Just last month in late February, 2019 I had the opportunity to tour the infamous Vibram factory located outside of Gaungzhou, China. Why do I say infamous you ask?… As an outsider in the shoe business you would always hear about this facility in China that featured everything from a grocery store, to a Sauna, and even its own hotel suites. It almost didn’t sound real and for me, it all sounded mythical. However, during my visit I learned that many of these myths are true and that the infamous Vibram factory is as good as advertised.
This enormously large facility is fully equipped to design, develop and produce a wide range of soles in addition to the occasional shoe or sneaker in their on-site sample room. This facility has it all and as a result it gives Vibram the ability to have complete control over their development and most importantly, protect all of their in-house designs and intellectual property for themselves and their clients.
Just walking through the facility you quickly realize this is something special and very unique to China. It’s not everyday you see facilities with their own sample room, development center and moulding factory all on the same site. It was clear that a tremendous amount of thought went into building this place, with the intention of making it a corner stone for the Vibram brand.
Based on my observations, it was obvious that the crown jewel of this entire facility was the Vibram performance center. This is where Vibram is able to test all of their products in manufactured environments meant to replicate extreme weather conditions so they can collect data on the products they create and improve them throughout development.
Inside this testing facility they have a ice room which simulates temperatures well below freezing. On this day the room was being used to test vibrams arctic grip technology, which allows you to walk on ice as if you were walking on a sidewalk. We tested it ourselves and to no ones surprise, it worked extremley well. Very impressive.
As you walk through this facility and learn about each testing station, I realized why Vibram continues to lead the way in outsole technology and innovation. They put in the time, resources, and energy into developing their products and testing them in the most extreme conditions possible over and over, and again and again which allows them to stand behind their products with confidence and guarantee that you are getting their very best every time.
For as long as I can remember I have always recognized that bright yellow rectangle with the slanted corners, but on this day I learned what’s actually behind that iconic trademark. Quality, tradition, innovation and hard work are just a few of the words that come to mind when I think of Vibram and as the footwear industry continues to grow and brands come and go, that yellow rectangle will remain constant for years and years to come.
Masterpiece: The Power of the Pullover
“If you look at what’s going on in the shoe biz right now and what’s trending – from the Nike x Off-White collection to everyone else who’s knocking off that look – all of these collections have pullover DNA.”
I still remember when I first started my career in the shoe business and the excitement of being around shoes and sneakers all the time and wanting to soak up as much information as I could about the shoe development process.
It wasn’t until I made my first trip to China in 2006 I realized how many moving parts there are to this machine we call the shoe business. Over the last year I’ve really gotten into the sport of Formula 1, which started by me just wanting to be supportive of a driver freind of mine who has supported my shoe brand. You’re probably wondering what F1 has to do with the shoe business…tbh I didn’t really know why I liked Formula 1 so much until I started writing this blog post.
However, much like a Formula 1 team, which consists of many moving parts, I can draw a-lot of parallels to the shoe business. I’m not going to compare building an F1 car to building a shoe, but building a sneaker from the ground up is a very complicated process. When I say building from “the ground up” I don’t mean what sneaker customizers do when they deconstruct a shoe and build it back again, although I’m sure that’s not easy, what I’m referring to is much different. I’m speaking in regards to building a collection and developing a line plan on how to build and deliver that collection into the market.
Sourcing materials with multiple suppliers, building custom moulds, creating new Last shapes, pattern corrections, and more…all while keeping track of every component and where it’s coming from. Not to mention keeping track of the cost and all of the components and constantly negotiating with suppliers so you stay within your target FOB (freight on board – basically it’s a fancy acronym for your cost per pair).
There is a lot more to building shoes than what you can see with your eyes, it’s all the invisible stuff we don’t see that really makes the difference when building a great shoe.
In a formula 1 garage much like a shoe factory you can find a lot of people, and my first thought is “what the hell does everyone do?”. You have your engineers, mechanics, technicians, and there is even a job for someone to use a vacuum like thing to just keep the car exhaust out of the garage. It’s very fascinating to me, and it’s a reminder why I love the process of building footwear so much.
It’s impossible to cover the entire process in one post so I want to focus on one area which happens to be one of my favorites parts of the process…The Pullover.
