Tuesday, December 11, 2018 || By Michael Romain ||
Featured image: Sabrian Sledge and Darris Kelly are the co-owners of Flee Club, a high-end sneaker shop in Chicago. | Alexis Rogals
Best friends Darris Kelly and Sabrian Sledge, the co-owners of Flee Club, a high-end resell shoe store in Chicago, weren’t always on the same team, so to speak.
In 1998, Kelly and Sledge had both transferred into Proviso Township High School District 209 after playing three years of basketball at Walther Lutheran High School in Melrose Park.
“We became friends because our brothers were friends,” Kelly said in a recent interview. “We didn’t go to grade school with each other, so we were like, ‘We’ll go to high school together. It got kind of easy for us at Walther, though, so we transferred our senior year. He went to Proviso West and I went to Proviso East.”
Kelly, the son of longtime District 209 school board member Theresa Kelly, said that he remembers the game as a “near sellout.” East, which was stocked with talent that year (the team included future NBA player Steven Hunter), won.
The late 1990s were heady days for Kelly, a native of Maywood, and Sledge, a native of Chicago’s Austin community.
Darris Kelly fills the claw machine inside of Flee Club with new shoes on Nov. 29. | Alexa Rogals
One night, the two friends went to Chicago to celebrate with their good friend Corey Maggette, a Fenwick star who had just gotten a scholarship offer to play basketball at Duke University.
While hanging out at Rock and Roll McDonald’s, the group spotted the singer R. Kelly, who noticed the teenagers looking awestruck in his direction. He approached them and singled out Sledge, telling the basketball player that he looked more like a rapper.
“He said, ‘You sure you don’t rap?’” Sledge recalled during a recent interview. “I was like, ‘No.’ Then he said, ‘I’m sure you know about rap,’ and he asked me to rap one of my favorite songs. I rapped a Mase verse and he took me to the studio that night. Eight months later, I was on his double album, R., and had a record deal the next year.”
Sledge, whose best known as Boo, would become one-half of the rap duo Boo & Gotti. The duo’s career peaked with the 2001 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Fiesta (Remix),” which featured Jay-Z and R. Kelly.
Sledge and Kelly started Flee Club five years ago. The store arose from their mutual passion for sports and sneakers. | Alexa Rogals
“He gave me a pen and told me to write every day,” Sledge said of the R&B mogul. “That was the best advice he ever gave me.”
Sledge would apply that advice to his second career, which he launched with the last chunk of money he’d gotten from rapping.
“We [he and Darris Kelly] went to two sneaker conventions where you can buy, sell and trade shoes and from there, I got the gist of the business,” Sledge said. “From there, we started our own brand and tried to get accounts with Nike and Brand Jordan, but that was super hard.”
So, the friends researched stores like Flight Club and Stadium Goods that deal in rare and limited edition sneakers, which regularly rival the price of MacBooks.
“We always wanted to have a key four-letter word that has street terminology, that’s catchy and that will sound nice,” Kelly said, adding that the second part of the store’s name was added “as icing on the cake” and is something of an homage to Flight Club, the famous sneaker retail and consignment store in New York City.
Kelly said that he and Sledge complement each other. Sledge,the seasoned entertainer, has an innate sense of style and knows what’s hot and what’s not. Kelly, on the other hand, knows business.
Kelly holds up a specialty Nike shoe inside of Flee Club. | Alexa Rogals
“I had a great upbringing,” Kelly said. “My mom always tried to get me everything I wanted and she made sure that education was important, so after high school, I got a basketball scholarship to Savannah State, where I got my degree in business.”
Kelly said that he’s always had an entrepreneurial mind, but things really started to click after “I flipped my first shoe and made double what I paid for it — I knew I was in my lane.”
For the last two years, Flee Club has been located on the West Side of Chicago, around the corner from the site of Maywood native Fred Hampton’s infamous 1969 assassination. Like Hampton, Kelly is putting his hometown on the map.
“We’ve got a good relationship with the whole city,” said Kelly.
Currently, Flee Club has more than 12,000 Instagram followers and celebrity clients that include Scottie Pippen, Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks and Bulls power forward Bobby Portis, among many others.
In addition, homegrown stars like Dee Brown and Shannon Brown, among many others, often depend on Flee Club to get them the rare kicks that they don’t have time to hunt down.
In the future, Sledge and Kelly said, they hope to manufacture their own line of apparel. They’ve already branded t-shirts, hats, sweaters and other merchandise. Kelly said that they’ve slowed production a bit recently, but plan on ramping it back up sometime soon.
“Right now, it’s so hard to manufacture your own stuff,” Sledge said. “A lot of times, it’s easier for us to make our own rather than wait on China,” he said. “Some of us are so creative that we can do it.”
In the meantime, he’s focused on manufacturing the same kind of life-changing advice that R. Kelly (who Sledge said he still respects despite the singer’s current controversies) gave him all those years ago.
Flee Club is looking to scale up its production of in-house brand apparel and merchandise, such as custom t-shirts, sweaters and hats. | Alexa Rogals
“I try to tell young rappers, ‘Sit down and write for a minute. Take two hours out of your day to write and rap. Sit down and sketch. You never know what that can come to,’” Sledge said. “‘Stop always thinking what you’re not getting. Think about what work you’re putting in. Take an hour devoted to your craft and it will come back to you.’”
For Kelly, the advice is much the same. In so many words ,focus more time on producing and less time on consuming. Know your lane and learn how to navigate it. Never give up.
“If you really want to do something you like, you really have to be knowledgeable,” Kelly said. “Any time you jump into something, you want to know everything about it — the ins and outs of it. Anybody who puts their mind to something can accomplish it, but it all depends on how hard you want it.” VFP
Flee Club is located at 121 S. Western Ave. in Chicago.
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