Ian Forde, a merchandise manager for the global sportswear company Puma, can’t bring himself to delete his iPhone thread with the late Nipsey Hussle. Every now and then, he’ll pull it up, reread old messages and reminisce about their conversations from the months they spent working together on a co-branded capsule collection between Hussle’s store, The Marathon Clothing, and Puma, which the Los Angeles rapper and community leader joined as a brand ambassador in January 2018. N-word?
“It’s not a one-way situation. It’s … more authentic,” Hussle once said in an interview. “It’s more of a realistic partnership outside of just cutting a check and supporting product. It’s a deeper, more dynamic relationship.”
Forde met Hussle for the first time later that year after being assigned to oversee the collection from a design standpoint. During their creative process, he came to know Hussle as a serial texter. Anytime he found some inspiration, he’d hit Forde up. And whenever Forde needed some input, he reached out to Hussle, who always messaged back within minutes, often with the praying hands emoji, or the black-and-white checkered flag, which symbolized how Hussle cherished life as a marathon. His partnership with Puma had become part of that journey.
In March, Forde traveled to L.A. to show Hussle and his team the finalized pieces of the Puma x TMC apparel, footwear and accessories. Hussle signed off, marking the official completion of his first collection with a global brand. And before Forde went back to Boston, Hussle made sure to thank him.
“He looked at me and was like, ‘Listen … I really appreciate you helping to shepherd this through,’ ” Forde recalls. “It kind of felt different coming from him, that he was appreciative not in a way that you just say thank you, but in a real man-to-man way. For me, that was the ultimate validation about everything that we had done.”
That was the last time Forde spoke to his colleague and friend. Four days after Forde left L.A., Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom was shot and killed outside of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue in South Central L.A. He was 33 years old.
Five months after the tragedy, though, Hussle’s partnership with Puma continues. On Monday, TMC took to Instagram to announce a Sept. 5 release of the capsule collection Hussle worked tirelessly to perfect — and Puma saw his vision through.
“I hoped that it would see the light of day and people would see all the work that went into it … all the attention to detail,” Forde says. “I wanted people to experience what I experienced working with him. … We know him for a music angle, but do we know him from a style point of view? This collection speaks to different facets of who he was.”
The 19-piece collection — featuring two colorways of the iconic 1980s Puma California sneaker, a pair of woven khaki pantsuits, a marathon-themed MCS tracksuit and more — was designed using the measurements of Hussle’s body. Every single element of the capsule was created to represent California, the Marathon and, most importantly, Nip Hussle tha Great.
“It’s so representative of what he wore and what he loved about Puma,” says Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. “There’s a lot of that energy in it. It’s nice to be able to keep it clean, keep it simple, keep it focused on who he was and how he wanted to tell his story through our product.”
Puma also announced that 100% of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood “Nip” Foundation.
“Nip wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” says Chief Johnson, Puma’s senior manager of entertainment and marketing, who worked more closely with Hussle daily than anyone from the brand.
A few years ago, Johnson was one of the first people to envision a partnership between Puma and Hussle. Eventually, that idea stuck.
In 2014, when Johnson worked in marketing for California lifestyle company Young & Reckless, he executed his first brand deal with Hussle. Young & Reckless and TMC partnered with PacSun for a limited-edition “Crenshaw” collection. Johnson remembers the day of the pop-up shop release, when approximately 1,000 people lined up outside in the pouring rain to cop pieces from the collection, which sold out in a half-hour.
“That’s the moment I realized, ‘Damn. He’s a lot bigger than I thought. … He commands attention and people love him.’ He had this infectious attitude and this charisma that he carried himself with. You wanted to be around it,” says Johnson.
In 2017, Johnson began working for Puma and maintained his relationship with Hussle.
“When I came over to Puma, Nip was one of the first people I texted,” Johnson says. “He was like, ‘Yo, you already know. I’m ready.’ I just knew that doing something with him would set us on a path that was gonna be something amazing.”
Hussle also got the co-sign from Emory Jones, a cultural consultant for Puma (who’s also teamed up with the brand for his own collection) and right-hand man of the legendary rapper and businessman Jay-Z, the founder of Roc Nation who in June 2018 was named the creative director of Puma’s relaunched basketball division. Jay-Z had also been a huge supporter of Hussle for years after famously buying 100 copies of his $100 mixtape Crenshaw back in 2013.
“Emory Jones … actually approached me,” Petrick recalls, “and said, ‘There’s this guy, he’s doing these amazing things. He’s really fantastic as an artist, but it’s also more than just his art. It’s how he works with his community and how he’s really pushing forward with the right energy to make the world a better place.’ … Emory recommended that we talk to Nip and try and figure out if there was a way to work with him. We took our time about it, did it the right way, established a relationship, and eventually it was time to have him become a part of the family.”
After about a year of conversations, Hussle made it official, signing his Puma deal live on air during an L.A. radio appearance on Power 106’s The Cruz Show nearly a month before the release of his Grammy-nominated, and now-classic, debut studio album, Victory Lap. And from the early days of the partnership, Hussle showed undying support for the brand, most notably through his daily wardrobe. Puma’s iconic T7 tracksuits, which debuted in 1968, paired with Clydes and suede sneakers became a part of Hussle’s go-to swag.
