French businessman malamine Koné is talking a very big game. The 34-year-old founder and ceo of sportswearmaker Airness is explaining his goal of boosting his company's 2005 sales of $150 million mostly in France to rival global giant Nike's some $14 billion. Sound a touch fanciful? Don't tell Koné. "You know where Puma was five years ago? Deeply troubled," Koné says of the now-thriving German-American sportswear group, whose own sales last year exceeded $2 billion. "And six years ago, Airness scarcely existed. We didn't get this far this fast worrying about what we supposedly can't do."
That might smack of excessive exuberance, if not for the gains Koné has made in the six short years since he founded Airness a name borrowed from U.S. basketball star Michael Jordan to reflect Koné's brand motto "ever higher, ever stronger." Koné started in 1999, selling sweatshirts sporting the Airness name and slinking-panther logo around the
northern Paris housing projects where he lived. He has since developed a clothing and sports line that has grown at least 100% every year. Its founder built Airness around his own early street-level observation: kids determine what's hip, not the companies hawking stuff to them. "By observing what people were buying or looking for, I could react faster to current trends and demand and anticipate what would work next," says Koné.
Airness has the irresistible cool derived from celebrities the French love most: football stars. How did Koné swing that when all the pros worth recruiting were already under contracts with Nike, Adidas and Puma? "I came up with the concept of the 'extra-sports' contract getting players to wear Airness in their private life once their on-field obligations were over," he says. Koné's French-African roots were key to signing stars such as Didier Drogba an Ivorian who plays for the top English team, Chelsea and Djibril Cissé, currently with Liverpool. Those ties also allowed Koné to go to the next level: signing Airness as official uniform supplier to several French pro clubs, and half a dozen national squads in Africa. Next season, London club Fulham joins that stable, with an added plus: Fulham's owner Mohamed al Fayed will place Airness products in another asset he owns Harrods, the London department store.
Such coups have enabled Koné to build Airness into France's largest-selling domestic sportswear brand. Relying on his intelligence, busi-ness flair and never-say-die attitude, Koné is an all-too-rare success story: a young black man from the kind of blighted, unemployment-racked French suburban housing projects that erupted in riots last year. In addition to being one of the brightest lights to have come from the banlieues, Koné is trying to change the system. Without the massive capital and worldwide production resources that the older brands such as Nike and Adidas possess, Koné has used the Airness allure to handpick partners licensed to produce the brand's sportswear often with stiff conditions. All Airness clothes, for example, must be produced in France to satisfy quality requirements, and firms must have the ability to adapt design and materials quickly as demand evolves. Through similar deals, Koné has extended the Airness paw into other hot-selling, fashion-conscious products ranging from school notebooks to mobile phones.
Koné manages that activity from the offices of MK Promotion the unit overseeing marketing, communications and design questions for all Airness-branded products, located off Paris' Champs Elysées, a long way from the banlieues. Despite his success, Koné has not forgotten his roots, or the slim chances of escaping the housing projects. MK Promotion recruits new hires from qualified job seekers from the projects who are on the dole, and provides help with business and social projects to banlieue youths. "Contrary to what most people think, we get less requests for funding than we do for advice and pointers on how to navigate the mass of red tape you encounter when you try anything in France," says Koné. "The people of the projects gave me a lot, so I want to give them back as much as I can."
Koné's tale is a dramatic one. Born in the southern Malian village of Niéna a place that even today has no electricity or running water Koné came to France at 10, unable to speak the local language. He got a prelaw degree in the hope of becoming a police inspector. A talent for boxing earned him two French amateur titles and selection to represent France in the 1996 Summer Games. But an auto accident in early 1995 shattered his left knee; Koné required 12 operations and five years of rehabilitation.
The injury ended Koné's Olympic and career dreams. But it set the stage for what would later become Airness whose panther logo was drawn from Koné's nickname from the days before he was forced out of the boxing ring and into a wheelchair. "The long, forced immobility made me observe things in a way I hadn't before including how fashion works," he says. Koné is convinced that catching up with giants like Adidas and Nike is just as attainable as the dream of millions across France to make it out of the projects, just as he has successfully done. "I've seen that there are lots of preconceived ideas and prejudices out there to stop you from doing what you want if you give in to them," Koné says. "Perhaps my strength is that I don't accept those limits."
Airness's founder insists there'd be a lot more chances to go around if rigid French attitudes could limber up in U.S. style. "In America, if a 15-year-old kid from the Bronx has a million-dollar idea, there's no debate about what's possible: the kid is ceo, and people get to work behind him," laughs Koné. "France has lots of young people with great ideas. Why aren't they getting through?" Still, in at least one area, Koné is a true French traditionalist: he believes that France should support its own. Many multimillion-dollar equipment contracts expire at the end of World Cup play in July. Koné reasons that with Germany's Adidas equipping the Nationalmannschaften, the U.S.'s Nike supplying Team U.S.A. and Britain's Umbro sponsoring England, "I can only hope France will now chose a French company like Airness to supply its uniforms."
The French national team playing in a brand created in the projects by a man who immigrated to France from a village in Mali that would be something to see.