"Street style" and luxury casual wear have infiltrated the high fashion industry, and with its comfort and inclusiveness, that makes complete sense. We recently had the chance to catch up with street style icon and Project Blitz owner Andre Ljustina.
He may be better known for his longtime username, Croatianstyle, and for his shoe collection, one of the rarest in the world. In 2015, he put a selection of a few of his favorite sneakers on display for the world to see: A snapshot of his collection titled RETROspective was valued at over $2 million. As his name and influence have grown, you can find him traveling the globe. One day, you'll see him sitting front row at fashion shows for iconic brands like Louis Vuitton, and another, he is sharing his coolest kicks and styling mastery with celebrities like Jay-Z. We spoke with Ljustina while he was traveling to Croatia after attending Wimbledon.
What is the earliest age you remember really caring about shoes?
I grew up in L.A. in the late '80s early '90s, at a time where athletes were the biggest deal. Whatever basketball players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson were wearing was what the kids wanted to get their hands on. It was a status symbol. L.A. was very urban and that influenced our taste. I started doing all kinds of odd jobs for my parents and neighbors to get my hands on some of these shoes, like checkered Vans, Reeboks, Air Jordans or paint-splattered Converse. We were expressing ourselves through our shoes.
How did this start to evolve from a passion into a business for you?
You know, there came a time where I was missing the shoes from my early childhood, those amazing retro Jordans. This was around 1999 and eBay and the internet were just becoming a thing. Anyways, on the hunt for a pair of retro Jordans, I found this guy selling them online for $20 more than they retailed for. And they were used shoes! I couldn't possibly imagine how they could be worth more, but I wanted them badly enough, so I bought them. And then the lightbulb went off in my head. I started scrounging flee markets and local mom-and-pop stores looking for retro Jordans and others. I was selling a lot of them to people in Japan through eBay and I ended up taking a trip there. I saw the craziest fashion there. At the time, we were all just wearing mainstream styles and labels such as Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica because all we had were department stores. Eventually, I ended up with a business arrangement with some L.A. stores and some Japanese businessmen. My parents thought I was involved with some scam!
They didn't understand what you were doing?
No, I had turned the family garage into a stock room and was maxing out credit cards. My family was an immigrant family and more blue-collar, they wanted me to focus on college and not the "shoe thing."
So how did you make the jump to opening your own store?
Actually, thanks to the advice of one of my college professors to stick with it. Around 2006, I decided to really throw myself into the "shoe thing” full time. I had been toying with the idea of selling off everything I had and opening a nightclub. I was really into the Hollywood scene at that time. Thank God I didn't go that route. I came up with the idea for Project Blitz in 2011 and launched in 2013. The rest is history. This stuff is more in demand and more valuable each and every day.
How much are sneakers going for these days?
In the beginning, we were buying shoes for like under $100, then it was $200, $300, etc. Nike started raising the retail prices dramatically to keep up with re-sell. People were buying shoes with no intention of wearing them. They were just after that lucrative re-sell market. Around that time in October of 2003, I became aware of these crazy Nikes that were going to come out in Paris. I knew they were going to be very costly, so I needed around $30,000 to get my hands on a good number of them. I ended up taking a chance and maxing out a couple of credit cards and wound up with 33 pairs. I took them to Japan to test the market, but there wasn’t as much interest as I thought there would be. At that point, I knew I need to create my own market. Anytime I saw a pair pop up on eBay, I snagged them. I ended up taking these sick photos of the shoes that went viral—you can still find them on the internet. By the time I posted them on a sneaker site, I had them in all sizes and they were going for $2,000 a pair. Today I still have seven pairs and they re-sell for $20,000-30,000 each.
Who comes to you for shoes?
Rappers like Drake, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz, baseball players like Mark McGwire, film producers such as Joel Silver of The Matrix, A.J. from the Backstreet Boys and everyone in between. I used to get in touch with celebrities by word of mouth and stylists would pass my number around, but now with social media, the connection is instant. I will let celebrities come to my warehouse and pick what they want, or sometimes I even fly to Japan to pick out things for them. I like watching to see what someone gravitates towards in my warehouse full of stuff. It tells me something about the person.
So do you think these wild shoes are just for celebrities?
Not at all. Kids are interested in this now and are telling their parents about it. Funny enough, I was at the Masters golf tournament and I had these older gentlemen bringing me their pre-teen kids saying they knew who I was and thought I had the sickest style and all that. It's great to have all generations involved. The aftermarket, resale industry is a multibillion-dollar presence. It's getting to be much more mainstream and less of a niche market.
Why do you think luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci are collaborating with "skate" brands and making things like graphic T-shirts?
It's funny, because when I first started to make some money I remember going into a high-end store like the ones you mention, I won't say which one, but just trying to buy something like a wallet. If you didn't have on something like a nice leather loafer they weren't going to help you because they didn't expect you to make a purchase. And, of course, I was in there with my crazy sneakers. In the mid-2000s, I remember Marc Jacobs started to design sneakers for Louis Vuitton and then they were working with Kanye. More recently, they did their Supreme collab which was a huge deal. Then when Gucci hired Alessandro Michele in 2015, he restructured the whole brand. He conceptualized this streetwear moment, solidifying it as something that isn't just of the moment. He is transcending generational gaps, and these brands are profiting more than they ever have. High couture brands are making crazy T-shirts and sneakers. It's here to stay.