“Honestly, they should rename the T7 tracksuit the ‘Nipsey tracksuit.’ He’s the only person that literally makes a tracksuit look like a tuxedo,” says Johnson, who estimated that Hussle owned at least a dozen white Puma tracksuits alone. “Anytime stuff came in, it was like, ‘That’s Nip’s corner in the office. Fill those boxes up. Send them.’ To the point where … little things I remember, like he once said, ‘Keep that box at the office, because I ain’t got no more room.’
“We just made sure he was always dripped out and didn’t have any void in product. Every time he wore it, man, it felt like something brand-new.”
By late summer 2018, Hussle appeared as the face of his first Puma campaign for the brand’s relaunch of the California sneaker. On Sept. 10, 2018 — Forde knows the exact date from the text message thread that remains in his phone — Hussle and the TMC team arrived at Puma’s Boston headquarters to discuss collaborating for his own co-branded collection. Jones told Hussle to find Forde once he got there. That’s the day their relationship, and the design process of the collection, began.
“He was superattentive. He paid attention to the details … the larger picture. He treated everything like an album or a project, and every item in the collection is almost like a track, right?” Forde says. “There’s the intro, there’s the outro, there’s the party song, there’s the more introspective, reflective song. Everything had a cadence and a rhyme or reason.”
During that first meeting, Hussle played one of his old music videos from the early 2000s. In it, he wore some cutoff khaki shorts with an oversize white tee, and on his feet were a pair of Pumas. That’s really how long Hussle had been rocking with the brand. The throwback outfit inspired the two woven khaki suits created for the collection. And that moment represented how hands-on Hussle proved to be over the next several months.
“At one point with this collection, we’d reached a creative roadblock. I think we were speaking to ourselves and we weren’t really communicating in the right manner,” Forde remembers. “He called me one day and was like, ‘There’s some things I want to work through as a team.’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna bring the team to Boston.’ …
“Three days later, he came. He stayed here for two days. We worked from 9 to 5. We worked through lunch. Through that, we took him to the material library. He touched fabric. We looked at different executions. We looked at what he was doing, what the brand was doing moving forward, and how he could best encapsulate all those best ideas.”
While Puma worked on the collection, Hussle leveraged his partnership to give back to his community and kids in need, surrounding the brand’s return to basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. He came up with the idea of collaborating with Puma to refurbish and repaint the basketball courts at L.A.’s 59th Street Elementary School, located right around the corner from his grandmother’s house. (59th and 5th Ave, granny house with vanilla wafers, he raps on his Victory Lap track “Dedication.”) Hussle also donated $10,000 to the school on behalf of the brand and TMC.
Last fall when Puma debuted the Clyde Court (the first basketball shoe), Hussle and fellow Californian MC G-Eazy boarded the brand’s private jet and ventured to Las Vegas, where they pulled up to the Puma store and bought every single pair of the sneaker, which they gave to local high school players.
(That wouldn’t be the last time he used the jet. For the music video of his track “Racks in the Middle” — in which he famously spits the line See my granny on a jet, some s— I’ll never forget / Next day flew to Vegas with my Puma Connect — Hussle hit up Johnson about using the plane, which happened to be in L.A., not New York, where it’s typically kept. Johnson made some phone calls, passing the request up Puma’s chain of command, and within a few hours got him an answer. To this day, Forde cherishes the music video because in it, Hussle is wearing a prototype of the MCS tracksuit they designed for the first Puma x TMC collection.)
In March, Hussle returned to Power 106, and in what ultimately became one of the final recorded interviews of his life, he announced his new deal with Puma for 2019 that would include multiple future co-branded collections, the first of which was set to drop in September.
Hussle was killed on March 31, the day before his previously scheduled meeting with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Jay-Z and members of Roc Nation to discuss combating gang violence in his hometown. He’d planned on traveling with Johnson to Puma’s global headquarters in Germany the following week to be a part of a brandwide summit for the first time.
“We were gonna be in front of the entire Puma team and talk about this collection, talk about what the future could hold,” Petrick says. “There were so many positive ideas about what we could do down the road. He was so enthusiastic about the brand, and I think that the sky was the limit. To have that happen in that moment was just crushing.”
Johnson still made the trip to Europe to clear his head and represent the man he called his brother. He left early to return to L.A. for Hussle’s funeral, held on April 11 at Staples Center before one final victory lap around South Los Angeles with a procession spanning 25 miles. In the months after Hussle’s death, Petrick confirmed the posthumous continuation of his partnership with Puma while speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. Billboards and posters teasing his collection soon went up across L.A., featuring “TMC” in white letters and an image of Hussle, head down above praying hands, from his final Puma photo shoot. Johnson remembers that day vividly, with one moment standing out to him: True to Hussle’s appreciative character, he went around the room and gave everyone on set a hug after the shoot wrapped.
“To this day, it still doesn’t seem real that he’s gone,” Johnson says. Now, it’s only right that he and Puma celebrate Hussle’s legacy with his long-awaited collection. In less than two years as partners, Puma and Nipsey Hussle have become synonymous.
“It’s bittersweet because you wish he was here to enjoy this moment with the TMC family and Puma,” Johnson says. “But I do believe he’s somewhere smiling down like, ‘Yeah. Y’all did it.’ ”