For around three years in the late 1980s, TROOP was the biggest name in streetwear. Appearing almost out of nowhere, and disappearing just as fast, TROOP became the center of one of the biggest controversies the scene has ever known. Giving his first ever interview on the matter, we spoke to the brand's original founder, Teddy Held.
It's 1985 in New York City; Madonna's "Material Girl" is on the radio, Windows 1.0 has launched, and crack is lining inner-city pockets with disposable income. In the era of excess, everyone is out to make a lot of money, and Teddy Held, a 25-year-old Jewish sneaker store owner in the Bronx, is hatching a plan.
His shop, The Jew Man's, was one of the few places still stocking Air Force 1s ("Bought the Nike Air low cuts off the Jew man," rapped Prime Minister Pete Nice), and he had long realized that people didn't want what they could get easily, they wanted exclusivity. Five miles away, Harlem tailor Dapper Dan was charging $300 for velour sweat suits, and everyone from Japanese tourists to Mike Tyson came to the store for his limited clothing. Held's audacious plan seems implausible today – he would set up his own sneaker and clothing company from scratch and take on the establishment.
The name of this new clothing and footwear company was TROOP, and the style was consciously brash, with a "fuck you" swagger. The air bags, the logos, the straps – TROOP was all about having more than the next guy. This was a premium brand with premium prices, aimed squarely at a new breed of aspirational urban youth. As Damon Dash once said: "When you live in an apartment with roaches and stuff, what else do you have?" Answer: You have your style.
Held's ambition paid off. Within around three years TROOP would become one of the biggest streetwear companies in the game, turning over tens of millions of dollars and gaining popularity in countries across the globe. The outfits and sneakers produced by the company made their way into the wardrobes of LL Cool J, MC Hammer, Ultramagnetic MCs, Stetsasonic, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flava Flav, way before most companies had even thought about product placement.
Then the air bubble burst. Against a backdrop of blackmail and malicious rumors, TROOP imploded just as quickly as it had come to life. In fact, the brand’s entire creation-to-collapse journey took less time than Nike did to develop the Magista model. But why? What was the killer blow that brought things crashing down so suddenly?
At the height of TROOP’s meteoric ascendence, a hoax began to spread that the company was run by the Ku Klux Klan – the suggestion being that white supremacists were making money selling high-priced clothes to inner-city ethnic minorities. According to the gossip, the brand’s name was an acronym for 'To Rule Over Oppressed People," and there were hidden messages under the soles and linings. Some people even insisted they had seen LL Cool J tear up his TROOP jacket, live on Oprah.
The rumors were all untrue. The founders, Teddy and his brother Harvey, were Jewish, and worked alongside a Korean named William Kim – but the damage was done. Queens rapper MC Shan perpetuated the hearsay in his track “I Pioneered This” with the line, “And PUMA's the brand cause the Klan makes TROOPS.” In 2004 Eminem re-quoted the line in "Yellow Brick Road," and later told XXL magazine everyone he knew threw out their TROOPs after MC Shan's song came out. The brand was finished.
And that’s likely where it would’ve ended, had the TROOP name not been snapped up some years down the line by an unlikely band of investors (including, at one stage, St. Louis rap star Nelly). Three weeks ago, 30 years after the brand’s first outing and after several changes in ownership, TROOP relaunched with a small selection of retro styles. There’s no denying it has its work cut out to salvage its image, but with the dust long since settled on the original controversy, there’s no denying that curiosity in the brand still exists. Recently, we even stumbled across a pair of original TROOP sneakers in a Berlin sneaker store displayed like a museum piece, with a €550 price tag.
Curious to learn more about what actually went down all those years ago, we decided to track down the brand’s original founder, Teddy Held. Neither Teddy (now 55 and a successful realtor) nor his other two business partners has ever given an interview before, so what follows is a genuine, exclusive insight into one of the biggest scandals streetwear has ever known…
So, what exactly happened to TROOP?
