Founders of Common Ace innovate for sneakerheads
Everybody has a bit of sneakerhead inside of them, whether they know it or not. Streetwear culture has the power to penetrate endless different audiences, all across the globe.
At the end of the day, however; the culture we know and love was founded with a ‘boys club’ mentality that persists to this day, with fewer options and platforms for sneaker fans to find coveted styles and receive recognition as designers, consumers and curators.
These obstacles for women in sneaker culture is what pushed two friends with an impressive combined skill set and a passion for street fashion to found Common Ace, an online shopping platform that serves as a one-stop-shop for sneakers, featuring the most popular to the most niche designs.
The platform is curated with you in mind, and powered by the tech and UI/UX experience the duo brought to the table themselves.
Hit play for our face-to-face with Romy Samuel and Sophia Chang, the girl power gang that’s looking to revolutionize the street culture experience for everywhere, one project at a time. Or scroll to read the full chat.
First thing’s first, when did you two realize that your connection with sneaker culture were deep enough to create a practice out of it?
R: I've been collecting for a really long time, probably more than 20 years. So, sneakers have always been a part of my life and my creative outlet. But, I have to say I really had an epiphany after having my second child. I had been working in digital media and technology for 14 years and I had my own fashion import business. But, I always knew I had to find a way to bring the two things that I was best at together, which was sneakers and technology. This was around 2013, 2014, and then I literally had an epiphany one day. I was at an event where there were multiple speakers talking about technology in the current landscape and different kinds of e-commerce solutions, and it was literally at that event where I just thought, ‘Oh my god, I needed to create!’ I envisioned a platform that would allow people to shop from multiple sneaker retailers worldwide. I didn't necessarily think it was gonna be specifically for women at first, but I definitely realized it had to be for women, there was no choice about that.
S: I grew up in Queens, New York, so I've always grown up collecting sneakers since I was like 12. I also worked at sneaker stores as well, as soon as I was able to start working. I had worked in a lot of sneaker stores all throughout So-Ho, New York and all throughout college as well, and eventually I came to understand the perspective of a female shopping for sneakers through a male lens, essentially. Even I would buy men’s clothes a lot of times, I would throw pieces in the drier for three hours so that they would shrink. I think it was my approach to have more of a unique sense of style in comparison to some of my other female peers.
I've worked in design for quite some time, I have a background in illustration design and a bit of marketing, advertising and also UI/UX. So, when I met Romy and she told me about this project I was like, absolutely, it totally makes sense to work on something like this. It was really easy for me, and I had been working in the sneaker space as well. A lot of times being female has also gotten me into a lot of rooms, into a lot of conversations, and on a lot of stages to speak on the topic, and I give that representation. I knew that there was a lot of action to be taken, and Common Ace is really our way of making the difference and putting action to our words to make the change that we want to see in the industry.
The streetwear field is heavily male dominated. So, what does it mean for you to be a woman that empowers the female community in this area, with this very active role in sneaker culture?
Streetwear has definitely always been very male-dominated. But, for me as a female, having the love for streetwear and the style itself has always resonated with confidence, on so many levels. You know, streetwear really is about just being comfortable and not giving a shit about what other people think. If you’re fuckin’ wearing t-shirts and tracksuit pants, super comfortable clothes and you’re rockin' it, you’re really really rockin' it. For me, so many people have always noticed that about streetwear, and that ties back to the confidence that goes with streetwear. Being a female within this community, I've always wanted to take that persona, and allow other women to feel that type of confidence and find that within themselves. I've had so many girls come up to me over the years going, "God, how do you pull it off?! You do it so well, you do it so easily." But at the end of the day, it's in the mind, it’s about how much you’re able to just not give a shit about what other people think. I think that sort of goes hand in hand with being a female in the industry and then taking that to other girls around the world, the message that you can be what you want, you can wear what you want, you don't have to give a shit what other people think. You don't have to put a pair of high heels on to make yourself taller or wear a top to make yourself look skinnier, or whatever. It really is just about comfort and confidence, and being who you wanna be at the end of the day.
