When opportunity knocks, one needs to know how to open the door. Entrepreneur Kenny Annan-Jonathan, who has Ghanaian roots, did exactly that, highlighting the necessity for football players to be able to express who they are through fashion.
Kenny Annan-Jonathan recently made history as the first-ever creative director for English Premier League football club, Crystal Palace. Annan-Jonathan, who also doubles as the founder of bespoke sports marketing agency, The Mailroom, has spent the past four years amplifying the human side of athletes by launching them into non-traditional spaces and helping them to connect with traditional and non-traditional audiences.
Born in Battersea, South London, Annan-Jonathan, whose mother emigrated from Ghana to the UK, always had an affinity for the creative industry.
“I knew I was into the creative arts but I didn’t know what space I wanted to go into. I started with graphic design which led into fashion. I don’t have any form of higher education because I left school at sixth form from Southfields Community College, and after that I have been figuring out the world of business from the age of 18,” says Annan-Jonathan.
That learning process included launching a clothing line in the mid-2000s which became one of the most prominent streetwear brands in London, according to Annan-Jonathan.
With the clothing line taking off, Annan-Jonathan’s business amassed a large following and soon started getting patronage from celebrities and athletes. One of those was footballer Wilfred Zaha, who played for Crystal Palace.
“We built a good friendship and after some time of purchasing our clothes, he wanted to create his own brand and they asked me if I could help him to build his own brand, which led me to create a new brand that we would become co-owners in, called Long Live [Studio].”
Very soon that friendship blossomed into a business partnership when Annan-Jonathan noticed a gap in Zaha’s brand.
“I would go with him to his business meetings to leverage the clothing brand that we had. I realized there wasn’t a lot of people around at the time that were helping him within the business space and he was going in on his own. I advised him during those meetings and I earned his trust, and he became my first client,” recalls Annan-Jonathan.
After doing some work with Zaha, word-of-mouth began to spread and very soon, Annan-Jonathan was inundated with enough work that he needed the infrastructure to help him cope with the demand. That was when The Mailroom was established.
The business, which was founded in 2017, has a core goal to increase visibility for brands and talent in sport though creativity and organic partnerships.
The idea was simple. Athletes are more than just sportsmen. They are brands and that generates business. Traditional agents only deal with the sports contracts, which are usually negotiated in one to four-year cycles. The rest of the time, these athletes are left without key support in terms of mentorship, financial literacy or assistance in navigating life, not just sports.
“Naturally that is where The Mailroom came in. We are a boutique agency that works with people to understand the value that we bring for them and also understand how we can help them to navigate things the right way.”
During his time working with Zaha, Annan-Jonathan saw an opportunity, which he then brought to the attention of the owner of Crystal Palace.
“Before I became the creative director for Crystal Palace, I had emails that were sent to the owner of Crystal Palace saying, I believe there was a space for a creative director here and this is before anyone started thinking about it. Especially when it comes to fashion, it’s about having your finger on the pulse and when it comes to a conversation about who the athletes are, naturally fashion comes into that because that is a way of them expressing who they are. So, I just said if these two things are colliding, in the future, you can naturally see a road map to see that fashion is going to be incorporated into sports a lot more,” says Annan-Jonathan.
And he was right. The Cleveland Cavaliers would appoint artist Daniel Arsham as creative director for the team while the New York Knicks hired Kith founder Ronnie Fieg as creative director. Annan-Jonathan, believes that sports brands need to, now more than ever, be creative in their approach towards connecting with wider audiences and building brands.
“My role is to come in look at the company as a whole and say, ‘how do we continue to expand what is going on and where do we miss the mark when it comes to reaching our audiences’. My first point of what I need to do is product and merchandise, so apparel and what they sell in the merch store. The reason I say we need to start there is about building [a] community and apparel is a good way of building [a] community.”
Traditionally, football clubs try to sell training products to people who don’t care about training so day-to-day, the people going to the games, and die-hard fans only wear clothes there and they don’t wear it anywhere else. So, fashion has to transcend the sport because there are many different people that support the game,” says Annan-Jonathan.