Dionte Johnson is the man responsible for putting Columbus on the map in the sneaker and streetwear scene. Following an injury that cut his football career short, it just so happened that Dionte’s favorite store, Sole Classics, was on the market. After borrowing money from friends, Dionte took the plunge and became the owner at just 23 years old. Fast forward 10 years and Sole Classics has had multiple collaborations with Vans, has had pop-ups all over the country, and has become one of the top sneaker boutiques in the Midwest. What I love the most about Dionte is his drive and his vision. He is an example of someone who took risks, worked their ass off, asked for help when they needed it, and found success that could have never been planned. When Dionte got injured and had to let go of his football career, he took that energy and used it to build something great. No matter what happens in life, we should face it like Dionte: with optimism, with positivity, and without a doubt in our minds that we can achieve anything we want as long as we work hard for it.
K: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and where you are from?
D: Dionte Johnson, I’m right here from Columbus, Ohio, eastside to be exact. I graduated from East Moore Academy, then went on to Ohio State and I’m still here.
I rounded up the money from friends, and the next thing you know, I was twenty-three years old owning a store.
K: Could you tell me about your journey and how you became a part of Sole Classics?
D: I’ve always been involved in retail in some way, shape or form. My freshman year of high school I started unofficially working at this store called Big Daddy’s. It was owned by a guy from Detroit who used to sell suits and stuff like that. Then it transitioned to selling suits and then some streetwear, and before you know it we were selling platinum FUBU and brands like that. So I started off in there cleaning windows and stuff like that. I worked there through my time in college and whenever I could get a shift or two, I would go over there and pick up some hours. After that, I played football. After my football career came to an end, I actually just happened to hear that they were selling the shop. I didn’t start Sole Classics – it started in 2006, and in 2009 I heard they were selling the shop. I rounded up the money from friends, and the next thing you know, I was twenty-three years old owning a store. Fast forward ten years, I’m still here.
K: Over the past ten years what have been some of your favorite memories?
D: We’ve got a bunch. We’ve done our five year anniversary, our 10 year anniversary. I would say easily our collaborations with Vans, a lot of our most fond memories revolve around those because each one has been so unique and each release has been so different. We did a Los Angeles pop up for one of the Vans collabs where we stayed out there for a month, so we kind of got to live like we were in L.A. That was probably one of our fondest memories. There’s too many to pinpoint just one.
K: Could you tell us how those Vans collaborations came about? That’s super cool.
D: So our partnership with Vans is kind of random. Because when we had our older rep, he was our rep until 2014 or something like that. I was in New York and I just happened to ask him, what does it take to get a collaboration? And, you know, I’m sure every rep hears that all the time. So he just kind of laughed it off, he was like, “yeah, just send me something.” So I took it to heart. I was young. I didn’t know any better. I went home and got on illustrator and just started mocking stuff up and asking my friends what they liked. That was a Thursday or something like that. On Monday I sent him an email with the shoe that would later turn out to be the “Carmen.” When he got the email, 10 minutes later he called me like, “yo, who did this?” I’m like “we did… we did it over the weekend.” He was like “a lot of people don’t take it this serious, they will just say we want to do a color or something like that.” So he was like, “yo, you actually did your thing, so imma send it up.” A year and a half later we had the project, the collaboration, and now we are working on [shoe] number 14 or 15. It’s been a ride ever since then.
K: What do you think makes Sole Classics unique compared to other sneaker and streetwear boutiques?
D: I would say it’s the community more so than anything else. The nature of retail has changed drastically since I’ve taken over the shop. It used to be where you had to come into a boutique in order to find exclusive products or new releases or colorways that your big mall stores wouldn’t take a risk on. Now because of the Internet and social media, everything’s at the tip of your fingers. I would say relationships, community, and people shopping here because of the atmosphere and because of the conversations that they’re going to have with employees. We still get product that you’re not going to find at other shops locally, however, I think that the atmosphere is what draws people in way more so than anything else.
I think that’s kind of why a lot of people like to work here and stay here for as long as they do. Because you do get a chance to be heard, you do get a chance to see your ideas come to life.
