Digital Marketing Redux   //   February 28, 2024

Inside We Are Legends, Puma’s employee-led design collective for Black creatives

A group of Puma employees are behind its latest product release tied to Black History Month.

Puma’s new collection of apparel and sneakers, called “Deeply Rooted,” stems from its multi-year partnership with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. It’s also a result of eight months of brainstorming, sketching and collaboration among the members of We Are Legends, Puma’s first employee-led collective of Black creatives.

We Are Legends — which has about 22 members to date — was born out of the cultural reckoning taking place around George Floyd’s murder. During this time, Puma appointed its first director of DEI, and eight employees founded an employee resource group for Black and Brown employees called BBOLD. We Are Legends became a way to celebrate Black culture and Black creatives, while also partnering with community-led organizations.

“Many team members at Puma were feeling responsible for making sure that we were showing up authentically… and seeing ourselves in our product,” Nubia Williams, a We Are Legends designer at Puma, told Modern Retail.

The members of We Are Legends meet multiple times a year to create limited collections around “the legends that came before us and the legends that are in the making,” Williams said. The first collection, “The Yard,” debuted in October 2022 and was inspired by homecoming events at colleges and high schools. The second, “Mas Camp,” dropped in August 2023 and was inspired by Carnival, a global celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture. The third, “WRK.WR,” launched in December 2023 and was inspired by craftsmen and women, union leaders and artisans.

The latest collection, called “Deeply Rooted,” launched earlier in February and is currently available via Puma’s website, app and New York City stores. It includes five pieces: a suede camo sneaker, a hoodie, a pair of sweatpants, a graphic tee and a long-sleeve tee. The items retail for $45 to $100 and feature images and phrases relating to the African Diaspora and Harlem Renaissance. All We Are Legend launches have a donation, education and community-based element, in addition to the product.

“This is truly an authentic way for us to do the storytelling because it’s coming straight from our employees, versus it being someone from the top saying, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do for Black History Month,'” Michelle Marshall, Puma’s director of DEI, told Modern Retail. “We want to make sure we’re telling stories throughout the year, because these stories don’t stop and end with one short month.”

To create the “Deeply Rooted” collection, members of We Are Legends headed to the Schomburg in New York City, which features some 11 million items relating to global Black history, arts and culture, including instruments, textiles, sheet music and manuscripts. Designers spent time looking at the artifacts within the center, which is part of the New York Public Library system. One major source of inspiration proved to be the Rivers Cosmogram, a public art installation within the Schomburg that marks where poet Langston Hughes’ ashes are interred. (One of the “Deeply Rooted” pieces, the long-sleeve tee, includes an excerpt of one of Hughes’ poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”)

For years, retailers have marked Black History Month with a mix of initiatives such as spotlighting Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs, holding listening sessions or panels and donating a portion of proceeds to organizations. Many fashion or CPG brands also commission Black designers to design specific collections for Black History Month. This year, Kohl’s tapped the Emmy-nominated illustrator Erin K. Robinson to create apparel, accessories and home goods for Kohl’s “Black/Brilliantly” collection, while Bath & Body Works collaborated with perfumer Gwen Gonzalez and designer Katria Judkins on a new candle collection.

Puma, however, chose to keep this process in-house with We Are Legends, relying on its own roster of designers, as opposed to looking for outside partners. (While the new collection involves a partnership with the Schomburg Center, Puma’s designers created the looks.)

This type of approach is “very positive,” Gabriella Santaniello, founder of A Line Partners, told Modern Retail. “It means that they’re listening to their employees… I think that sends a powerful message.”

On the other hand, relying on internal talent is likely to be less expensive than contracting an outside designer, Nada Shepherd, a former designer and the founder of ReSuit, a fashion rental and resale app, told Modern Retail. “I suspect going in-house results in extreme talent for a fraction of the cost,” she said via email.

More brands are creating design collectives to turn to for inspiration and help with new collections. True Religion, for example, began work on its True Creators program shortly before the pandemic but ramped up the process in 2021. It selects several up-and-coming designers to put their own spin on the brand and gives them access to resources and a bigger platform in which to showcase their work. “It’s more on an artisanal level than it is just for the sake of putting young talent in a bigger seat,” Sebastien Amisial, a True Creator, previously told Modern Retail.

Ultimately, We Are Legends is part of Puma’s larger aim to “really embed efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion into the fabric of the company,” Marshall said. “We want to promote and amplify these stories and also fuel our employees… to really follow the lead of We Are Legends and understand that the power is within them to carry on these efforts,” she said. “It’s not just one team’s responsibility to promote DEI within the organization; that is everyone’s responsibility.”