Interview With Sneaker Room’s Suraj Kaufman On The Collaborative Nike Kyrie 7 “Mom” Pack

Ahead of the release of the Sneaker Room x Nike Kyrie 7 “Mom” Pack, we got to chop it up with Suraj Kaufman, owner of Sneaker Room on the upcoming sneaker, how a sneaker collaboration works, and friendship with Kyrie Irving himself. Check out the interview below. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Thanks for taking time out of your day and talking with us. For those that don’t know like myself, how did you and Kyrie first meet and get connected? How did this collaboration come together?

It’s a really funny story. Since I’ve had my Nike account, I’ve always been pushing the envelope for charity projects because I come from very humble beginnings. The story that I always tell everybody is 1992, I asked my mother for the Bordeaux 7s. “She’s like, How much are they?” And I’m like, ma they’re like $120-$130. And God rest her soul she said, “Our rent is $110. You do the math.” Didn’t get the shoes.

So to have a sneaker store is like a dream come true. And a lot of people don’t know this, but I started off as a reseller. I had a store in 2006 called Sneaker Room, and I was a reseller because I didn’t have a Nike account. It was my first retail job ever, and I did that for two years and I made no money because in 2006, there was no resale market like you see today. You were buying a pair of Grape 5s for $150 to sell them for $175. It was there was nothing like today where you can buy something to make a hundred dollars on each shoe.

So I did it for two years and then I closed up shop because I made no money. And then basically, I went to work for somebody else that had a Nike account. I met the right people, pitched them this idea that I had, and then it started. It was under another name originally, we did it for three years, I broke up with my partner, and then I went back to the Sneaker Room name.

So I’ve always been about giving back to our community. I want to tell kids that they can do what I did. I want kids to know that if you come from nothing, you can do something. So that’s been my mission and it still is my mission statement. And the thing about it is I’m always pitching. So I had a really good relationship with Nike Basketball at the time, and they used to come to my store, show us the product, get our input for myself and my team, and even do focus groups like in a small little store with kids from the neighborhood. So I’m pitching them a project, and one of the guys was like, “Yo, we should do a shoe with you.”

And I’m like, yeah, let’s do it. And they asked, “Well, what shoe would you do?” I said I would love to do a Kyrie because he’s from Jersey. So we started talking about it, and originally my game plan was supposed to be a shoe based on Jersey because that was our connection.

And one of our homies that has moved up at Nike but who was the EKIN at that time, Sadat Kinley, heard me and Jeff, our creative director talking. And he said, “That’s cool, but you’ve got to tell a better story. Dig deep. You don’t know Kyrie. He doesn’t know you. But what are you guys have in common?” We’re both from Jersey, we both made it out, made it out to do something, and then thinking about it, my mom passed. His mom passed. And there it is. That’s the connection. It wasn’t about just doing a shoe about our state. It was something that had to be personal. And that’s where the Mom project came together. They went to Kai even though at the time he didn’t know who I was or my story and he was like, “I like the idea. Let’s do it.”

And as far as the design process, we designed it, my team, Jeff, Jen, and myself and then he saw it and he rocked with it. Next, we had an interaction on the phone, and then the next interaction was on the court when he wore it. It just built from there and built into a nice friendship and business relationship because like we really vibe out, we have similar thoughts and similar interests.

And now it’s different. Now I’m sending him pics, I’m telling them about it and we’re communicating. He didn’t see this year’s sample. I flew out to L.A. and I brought it in a bag and he didn’t know I was coming to the camp he was running and he’s like, “Yo Raj was good? How are you what you’re doing?” I’m like, Yo, what’s up, brother? How were you blah blah? “He’s like, Yo, what’s in the bag?”