The term pullover means exactly that…when building your first prototype following the patterns completion you typically stitch scrap materials together to form your first prototype, then you take that prototype and “pull it over” your last so you get a quick look at what your shoe could possibly look like. Looking at a pullover requires a lot of imagination because it’s a very rough sample. It’s up to you to use that imagination to fill in the gaps and really see the shoe’s potenital. Like all designers doing this for the first time it took a while for me to understand the power of the pullover and how to use it as a tool within my own creation process.
If you look at what’s going on in the shoe biz right now and what’s trending – from the Nike x Off-White collection to everyone else who’s knocking off that look – all of these collections have pullover DNA. The objective of a pullover is to be a super fast transition from your 2D concept to just something in 3D and everything from partially stitched patterns, to inside out materials, or unfinished linings are just a few examples of what pullover DNA looks like.
For me, a pullover is a canvas and it represents the moment when you transition from a 2D sketch or rendering into your first 3D form. In my mind, when you make your first pullover your 2D is no larger relevant and at that moment it’s now up to you to turn that pullover into a work of art.
Pullovers can be rough on designers as well. They can keep you up at night, and damn near drive you to drink. All designers have that one shoe within a collection they created that they always look for first when that shipment of pullovers come in. I’ve worked on many shoes that looked amazing in 2D and once we made the first pullover it looked like a disaster. At that moment you have to decide if it’s worth putting the time into making it as special as you know it can be or should you just scrap it for now. It’s a tough spot to be in especially if you have 10+ styles or more that also need your attention and look closer to being commercial shoes verses the one you really love. It’s a tough spot to be in, but I realized after 15 years in this biz you can’t save them all.
People don’t realize that going from 2D to 3D is a big transition and if your proportions are off (which is typically the case for the less experienced) you will loose a lot of your details and surface area once you transition to the real thing.
A pullover is a fresh start and gives you an opportunity to correct mistakes, try new things and discover new ones. It’s a beautiful process because it’s unpredictable and regardless of how much experience you may or may not have you can never predict when you’re going to create a masterpiece.
Similar to a convenience store a.k.a. Bodega as we call them here in New York City, sole bodegas (as I like to call them) can be an incredible resource to footwear designers and brands. First, let’s start with how you find these gems which I get asked all the time. Guangzhou, China has one of the largest outsole markets that I have ever seen and despite how big it is none of these bodegas have websites, IG pages, twitter accounts, etc…which means the only way to see what’s available is by seeing it in person which can obviously get expensive to fly around the world and search these shoe markets that can be difficult to navigate if you don’t speak the local language or have friends that can assist you. To be completely honest with you, I like the fact that these places are not that accessible and can sometimes be a mystery to learn about. What’s impressive to me is when someone figures out how to crack the “da vinci” code on there own as I did when I was starting out in the shoe biz.
It’s no secret that brands and designers like to use existing outsoles but the problem is when everyone is using the same existing sole it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Why does this happen you ask? I think it’s because 1) brands like to copy each other, especially when something in particular is selling very well. If this is news to you then you have a lot to learn. Most brands copy each other left and right, but its usually the smaller designers who are taking the risk investing time and spending there last dimes to find special outsoles and other components to make there shoes special which can end up getting knocked off in the long run anyway.
2) budget – it’s much cheaper to have someone who’s already in china send you photos of soles to choose from than to fly your designer out to search the market in person. The problem with that is the person on the other end is not you, and they could be sending you reference soles based on shoes that are selling the best in the market when in fact your looking for the complete opposite.
Brands that have smaller budgets and cannot afford to create new outsole moulds every season love sole bodegas and for me personally i love to go “crate digging” and find outsole gems that are unique and different. When your able to search the market on your own and spend time going shop to shop this really allows you to find those hidden gems that will make the difference between your collection and the next guys (or gals). In my opinion, it’s worth every penny you spend on travel, hotels, and food.
Sole Bodegas can sometimes feel like your in a candy shop. I remember some of my first experiences in these shops and immediately feeling overwhelmed and excited at the same time. You can find just about anything if you look long enough. Some soles will be obvious and others will not, but the key is to have some kind of plan when searching because it can get exhausting.
In the shoe business today the outsole has become the focal point for many brands and each season more and more are investing in there own tooling but for the designers who cannot sole bodegas are still a great option but if you want to find that special sole that has not yet been prostituted by all the big brands I suggest you take a chance, put your money we’re your mouth is and show up and figure it out. Good luck with your search.
