If you saw Sean McDonagh walking down the street—camouflage hat, all-black garb, sweet kicks in tow—you might think he were on his way to an art gallery opening, not lacrosse practice.
In reality, he’s an avant-garde artist, and lacrosse midfielder, and Harvard History concentrator, and sneaker designer. The senior in Eliot House will be working post-graduation as the merchandising director for Greats, a Brooklyn-based luxury sneaker brand founded by Ryan Babenzien and Jon Buscemi of Buscemi shoe fame to bring high-quality sneakers directly to consumers. Launched in August 2013, Greats has been lauded as the “next great footwear company” by Forbes and was worn by Kevin Durant during the crucial hours preceding Game 4 in 2014.
Sean has been at Greats since the very beginning. He has worked there for the past two summers, since when the company first began in a “little glass box” room in an office space, doing everything from delivering pairs of sneakers to celebrities in the sneaker community, to doodling his own designs to have approved by Babenzien himself. He still works for them now. Greats, in the meantime, has also upsized their offices twice—a testament to its rapid growth and emergent following.
Sean’s choice to pursue the burgeoning fashion startup industry was one of serendipity yet complete logical sensibility. Originally planning on doing the ubiquitous junior summer finance internship to enter the field full-time, Sean decided to use his sophomore summer as an opportunity to do something completely different.
He emailed Babenzien after hearing about the company’s start, asking to help out. “I said, ‘Hey, if you ever need a hand with Greats, I’ve been wearing sneakers and buying sneakers since I was young, pretending that my foot was growing just to get a new pair of sneakers.’”
This contrivance, which yielded a new pair of shoes every week from his mother, won over Babenzien, who said, “We want you on our team.”
“If I didn’t send that email, I wouldn’t be here—I’d probably be wearing a suit and tie every summer and being miserable,” Sean jokes.
Hearing Sean talk about his love of sneakers is truly an immersive experience. His energy is palpable, and he revealed to me the secrets of the sneaker industry: “The cool thing about sneakers that no one knows is that each line and each color and each collaboration has a total story behind it.” Picture a young kid hanging around a shoe store all the time, collecting sneakers and reading about them, and you’ll start to understand why Greats is a perfect fit for Sean. Few have the kind of enthusiasm for anything that Sean has for discussing fabrics, patterns, and Pantone colors.
“The Jordan sneakers are amazing because the designer, Tinker Hatfield, tells you a total story. There’s a Jordan sneaker that is basically—Jordan at the time bought this Ferrari that he loved, and if you look at the sneaker, you can see little spoilers, the same spoilers from the Ferrari. The inside is quilted just like his custom interior of the car, and the lines are the same lines as a Ferrari would be. So that was basically my whole reason for why I loved sneakers—every line is different, every great designer has his own story behind it. It’s all about where it comes from—that knowledge is huge for me.”
This desire to learn about an entity's origins is what ultimately drew him to major in History and is what provides the link between all his endeavors. Sean is a nostalgic guy—he listens to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, and speaks to both Basquiat, his favorite artist, and ‘90s zines with avid ease.
“When it comes to art, history plays a huge role because I’m always trying to go back into the past and see what these past artists have done and see how I can twist my own feel into it.”
Even his art is decidedly ‘retro.’ Sean is enrolled in a VES silk-screen course, and his latest work of three prints features the original Frankenstein, Wolf Man, and Phantom of the Opera of Universal Pictures, printed on backdrops of powdery, synthetic-looking blue, yellow, and red reminiscent of the ‘90s. He has juxtaposed text next to these images, chosen in a way to form nonsensical poems.
“There’s a movie director, Harmony Korine, who did Spring Breakers, and he has this whole process of connecting dots and lines, and then basically wherever those lines go, you associate words with them, and they end up making these crazy poems. They kind of mean whatever you want them to mean.”
Sitting on stools in the Carpenter Center looking up at the monsters and their poems in that moment, the prints seemed as zany, inspired, and electric as their creator himself. When asked what he’s currently reading, he replies without missing a beat: Sing to Me by L.A. Reid, music executive who has worked with such artists as Usher, P. Diddy, and Outkast. Another tidbit: Sean also happens to own about a hundred coffee table books, and just recently purchased his first real art piece from Jim Joe, an elusive street artist from New York who has started to venture into fine art.
Sean occupies the unique position of being the ‘artsy’ kid on the lacrosse team. Having grown up with an older brother and a large lacrosse community around him on Long Island, New York, Sean started playing in second grade and has kept it up since; he scored the last goal in the Harvard Men’s Lacrosse team’s win against Duke last Saturday, arguably their biggest game in years. But he also bucks the athletic mold.
“I’m one of the few on the lacrosse team who would come into practice in a pair of camo pants and a crazy hunting jacket and the other guys would be like, ‘What the hell are you wearing, man?’ But that’s kind of fun as well—it’s cool because now I have the freedom to do whatever I want, and people know it’s just me doing me.”
It’s a bit odd to realize that Sean is only a senior in college. You feel like you should be running into him at a concert in downtown New York if you’re cool enough. But he’ll be there soon enough, probably going to those very same concerts you’ve imagined, and probably hanging out at the Whitney Museum, which he loves.
“My end goal is to have a show in New York,” he says. “It’s less about my art and more about just getting people together and hopefully having a DJ there playing good music. I’d invite people from Harvard as well as people from Greats or people from music stuff. I’d hang it all up, maybe make it open bar, more like a party—just getting people together, and if I sell one or two things, I’d be a happy camper.”