How does your style define you? Do you embrace what’s big in the culture, or do your own thing?
Sneakers today go hand-in-hand with sports and culture, but it didn’t start out like that.
It took a small family-run shoe company from New York to get the ball rolling in the 1980s.
Depending on your age, you may have never heard of British Knights, but they deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of sneakers.
British Knights shoes came out in 1986 and offered a variety of fashion athletic sneakers.
They were able to impact the culture by aligning themselves with the emerging art of hip hop and helped to define the decade.
This is a look back at British Knights shoes, how they were at the forefront of what is commonplace in the industry today, and how they took on the biggest shoe companies in the world.
What Were British Knights Shoes?
British Knights were white high-top sneakers that came out in the ‘80s.
They featured some abstract designs, colors, and graphics which made their shoes really stand out from the crowd.
The bold imaging and features of the shoe were a key part of their ability to crack into the market. British Knights were meant to be a fashion statement as much as a functional shoe.
They had various sizes and styles of sneakers including low-top varieties, but their bread and butter were the big, chunky, bold high-top versions.
These served as a clothing accessory as much as just being a shoe.
British Knights Shoe History
You may think they were created in England, but British Knights started in New York City in 1983.
The company didn’t begin with sneakers, but with another form of footwear: boat shoes.
British Knights started as Jack Schwartz Shows, which was a family-run company.
They had been in the shoe game for a while and today is going on eight decades and four generations in the business.
They started out way back in 1939, right in the heart of the depression.
The founder, Jack, passed away at an early age, but the family jumped in to keep the business going.
Jack’s son, Donald, continued the business and his sons would be instrumental in the growth of British Knights.
The first line of their own shoes came out in 1972, called “Pro Players.” They weren’t British Knights just yet, but the business grew to where they had expanded to China.
Today, they outfit people like Guy Harvey and Emeril Lagasse — the latter being provided a shoe line for those in the restaurant industry.
The success of Pro Players led them to create the British Knights brand, and they launched their boat shoes in 1983. Things would change when one of Donald’s other sons joined the team.
Moving Into the Sneaker Business
Larry Schwartz is the man behind the sneakers. He joined in 1985 and didn’t take long to inject some youth and a new direction into the company.
His goal was to add an athletic footwear division to the company — but he wanted to make it more than just a pair of running shoes.
His vision was to create a “fashion athletic footwear” option. This all came about as he was looking out his front door and noticing the changing landscape of pop culture in New York.
He also observed a brand new art form: hip hop.
Hip hop showed us what an expressive art form it could be. It wasn’t just about rapping but involved other components such as DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti.
Hip hop — and its culture — introduced us to a wide variety of new colors, fashion, and style, and Schwartz thought this needed to be reflected in a shoe.
The other big shoe companies were still focused on athletic performance, but British Knights took it one step further with an emphasis on fashion.
Striving For Fashion and Not Just Performance
It wasn’t just the hip hop demographic they were looking to target, but all forms of youth culture and music.
British Knights shoes set themselves apart from companies like Reebok and Nike by focussing on inner-city kids.
They would specifically focus on the young male market, and their primary goal was to create a culture in shoe form. British Knights would also be a music-driven brand.
This is very commonplace today, but hadn’t really been done before by a shoe company.
Make no mistake; British Knights were still a very athletic shoe that you could find on the basketball court just as easily as on the street corner.
Shoes and athletic sponsorship were just starting to emerge with the introduction of the Nike “Air Jordan” in 1984.
Michael Jordan was obviously a massive star, but he was just coming into his own and his best years were still ahead of him.
To fully integrate into the culture — and became a fashion statement — British Knights would align themselves with the new style of music that was catching on like wildfire through New York and the country.
The Rise of Hip Hop and the “How Ya Like Me Now” Campaign
Hip hop was growing fast with artists like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, and Kool Moe Dee.