The Sole is the Soul
Often the unsung hero in the sneaker making process, the sole mould can easily be forgotten or never mentioned at all. Over the course of sneaker history, the “sole” has been just that of many of the iconic sneakers of the past. Sneakers such as the Air Jordan 3, Rebok questions, or the Adidas KB8 are simply just cut and sew uppers without there well thought-out and designed outsoles. In many cases, the sole is what gives the sneaker its life and meaning and for a long time only the big brands had the capacity and resources to bless us with this amazing component by introducing new sole units from season to season.
As a footwear brand owner myself sole moulds are expensive and for a long time and still to this day there are many brands who choose to use existing soles mostly for costing reasons rather than creating their own. This is the reason why you may see the same soles used from brand to brand more often than not. However, brands such as Filling Pieces and Arkk Copenhagen are setting a new standard and are clearly willing to make the investment in creating their own moulds and although it comes at a high price tag I am certain they are happy with this choice.
As I travel around the world working in shoe factory’s from China, to Greece to Brazil, etc. I wanted to share some images of sneaker moulds that I have come across this year throughout my journey including my own custom sneaker mould for the Omar Bailey Footwear brand which currently lives in Fujian, China.
Shoe Terms: Vulcanizing
Personally I think the vulcanizing shoe making process is one of the most fascinating processes in the shoe business that you hear very little about. There is so much science and planing involved with it and it’s something that blows me away every time I see it.
Vulcanizing is a process in which you are literally cooking your shoes in an oven until they’re finished. When I think vulcanized shoes brands such as Vans and Converse come to mind immediately.
There are a few key components that are critical to this process in order for the process to be effective
Last: #lastcomesfirst which are made of aluminum because traditional resin Last would melt and catch fire in the chamber.
Vulcanized chamber: this is the oven like machine that the shoes are placed in after they have been assembled were temperatures can exceed 150 degrees fahrenheit.
Materials: it’s critical that the materials used on vulcanized shoes can withstand high temperatures in the chamber. Materials such as canvas, leather, and metal eyelets are commonly used in styles like the Chuck Taylor or Old Skool and you never see materials like silicon, EVA, plastic, or PU leather (fake leather) used because these materials are considered flammable and can melt or catch fire while in the chamber.
After the patterns are cut, stitched and lasted using a combination of the materials (listed above) the sole is then constructed starting with a thick rubber outsole, and finished with a rubber foxing tape that wraps 360 degrees around the base of the shoe. The rubber sole and foxing tape are lightly cemented so they are held in place and once all the shoes are ready they are placed on a steel rack that can be wheeled into the chamber. Once inside the chamber the vault like door is air locked and the machine is turned on. As the temperature increases inside the rubber sole, foxing and upper material starts to bond to each other creating a tight seal and forms that “vacuum sealed” look you get on the side of the sole. After 30 mins or so of “cooking” the racks are removed so the shoes can cool off before they are un-lasted and this entire process is repeated again.
Generally this is a rather inexpensive way to make shoes, however the catch is the MOQ’s (minimum order quantities) are very high, in excess of 3000 to 5000 pairs per color, which is why you only see a few brands that actually do it. The set up cost is expensive because of the aluminum last that are required and generally have high MOQ’s themselves. It’s a great process that’s very fascinating but was specifically designed for high volume mass production.
It would be a great process to see taken down on a smaller scale and really see how designers could push this process and do some fun things with it. There are a few examples of brands that have done this but seeing this available to independent designers and makers could be a lot of fun…maybe my NY based factory, “The Kicks Factory” will have something to say about that sooner rather later. Stay tuned.
THE SAMPLE ROOM
Over my 10+ years in the shoe business as a footwear entrepreneur I have had the pleasure to visit many different sample rooms around the world. The one thing that they all have in common is that they all play a critical roll to a shoe factories ability to produce footwear efficiently and effectively at competitive market prices.
Before I explain any further, let me start by saying for those of you who do not know a sample room (aka development center) and a shoe factory are NOT the same thing. They are both two separate things that provide completely different functions but are both working toward the same goal. In many cases sample rooms are their own entities, completely separate from a shoe factory. It’s important to note this so when you are speaking with shoe professionals, you understand what terms to use and what they mean. Many people who call me to inquire say they’re looking for a shoe factory when in fact what they’re really looking for is a sample room.