To see his initial reaction to the shoes because seeing someone like that, one of the best basketball players in the world, to see him still go crazy over the shoes, that’s what I love about sneakers. Two months later, I saw him in Jersey at another camp and I brought the finished samples and he was running with the shoe is like, “I’m going to post these right now”, and I’m saying please don’t post it! He’s up to his eighth sneaker with Nike and he still gets excited about it and that’s dope because you don’t normally know if that’s a reaction that you would get from somebody like that.

It’s just turned into a friendship man. It’s a mutual respect that we have for one another and get to do something together. You got to remember, it’s our moms. I’m designing a shoe with my Sneaker Room team, Jeff, Jen, Angel, and we’re creating a shoe that not only holds my mother’s name, but it also holds his mother’s name, it holds his sister Asia’s mother’s name. That’s something that I take seriously because he’s letting me design something that has to do with his intermediate family.

So another question I have is when it comes to collaborations, what is the design process like? What is the difference as far as the process from the first collaborative Kyrie 3 that you guys did to now with the Kyrie 7?

We know the people that are doing the shoe. That’s the main thing. We now know the Nike Basketball team that works on the shoe. When we first did them, we started to build the relationship with the team, and some people have transferred and have moved on to different positions. So the same people that did the Kyrie 6 with us are the same people that did the 7 with us.

The process starts with them sending us over a CAD and sharing it with Jeff. And then we go back and we talk. We start with a story, what it’s going to be or what we’re thinking, and then Jeff will take it from a story play and make it visual.

What’s really dope about this shoe that I really love, Jeff is a phenomenal artist, never mind being the creative director of Sneaker Room. Each one of the four shoes, the actual upper is his brushstroke. So he did the brushstroke, and then they put it on the shoe, and it’s in different colors. That’s what’s changed. We have more input. Before it was you get only these four colors, that’s it and limited color blocking. Now we have the elements on eyestay fingers. We were able to add logos on the lace tips, we’re able to actually change materials, change standard parts and they let us freak it.

So what’s evolved is Nike giving us more creative control and them working with us and it’s phenomenal. It’s cool as sh*t man, a kid that couldn’t afford shoes gets to design shoes? I almost shed a tear every time a sample comes in.

Going back to the design process and also just the sampling process, when did you guys start on the Kyrie 7? How far back does that go?

This goes back to the end of 2020, because the shoe was supposed to come out in 2021, just like it has in previous years. Like we released the 6 in 2020 and this should have been 2021. But with COVID, everything changed. Timelines changed for samples and production, we got samples late, you know what I mean? And you know, to be very honest with you, like we’re super thankful for the people at Nike, not only Kyrie because there hasn’t been a Kyrie release in the U.S. in the past two to three months because even the Infinity hasn’t touched the market yet in the U.S. because of production, it’s only been released in Asia. So for them to keep it going and get the production going on the Kyrie 7 and doing it is phenomenal because, to be honest, I thought it would have been cut because we did the Kyrie 3 and the 4 got cut because of production issues. So we didn’t do a Kyrie 4, then we did the 5, then we did the 6.

I thought this wasn’t going to come out, to be honest. I had the sample in my crib like, “Yo, I got 1 of 1s!” But I think, Nike, knowing that it’s for a good cause, knowing what we do with the proceeds, they made it happen. So we’re very thankful and grateful that, you know, we have this product to put out and give out to the market because it’s definitely a process.

I thought the process was as simple as having somebody paint it, send it to the factory and you get a sample in three days. Don’t work like that. And then they tell you like on the design side, what we think might look good here, but it’s not functional. “Oh, you want this there? It’s going to rip.” Listen, I’m a sneakerhead at heart. We just think that it’s so simple and everything works. No man, everything that you do can actually change the structure of the shoe. And if it doesn’t have the structure, it doesn’t do what it’s made to do.

What’s your favorite detail on the Kyrie 7?

