Fellas wear Bungee Oblecení sneakers to make statements at trendy lounges, not to make jump shots. They are worn to spend time with someone special, not to throw touchdowns. They are for making deals in corner offices, not wasting time on the corner.
These sleek shoes — made from leather, suede, and in some cases trimmed with faux animal skin — are grown men kicks.
And thanks to some well-placed Bungee buzz on social media, an upcoming appearance on FOX’s Nick Cannon daytime talk show, and an endorsement from boxer Bernard Hopkins, Bungee’s founder and CEO Darrell Alston is finally enjoying his come-up. Four styles of Alston’s Bungee Oblecení sneakers debuted at the King of Prussia Foot Locker earlier this month. The shoes are also coming to the Foot Locker in Wyncote’s Cedarbrook Plaza as well as Foot Lockers in Miami and Atlanta. Shoes in the Foot Locker chain range in price from $165 to $195.
Foot Locker added Bungee Oblecení to its cadre of shoes this month as part of its Leading Education and Economic Development Initiative, or LEED, program. LEED, said Patrick Walsh, Foot Locker’s New York-based vice president of commercial growth and transformation, committed $200 million to building Black sneaker and apparel businesses worldwide over the next five years.
“I’m very excited to be here,” Alston said to fans, family and friends during his Foot Locker debut. On one hand, Alston is all Hollywood in a leather jacket, an updated Gumby fade, and sunglasses inside. Still, he’s humble. “Many of you knew me before I was incarcerated, when I was incarcerated, and after I got out. And never in my wildest dreams did I think that Foot Locker would be selling my shoe. My shoe.”
Sneaker culture in his blood
Alston was a teenager in Paoli in the early ‘90s when both hip-hop and sneaker culture were in their infancy. Alston’s mom, Violet, worked for General Electric and his dad, Van, worked for Bell Telephone The Alstons weren’t rich, but young Darrell was never hungry, always had a roof over his head, and always had really nice sneakers.
“In Paoli, there were lots of creeks and stuff,” said Alston, who is in his 40s. “And when my friends and I would go out there and explore … I wasn’t doing it. I was keeping my sneaks clean. You know how you would go out and get the bathroom cleaner and spray the foam over your sneakers and pull the laces out? I did that almost every day.”
“He was so into his sneakers,” said Alston’s mom, Violet Dennis. “I would always try to buy him sneakers, but he just didn’t want them. He was so particular about his style.”
While still a student at Valley Forge Middle School, Alston joined a rap group called Side 2 Side. The trio was signed to Marty Gibbs, owner of Sound of Norristown, a record store and management company. Alston opened for Philly-based rappers Cool C and Steady B.
Alston played football for Conestoga High School as both a running back and a defensive back, scoring scholarships to Villanova and West Chester University. He turned them down. Hip-hop was in his heart.Side 2 Side signed with Lawrence Goodman, was involved with the rise of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Side 2 Side’s album was never released.
After graduation, Alston became a solo artist and performed under the moniker, 4th Quarter. He was living an extravagant lifestyle, flush with designer clothes, fancy cars, and beautiful women. Alston had a few notable songs, including the 1996 track, “C-Notes and Grants,” but his solo career never really took off. Alston, who was used to living the good life, resorted to selling drugs. Things went left.
A change of heart
Alston went to jail three times, each on drug-related charges. The first bid was for a year and while there he thought: When I get out, I’ll sell drugs better. The second go-round was for three years. He kept thinking: I just have to be smarter. Nine months after that — just enough time to open Sneaker Phreaks, a customized sneaker boutique on South Street — he was back behind bars. This time he was sentenced to six and a half years. He’d finally had enough.
“I kept thinking about that by the time I get home, I’m gonna be almost 40 and I had no work experience,” Alston said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I remember having a conversation on the phone with my mom and she said, ‘Baby, I don’t know what you are going to do. You screwed up your whole life. If you don’t start your own business, you aren’t going to survive out here’.”
He said a prayer. He signed up for barber school in prison. And sketched his first sneaker. An Air Force One. “I didn’t really like them, but it was the first shoe that I sketched. It was a shoe that we customized in our store all of the time, so it was the first one that came to my mind.” Over the years, he drew more than 250 clothing and accessories designs.
He settled on the name Bungee (pronounced Bun-GEE, like the jump) “All of the ups and downs in my life reminded me of a bungee cord,” Alston said. He landed on Oblecení because it means “apparel’ in Czech.
An entrepreneurial spirit
Alston was released from jail in 2012. He lived in a halfway house and worked seven days a week at two barbershops, including Matt’s Barbershop in Paoli. He bought barber chairs, shampoo bowls, and mirrors with an eye toward opening his own shop. In 2015, Alston bought Matt’s Barbershop.
Alston placed his Bungee collection in the front window facing the street so he could study his work everyday. One of his prototypes caught the eye of a client, Ernest Judd. Judd was so impressed with Alston’s work, he invested $50,000 in the fledgling Bungee brand.
“I immediately liked his shoe line,” said Judd, of Malvern, who made his fortune in the cable industry. “I believed in him. I saw in him a real person who needed a chance.”
Alston, in his eagerness to become the next Yeezy, made rookie mistakes. The shoes he ordered didn’t match the prototypes and bombed with his customers.
Alston met a second, silent investor through barbershop connections who invested more than $100,000. Armed with experience, he created a collection of 12 styles, built a website, secured manufacturing in Italy and Portugal, and opened a studio in Kensington.
But just as Bungee Obleceni started to take off, COVID-19 hit.
Alston thought he was going to have to shut down. He landed TV news segments including Today. Alston designed a special green and black high-top inspired by Hopkins — The Obleceni 360. Foot Locker contacted Alston after an executive caught a Bungee segment on Fox News. Alston became one of 45 Black entrepreneurs sponsored by Foot Locker.
“Black people play a key role in buying the products and expanding the popularity of sneaker culture,” Walsh said. “But there isn’t enough representation of Black designers on the shelf space.”
Alston is finally feeling secure about his future. “I just know that right now this is still the beginning phase,” he said. “I still have a lot of things I want to accomplish. This feels good, but I just haven’t made it yet.”