Allow me to explain…
The most recognizable sample room in the shoe business is Nike’s innovation kitchen located in the Mia Hamm building on Nike’s world campus in Beaverton, OR. I had the pleasure of being one of the few people who got to see beyond it’s iconic red door (it was red back then, not sure about today) that Nike branded so well back in the day when I was an intern at a competitor brand 😉 in 2005. Don’t ask me how I was able to get into the building, but I remember always being on that campus kicking it with old Nike & Jordan heads like Dwayne Edwards, Wilson Smith, E-Scott, Jason Mayden and crew. Anyway…
It was the first time I was exposed to a sample room, and I was spoiled because this was no ordinary sample room. This was a place were you can do what I like to call “test shit out”. It was a think tank, workshop, lab, test facility, etc. no matter what you called it, it was a place were you can rip shoes apart and Frankenstein them back together. Keep in mind that not everything created in the kitchen is meant to be commercialized and sold on the market but it can just be there simply as reference for future projects.
As years passed by and my shoe experience began to evolve, I quickly realized that other sample rooms are not quite the same as Nike’s kitchen. My opinion on why that is, is because when you’re the leader in footwear innovation the way Nike has been since I can remember, other brands who are competing with them and fighting for the same market share sometimes can’t aford to spend as much time to test shit out, and would rather focus on developing their collections and turning over production very quickly. When this idea becomes the focus of a brand, then the true purpose and value of the sample room will never be met.
In my opinion, the sample room still remains the most critical component to a shoe factory. The reason why is because the sample room allows you to tinker and try things out, it also allows you to discover answers for specific questions which can only be answered by actually using your hands and working with your sample makers. Other specifics such as determining your production cost & lead times are also important details that get figured out in the sample room amongst many other things. I can go on and on, but I’m sure you get you the point by now.
On the other end of the spectrum a shoe factories primary purpose is to produce shoes. If you’re in the shoe business and have worked with factories independently, then you know how much they hate to make changes and tinker. In a perfect world, all of these things should be sorted out in the sample room and then there would be a seamless transition of information and some tangible items such as last and patterns, etc. to where all the factory needs to do is place bulk orders for materials and components, along with preparation of the factory from workers, and machine alignments so when all the materials arrive their job is to duplicate what you originally created in the sample room over and over again until your production is completed.
In conclusion, I believe the sample room is the unsung hero of the shoe manufacturing process. It’s your first and last line of defense before going into production because it gives you multiple chances to correct mistakes and solve problems that can cost you a lot of money in the long run. Once you make that final decision to start production, there is no turning back, so make sure you use your sample room wisely and take advantage of what you can accomplish behind that red door.
The MIDDLE Men
Most of the time when brands or designers are working with factorys, 80% of the time they are not dealing with the factory directly. They are working with what we call a trading company a.k.a agents. I really hate when people getting into the business say “I don’t want to deal with an agent” “I want to cut the middle man out”. Although that maybe a good idea in other industries, if you really understood what the “agent” actually does you would feel much differently about how you view that word…!!agent”.
Trading company’s or “agents” have a place in this business and are just as important to the development and production process of your shoes as the concepts themselves. They make life much easier to an already complicated process, especially for the amateurs. You wouldn’t have a single clue what to do without them because they handle the “shit work” like finding the suppliers for materials, and soles. Even down to the foam lining, thread and insoles if necessary and that’s just the beginning.
They coordinated the shipping and logistics from all the suppliers to the shoe factory were the shoes are cut and assembled. An agent also needs to understand if whether you need 100 yards or 125 yards of Velcro for your order, or 3000 or 4000 plastic eyelets…shall I continue? How about the language barrier? Suppliers and factorys are use to working with trading company’s to get there business, and this is an important point to bring up because in most cases the GM (the main contact person) from a factory or supplier typically does not speak great English and rely’s on the trading company to communicate directly with the client. Trading company’s or agents always have 1 or 2 people who speak good English and the really good ones speak multiple languages and will have a team that works under them. So, this is also a barrier that you have to figure out how to get passed if your goal is to still “cut out the middle man”.
Agents or trading company’s generally make there 💰 💴 from a commission (sometimes fixed, or pre negotiated) on your orders, which also translates to…you better be making a shit ton of shoes or else it’s just a massive waste of time for everyone involved. When I say shit ton I mean minimum 10,000 pairs or more if the agent is generous. Agents don’t give a shit about potential or how good your design is, quite frankly when it comes down to this side of the business neither do I. We need to know your serious, and if your ready to play ball which translates to…do you have the money required to pay for all the work that will go into the next 6 to 8 months of development and production? and unfortunately, most of the time the answer is NO.
