Best friends Darris Kelly and Sabrian Sledge, the co-owners of Flee Club, a high-end resell shoe store in Chicago, weren’t always on the same team, so to speak.
In 1998, their senior year, Kelly and Sledge had both transferred into Proviso Township High School District 209 after playing three years of basketball at Walther Lutheran High School in Melrose Park.
“It got kind of easy for us at Walther, so we transferred,” Kelly recalled in a recent interview. “He went to Proviso West and I went to Proviso East.”
Kelly, the son of longtime District 209 school board member Theresa Kelly, said that he remembers the game as a “near sellout.” East, which was stocked with talent that year (the team included future NBA player Steven Hunter), won.
The late 1990s were heady days for Kelly, a native of Maywood, and Sledge, a native of Chicago’s Austin community.
One night, the two friends went to Chicago to celebrate with their good friend Corey Maggette, a Fenwick star who had just gotten a scholarship offer to play basketball at Duke University.
That’s when they spotted the singer R. Kelly, who noticed the young men looking awestruck in his direction. He approached them and singled out Sledge, telling the hooper that he looked more like a rapper.
“He said, ‘You sure you don’t rap?'” Sledge recalled during a recent interview. “I was like, ‘No.’ Then he said, ‘I’m sure you know about rap,’ and he asked me to rap one of my favorite songs. I rapped a Mase verse and he took me to the studio that night. Eight months later, I was on his double album, R., and had a record deal the next year.”
Sledge, whose best known as Boo, would become one-half of the rap duo “Boo & Gotti. The duo’s career peaked with the 2001 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Fiesta (Remix),” which featured Jay-Z and R. Kelly.
“He gave me a pen and told me to write every day,” Sledge said of the R&B mogul. “That was the best advice he ever gave me.”
Sledge would apply that advice to his second career, which he launched with the last chunk of money he’d gotten from rapping.
“We went to two sneaker conventions where you can buy, sell and trade shoes and from there, I got the gist of the business,” Sledge said. “From there, we started our own brand and tried to get accounts with Nike and Brand Jordan, but that was super hard.”
So, the friends researched stores like Flight Club and Stadium Goods that deal in rare and limited edition sneakers that regularly rival the price of MacBooks.
“We always wanted to have a key four-letter word that has street terminology, that’s catchy and that will sound nice,” Kelly said, adding that the second part of the store’s name was added “as icing on the cake” and is something of an homage to Flight Club, the famous sneaker retail and consignment store in New York City.
Kelly said that he and Sledge complement each other. Sledge, the seasoned entertainer, has an innate sense of style and knows what’s hot and what’s not. Kelly, on the other hand, knows business.
“I had a great upbringing,” Kelly said. “My mom always tried to get me everything I wanted and she made sure that education was important, so after high school, I got a basketball scholarship to Savannah State, where I got my degree in business.”
Kelly said that he’s always had an entrepreneurial mind, but things really started to click after “I flipped my first shoe and made double what I paid for it — I knew I was in my lane.”
For the last two years, Flee Club has been located on the West Side of Chicago, around the corner from the apartment, which has since been razed, where Maywood native Fred Hampton was assassinated. Like Hampton, Kelly is putting his hometown on the map.
“We’ve got a good relationship with the whole city,” said Kelly.
Currently, Flee Club has more than 12,000 Instagram followers and celebrity clients that include Scottie Pippen, Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks and Bulls power forward Bobby Portis, among many others.
In addition, homegrown stars like Dee Brown and Shannon Brown, among many others, depend on Flee Club to get them the rare kicks that they don’t have time to hunt down.
In the future, Sledge and Kelly said, they hope to manufacture their own line of apparel. They’ve already branded t-shirts, hats, sweaters and other merchandise. Kelly said that they’ve slowed production a bit recently, but plan on ramping it back up sometime soon.
“Right now, it’s so hard to manufacture your own stuff,” Sledge said. “A lot of times, it’s easier for us to make our own rather than wait on China,” he said. “Some of us are so creative that we can do it.”
In the meantime, he’s focused on manufacturing the same kind of life-changing advice that R. Kelly (who Sledge said he still supports despite the singer’s current controversies) gave him all those years ago.
“I try to tell young rappers, ‘Sit down and write for a minute. Take two hours out of your day to write and rap. Sit down and sketch. You never know what that can come to,'” Sledge said. “‘Stop always thinking what you’re not getting. Think about what work you’re putting in. Take an hour devoted to your craft and it will come back to you.'”
For Kelly, the advice is much the same. In so many words, focusing on producing and less on consuming. Know your lane and learn how to navigate it. Never give up.
“If you really want to do something you like, you really have to be knowledgeable,” Kelly said. “Any time you jump into something, you want to know everything about it—the ins and outs of it. Anybody who puts their mind to something can accomplish it, but it all depends on how hard you want it.”