K: I want to touch a little on your marketing – what does your marketing team look like, and who is in charge of making sure you stay on top of current trends?
D: I wish we could say like, yo, there’s a specific team for this and for that. We’re a pretty tight-knit unit, we have a staff of about 12. We have some people to focus on one area, however, everybody’s input is valued. I think that’s kind of why a lot of people like to work here and stay here for as long as they do. Because you do get a chance to be heard, you do get a chance to see your ideas come to life. So as far as the marketing team goes, I would say I spearhead that. We’ve been doing better at getting more people involved and using more automation. However, it is a tight team. It’s not like this is a social media team, this is marketing. It’s like this might be his responsibility, however, he’s still helping out with customer support and stuff like that.
K: I wanted to ask you about your social media, and what role you think it has played in growing your business?
D: So funny story about our social media. I wasn’t even a big fan of getting on Instagram as a business. We had a shop manager by the name James, JD. He was getting acclimated with photography. He was picking up photography as a hobby and now he’s a freelance photographer. He was like yo, let’s get a shop Instagram page. This was the time where people had to go to boutiques to find cool shoes so they were just coming to us no matter what. I was like it’s not really necessary, we don’t need one, now we’ve got to worry about photography and stuff like that. He said well I’ll do it, I’ll be responsible for it. Fast forward to 3 years ago, and it’s probably the leading driving force behind the majority of our online sales. I remember when we first got Facebook in college. I remember sending those emails out, trying to get Wright State on board because half of my school was going there for college. The same thing with Instagram – by us being on the forefront, I don’t think anybody saw it as this vehicle that could drive business back when we were first on it. You can still scroll back to our very first post. So, you know, to see the transition, to see how important it is for business, it’s amazing to say the least. We use our social media to really drive the word out.
K: Have there been any changes in the industry over the past few years that you have had to adapt to?
D: I’ll say the biggest change has been the amount of information that people have at once. It used to be, you know, if you lived in Lima, Ohio, you had to drive to Columbus to even be in-the-know. I remember buying shoes out of Footaction and you had to go to Footaction to ask what shoes were coming out that month or that week. So imagine if you lived in rural Ohio, you have to first make it to a major city, and then find out what that calendar looks like or even know how to look for it. So, I would say the biggest change has been just the access to information. Everybody knows what’s coming out. We already know what’s coming out next holiday. Not just on a retail standpoint – I’m talking about as a consumer. We know what Jordan’s are releasing on Christmas next year. It’s almost too much information. I think that everybody is still trying to figure out how to utilize it in the best way possible, so you see people just kind of throwing stuff at the wall right now to see if it sticks. But I would say the biggest change in retail has been about access.
K: Do you think that brick-and-mortar stores are here to stay?
D: Absolutely. The one thing that people fail to realize is the majority of shoppers can’t just buy something online and expect it to fit or to actually look the same way when it gets there in person. We still have a lot of people that need to actually feel the garment, to try it on, to see if it looks right with some shoes they already own or buy it with some new shoes. So until people have cookie-cutter body types, and everybody can wear everything, I don’t see the brick-and-mortar going anywhere. Now again, like I’ve stressed before, it’s changing. You have to be more than just a store. The whole idea of “if you build it they will come” is kind of out the window at this point. You have to be offering something else to make sure that people want to come, drive, park, pay for parking, walk out to the store in the rain and shop with you as opposed to everybody else.
K: Moving forward, where do you see Sole Classics in 5 years?
D: Oh, that’s a good question. The remodel of this store and changing our infrastructure is first on our priority list, so making sure that we’re no longer operating like a mom and pop shop, and more like a Fortune 100 company internally. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need a thousand more staff, however, we need new systems and things like that. With that being said, we love the brick and mortar atmosphere. We love the experience. We want to grow experience-wise, so that way people have an opportunity to see things in a different light. Our passion, our purpose, is to continue to grow and continue to give people an opportunity to see this product in person and grow our own brand within this idea of retail footwear. So we’re working on it. We’ve got some good ideas in place for 2020 and beyond.
I will always be a fan of people trying to figure it out.
K: What are some of your favorite local businesses here in Columbus?
