Born in Barbados and raised in Brooklyn, Andre McDonnell, 49, has worked in premium retail since he was 22, so he knows just how pretentious the fashion world can be. And he’ll be the first to admit that he once fell victim to this pretentiousness. “I was used to wearing $1,000 worth of clothes, but still eating chicken nuggets because I cared more about what I looked like than anything,” says McDonnell. For 16 years, he worked at Atrium, a highly respected erstwhile clothing store, where he was consistently the company’s top seller and had clients ranging from local streetwear enthusiasts to A-list celebrities and athletes. It didn’t matter which end of the social spectrum a customer was on, McDonnell’s eagerness to help people feel good came through in every interaction. But one interaction he had with an unhoused man, almost 11 years ago to the day, would change his life forever and have an impact on the lives of over 20,000 others.
On June 18, 2012, McDonnell hit up DeSalvio Playground on Spring Street in SoHo with a few homies to play basketball. He wore a brand new pair of hard-to-get Air Jordan III OG’s that were gifted to him by former NBA player Malik Allen, a client of his at the time. McDonnell recalls losing the basketball game and talking with his friends on a park bench afterward. “We’re sitting on the bench just chillin’, and I look to my right and see this guy limping. As he got closer and the gates opened, I looked down, and he had no shoes or socks on,” he says. McDonnell approached the man, only to be met with an expletive-filled response. McDonnell promised the man that he’d leave him alone if he told him what size he wore. The man obliged, saying “The last I remember, I wear a size 10.” McDonnell, who wears a size 12, begged the man to try on his sneakers after convincing him that he wasn’t seeking to be paid in return. The man’s feet were so swollen they barely fit. The unhoused man told McDonnell thanks and walked away. This was the moment It’s From the Sole came to be.
For the first few years, the nonprofit’s expenses came out of his own pocket. As an avid collector of sneakers with deep relationships in the fashion industry, he had a living room packed with brand-new kicks collecting dust – the tags still on them. He’d pack his Tumi suitcase and wander around New York City every day, looking for people he could give his sneakers to. “The more I started providing my sneakers, my soul felt good, my heart felt good,” says McDonnell. “So I created It’s From the Sole. It means from the soul of your heart to the sole of their feet.” He continues: “It used to be a movement where we provided sneakers to people who need and not people who want. Now, It’s From the Sole is a domestic and international non-profit organization.” To date, It’s From the Sole has been to 17 countries, 49 cities around America and has provided more than 38,000 sneakers to people in need.
It’s been four years since It’s From the Sole has needed to purchase sneakers to donate. Kith — one of the leading retailers and brands in the industry — is one of It’s From the Sole’s primary sponsors. Along with Kith, people at major footwear brands like Nike, New Balance, Puma and Adidas strive to support the organization’s mission by providing them with brand-new sneakers and resources. But It’s From the Sole doesn’t only rely on major corporations for help. They are always looking for volunteers and donors. Besides McDonnell, who founded the organization, there are three other people on the board who also help with administrative tasks and marketing.
Running It’s From the Sole isn’t easy. “I’ve been cursed at, someone tried to spit on me… name anything that you can’t say in a church and I’ve been called that,” says McDonnell. “But because there are so many people who need and not just want, I have to continue doing this,” he continues. When asked what keeps him going, McDonnell says, “[It’s] when a mother and father come up to me crying and hugging me, appreciative because they didn’t know where they were gonna get a pair of sneakers for their kid. Or when I go to Colombia and give kids sneakers, and their mother kisses my hand and says ‘may God be with you.’ Or when I go to a country and we have an event, and they’re shocked it’s not a white man coming through the door helping people. Man, some of these kids have never had a sneaker before.”
It’s From the Sole is already expanding beyond a local non-profit, but McDonnell still envisions much more for the organization. He says he has two goals. First, he wants the organization’s bandwidth to grow enough to operate in multiple places simultaneously. As for his second goal, he admits it’s a bit self-serving: he wants a sneaker brand to do a collaboration with It’s From the Sole, and see people wearing that logo on their sneakers for the ultimate full-circle moment. McDonnell’s persistence makes it easy to believe this could all happen soon enough. McDonnell is dead set on helping as many people in need as possible. “You know, in New York City everybody is known for something. To be known for helping people is the best feeling in the world,” says McDonnell.
If you want to help or get involved, McDonnell welcomes anything you offer. Well, almost anything. He doesn’t accept sneakers that he wouldn’t put on his own feet. One of the most impressive feats he has achieved, is that the nearly 40,000 sneakers he has donated are either brand new or pretty close to it. He says he doesn’t cheat himself in anything he does, and vows not to cut corners while helping those in need.
For more information on It’s From the Sole and for different ways to get involved, visit itsfromthesole.org.