Since joining Formula 1 back in 2019, 27-year-old Williams Racing driver, Alex Albon, has been no stranger to the pressures that come with competing in the high-risk, high-reward motorsport.
Glory, gold and gossip regularly run wild in the Formula 1 paddock, but Albon has maintained fan-favorite status for his good-natured humor and humble attitude. Case in point, ahead of a Zoom interview with WWD from the Brazilian Grand Prix, Albon charmingly apologized for being a minute late as he was sharing “a bit of cheeky M&Ms” with various members of his team.
Now that Albon is more settled into his career and has more mental capacity to pursue other personal passions than just racing, Albon has debuted his own brand. Alex Albon Athletics launched its first drop earlier this year in September to coincide with the Singapore Grand Prix, which the driver considers to be his home race. Notably, Albon is the first Thai driver to race since 1954.
Even though the Thai British driver upfront declares that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, Albon’s thoughtful knowledge of his brand, insightful vision and passion for learning the process behind his venture shines through.
While a T-shirt or branded logo clothing would be the most logical choice for a recognizable athlete’s brand launch, Albon veered off down a different road. His first product was unisex limited-edition suede and canvas beige Classic Marina sneakers.
“I love shoes,” Albon told WWD. “I love streetwear and casualwear. Shoes are easy because it’s an obvious passion of mine, which is why it was the brand’s starting point. The idea was to keep it small. Next year, my plan is to expand and make a bigger variety of products.”
The sneakers evoke the feel of a cool, new-age fashion brand; think along the lines of Kith, Aimé Leon Dore or New Balance — “If people get it, they get it. If they don’t, then it’s just a cool design.”
Albon stresses that it was important for him to be hands-on in his product while simultaneously leaning on the expertise of a non-Formula 1 racing driver friend and fellow Monaco resident who has a foothold within the fashion world.
“This year was about seeing the feedback,” Albon said. “When you build a brand, you have to see people’s appetite for it. I did the one product to get my foot in the door and see the logistics behind it. How it works with tax, shipping or customers review, all to get the brand going.”
Understanding that shoes are trickier to market and are typically priced at a higher sales point, Alex Albon Athletics retails the sneakers for $161, Albon professed that making a cheaper shoe is hard.
Maintaining quality for the brand’s consumer base is an important ethos. Moreover, accessibility within the brand’s price points and appealing to a wider consumer audience with the brand is something Albon has contemplated considerably.
“If the price point is wrong or the quality is not what people expect, it reflects on you badly not just as a brand but as an athlete and personally,” Albon said. “If you make things too expensive, then you’re out of touch. A lot of the fan base, especially now in Formula 1, is younger and even a bit more female-orientated.”
Entering the sport during the start of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” hype era and as a part of the older Gen Z demographic himself, Albon has interacted with the newer fans and consumers of the sport that the docu-drama has introduced to the world of racing.
Last November, Formula 1’s chief executive officer Stefano Domenicali reported that women now account for 40 percent of global fans, an 8 percent rise since 2017.
Citing that 85 percent of women hold the purchasing power but have long been overlooked in the racing market, Toni Cowan-Brown, a San Francisco-based Formula 1 commentator examining its crossover with tech, politics and internet culture notes that it’s unsurprising that women have become the primary consumers for Formula 1 driver brands such as Daniel Riccardo’s Enchanté or Lewis Hamilton’s +44.
Generally, athlete-driven brands can often feel like a cash grab or an easy opportunity to capitalize on a fleeting moment but Cowan-Brown has seen a massive shift in the landscape of how athletes have changed their approach to create longevity for a meaningful retail business.
Today athletes are becoming more strategic and smarter about where they will be after the end of their career, as many of which don’t last beyond 10 to 20 years, Cowan-Brown argues. They are now creating their own brands to tell their own stories about who they are and what they stand for.
In particular, Formula 1 drivers have been forced to get more creative with how they’ve been able to market and create their brands; there are trademark legal issues surrounding using “Formula 1,” “F1,” “Grand Prix,” “Paddock Club,” the sport’s logos, team names and team logos for their brands and promotion.
In many ways, Albon’s brand toes the line between fashion and outright fan merchandise while still furthering the narrative of who he is — beyond just being a Formula 1 driver. The marketing of the brand is intertwined with Albon’s personal life by incorporating his Instagram-famous family pets account run by Albon’s siblings and his longtime girlfriend and professional LPGA athlete Muni “Lily” He.
“If you want to sell anything, put it next to a cute pet,” Cowan-Brown said. “Lily and Alex are a cool power couple that everyone loves. It’s a genius idea on Alex’s part to bring components of his life that only he can into his brand and turn that into an ‘If you know, you know moment.’ The racing subculture and close-knit community of women interested in Formula 1 — even the most casual fans — is a major component of it.”
Albon’s brand is just as lighthearted and fun as he is, which can be seen in his campaign imagery and marketing strategies. Organically, he received endorsements via fellow drivers Fernando Alonso and Yuki Tsunoda, who expressed interest in his and were seen wearing the sneakers in Singapore.
Ahead of the penultimate race at this year’s inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, Albon wore a pair of his Classic Marina shoes in navy blue he designed for himself for the “Netflix Cup” — a crossover event between the stars of Formula 1 and pro-golfers from “Full Swing” teamed up to competing against with one other.
As the Formula 1 racing season is coming to a close and having successfully passed the hurdle of the brand’s teaser drop, Albon is already planning more releases for the upcoming year. He plans to keep the main line at an accessible and affordable price. But the special drops tailored to the specific country’s races throughout the year will be more luxurious and will allow the driver to be more creative and express himself more.
“For 2024, there’s one range which is more casual and everyday wear — a yearly range,” Albon said. “It’s a bit more simple with my logo and a few other little things but good quality. During the year, we have a storyline and a cool concept following the race calendar. We’ll drop in some special pieces that are bit more elevated for a few races throughout the year. I hope to further incorporate the marketing, my helmets and everything else around this idea.”