Photo by Kevin Ito
As a young teenager in the early ’80s, Sung Choi worked at various menswear shops in Harlem and downtown New York, helping out family friends while earning some cash.
His early start in the urban streets of fashion led to career pit stops working for urban streetwear brands. In 1989, Choi began working on T-shirt graphics for a young brand then known as 555-Soul, now the urban clothing behemoth Triple 5 Soul. In 1992, he joined the legendary PNB hip-hop clothing brand as a partner. Choi recalls, “The creative energy brewing in those days—in our offices, on the streets, in music—was really powerful.” After PNB’s street success, but before its questionable resurrection as Nick Cannon’s “street” brand, Choi left to branch out into shoe design, honing his chops at DC Shoes, Lakai, and Ecko Unlimited.
In 2001, Choi founded Clae, a footwear brand that modernized classic silhouettes without sacrificing the comfort of athletic footwear. His unique approach filled a void in the shoe market for stylish, upscale shoes that still referenced sneaker culture. In 2003, Clae was awarded the Sportswear International Fashion Award (SIFA) for “Best Men’s Footwear Collection.” Yet not all was picture-perfect: internal conflicts within the company arose. As the company ran short of money and more lucrative opportunities arose, Choi was forced to shut down the brand. “We were one of the first on the block offering lifestyle-driven footwear, but maybe we were a little early,” Choi admits. “Five, six years ago, there weren’t many boutiques or retailers to support emerging independent brands, but within the last three years there has been a tremendous growth in shops that cater to lifestyle-driven brands and unique products.”
After a three year hiatus, and with a new backer, Clae footwear was revived this April. Experience has taught Choi not to abandon the modern comfort that accompanies his bold, clean interpretation of classic looks. It has paid off: everyone from American Rag to the more exclusive Reed Space stocks Clae, which will launch this fall. From working in the streets to creating a product that can hit the ground running while looking elegant and refined, Choi has brought a unique eye to his endeavors.