S: I think I totally agree with that as well, I started wearing male clothes when I was in junior high, and likely elementary. I naturally gravitated towards this, this was around the time when Puff Daddy had Sean- Sean John, so I used to buy boy's Sean John shirts, and Sean John jeans, and that's how I would dress. My mom definitely wondered, "Oh my gosh, what's going on here?!" But, I also think a lot of it is how we carry ourselves as females, especially in a metropolitan city like New York ― females get hollered at a lot of times, and it's not that I was trying to avoid that type of attention, but I just thought about how much I can actually shift the dialog and create different focuses on myself. Style became a sense of expression and it was a way to kind of set yourself differently from other women. That's always something that I've been able to kind of take pride in, in terms of my sense of style. Other girls might be wearing heels and dressing in a more feminine fashion, I would always try to see if I could go the opposite route, but still break necks in terms of my sense of style. A lot of it definitely has to do with self-assurance, confidence, and just also the want and need to be comfortable, as well.
In female fashion, comfort isn’t the first thing that’s come to mind, and even when we’re very young there aren’t a ton of messages about being comfortable and freely expressing yourself. You created Common Ace as a platform to adapt to distinct consumption behaviors and embrace women of all ages ― why is this age-inclusive platform important for women?
R: It definitely came to me when I became a mom, but I knew this was addressing women of all ages. Doesn't matter if you're a mother, a grandmother, a teenager, whatever. I think the biggest thing that I was addressing was the problem that I had myself, which was simply just trying to find what you wanted online and where the hell do you go to find that? I think women of all ages have always had to struggle with trying to find what they're looking for. The way that brands work is that they've always limited the supply and the styles to all the retailers online, so you would go to an online shop and they would have the colorway you want there, but not in your size. So, you go to another shop, and they would have your size, but not the colorway that you wanted. Or you'd only have 20 shoes for women on this site, and maybe 10 shoes on another site. So, how do we pull them all together? How do we create this one-stop-shop where everybody has the opportunity to really just find what they're looking for and have the best selection available? It was really super important on so many levels to be able to create that space online for women asking "Where the hell do I find, where can I go to find my shoes?!", and provide this one destination to go to. It's really for everybody, because I've spoken to women of all ages, all across the board, and they've all had the same problem. So, I think age has never been really of a huge barrier when it came to this issue.
Do you feel that women feeling empowered to uniquely dress themselves impacts their creativity on an overall level?
R: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, that's fashion in general. Fashion has always been an expression of one's creativity, and streetwear just sort of like hones into that one particular style.
How do you divide the work that you do, what’s your process?
S: So, our business is kind of broken up into two and a half pillars. Romy handles the tech development and affiliate partnership side, and I'm more involved with the marketing, strategy, and content side. It's mainly Romy and myself and we're pretty much equally involved, but she kinda spearheads that department, because that's more her area of expertise and vice-versa. We definitely both mutually spend a lot of time just kind of piling all we can find between the different departments.
Romy, you have an intimate relationship with technology ― how do you apply this knowledge to your practice and mix it with the expressions of today’s culture?
R: My background ranges from so many different types of applications. I actually worked in telecommunications, I've worked in publishing and media for a long time, but mainly in the backend solutions, troubleshooting, project management side of the industry. So, I definitely like all my skills have been applied to what we're doing right now. My most recent experience in the digital landscape was in e-commerce and in digital marketing, in the more web-based applications, so it was a pretty natural transition. Connecting that into sneaker culture was a dream, to be able to really work with what I knew and what I love, because I love technology, and taking that into something that has always been a big passion of mine, which is sneakers and streetwear fashion. I think that's what everybody should do in life, if they have the ability to ― combine their skills with their passions.
Sophia, as a designer, leather is an element of your projects, like your PUMA collab. What are your go-to techniques and processes to work with this material to achieve innovative outcomes, especially with premium collabs like you’ve had?
S: Originally my background is mainly in illustration and design, mainly 2D artwork. But, a big part of what I'm passionate about is learning new things and applying another skill set for me to use to create. Through my internship at Complex magazine, I learned how to design publications and how a publishing house works. Of course, what I have is not to that scale, but I have a health and wellness platform that I've been working on for the past seven years called Undo-Ordinary. We've had different content articles related to nutrition, mental health, fitness, and overall just highlighting community and diversity within the health and wellness community, and how we can essentially use the power of art and design to change the way we approach the topic. We've mentioned one of my more successful projects, which is a collaboration with PUMA, where we created a men's and women's apparel, footwear, and accessories collection that was launched globally. It actually became their top lifestyle grossing collection the brand had ever done, which was really exciting.
