Cover Story: It's the Shoes

Novice shoe designer toes his line

David Sorcher

"Just buy 'em": Ronald Hummons was in jail and then homeless while he designed his collection.

The classic story of Horatio Alger story goes like this: A young man with nothing more than a dream, grit and determination turns his rags into riches. Add to that bootstrap story new Millennium ghetto fabulous flava, and there's Hip Hop moguls Russell Simmons, P. Diddy and Jay-Z.

If Ronald Hummons has his say, his name will be added to the growing list of urban clothing moguls that now includes Masta P, 50 Cent and the FUBU team.

Sitting in a name brand coffeehouse in Clifton, Hummons, the 30-year-old CEO of the locally-based clothing company Grapevine Collections, appears to be an average brotha serving up a clean-cut look with a twist of urban elegance. He's decked in a coordinated baseball cap and knit jersey with matching logos, baggy jeans and a pair of designer sneaks.

The spin is that Hummons created his hookup from the bottom up.

Unlike the average wannabe Hip Hop designer, Hummons didn't start as a rapper. Rather, his line resulted from the anger and frustration of growing up poor with a drug-addicted father.

Then there was prison. The nightmare began in 1999 when Hummons was incarcerated in the Chillicothe State Correctional Facility for felonious assault.

For some young black men like Hummons, the penitentiary is a rite of passage with cells filled with dreams deferred and denied.

"I saw so many brothas sittin' around with vision and no execution," he says. "I was not going to be like that."

During his prison stint, Hummons rediscovered his talent for drawing.

"It was God," he says simply.

He spent hours sketching what would become the prototypes for his shoe line.

The nightmare continued in 2000 after Hummons was released. His life was lackluster before lock-up, and he faltered when he got out.

His crack-addicted father taught him the game. Hummons hustled, robbed and did just about anything to survive.

A felony conviction added to his prior offenses made traditional employment elusive. Consequently, he went door-to-door performing odd jobs — cutting hair, landscaping, anything to legally get by. And naysayers, including his then-wife, discouraged him from pursuing his dream of creating a clothing line.

"But I knew I had a destiny for major success," he says.

His smile is triumphant.

If Hummons is anything, he's resilient and determined. He threw himself into research mode. He spent hours in the Government and Business Department of the Main Public Library ingesting every shred of information he could put his hands on.

He researched overseas manufacturing and distribution, filing patents and developing business plans. Next, he took a class offered by the Small Business Association.

The process didn't flow without consequences, however. He divorced and became homeless.

"I left home with nothin'," he says. "I remember I laid on park benches and the alleys between the Elm Street Clinic. I would lay on that bench and draw. All I had was my drawings, my Bible and a dream."

Sleeping on a park bench would be rock bottom for most. But Hummons believes that this experience empowered him more.

On that park bench is where he fine-tuned the shoe designs he created in prison. And because of his faith and determination, his life took a dramatic upswing very shortly after his homelessness.

Hummons landed a job and found a place to live. Through an associate of his mother, he met a man who connected him with the import/export segment required to manufacture and ship his line. Impressed with what he saw in Hummons and his designs, the man also became his first official investor.

Then an executive from a major corporation saw Hummons' designs in promo shots. The executive plunked down a $100,000 investment, financing Grapevine's commercial production and showings at a N.Y.C. shoe show.

Unfortunately, due to a conflict in vision, Hummons' relationships with his two principle investors have disintegrated. One didn't want Hummons to receive more than 50 percent of the profits from Grapevine.

"When he saw that I wasn't willing to give up total ownership of my company, the relationship soured," he says.

The older, white, upper middle-class investor tried to change some of Hummons' designs.

"He had no cultural reference to the market," Hummons says. "He basically saw somethin' that he just wanted to take over."

Despite the setback, Grapevine forges ahead.

Hummons was asked to be a featured designer in the fashion segment of Tha Blast Urban Arts & Cultural Festival. He's still searching for additional funding and making contacts with retailers for national distribution.

Through all the fits and starts, Hummons never strays from his original dream.

"My dream is to be worldwide, of course. I want to take this clothing line to another level," he says.

As Hummons finishes his coffee, two young white cats step to the table to admire the pink suede and embossed crock leather shoe prototype.

"Aw, dude! Those are phat! My girl would love these! You got a card?"

Hummons smiles broadly and hands them both contact information. Ever the salesman, he describes the color selection available in high-tops and low-tops.

"And coming soon, an entire clothing line," Hummons says, pulling on his own T-shirt and hat.

The two guys walk away, sold on making a future purchase.

"The dope boys on the corner said that they look like 'Baller Shoes,' " Hummons says, pointing at the shoes. "Call 'em what you want. Just buy 'em." ©

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