been wearing them since the beginning of the season,” he said.

“[He’d] tell me these funny stories about little old ladies in the mall asking, ‘What are those shoes? They look so comfy. You look so comfortable,’ ” Bailey said. The company went from sending slides to Williams to outfitting nearly all the players on the 49ers.

FCTRY LAb doesn’t do traditional brand deals and endorsements. The company uses an equity model. Endorsement deals usually pay athletes in exchange for using their likenesses to sell a product. Bailey believes the landscape has changed. 

“When you think about the Air movie and Michael Jordan, he was fighting for royalties,” Bailey said. “I think now, going forward, it’s about ownership and equity. That’s what we’re bringing to the table. Any arrangement with Trent, or anyone else, will always start at the place of being an equity partner.”

It’s a message that resonates with Williams.

“I like how FCTRY LAb is thinking about the business differently and is not afraid to be disruptive,” he said. “So, when Omar told me he had a red Knight RNR slide for me, I [told him] this is a no-brainer. Let’s do it!’ ”

Bailey is a veteran in the footwear industry. His involvement in sneaker production stretches almost 20 years, and “even longer than that since I actually started [when I was] 18,” he said. “I started drawing sneakers as a kid at 7. I got my first exposure to the space at 18. And I independently designed and created shoes for different brands for the next 13 to 14 years.”

His background includes running a shoe factory and a sample development facility, forging supply chain relationships, and improving product quality in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, China, and the United Arab Emirates. He appreciated the skill set he developed over those years and said it took a toll. After he took time to recharge, Adidas reached out.

“Adidas called about the opportunity to head up their Yeezy Innovation Lab,” he said. “To me, it was a no-brainer.” Bailey worked at the lab during numerous Yeezy releases. “People who follow the business, [to them] it’s been stale for a while,” he said. “And some of the [Yeezy] shoes that all had these incredible silhouettes, these alienlike shapes that you’ve never seen before.”

Bailey said those experiences laid the groundwork for creating FCTRY LAb. He takes pride in “pushing the envelope and continuing to be disruptive in the shoe space.” His work on the Yeezy slides is evident in the DNA of FCTRY LAb’s Knight RNR. 

Williams, an 11-time Pro Bowler who’s also a three-time first-team NFL All-Pro, said he likes the slides because they help him stay at the top of his game. “I obviously spend a lot of time on my feet whether in practice or a game,” Williams said. “Afterward, you want to be as comfortable as possible so your body can relax and recover, and the Knight RNR slide has been great for that.”

“As a new company, we feel we can bring a lot to the table regarding infrastructure, resources, and the engine required for an athlete, creator, and entertainers that want to create, build their shoe, and launch it into market,” Bailey said. 

It’s all part of his ultimate goal to “democratize” sneaker production.

“When I say democratizing footwear, it’s really about taking a realistic look at what processes can fit into the ethos of manufacturing in the United States,” Bailey said. 

For example, taking a shoe from a sketch concept to production takes a lot of work. “The discovery point of converting a conception from 2-D into 3-D takes time, and a certain amount of heavy lifting goes with that,” he said. Bailey noted those problems are typically solved in the development facility stages of sneaker creation before mass production. FCTRY LAb aims to speed that process up by seeing what’s possible and what isn’t.

He knows it’s an uphill battle because the top-to-bottom process of creating a sneaker can’t happen on American soil. Some methods can be more labor- or machine-intensive. Bailey thinks it makes more sense for some of the machine aspects to be done in the U.S. while labor stays overseas as a matter of cost.

“That’s just the nature of the game,” he said. “Here in the States, we have to take a realistic look in the mirror and say you know what, we can cherry-pick a few things here and there.” 

Bailey understands the average person probably doesn’t know what it takes to create a shoe.

“Many people assume that companies like Nike and Adidas own manufacturing facilities. They don’t. They typically own their development facilities … but [when it comes to production] those products end up living at another facility they don’t own.” As Bailey contends with how to solve that issue best, he’s aware he’s hitting critical milestones.

FCTRY LAb was launched in December 2022. In just 14 months, a minority-led sneaker company has partnered with one Super Bowl winner, Ramsey, and could be outfitting another with Williams during Black History Month. When asked what it means for those factors to come together, he’s thankful for whatever role he can play.

“It’s just been a true honor and blessing to even have this opportunity,” he said. “It’s nice when these moments happen because it is kind of a validation. I think we are moving in the right direction. There’s still lots of work to do, but we’re really excited,” he said.

“[And with] Trent and the rest of the 49ers, we’re superexcited for them to have this opportunity to compete in the Super Bowl, and we’ll be watching just like the rest of the country.”

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