It's a very simple story. Like any normal brand, once it got too strong the business side of the inner city community tried to push it away. You have guys trying to push you down, and the way to do that was with rumors. Sometimes you had to pay blackmail money. There were people out there trying to make up stories like we were Ku Klux Klan, but I'm Jewish!
I don't know what planet they are on, these people, but in those days things were different. You had a brand that was hot for two years, three years, and then you were out. It was like a cycle. It wasn’t about rival companies; it was just people who thought they could make some money. They would come up to me and say, "give me $100,000 and we'll make it go away."
So it was like a protection racket?
When I went into the market I was one of the first guys. First of all, I was in the retail business, so for years I understood the market. I had a shop called Jew Man's. That’s kind of derogatory today, but you came and you could bargain. You wanted a pair of $30 dollar sneakers? You came and gave me $28 or $27, and I let it go.
I used to sell products to inner city kids – blacks, hispanics – who couldn't get clothes in most stores because they didn't want to deal with them and didn’t want to do business with them. I brought them in, I taught them the business, I taught them Yiddish, I taught them more working in my store than they could learn in 10 years in school. They learned to count. They got smart.
Where was it?
It was in the south Bronx.
So you had a store set up purely to sell to the inner city kids?
Kids came to me for the newest of the new. I created brands. There was the brand Lotto – nobody had ever heard of it, but I went out and bought a product from them, I pushed the brand. I was only one store, but people came from all over to buy this brand.
In the inner city, the kids who want to be cool – the rappers – they don't want to have something the other kids have. They want to be that first guy – by a week, two weeks, whatever – so that people will come and look at their shoes. It's like a pretty woman; you don't want her if anyone can date her.
How did you come to set up the TROOP brand?
I was one of the key inner-city guys in retail. I could see what the kids wanted, I understood it; I could pick out the styles and I was always one of the first. PUMA in those days you couldn't sell. They made an off-white sneaker, but you couldn't give it away. I bought a few thousand pairs and had a kid in the back who painted the shoes in a different color. Nowadays something like that will cost you three or four hundred dollars a pair! I’d sell them for 50 bucks, which was a lot of money, but the idea was they'd get it, and after two days the rain would come and it wore away. Kids wore it to the club and they were the only one who had it. I created my own thing.
Later on I made a clothing line – kids walked in, and walked out as a new person. They could come back a week later and get a new outfit. It used to be that a store would get a few hundred shoes and need to sell them all, but now companies sell 10 in a month. They are doing a lot less work, but charging a lot more money.
Is that where the idea for TROOP came about? Creating this kind of early premium brand?
TROOP was always a high-end brand. My customers wanted only the best. When Nike brought out the Air Bubble, they didn't think much of them, but I had three bubbles. If you look at shoes coming up today, they are exactly those shoes. Three bubbles, four bubbles, those were all things I created in the past. All these things are coming back to life. The bottom line is: they were limited shoes.
How did you go from selling shoes to creating a clothing brand?
When the shoes became hot I realized the kids needed clothing, so I was on the first plane to Korea and I put together a line with my Korean partner. I knew what the kids wanted, I knew what colors they liked, the designs, etc. They wanted to spend 60 or 70 dollars, but they wanted to know why. With me if you wanted to new style, a new outfit, you had it. We did some jackets, pants and shirts. Everything had a match. Everything was made in Brooklyn.
So you came up with this brand, this logo and started from scratch?
I came up with the name, I started making samples and we started small. Then, gradually, another city opened up, then another, and another. There was a guy in Detroit – he was doing a million dollars a month. He was flying in every week to buy new stuff.
So you started selling from the one shop in south Bronx?
I did, but I also had a little wholesale business. The reality was I got all the items out of the one shop. I had the eye and the blessing to be attuned to what was going on.
When did you realize TROOP was going to be a success?
Once it started getting off the ground I was at trade shows and I was taking orders like there was no tomorrow. When you hit a peak in New York, you were accepted. LL Cool J wore my shoes – he never got paid for it. I was out shopping in Korea near an army base, and in one of the stores there I knew a kid who used to work for me in south Bronx. He showed me a pic of LL Cool wearing TROOPs on top of a Bentley. I couldn't believe it, it was unbelievable!
