We checked in with New York-native Kari Cruz who is at the helm of UNDRCRWN, a streetwear label tapping into basketball’s rich heritage that was founded over 15 years ago.
The daughter of Dominican parents, the native New Yorker’s resume includes working with industry titans Adidas and Nike along with prominent athletes in roles ranging from marketing to branding and design, adding up to over a decade of expertise in creating sport-themed product.
Recently we spoke with Cruz about the intersection of sport and streetwear, the impact of inclusivity on design, how UNDRCRWN has pivoted over the years and much more. Enjoy the fun exchange below.
Snobette: Where do you call home?
Kari Cruz: “I’m a prideful Native New Yorker. Born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx by way of two immigrant parents that arrived here from Dominican Republic. I’m currently based in Downtown New York City.
Snobette: What is your personal connection to basketball?
Kari Cruz: “Basketball found me with no true rhyme or reason. I had an innate interest in it and supportive parents that encouraged me to pursue whatever made me happy. In high school I became the basketball team manager, which was a huge opportunity considering the school won multiple New York State champions. As a result, I was surrounded by a lot of emerging talent and a classmate that later went on to the NBA.”
“Basketball was always the love language of my majority black and brown peer group. It was a defining style guide of the ‘00s, especially as it pertained to the basketball jersey trend as well as the rise of Michael Jordan who’s a big part of the reason most of my friends ultimately became sneakerheads.
“My knowledge of the game culturally, commercially and on a performance level led me to pursue my first corporate job at Adidas. I definitely landed that job because I could speak to both sport and style. I was fluent in understanding the importance something like Y-3 for example. I intrinsically believe there is an alignment between sport and style and that has paved the way for my career since then.
“Today, my life and career revolves around watching and participating in basketball. You’ll catch me at the end of the bench at the Drew League or in Boston for the day, to catch a special someone on the Timberwolves.”
Snobette: What’s the career path that led you to UNDRCRWN?
Kari Cruz: “I was working with the Adidas communications team for all its performance sports categories (swimming, running, soccer, Olympics and more) and my focus was primarily on a brand new retail category dubbed Remix.
“The goal was to merge basketball performance product with streetwear. Adidas commissioned one of UNDRCRWN’s founders for the project, and we became friends and eventual business partners.
“As I worked on creative briefs and launch plans for those footwear concepts, I found myself working more on actual product design than launch strategy. I was able to impact every single part of the creative process. From concept to the finished product. I was able to witness basketball legends on-court in UNDRCRWN sneakers and get a firsthand account of their interests.
“The results solidified my path to becoming independent and 100-percent committed to building UNDRCRWN. The brand acquisition on my end became official in 2016.”
Snobette: UNDRCRWN releases products in very limited quantities, what’s the strategy behind that approach?
Kari Cruz: “We’d been a fairly large operation for many years and were carried at top boutiques around the world, but traditional retail became very tumultuous for many if not most independents. The burnout rate was high from small shop owners who wouldn’t pay invoices on time for merchandise and it was killing niche brands.”
“We were one of the first to present visual content through the lens of art and sports. This was before it became popular to document ‘tunnel style.’ People were not looking to sports in any connection to fashion let alone art.
“I would carefully hand-select old school photos, images of rare basketball hoops, throwback magazine tears and anything that could provide context to the design inspiration of the products. My curated selections and limited product lines allowed me to tell deeper stories surrounding the culture of the sport.”
“UNDRCRWN then went on a brief hiatus. It was during a period when Nike had forced a non-compete on the brand during a consultancy period, which is crazy considering how big and powerful it is.
“Once I was cleared of the non-compete, I started using the UNDRCRWN platform to design custom product and branding for companies that found our insights and aesthetic desirable. I built a private roster of athletes looking to start their own lines. And because of that, UNDRCRWN remained a source of inspiration and nostalgia in ways many might not even directly know.”
“Today, I’m only designing and creating products with intention and purpose. A limited range allows me to make sure that our products are environmentally responsible, timeless items of quality.
“If you buy one of my sweat suits or fleece sets, I want you to be able to pass it on to your kids. I want you to feel it’s weight, fit and know that it’s been custom dyed and you can’t just pick it up anywhere. I’m making sure that the products are just as timeless as the stories I’m telling.”
Snobette: In your experience working with big athletic brands what aspects do you find to be rewarding and also challenging?
Kari Cruz: “On the corporate level, I find that many brands do not listen to their in- house talent. There is not a lot of freedom for designers and the hires tend to be people who are not students of the sport. That creates a cultural disconnect reflected in a product that just does not resonate with the intended audience or objective.”
“In many ways the challenges can be similar to what happens in hip hop, or any industry that is male driven. There’s a definite boys club, where you’re expertise is constantly challenged or not respected.”
“Operating on an indie level, there’s no corporate budget or resources to truly compete with the majors. However, if you’re lucky enough to break through all of the challenges, it’s true euphoria. Knowing that your commitment and fight resulted in a product that people love? Priceless. Walking down the street and seeing a piece of your work on a complete stranger is the absolute best and most prideful feeling. And it definitely helps keep me going.”
Snobette: Do you think we are approaching a golden era for women in the sport brand industry?
Kari Cruz: “Technically, brands have become more inclusive, in what they want to sell to us, like adding plus size ranges and maternity collections but for those of us working within the industry, women of color need far more representation.
“Until that representation is actually reflected on both design and leadership teams, I can’t really say we’re remotely close to a golden era. Diversity of thought will always lead to broader design perspectives and that will ultimately set us on a better path.”
“There are also plenty of women behind the scenes doing big things, but our stories just aren’t being told. It’s always funny when people find out that the anonymous voice they’ve been talking to about basketball and streetwear via UNDRCRWN is a woman. It’s almost like they don’t want to believe it.”
Snobette: In terms of trends in athleisure for women, leggings have ruled for a long time. Do you see their reign coning to an end anytime soon?
Kari Cruz: “The legging is here forever. As long as we have a range of body types, big dinners, runs to the grocery store, fitness routines and layering needs, we will always require a legging with superior stretch.”
Snobette: There seems to be an attempt to blur the lines between performance apparel and streetwear. Is there a clear distinction?
Kari Cruz: “Performance and streetwear have always been intertwined. Skate had a hugely important influence on streetwear, as did basketball. Shoes that started as performance silhouettes have become streetwear staples. Historically, activewear and streetwear give and take from each other in countless ways.”
“It’s refreshing to see new concepts born with both sport and street mutually in mind. But, there’s a definite distinction: Good activewear will always be primarily driven by function and innovation.”
Snobette: Finally, what do you view as your main sneaker and footwear rotation for 2021? What are you rocking now?
Kari Cruz: “This is an unfair question! The year has just started and outside is not open yet. Dunks have a clear place in the agenda, as do Air Force 1s. I love the resurgence both shoes are experiencing. I’m on board for their timeless versatility.
“I generally live in Air Jordan 1s and thanks to the presidential inauguration I think we’ll start seeing a lot more Jordans paired with formalwear. But honestly, most shoes will look good paired with UNDRCRWN product!