I’ve also gotten my work into quite a number of different museum exhibitions, and also books. Quite honestly, I'm a materials designer, I don't come from that background, but thankfully a lot of the people that I've worked with over the years on these types of projects have allowed me to be able to learn and collaborate with them. Hopefully there'll be more projects like that in the near future. I am also working on a sneaker project right now, I have a call after this call just to talk face on it, which should be really exciting and hopefully that will drop later this year. There's a lot of things happening all at once, Common Ace is definitely a huge area of focus at this point in time because it's so new and there's so much potential, so I wanna make sure I'm giving my best toward that. It’s a project that I'm personally very passionate about and it carries a huge ripple effect that will essentially change and disrupt, and turn the entire industry on its head. Hopefully it will allow the female voice to have a stronger stake in this space.
When you say Common Ace is a very new project, ecommerce has become even more relevant lately with quarantine procedures, it’s nice you have a brand new, exciting platform that allows people to express themselves without even leaving the house. Since you've been on both sides of creating and curating, how do you relate long-lasting projects of leather sneakers to reach storytelling that endures through the years?
S: A big part of what I do, whether it's through illustration, design, web design, a fashion collaboration, a magazine, at the end of the day it’s about storytelling, so I play different roles when I'm the creator and apply the skill sets that I have to assemble a team to execute and hopefully getting to tell that story. For example, a lookbook or a photoshoot that I might be producing, when I’m hired as a vendor my job is to storytell, to help a brand sell a product or a narrative. At the end of the day it's creating, it's using the skills that I have ― whether it's drawing, producing, creating, or curating ― to help propel a message, and I think there's a responsibility that art and design folks have, to use the power that we have to help change the way we perceive things and the way that we tell stories.
Now a lighter one, what's the craziest situation that you've ever been in to get a sneaker? Which pair made you do it?
R: There's so many stories, but I'd say one of the funnier ones is when I entered a raffle around the end of 2017, I was in America and the Off-White Top Ten had just dropped. I entered the raffle, I enter raffles everywhere, but I entered the raffle in Australia because I'd already moved to LA. So, I put it under my cousin's name who had four children, including a newborn. She had really young kids and I ended up winning this raffle, and I was like, "Oh my god, you have to go and pick them up!" So, I sent her to this sneaker store which was a cool store in Sydney, to pick it up with all of her children, and she had to go and pick up this Off-White, and they're like "Are these for you?", and she's like, "Yeah, yeah, they're for me.", that was pretty funny actually. But, there's lots of stories of making people camp out and paying people to go get shoes, lots of lowkey bribery.
S: Not really, I don't really go out of my way for sneakers like that, I've never been the one who waited in line, I’ve only entered one raffle and lost. I just don't have time for that kind of stuff, and if it's really hard to get, then I just see it as I either really have to want it and purchase it or it's just not meant to be. Not saying that I don't have a great collection, I do, I just don't buy because of hype, I buy because I actually want it and I think it creates these shopping barriers for me, which is great. So, I don't really have much of a crazy story.
But, earlier in my career when I had the opportunity to travel more, one of the first times I went to Australia, I bought a really cool pair of Air Max TNs that I had never seen before. It was actually before they came to the States, so I thought they were really cool. When I used to travel to Japan, they would have really interesting sneakers, and I'm a women’s size 5 which makes it really hard for me to find sneakers, so whenever I actually find a model that I like and it's in my size, I know it's like meant to be. I kind of just go with the flow of what the retail store has for me a lot of times. I just can't be too emotionally attached because they simply don't have 'em in my size most of the time.
How do you think that sneaker retail will change this modern world where digital commerce is the new normal, and what is Common Ace's role in this reality?
R: Common Ace's role is to tip the whole landscape of sneaker shopping for women on its head. And not just shopping, I would say the way we are viewed in general, and the way we're gonna be served in the future. I think there's gonna be some real shifts going on and we are here to make a big difference and empower other companies and retailers to look at us and go, "Oh, hang on a second. Stuff's gotta change around here! How can we serve the female market better?".
