The godfather of sole

Deals with platinum-selling rap stars are making alumnus J.P. McDade's Yums Shoes a major player in the lucrative sneaker industry

By Mark Permenter

J.P. McDade is treble in a world that thumps bass, modesty in a sea of bling. Yet the founder and CEO of Arlington-based Yums Shoes is far from out of step.

With endorsements from platinum-selling rap stars like Soulja Boy Tell ’Em and Sean Kingston, sales of his graffiti art-inspired sneakers and apparel are soaring like hits headed to the top of the charts.

McDade, a 42-year-old family man and self-described “conservative guy,” realizes there’s a size 15 EEE cultural divide between him and the hip-hop community. But he’s smart enough to continue drawing from the influential coterie that has adopted his latest entrepreneurial venture.

Yums tennis shoes

Yums’ line of colorful tennis shoes includes names like Blue Coconut Slush and Lemon Lime. The bottom of each shoe is tagged with an original graffiti drawing.

“The hip-hop world has always made me feel very comfortable,” the 1988 UT Arlington information systems graduate says. “I’ve learned that hip-hop respects other cultures more than other cultures respect hip-hop. Once you’re on the inside, you can relate to it really well.”

His inside view grows brighter every day.

Art imitates shoes

Color engulfs you at the Yums headquarters on State Highway 157—red, yellow, blue, purple, orange, pink, green, all in the most radiant shades.

A purple shag rug leads to a green, purple and orange couch that fronts graffiti-painted walls. Red shoeboxes with Yums’ yellow “tasty face” logo pile high on a table, with a pair of shiny pink Bubble Gums on top. Other “flavors” include Blue Coconut Slush, Candy Apple and Cupcake.

Sean Kingston and Soulja Boy Tell 'Em

Endorsement deals with young hip-hop artists, from left, Sean Kingston and Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em have thrust Yums into the national spotlight.

T-shirts, caps and more shoes line warehouse shelves. McDade opens a box labeled Blueberry, revealing a pair of two-toned blue suedes that Elvis would have loved. Around the corner sits the company’s promotional truck—a purple Chevy Suburban with purple leather interior and purple rims.

Dazzled by the spectrum of colors and merchandise, you have overlooked the shoes’ singular feature. Legendary Dallas graffiti artist Tex (Howard Moton Jr.) tags the bottom of each style with an original drawing.

“The challenge was to get clear soles so you could see the artwork,” explains McDade, who says a patent is pending. “Each shoe is like a work of art. It’s a way to express your individuality.”

McDade met Tex in the mid-1990s when he sought out the artist whose work he’d seen on Deep Ellum walls. Tex was a founding member of Infiniti Crew, a group of Dallas’ best graffiti painters. When McDade decided to dip his toes into the shoe business a decade later, he asked Tex to design the urban look he envisioned.

Tex creates the styles, color schemes and names for the sneakers. His inspiration for the company’s inaugural Sweet Series? Hunger.

Tex (Howard Moton Jr.)

Business partner and legendary Dallas graffiti artist Tex (Howard Moton Jr.) designs the sneakers.

“I just thought of snacks and sweets,” he says with a laugh. “People think they’re cool. Almost everybody calls the shoes by their flavor. Hardly anybody calls them by the color.”

Since its launch in 2007, Yums has bolstered a steady online business with increased in-store sales. The shoes are now in more than 450 outlets, including Finish Line, where a recent display featuring the new Soulja Boy signature shoe attracted thousands of shoppers.

McDade says first-year sales exceeded expectations by 30 percent. The Jelly Beans women’s line hit the market in February, and Yums intends to license its logo for even more exposure.

“The brand is building momentum,” he says. “We’re trickling into the mainstream.”

Shuffling the playlist

But mass distribution wasn’t part of the original plan, says national sales director Michael Jenkins. The company’s business model targeted discriminating buyers in urban boutiques. Yums had no interest in going big, or even middle, market.

“We wanted to be at the apex of fashion,” says Jenkins, who earned a marketing degree from UT Arlington in 1988. “These neighborhood stores are as authentic as it gets. They have an eye for finding fashion before other retailers do. Once everybody else is wearing it, they’re on to something else.”

