The Next Level
STORY: Amy Meadows
PHOTOS: Stephen Payne
Shoe designer Antonio Brown had no idea who Jason Derulo was when the singer-songwriter’s stylist contacted Brown to ask him for a pair of his kicks for Derulo’s appearance on Good Morning America. Brown had recently launched his footwear company, LVL XIII (pronounced “Level 13”), after leaving an accounting career and position as head of finance for the Alexander Doll Company. A buyout of the collectible doll company in 2012 prompted Brown to consider his options elsewhere. He decided to move in a more creative direction and settled on the footwear industry, thanks to his passion for high-end sneakers. But he had no idea how to begin his own brand.
“Everyone around me thought I was crazy,” admits Brown. “My friend said, ‘You have no experience. You didn’t go to design school. You don’t even know how to draw.’ But I went to my computer and typed in ‘how to start a footwear brand.’ I followed the first link, and the universe started conspiring in my favor.”
Brown moved from New York City to Atlanta in February 2013, choosing Atlantic Station as the home base for his new company, which he founded using his severance and an initial investment from his brother. He recalls, “My spirit moved me to Atlanta. I had no idea why. But I knew I was here for a purpose.” He soon met a tattoo artist who helped him create his first sketches. That tattoo artist then introduced Brown to an illustrator, who not only crafted the computer-generated drafts of his footwear, but also led him to an executive who had worked for Reebok and was able to bring his designs to a Chinese manufacturer that could create shoe samples. Those first samples generated quite a bit of interest on social media, and are what caught the attention of Derulo.
“I gave him my only pair of shoes to wear on GMA, and when I got them back, they were destroyed. I didn’t know that he does flips and cartwheels when he performs. I cursed him out,” Brown says with a chuckle. “He laughed and said, ‘I want you to come to L.A. and have a conversation with me.’ I flew out to his home, and we instantly vibed. He said he wanted to be more than a brand ambassador. He wanted to be an investing partner. He wanted to be part of my journey.”
Along with Derulo’s manager, they have transformed LVL XIII into a multi million-dollar luxury men’s fashion and footwear brand found in major retailers such as Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. The company also has partnerships with Saks Fifth Avenue, Nike, Target and many others. Its resounding success has allowed Brown to move into philanthropy as well, giving him a platform to launch the nonprofit Dream of Humanity, through which he designs entrepreneurship programs that disrupt traditional business school models by providing hands-on training and support to young people from economically disadvantaged communities. Based on his own experience as an entrepreneur, he has also created a Small Business Entrepreneurship Program that has been licensed by The Art Institutes and implemented at sites nationwide.
“At one point, my only dream was to be inside of a major retailer. But I’ve been able to do so many things,” says Brown. “If you have faith, you can truly move mountains. I have learned to sit in the stillness and surrender to the flow of the universe and listen to my spirit. I know that the universe is preparing me for something great. You have to take chances to find yourself.”