S: Yeah, I think for many many years there's been a lot of conversation regarding the rise of the female empowerment movement in recent years and, of course, women in the sneaker community are really amplifying their voices here. But, I don't think there's enough action being taken, I think as much as people want it, they don't really know how to get it. As far as Romy and myself, Common Ace is really our way of empowering the female consumer, and really just empowering ourselves, because we want this for ourselves too. Instead of being on multiple websites, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, trying to find the shoe that we want and then finding out that they don't have it in our size. So, essentially we're creating an online aggregator that allows people to shop from global multiple retailers all at once. You come in, you can browse, you can shop a hype product that's at a higher price point or something that’s a more general release. We are essentially trying to combine great design with great technology to empower the female user. But, we're also working on a number of internal projects that we're really excited about that will hopefully, like Romy said, turn the entire industry on its head and really empower the female voice. We want to make sure that they have no choice but to hear us and see what we're looking for now ― and that should be coming out hopefully in the fall of this year, so we're really looking forward to it and I think it’ll be the spark of change that we all want to see that will only continue to have multiple ripple effects in the years to come.
What do you think is the best way for the industry to meet new behaviors and demands like convenient ecommerce and in particular, sustainability, which has been a priority even before COVID-19?
R: I think it’s about bridging the two. Like, for instance, there are these demands which we are addressing, but I think a big part of it is about inclusivity as well. I've worked in retail for a number of years now, working at Kith, one of the biggest sneaker retailers here in the US, and when women walk into the store, they would see a huge selection of shoes with about 75% to 80% of of sneakers of display dedicated to the men's section, and the rest dedicated to women's. That shift has to change and it's going to change regardless, through how we're going to create the space, you're already seeing changes now by a lot of brands starting to do more full-size rounds on the shoes. But, what we're doing, which is pretty unique, is bringing all shoes to our platform, not just women's shoes per se, but we're bringing in kids' shoes, women's shoes, men's shoes, all kinds of shoes. To understand the market, you need to be able to really see that we will shop from anything, it doesn't matter if it's a men's shoe or if it's a kids' shoe, no matter the colorway. So, it's about bringing it all into one space, and yes we are essentially creating this for women, but anyone can jump into the site if they want to. But, the point is we are giving women that selection, that accessibility, that psychological shift for them to understand that they can buy any shoe that they want to.
S: I mean, sustainability definitely has a big play in this. Essentially, what we wanna do is to help empower retailers, not just consumers, but also retailers from all around the world that might be sitting on inventory. They might not have the proper e-commerce technologies to set up an entire Shopify store and enter all the nutritional facts and all that kind of information. So, we are launching as a commerce-based platform, but we do have the intention to be able to invest in our tech, invest in empowering retailers so that they can move inventory and it's just not sitting in their basement while the industry pumps out more and more sneakers. It’s a way that curation, art and design, selling a lifestyle, selling great content, can actually help move older inventory as well. So, that's a big venture that we're interested in, but it's really exciting that in the middle of COVID Romy and myself have been able to launch this platform, and we clearly see that the landscape of retail, sneaker retail, and brick and mortar retail stores have completely shifted. It really allows us to rise above as a digital marketplace and hopefully soon, a bigger platform to essentially serve this community that's been underserved, that hasn't been heard and addressed. It's a big white space for us and we're really excited to see where things go.
As a woman, what does sneaker culture mean to you in a few words?
R: I would say for me it's pretty simple, it's community and creativity, and building those two together. And, generating a ripple effect for women worldwide to be a part of it, because so many women love it and appreciate it, and we really want them to feel like they're part of it as well.
S: Sneaker culture is a very niche culture and community. To me, it's a lot more personal because it's something I lived and breathed growing up and it's deeply ingrained in just my identity. For me, sneaker culture comes from metropolitan cities, you look at the shoes first before you look at the rest of the outfit or even talk to the person. There's just so much history, so much culture from art, design, music, all the areas that I'm really passionate about, that kind of all molds into one. We're really excited to see how Common Ace enters into a space that's typically a boys club, to see how that will really disrupt the culture. At the end of the day, there's not a lot of support out there for women in sneaker culture, It's still seen as such a small community ― but we know through our global connections and relationships that it’s much bigger than it seems. We really wanna be the pioneers, to offer a proper voice and platform for these people.
Sneakerheads on a mission, that's what we like to see.
Don't miss out on more chats with culture-shaping creatives, find more [metcha originals] here.