It’s two things. It’s always having my mom’s name on a shoe, on the tongue, but what’s really, really big for me was writing messages. It started on the insole of the Kyrie 3 and the 5, and then we put it on the back of the tongue on the 6. And I always write, “Love and miss you mom”, and I was writing “SK” for my initials. Somebody at Nike said, “Take your initials off and put your signature.” And they were like, “You’re on your fourth shoe, put love and miss you mom, Suraj Kaufman.” So and it’s on both feet even though the left foot is from my mom, the right foot is for Kai’s, the message is on both feet because the message is mutual. And to me, that’s my favorite part, because I don’t know that many people that can say they got their signature, never mind their name, on a Nike shoe. So it’s kind of crazy.

Some people with signature sneakers don’t even have their own signature on their sneakers

There are so many cool parts of the shoe like Jeff came up with this illustration of a sunflower on the left heel. The right foot has the butterfly, because the butterfly, as you know, has so much symbolism and meaning in life, in reincarnation, and all that stuff. The Sunflower, I’m going to give you a cool, fun factor that nobody else knows. So the reason why we pick the sunflower was because Jen, our GM, that’s her favorite flower. And we were like, “Ok let’s put a sunflower.” Those are little things that people are not going to know.

And the other thing that I think that’s really phenomenal about this is when you hear about collaborations, you usually only hear from the person who owns the collaboration. Whoever it is, whatever store it is, you only hear from the owner and they only talk about that like, “Yeah, this is my shoe. This is what I’ve done.” This is not my shoe. This is Sneaker Room’s shoe, this is Kyrie Irving’s shoe. So everybody on my team has put little details like Jeff did the art, the flowers are Jen’s who helps us with all the write-ups and stuff of that nature, and then Angel, who’s our AM, when we had the sneakers together and when we were looking at them when we first got them, it was the yellow/orange pair and the green/blue pair and Angel’s looking at them and he’s like, “Yeah, hold on a minute.” And he moves them and he’s like, “That looks better.”

It’s not one person that does these collaborations. It’s the whole team, the whole store. You don’t hear about people talking about everybody that had something on the input. It’s just usually them like, “Yeah, I did this.” There’s no I in team. That’s an old statement, but it’s really true.

Same thing at Nike. Ben Nethongkome designed this shoe. So who’s better to talk about what we can do with this shoe than Ben? “Ben, can we do this? Yes, you can. Yo Ben, can we do that? Yes, you can.” Same with Brian, who does the colorways and all that stuff. “Yo, Brian, this is Jeff’s brushstroke, is there any way you could do this? Let me play around with it, give me a couple of days.”

So much that goes into it that people don’t realize, and there are so many people that are a part of it that I just want to give the accolades to everybody because it’s not just about myself. I just don’t like that in the world, like everybody just wants it to be about themselves and the story to be about just themselves as an individual and what they do. It’s not about that. It’s so much more because if it wasn’t for my team, this wouldn’t look this good and it wouldn’t have the story that it has if it wasn’t for the Nike Basketball team, it wouldn’t have been produced if it wasn’t for Kyrie Irving, if it wasn’t for Asia.

Last year we did a photoshoot, but we didn’t tell Kai and we got Asia to shoot the shoe for us. And Asia told me, “Yo Suraj, this is really dope.” It was a collaborative idea with myself and Jeff. She was so thankful because she said, everybody always talks about her mom, but they always refer to her as Kyrie’s mom. No, this is also Asia’s mom. When we did that and Kyrie hit me and was like, “Yo Suraj, DOPE. You included my sister, and it’s phenomenal”, you know what I mean?

Even on Wednesday, before the game, I went to have a drink and I met up with Kai’s dad, Dred, and Elizabeth was in his life, too. That’s the mother of his children, his two oldest children. That’s also part of the story, because when you talk about moms like, you know, like, I had a sibling, my brother, but he passed away, but my mom was still his mom.

