Gentry Humphrey, a veteran Nike executive and veritable legend in the footwear industry, spends a good amount of time on the driving range—and he’s earned it.
After 32 years at the athleticwear giant, where Humphrey helmed Jordan, helping transform it from Michael Jordan’s namesake sneaker into one of the world’s most recognizable, sought after, and remunerative brands, he retired as the vice president of footwear. With over three decades in the industry, achieving success after success, he certainly deserves a break. But Humphrey didn’t hang up his proverbial high-tops altogether.
“I knew that when I did retire, I couldn’t play golf every single day, all day long,” Humphrey tells me at the Capital Grill in Las Vegas. “I would get bored. I wanted to make sure that I stayed mentally stimulated.”
Today, Humphrey is back to busying himself—once again in the sneaker space—with his new footwear brand Code by Gentry. The goal of the brand is to help customers “unlock their code to success” through shoes, which, for many, are the most personal and cherished pieces in a wardrobe. This is why the designs on offer are elevated, marked by classic silhouettes, handcrafted leather, and flourishes like studs and contrast stitching. They are unique.
Code’s home base is in Las Vegas, where Humphrey has amassed a team that includes fellow Nike vet Josiah Lake, the brand’s general manager. “It’s almost full circle for me,” Lake says of reuniting with his former boss and mentor to establish Code. “He gave me that platform when I came into Jordan as a young kid, to establish myself and be a part of something that was cool.” In fact, among Code’s tenets of cool is a forthcoming collaborative process in which fashion students and other young sneaker enthusiasts attending Inner City Arts will contribute to brand designs and earn royalties from sales.
Over seafood and steak, shortly before a launch event in July attended by celebrity fans Morris Chestnut and Ray Allen, Humphrey and Lake elaborated on brand inspiration, sneaker culture, and how they plan to shake up the market with Code.
Tell us the inspiration behind the brand.
Gentry Humphrey: I was with Jordan and Nike for 32 years, and I evaluated success by how many kids lined up for the projects that we produced. That was a job well done—when everybody was lined up trying to get those shoes. But when I became the international general manager, tasked with growing the business outside of North America, I saw that in places like Paris, the culture around basketball and sneakers was more important and relevant, more so than the shoes. I put on some events in Paris, and they were some of the only events where people of color could come together and embrace that culture. I realized that the ability to foster and give back to a community is more valuable than creating a commodity that everyone desires. So that was the impetus for starting this company: How can I connect to the next generation of folks who look like me and give them opportunities.
How is that collaborative process going to work?
GH: I largely designed the first three shoes that we are launching. Moving forward, we want to use the same framework that we did with athletes at Nike: We would sit down with athletes, talk to them about their lifestyle, create a shoe in their likeness, and then sell it. Afterwards, they get royalties. With this company, I want to sit down with young designers who have aspirations of being in the fashion world, let them add a veneer to our products, put them out on the market, and then we give them royalties so they can now start their own companies or use those funds for school. We’ll create the format of the shoes, but allow them to tell their story using their own design concepts.
What’s the meaning behind the name Code?
GH: The name came from the dress codes we all have to meet, no matter where we go or what we do. How many times have guys been to a club and been told, “Sorry, you can’t get in with those sneakers?” Originally, we talked about the designs being able to be worn 24/7—in all aspects of their life. In fact, if you look at the logo, the letter C is comprised of seven dots. The rest, O-D-E has 24 dots.
How would you describe the Code aesthetic?
GH: We took the core elements of sneakers and elevated them. Now, we have a luxury point of view. And each shoe has three personalities. If you see it in all white, it looks like a luxury sneaker. When you see it in all black, with all the materials that we use, you can wear that same shoe with a suit. We also know that when folks go out to the club, they want something fashionable, which is why we offer suedes, crazy colors, and spikes. We can touch the conservative guy and the guy who wants to be a peacock.
Josiah Lake: The sneaker culture is very interesting, because you grow up with principles like storytelling and exclusivity that define your relationship with shoes. But at some point, you have a lot of people telling you that you gotta grow up, you gotta move on. While the outside world might say, “Those are just shoes,” they are so much more. I remember having a paper route and saving up for my first pair of Jordans, and what that meant to me. It wasn’t just a shoe. So what Gentry is putting out is that transition. You can still have some of the sneaker culture elements that you grew up with, but they’re presented in a way that makes sense for whatever chapter of your life you’re in now.
GH: We try to think of all the details, right down to the bottom of the shoe. When you look at the traction pad, it spells the word “code” in Morse code. So there’s detail after detail after detail.
Tell us about sizing and price range.
GH: We have one model that goes from size 5 to 15, and then the others go from 7 to 15. In terms of pricing, I wanted to be mindful of the younger consumer. They’ll pay $225 for a pair of Jordans, but they may or may not pay that for something brand new from me. So to capture this young consumer and get them to elevate their choices, we wanted to be at a price point that is somewhat accessible without sacrificing craftsmanship and margins for business. So all of that factored into where we landed, which right now is from $150 to $190.
And where are the shoes made?
GH: I have one key designer in Portland, and manufacturing happens in Vietnam. Manufacturing was a tricky task, because when you’re designing a product like we are, it has to be more crafted than typical athletic sneakers. Most athletic sneaker manufactures can’t produce what we’re doing—they won’t have the same level of finish and craftsmanship. So we had to seek out some folks that we felt could do things that relate to the athletic world, but more importantly do things that can relate to the dress world, to more formal settings. Today’s consumers are discerning; they’ll call you out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.