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‘Unapologetically Asian’: Sneaker startup hopes to project pride and cultural power

1587 Sneakers makes high-end kicks it hopes will appeal to all consumers, especially Asian Americans

Chief executive Adam King (left), and Sam Hyun are the cofounders of 1587 Sneakers, a Boston startup they launched to make sneakers that appeal to the Asian American community, shown with a display of their sneakers at House of Jax in the South End.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Adam King believes society has long ignored Asian Americans. But it was during his time in the sneaker industry that he felt the full sting of what that actually meant.

During marketing meetings, whenever the subject of Asian Americans came up, the verdict was always the same.

“The Asian American consumer is a follower consumer,” King recalled executives saying. “You never need to market to them. You market to hip-hop culture, you market to skateboard culture, and the Asian Americans will just follow.”

“They were basically saying we have no identity,” he said.

Which is ironic, King says, because Asian Americans have heavily influenced and, in many ways, helped to create those cultures they supposedly follow.

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“Really often we take ideas from Asian American culture and then rebrand it as something else,” he said. “They like the designs that are Asian or Asian American-inspired, but they will not [call it Asian]. They just keep taking it.”

So earlier this year, King launched footwear startup 1587 Sneakers, which takes its name from the year the first Asians — sailors from the Philippines — set foot in North America. The company, based in West Roxbury, makes high-end sneakers under the banner of being “unapologetically Asian.”

The sneakers, available online and in some boutique shops for nearly $300, have already created some buzz. Actors Daniel Dae Kim (”Lost,” “Hawaii Five-0″) and Daniel Wu (”Into the Badlands,” “American Born Chinese”) have plugged the sneakers on Instagram. The company sold out its first run and about half of its second run.

1587′s emergence comes at a time when Asians and Asian Americans are enjoying a moment in American pop culture.

1587, based in West Roxbury, makes high-end sneakers under the banner of being “unapologetically Asian.”Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Korean pop groups like BTS are wildly popular. Movies such asCrazy Rich Asians” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” have generated hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan earlier this year won Oscars for their work in “Everything Everywhere At Once.”

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The United States also remains a sneaker-crazy country, with a subculture of rabid enthusiasts intersecting fashion and sports. Total sneaker sales in the United States will hit nearly $23 billion this year and are expected to grow at an annual rate of 4.6 percent until 2028, according to Statista.

Moreover, 1587 is targeting the luxury market where sneakers have increasingly replaced dress shoes as the footwear of choice for work and other formal occasions. And in an inflationary economy, if consumers want to buy sneakers that cost hundreds of dollars, they will likely purchase just one pair that can serve many needs.

“As consumers weigh their priorities, the blurring of fashion and athletic footwear will continue to be part of the equation,” according to a report by market research company The NPD Group. “Casual footwear, sneakers, and athletic footwear are most likely to be considered necessities, compared to dress footwear, outdoor shoes, and slippers, which are more likely to be viewed as non-essential.”

But competition is intense and 1587, like any startup, faces an uphill climb to break through the crowd, analysts say.

“Starting a product is difficult at the best of times, but starting a product that competes against some of the top brands in the world (Nike, Cariuma, Hoka) is nearly insurmountable,” said DeAnn Campbell, head of retail strategy and insights for AAG Consulting in Atlanta. “By targeting one specific cultural demographic, [1587] can certainly carve out a pool of customers that will resonate with a product that celebrates their identity. It would also be helpful if 1587 could find an additional value proposition to complement their core ‘Proud Asian’ message.”

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That “additional value proposition,” King said, is just making high-quality sneakers that consumers will love, noting that 1587 sources its products from the same materials and factories in Italy that work with top fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani.

“You can wear these sneakers on your way to the airport in the morning, hop off the plane, go to your meeting in a suit, and then go out to dinner and the club afterwards,” King said. “You can wear this shoe all day long. You’re going to look fresh.”

The marketing is the trickier part. 1587 proudly celebrates its Asian identity. Yet the company also wants the broadest pool of consumers, no matter their race or ethnicity, to drop $288 on a pair of AP87s in Sumi Black or Morro Black in White Mountain. The question is whether anything that smacks of identity and “wokeness” will turn off non-Asians.

“You can wear these sneakers on your way to the airport in the morning, hop off the plane, go to your meeting in a suit, and then go out to dinner and the club afterwards,” said Adam King, cofounder of 1587 Sneakers.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Messaging is one big reason why King recruited Sam Hyun as cofounder. Hyun, who in his day job serves as director of federal relations for the City of Boston, is a prominent speaker and activist for the Asian American Pacific Islander community. (He was named one of the Globe’s Bostonians of the Year in 2021.)

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Hyun hopes people will ultimately interpret the company’s “Unapologetically Asian” message as a call for people to unapologetically embrace their identity, whatever it is.

“The whole idea is that anybody that wears a shoe can be yourself,” Hyun said. “That’s a missing component that’s happening right now in the world where people don’t feel like they’re being seen, heard, loved, or respected. They want to be accepted. They want to be valued in this world. Our message resonates across the board.”

At the same time, the company is not hiding its Asian-ness either, he said.

The sneakers feature several nods to Asian culture: calligraphy, minimalist design, images of the moon, and colors like black and yellow, an homage to the iconic jumpsuit martial arts legend Bruce Lee wore in the film “Game of Death.”

However, consumers definitely won’t find one common Chinese symbol on 1587 sneakers.

“No dragons,” Hyun said.

Western culture has appropriated the mythical animal to the point of eye-rolling cliche, he said.

Some sneakers contain humorous messages like “Leave your shoes at the door,” which refers to the practice of Asians requiring guests to remove their footwear before entering the house. And 1587 shoe boxes purposely resemble the boxes found in Chinese bakeries.

“We don’t need to put our heads down,” Hyun said. “We don’t need to be quiet. We have that confidence that not only is our community going to support 1587 but it’s going to catch fire with everybody else.”

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Adam King (left) and Sam Hyun, the cofounders of 1587 Sneakers.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Thomas Lee can be reached at thomas.lee@globe.com.