These are the new Mali home and away shirts for the 08/09 season and African Cup of Nations 2008 made by Airness.
The 36-year-old founder and ceo of sportswearmaker Airness Malamine Koné worked as a shepherd in Mali before moving to the troubled Paris suburbs when he was 10. Although he spoke no French when he arrived, he learned quickly. By the mid-1990s, he had a university law degree and intended to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Airness — a name borrowed from U.S. basketball star Michael Jordan to reflect Koné's brand motto "ever higher, ever stronger." Koné started in 1999, selling sweatshirts sporting the Airness name and slinking-panther logo around the northern Paris housing projects where he lived. He has since developed a clothing and sports line that has grown at least 100% every year. Its founder built Airness around his own early street-level observation: kids determine what's hip, not the companies hawking stuff to them. "By observing what people were buying or looking for, I could react faster to current trends and demand and anticipate what would work next," says Koné.
Koné's tale is a dramatic one. Born in the southern Malian village of Niéna — a place that even today has no electricity or running water — Koné came to France at 10, unable to speak the local language. He got a prelaw degree in the hope of becoming a police inspector. A talent for boxing earned him two French amateur titles and selection to represent France in the 1996 Summer Games. But an auto accident in early 1995 shattered his left knee; Koné required 12 operations and five years of rehabilitation.
The injury ended Koné's Olympic and career dreams. But it set the stage for what would later become Airness — whose panther logo was drawn from Koné's nickname from the days before he was forced out of the boxing ring and into a wheelchair. "The long, forced immobility made me observe things in a way I hadn't before — including how fashion works," he says. Koné is convinced that catching up with giants like Adidas and Nike is just as attainable as the dream of millions across France to make it out of the projects, just as he has successfully done. "I've seen that there are lots of preconceived ideas and prejudices out there to stop you from doing what you want if you give in to them," Koné says. "Perhaps my strength is that I don't accept those limits."
Airness has the irresistible cool derived from celebrities the French love most: football stars. How did Koné swing that when all the pros worth recruiting were already under contracts with Nike, Adidas and Puma? "I came up with the concept of the 'extra-sports' contract — getting players to wear Airness in their private life once their on-field obligations were over," he says. Koné's French-African roots were key to signing stars such as Didier Drogba — an Ivorian who plays for the top English team, Chelsea — and Djibril Cissé, currently with Liverpool. Those ties also allowed Koné to go to the next level: signing Airness as official uniform supplier to several French pro clubs, and half a dozen national squads in Africa.
Koné 's dream? The French national team playing in a brand created in the projects by a man who immigrated to France from a village in Mali — that would be something to see.