So he just wore TROOPs because he liked them?
He wore it because he liked it. He didn't want to wear ABC, the Air Force, or Shelltoes. I had shoes with straps and Air Bubbles everything – and I had jackets to go with it, I had jeans to go with it. People loved to be fancy, and this was perfect.
Did you meet LL Cool J?
Of course. We were with Russell Simmons, we knew everybody, the guy with the baggy pants...
You hung out with MC Hammer?
I hung out with all of them. Flava Flav, all of them were around me. I was busy overseas a lot, going back and forth, but I met them all.
What did TROOP actually mean?
Well what it really meant was "Total Respect Of Our Oppressed People," and the arrow was something I had seen in a bible showing the direction you should be to channel God's ways to be strong. Then the rumors started that if you ripped off the soul it said, "thank you N-word for buying these shoes." You know, the stupid things they came up with was unbelievable. It was blackmail. They slated the brand because it was getting strong and they wanted other brands to be pushed in.
Who were these people?
Well I'm not sure it was any of the [rival] brands. It was like hacking. Some guys goes and hacks a company, and that's the trick. It was like corporate espionage.
So your rivals were trying to screw you over?
It was up-and-coming people. It wasn't Nike. I wasn't affecting Nike's business, let's not kid ourselves! We were in the top eight or 10 brands at the time. There were inner-city businesses who wanted to grow, and we were getting away with it.
But if it wasn't business competition, what was the point?
It was the money, it was troublemakers. It could have been small competitors. Listen, once the rumor was out there, it wasn’t going away. Rumors start like they do today – something happens in New York, that thing is taken out of context and suddenly it's ridiculous.
Sounds like simple blackmail.
It was a blackmail-type way to push other businesses. I had ethnic kids working for me – let’s call them Block A. Then, suddenly, Block B wants a piece of the action. It's like drug dealing: they have that corner, and someone else wants the corner. They throw sticks at them. It's the same.
So you were treading on someone's toes and they wanted you out of the way?
Of course we were treading, we were in the business! We were selling in stores all over – in Atlanta, there were guys selling hot dogs who were selling TROOP sneakers on the side! People had to try and get money from us. I had organizations come to me and say "give us $100,000 and we'll help you squash the rumors."
How did it feel to go into this world?
It was a great ride, making money. But like anything, once you’re out there you were a target. It was so petty it was unbelievable. When you make money it's great, but when things start slowing down you realize who your friends are.
Can you give me any idea how much money you made?
The company did almost $80 million.
So what happened in the end? How much effect did the rumor have on the business?
Two things hit the business: first, the rumor, and second, it had already been out for two or three years and people were looking for something else. When you’re on a volume run like this, people want the big orders. The orders are placed four months before, but when you get it, people don't want it. People were scared. Remember what happened in Ferguson? Imagine trying to sell a sneaker with that white cop on it. People don't want to wear it. One guy stops and then the other stops, and then suddenly all the goods are backing up. That's the problem. In the style business you have this big up, and then you have this big trough.
When did you sell it?
In the late '80s, or early '90s it was gone. We got our money and left. We couldn't do anything with it.
Have you got any ideas to bring out new sneakers?
I'm in the real estate business, I see what's going on. The retail hunger is not the same. The prices are much, much higher, the factories have all cut down. The woman who pays $140 for a jogging sneaker, that's where the money is these days.
Did you do well out of the brand, or did it bankrupt you?
I did OK. I enjoyed the ride, I made money. I did OK with the brand.
What was the lasting memory of the whole time with TROOP?
One lasting memory? The truth is, there wasn't one lasting memory. I enjoyed meeting people, I enjoyed traveling the world, finding out people were the same. We all have our quirks, but the reality is: we are still people.
Check out the newly re-launched TROOP designs over at their official website
Words by Ollie Stallwood for Highsnobiety.com