British Knights not only capitalized on hip hop culture but specifically Kool Moe Dee’s song, “How Ya Like Me Now.”
In 1988, they put out a line of sneakers inspired by the song that included a commercial that doubled as a music video.
The shoe line and commercial were an enormous hit. They also launched a campaign with print marketing ads that incorporated the same colors and graphics displayed on the shoes.
Other shoe companies were putting out boring, run-of-the-mill ads, but British Knights were doing some pretty out-there stuff. Their ads were bold and experimental — and couldn’t be ignored.
It was also around this time that Run-DMC released their song, “My Adidas.” This was another monumental moment of hip hop and shoe culture coming together.
But with this song, Run-DMC was already talking about an established shoe that they liked.
Adidas didn’t specifically do anything to make their shoes a symbol of pop culture—it was all because of Run-DMC.
The difference with British Knights' shoes is that they were capturing the essence of hip hop and reflecting this in their many styles of shoes.
The Success of British Knights Shoes
British Knights were a massive hit right out of the gate.
The timing of their release was perfect as it caught that sweet spot of the emergence of hip hop and the embrace of new, unique, and individual styles.
The big thing that made them stand out was their focus on variation. Looking back at the Adidas example; their shoes always stayed pretty much the same with very little — or no — new editions.
British Knights changed all this by offering a wide variety of styles, colors, and versions.
Today, we are very familiar with new shoe releases such as Yeezys, LeBrons, Jordans, and Air Force 1.
These brands put out specific editions as a one-time shot that collectors and shoe lovers pay top dollar for. In the ‘80s, this wasn’t a thing at all — until British Knights.
British Knights would release new collections at least three to four times a year. If you saw a sweet new shoe they put out, you only had one chance to get it. After that, you wouldn’t see it again.
They had inadvertently created an even larger demand for their shoes and could start putting out more and more unique versions.
Unsurprisingly, they were an enormous hit with the 15–24 male demographic.
Urban communities ate them up and their unique catchphrase, “The shoe ain’t nothin’ without the BK button,” propelled their diamond-shaped logo into the mainstream.
They were able to garner 3% of the sneaker market by 1988, ranking them seventh among the leading footwear brands.
Their sales went from $8 million in 1986 to $136 million by 1989. The amazing thing is, they actually held back because of a massive asset they didn’t want to lose that the other companies didn’t have: coolness.
Larry Schwartz told Fortune Magazine that, “We’ve held back and controlled growth because we wanted to maintain a mystique for the brand.”
They did this by managing their exclusivity. British Knights would limit their distribution to specialty shoe stores like Foot Locker and avoided mass merchandisers.
The Future of British Knights Shoes and Their Revival
Going into the ‘90s, British Knights would step up their collaboration game, including a massive campaign with MC Hammer.
They would also cross over into basketball sponsorship, working with top athletes like Dominique Wilkins, Derrick Coleman, and Lloyd Daniels.
They would introduce their Dymacel technology, which was a silicon-filled, diamond-shaped cushioning in the shoe's sole.
There was a window on the heel where you can see inside the shoe, which was pretty mind-blowing if you were a kid in the ‘80s.
But the ever-changing nature of hip hop, style, and fashion pushed British Knights to the side in favor of whatever else was new and cool.
In 2014, British Knights began a comeback. Jack Schwartz Shoes got back into the mix with designer Darren Romanelli, and Scooter Braun — manager of artists like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
They went back to their roots of style over function with the slogan “artists are the new athletes.”
The story of British Knights is a look back at how a small family company became a massive success.
It was all about the crossover between fashion and function and embracing the changing culture.
It’s commonplace today, but British Knights ushered in the era when shoes became part of your identity.
British Knights captured the style of the streets and reflected that in their constantly changing products.
They might be a footnote today, but British Knights need to be considered sneaker royalty.
The New York-based company set a standard between fashion, sports, and culture ubiquitous with the big companies today.
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