D: There are some that are gone, there are some there are still around. We love Ladybird, we love Rowe. Jeni’s is probably one of my favorite businesses on the planet. The crazy thing is, I wasn’t even a big fan of Jeni’s when it first arrived. I forget what the first ice cream was, I feel like it has to do with something like Lemongrass. It was wild and to me, I didn’t like it. It didn’t trigger my taste buds. So first off I was like man, it’s just weird. But the gooey cookie dough, the cookie cake batter, whatever it is, I’ve wasted my eight dollars every trip, you know. So, you know, you have stores like that. You have some guys on the resale end like Heat Archive, you’ve got young guys doing it. You have Mid High Market who’s doing it. They’re printing T-shirts there. They’re selling things at a retail level and trying to cultivate what you would see in Los Angeles and bringing it to Columbus, Ohio. Anybody who is growing their business organically and trying to really take a real grassroots approach, I’ve been a fan of. I watched Homage grow from selling t-shirts on our back rack to be one of the largest collegiate apparel brands in the world. I will always be a fan of people trying to figure it out.
K: Do you have a favorite sneaker of all time?
D: So the Air Force 1 is always going to be one of my top sneakers of all time. But there’s a sneaker for each brand. So, you know, you have your Jordan 4 – oh he got excited for that! [pointing to Tommy]. Matt would get excited about that, too – I have a close friend who has a store down in Cincinnati and he thinks the Jordan 4 is the best sneaker of all time. For me, I have different sneakers for different years of my life. So there’s not just one that I think I could settle on and die with. However, there are specific ones that tell stories about what I was going through at that point in time. I remember I thought the Jordan 12 was the best Jordan on the planet my senior year of high school. And now, it’s changed. If I had to hang one right now, it would probably be the Air Force 1. I’ve seen it dressed so many different ways. I have had tons of them in my life that, you know, even when they went through their whole crisis of bootlegs and had to scale back, I still was a big fan and tried to figure out how to get my hands on them. I don’t think you get more classic or timeless than the Air Force 1.
T: Do you still talk to the guys [you played football with]? I’m the biggest sports fan ever. So 2007, that was the year you guys went and played LSU, and you blocked for Beanie, right?
T: I love Beanie!
D: Sports brings us together in a way you can’t even imagine.
It doesn’t matter what your on the field experience is, playing sports makes you understand how to deal with people.
T: I agree. I always tell people – well I was nothing like you, I actually got cut my senior year on the basketball team so I wasn’t anything, believe me – but you learn life lessons and brotherhood and teamwork, stuff you carry with you forever. I’m so jealous of people that get to experience it at a high level.
D: That’s what I always tell people. It doesn’t matter what your on the field experience is, playing sports makes you understand how to deal with people, how to work with people, how to make new friends, how to maintain a relationship. I’ve seen guys who are the best of friends in the locker room and are the worst of enemies, but you’re still on the same team. So how do you function? How do you learn how to deal with that dynamic? You see every possible scenario, and if you’re a lucky one you’re able to apply it to your real-life and go even further.
T: I think it’s important not to be the best. Like to learn that it’s not my show, and this guy I don’t like is better than me, and I’m going to have to support him. Like my son, I mean, this kid can’t even catch a foam ball. But I’m gonna sign him up for everything and by God, he’s gonna do it.
D: If anything, he’ll learn how to deal. I’m telling you, my mom kept me in sports for as long as I can remember, and it was mostly because it’ll keep you out of trouble. Worst case scenario, it’ll keep you busy and out of trouble. So I’ll always be a fan of it and support it. I tell people all the time – I love this sport. The reason I love football is because it’s strategic, like you’re playing a game of chess against another opponent because there’s so many moving pieces that if you don’t get it right, you don’t block this guy right, it might ruin a whole play that would’ve scored a touchdown. However, I’d made a pact to myself that if it wasn’t NFL, there was never going to be another game of football played on my body. You can’t just play pick up football like you can pick-up basketball. I know guys that are playing semi-pro and I’m like you’re gonna tear your ACL… for fun! It’s not that type of fun! Just relax!