So that’s also what we need to make sure that we shine a light on. That’s why I’m saying like, it’s not just the Suraj and Kyrie thing, and it’s so much bigger. What’s cool about these is the left shoe says “In Honor Of” and the right shoe has a line. We started that with the 6 and had it under the strap and before that, it was on the insole. That’s so you could put whoever’s name you want to wear them for, whether it’s your mother, your grandmother, your sister or for your father. Even though they say Mom, if you want to honor somebody when you wear these, you can put their name on the outside of the shoe and people can look at it.

And we got that idea from athletes writing it on the midsole but we didn’t want people to write on the midsoles. So it’s very visible, so if you wear it, it’s going to be like,” Oh, wow, who’s Mary? Who’s Katherine?” And it starts a conversation.

You’re obviously a huge sneakerhead and with this collaboration, how does it feel seeing your sneaker that you’ve played a huge part in, and not just Kyrie wear it, but other guys in the league like Tyrese Haliburton in Sacramento wearing them and they’re highly sought after and pretty much sell out instantly. How does that feel for you?

It’s amazing, it’s phenomenal, it’s a natural high. Understand, we’ve done four for Kyrie moms, right? But you break it down and colorways because they’re all individual shoes. So we did two Kyrie 3s, We did three Kyrie 5s, we did three Kyrie 6s, and two Kyrie 7s now. We’ve done 10 shoes. That just was my revelation this year because I didn’t think of it. And then if you go back into our breast cancer project that we used to do, that’s not happening now, which I hope we bring back because it’s for a great cause. But if you go back to our breast cancer project with Nike, we did the Victor Cruz, we did the Air More Money, which was three colorways. So that’s four. We did three Bo Jacksons. So that’s seven. And then we did three Elements. That’s 10.

So this one store in Jersey City with no chain and no corporate ownership and no multiple door locations has done 20 shoes with Nike. Will it continue? You never know. Do I hope and pray it continues? 1000% because we’re telling people that the little guy matters. We’re telling people that you don’t have to be this big conglomerate or this person that has unlimited resources to do stuff. I couldn’t afford shoes before when I was younger, and now I have 20 shoes we’ve done with Nike, that’s crazy.

Like you said, not only the other NBA players wearing it, it’s dope to just see it period of shoe that you’ve come up with on your mom and your team on an NBA court. Holy sh*t, it’s ridiculous. But a better feeling is when we go to a high school game and we see a high school kid wearing it because the high school kid is probably a harder pitch than a celebrity to get them to wear a shoe and for them to want to buy it and wear it, it’s phenomenal.

And then the messages that we get, like with the DMs, like people asking us about the shoes like, “my mom passed away in 2015”, “my mom passed away 10 years ago”. This is phenomenal and happy this collaboration means something. And that’s why I hope it has longevity and I hope it has legs because I just think that we need more positivity in this world in general but in the sneaker world.

Because the sneaker world gets so much negativity brought up about resellers, getting robbed, people getting killed for sneakers, and you always hearing negativity about sneakers. It’s nice once in a while to tell a story about something like this and see positive comments like it’s almost like a breath of fresh air to know that it’s still there. It’s on a train that I don’t know when it’ll stop, but we really want to talk about positivity.

But it’s wild that people are still buying sneakers even though they’re not going out with this pandemic. It’s very interesting that they’re still keeping up with it and keeping up with their collections. And to me, that just shows that there’s nothing like buying a new pair of sneakers, man. I don’t care if it’s my shoe or if it’s somebody else’s shoe, there’s nothing like it. Clark Kent said it best, “Rubber, leather, and glue.” I don’t think anybody, in my opinion, has said it better yet of what it is.

The Sneaker Room x Nike Kyrie 7 “Mom” Pack is set to drop on January 20th at 10 AM EST exclusively on in limited numbers with 1,996 pairs of the yellow/green colorway retailing for $175, in honor of the year Elizabeth Irving passed and 525 pairs of the red/blue colorway retailing for $250. 100% of the proceeds will go to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to which Elizabeth Irving belonged. Thanks again to Suraj and Sneaker Room for taking the time to talk with Nice Kicks.

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