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Baltimore photographer and activist Devin Allen gets Under Armour sneaker, apparel line

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 1/28/2021 John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

Growing up in West Baltimore, Devin Allen coveted sneakers of sports greats like Michael Jordan. The young Allen would get up early on Saturday mornings the day Jordan’s sneakers were released, with hopes of getting a pair. Little did the young Allen know that one day he too would have a sneaker named for him.

But the 32-year-old Allen didn’t get his own sneaker because of his prowess on the basketball court. He doesn’t have any Super Bowl rings. He got his shoe because of his activism and photography — a feat that is considered a first in the athletic apparel world.

On Feb. 5, UNDR ARMR x DVNLLN, a limited-edition collection between Allen and Baltimore-based Under Armour, launches in 18 North American Brand House stores — including the one in Baltimore’s Harbor East. There the entire collection of Allen’s sneakers and apparel will be displayed near the store’s entrance. The collection will also be sold through the brand’s website.

The collection, which comprises apparel and footwear, incorporates Allen’s original photography of Baltimore’s youth athletes as well as the city’s “grit, grime, and spirit of resilience with a minimalist color palette, textures and materials echoing the streets and Allen’s photography,” according to the company. Footwear from the collection will be released in four styles: Curry 8, UA HOVR Phantom 2, UA Forge RC and UA Spawn 3.

“To have my name on a shoe and have it ingrained in the DNA of Baltimore is surreal,” said Allen, who is known for his Time magazine covers capturing raw moments from racial justice protests. “I still can’t believe it. It’s still like a dream. Coming from West Baltimore, now working with one of the largest brands in the world, that’s a big thing to me.”

Part of the proceeds from the collection will go to Under Armour’s expanded partnership with Wide Angle Youth Media — a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works with youth interested in media arts. Another part will go to a new partnership with Noisy Tenants, a community-focused production agency that will help youth create a mural near Oriole Park. That project is scheduled to be completed this spring.

“It’s great to be a photographer and be able to create opportunities that open up different lanes for the next generation,” said Allen, who is active in encouraging youth to pursue photography. He estimates he has given away 700 cameras to youth since 2015. “I really want to open up these doors and show these kids that the sky is the limit.”

The collection highlighting a prominent Baltimorean and his art is a bright spot for Under Armour, which has struggled of late with layoffs, financial and legal challenges as well as severed collegiate sponsorships.

The release coincides with Black History Month — an intentional move by the Baltimore-based brand known for working with athletes ranging from household names like NBA MVP Stephen Curry to ballerina Misty Copeland. Last fall, UA became an apparel sponsor for Morgan State University, the latest of a group of historically Black colleges and universities it partners with.

The collection was dreamed up two years ago by a group of Black employees— including Allen — at Under Armour who have been instrumental in furthering the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion goals, according to Tchernavia Rocker, the company’s chief people and administrative officer.

“This was definitely an idea brought forth by our product team along with Devin and other internal creatives,” she said.

Allen, an activist and photographer, took more than 5,000 images of Baltimore youth playing sports in 2019 for the collection. More than 50 images were used to adorn the collections apparel or for promotional purposes.

“We wanted to tell the story of Baltimore. And there was nobody better to do that than Devin,” Rocker said. “It was a match made in heaven. We’re just happy to have him as a teammate.”

Christopher Burns, a Memphis-based sneaker analyst who has marketing expertise and writes a sneakerhead blog, ARCH (analysis, research and content hub), was pleasantly surprised when he learned about Allen’s collection.

“I think he is the only photographer to be acknowledged in this way—especially considering the pictures he has taken. He has taken some powerful work,” Burns said.

Burns touts Nike as the industry’s leader in innovative efforts to work with non-sports figures like graffiti artists and musicians. But naming a sneaker for a figure who is not a rapper or athlete is new territory.

“This is really one of the first times that a brand has stepped out of the box and has [named a shoe after] someone so culturally relevant to the black struggle,” Burns explained.

As for Allen’s sneaker itself, Burns describes it as one of Under Armour’s “better designs.”

He added: “I think it is a smart design. The branding has been kept to a minimum.”

Burns said the UA Forge RC version of the sneaker resembles a street hiking shoe.

“That’s cool,” he said. “It fits who [Allen] is. He has to run getting shots and watch his back getting shots. It’s not a bad-looking shoe. I love this Devin Allen thing. It’s dope.”

Baltimore author and activist D. Watkins, a close friend of Allen’s, has known about the collection for the better part of the past year.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity to not just highlight a Black creative but a person who has always loved Baltimore,” he said about Allen. “To get this opportunity is a dream come true. It allows the rest of us to dream bigger as well. The fact that it happened to one of my close friends, it’s a win for all of us in a way. It’s beautiful.”

Watkins, who has been aware of the project from the design sketch process, said that he, Baltimore poet and author Kondwani Fidel and Allen regularly talk about their affinity for sneakers — having online debates about styles and colorways.

“I don’t know rappers and athletes who have that opportunity,” Watkins said. “It’s great what Under Armour is doing — connecting with the community though a voice like Devin’s. I hope to see more of it.”

Watkins called the collection “something positive” for Baltimore.

“I just hope we get a chance to promote and celebrate this,” he added.

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