by David Mendez
Looking at the Tucson streetwear scene is kinda like looking at the downtown's retail scene.
VII Grand Premium Streetwear and Sneakers, located at 178 E. Broadway, looks to change that—and with the backing of one of UA's favorite sons, current player for the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves Derrick Williams, they've got a good shot.
The shop was the brainchild of Mario Escalante, a Tucson native, Air Force veteran and Pima Community College grad who had originally planned to get into graphic design.
But when he had trouble finding work during the summer of 2012, his attention started to shift.
"I wasn’t getting a fast enough response, I was getting nervous — I always wanted to do the boutique, and I thought, 'why not try?'," he said. "You ask anyone who knows me, I've always been into fashion, sneakers. It’s always been something that I've wanted to do."
Enter Derrick Williams.
Escalante and Williams rolled in the same friend circles during Williams's time with Arizona, and bonded over a shared passion for sneakers and streetwear.
“The whole Arizona basketball team was really known for wearing the best sneakers on the basketball court, so I'd encourage them to outdo everyone,” Escalante said. “Him being from California, these type of stores are everywhere. It’s not uncommon to go down the street and see a sneaker shop or streetwear shop in L.A.”
“In Tucson, it’s something that he noticed and that I noticed, we really don't have anything. We really need it here.”
So, he decided to float the idea to Williams via text.
"I told Derrick, 'out of all the people you know, who would you say would be successful at opening a streetwear and sneaker store?' and he got back to me and said 'Paul George (current player for the NBA's Indiana Pacers), or you,' and I was like 'wow, to be mentioned as one out of all the people he knows...I figured if he said so, I’d be successful at it."
Escalante then started hitting the pavement, building connections, finding partners and, most importantly, finding a location for the shop.
After an agreement to place the shop nearer to the university fell through, was pointed towards the Julian-Drew location by Realtor Buzz Isaacson. “Downtown’s where I really wanted to be, I just didn't think that anything was available,” Escalante said. “When [Isaacson] told me about this, I told him automatically ‘we’ll take it’; I didn’t have to look at it at first—I already knew the building and the location—and things worked out.”
Upon landing the space, Escalante began moving the process along of converting an office into a retail space—tearing down the plaster that hid the original brick walls, buffing and refinishing the original wooden floors, and erecting walls to create space for a stock room and a changing room.
After opening up a line of communication with Curtis Brown, co-founder of Dunkxchange, an event that offers shoe collectors to trade with fellow sneaker-heads, and a successful trip to Agenda, an industry tradeshow specializing in action sports and streetwear lines, Escalante’s attention has shifted to the store’s finishing touches — finalizing supplier contracts, placing fixtures, and the installation of mural of the store’s back wall by Tucson-born street artist Rock Martinez.
Escalante is already wearing a sample of a VII Grand collaboration with premium hat maker Daily Doses: a white baseball cap featuring the old mountain-and-saguaro logo of Arizona Athletics, accompanied by a snakeskin-covered brim and snake leather strap on the back that they plan on selling for $105, a pricepoint that lives up to their premium moniker. The plan to extend that to their stock of high-end sneakers, with a focus on limited editions.
"That’s mostly what we want to carry," Escalante explained. "If you’re a sneaker head in Tucson, your best bet is to drive out of town or to try to buy online to get limited editions; I know a lot of people out here really want that stuff, but it’s not easy to get access to it. We’re trying to fill that void; not just for sneakers either, but for clothing as well." Already, VII Grand has locked down agreements with clothing brands such as the Hundreds, Hall of Fame, and Stussy, as well as shoe brands such as Puma and Asics. There's also a plan to open an online store that sells nothing but VII Grand private label designs — so as to keep the limited edition gear in the store.
The shop is set for a Feb. 15 soft opening. The plan originally coincided with the NBA All-Star Break, which would have given time for Williams to come and participate, but now plans for a grand celebration have been pushed back, likely to Feb. 25. According to Escalante, Williams will be in town that day, an off-day for the Timberwolves between games against Golden State and Phoenix.
“Our goal is to be up there with big names, like High Point in Scottsdale,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that we provide the best streetwear, sneakers and accessories that we can. Tucson really needed something like this, and I’m just excited to make it happen. I’ll do my best to bring the best.”
“A lot of people complain about what Tucson doesn't have — instead of complaining, why not just...make the effort to change something. That’s what I did.”