He and McDade kept the model for nine months, but things changed with their Block Star concept in 2008. The idea involves designing signature sneakers for rap artists much like other shoe companies do for athletes. The deal with Grammy-nominated Soulja Boy and Interscope Records thrust Yums into the national spotlight.

The 18-year-old Atlanta-based artist’s Crank That (Soulja Boy) spent seven weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 and sold a 2007-best 3.9 million digital copies. Yums’ first widespread exposure came when Soulja Boy rocked the Yums brand on Live with Regis and Kelly while trying (unsuccessfully) to teach the hosts the Crank That dance.

“Because of that enormous relationship, we had to pursue bigger retail opportunities,” Jenkins says. “Our preferred mall partner was Finish Line, and we’re now in about 275 of their stores nationwide.”

“Even though we’re influenced by the streets of Dallas, we’re a family-friendly product,” he says. “You have hard-core rappers wearing them as well as fashionable moms.”

Houston-based rapper Da Ryno says the shoes allow him to go from the street to any environment. Their versatility and relaxed feel appeal to a wider audience than some of the other ultra-flashy products on the market.

That flexibility has attracted a following outside the 14- to 18-year-old target: moms, dads and the occasional grandparent. McDade knows at least one sixtysomething grandmother—a high school teacher—who sports the Bubble Gums.

“Even though we’re influenced by the streets of Dallas, we’re a family-friendly product,” he says. “You have hard-core rappers wearing them as well as fashionable moms.”

Jenkins believes the popularity begins with the name. The Yums moniker is universally loved, he says, and complements a logo that’s friendly with a touch of attitude. Designed by Tex, it features a yellow smiley face with a cocked eye, swoosh-like eyebrow and red tongue.

“We capture a lot of markets with the elements in our logo,” Jenkins says.

Add affordability ($59-$75 a pair), quality materials and the crystal clear soles, and you’re making strides in the $20 billion-a-year athletic shoe industry.

And don’t underestimate the power of street cred.

“Hip-hop sets trends,” Da Ryno says. “Once something becomes relevant in the hip-hop world, it’s often embraced everywhere.”

Family ties

McDade wants to open his own stores someday. If that happens, he’ll have to step outside his inner circle of business associates. He has known Jenkins and promotions manager Kent Little since the fourth grade.

Despite owning four restaurants and a magazine, Jenkins jumped at the chance to work with the friend he describes as having an unparalleled tenacity for success. They were partners in Texas Sportswear for five years before selling the apparel business.

“I told him [J.P.] early on that I wanted to be part of Yums when the time was right,” Jenkins says. “He called and invited me to run the sales part of the company. The rest is history.”

McDade’s wife, Joan, oversees Yums’ apparel products. His mother keeps the books, and his niece handles shipping and receiving. Sometimes his teenage son and daughter help with cleaning, folding and packing.

“Everybody is a friend or family member,” says the longtime Arlington resident.

Owning a family business is nothing new for McDade. At age 15 he started Dr. Kleen, a cleaning service for doctors’ and dentists’ offices, small hospitals, X-ray labs and other medical facilities. The profits funded his UT Arlington education. Then he sold Dr. Kleen to pay for an M.B.A. from Notre Dame.

While a graduate student, he founded Puppet Planet, a custom-designed puppet manufacturer, and operated it for 12 years. He also has owned two staffing franchises.

“I was self-employed at a very early age,” said McDade, who got started with a lawn-mowing business and newspaper route. “I’ve always enjoyed coming up with an idea and bringing it to life.”

Each weekday morning he shares his expertise with students at Tarrant County College, where he teaches marketing. Lately, his Yums’ experiences have been fodder for lectures emphasizing planning, research, hard work and determination as keys to success.

McDade practices what he teaches. Both Jenkins and Tex call him the most driven man they’ve ever met. “He gets up and goes to sleep sending e-mails,” Tex says. “He lives it the whole time.”

Living it includes accepting the music. McDade now prefers the rhymes of Soulja Boy and Sean Kingston to the riffs of Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

“I have a great deal of respect for the hip-hop world, so I try not to embarrass myself,” he says. “I’m more of a listener and observer.”

A keen one who has found a home in a once-foreign land.

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