The point that I am making and want to school you on is that agents have a purpose and for someone who has little to no experience in the shoe business has absolutely no shot (my opinion only) to successfully develop and produce a brand on the international market without working with one, unless however you have family or friendly ties into the shoe business.
It took me 10 years to feel comfortable to work directly with factorys and suppliers. This is something that you do not hear about, but that relationship is much different than an agents relationship. It much more serious and nothing to mess with, and something that amateurs are just not ready for at that stage. Today, I deal directly with suppliers and factorys, work with agents, and I am also an agent myself. The key is working smarter instead of harder and understanding your strengths and weaknesses and I choose to use my shoe intelligence and energy in specific ways and when needed allow others (agents) to do what they do best.
So before you question an agent or state that you want to “cut out the middleman” think about everything I just said, and try to think about how hard it would actually be for you to try and do there job.
Around the world in 30 days (part 1)
If you know me, then you know that I am always on the move and most of these moves typically happen on the international level. Wither it be China, Brazil, India, or Dubai my career and many of my business relationships have been shaped by my travels.
Between Mid January and February I will be on the road handling multiple aspects of my shoe business from my launching my own brand, finalizing shoe collections with my clients, and starting completely new projects.
In part one of this series of post titled “Around the world in 30 days” I will give you some insight on exactly what I am doing and where I am doing it.
Day 1 (1/10/18): Brooklyn, NY
Usually when I am taking a trip this long for me preparation is key. I have to cross every “T” and dot every “I”. This means having a project check list and making sure I am carrying any samples, reference shoes, materials, or documents related to all the projects I am working on. While I am traveling I spend 80% of my time working when I am not in a factory or office which basically means I don’t sleep. I do have one rule however, I don’t like to work while I am in transit so on airplanes, trains, boats or buses I do not like to work. It is the only piece that I can seem to get when I travel and I like it that way, and a matter of fact I hate that there is wifi on planes now…it drives me crazy. I will however do IG post but that is more fun than work for me.
My lovely fiancé Allison drops me off at JFK for my late night flight to Milan were I start my 30 day journey. My first 6 days of my trip will be between Dusseldorf, Germany and London England. I cannot write a post like this without mentioning Emirates, I switched from United to Emirates and this is something I wish I would have done years ago. For me comfort and convenience is important when traveling like this, and trust me Ive paid my dues over the years with taking shity flights from point A to point B but there is nothing like having an airline you travel with consistently, I really does make all the difference.
Day 3 (1/12/18): Dusseldorf, Germany
After almost a day of traveling with a direct flight to Milan and a connection via Amsterdam (my old stomping grounds) I had to get some rest and get ready for my first meeting to kick off this business trip.
2018 marks the official launch of Omar Bailey Footwear. After being in the shoe business for all of my adult life (since 20 years of age, I am 35 now) I am now launching my own brand for the first time. Since starting my consulting business in 2006 I was the person who was hired to help those who wanted to start there own brands. Some were successful and some were not for all different reasons, but I like to tell people that by being in the position I was in I was able to witness first hand why new brands succeed or crash and burn. Without going into much detail the one common denominator is….the people behind the brand, and I will leave it at that. Money is also very important but it all starts with the leadership.
My first meeting in Dusseldorf was with a showroom I was connected with through a mutual friend. They expressed some interest in my brand because it was different and this particular showroom is known for introducing new brands and products into the European market. My story for OBF is that the shoes are handmade in New York City and in case you didn’t know there is not much of a shoe production culture left in the United States, so this caught there attention and I decided to make the trip to Germany and bring some gifts along as well…4 pairs from my SS18 collection.
I am a big believer in “Showing up” and making yourself present especially when you want something bad enough. Sometimes you cant sit and wait for someone to do it for you, so after multiple conversations with these people I decided to make Germany apart of my travel itinerary. This is a quality that has always worked well for me from my college internship days to now because it catches people off guard and they usually end up having a ton of respect for you afterword.
The meeting went well, and the shoes were received well and I got to learn a little more about how the retail business works in Europe as it relates to my brand. As they say…Rome was not built overnight and building businesses takes time, but the goal is that the seeds you plant today will bloom later on and this is were follow up and persistence are very important.
Day 5 (1/14/18): London, U.K.
After my meeting in Dusseldorf and getting sometime to myself to enjoy the city and see some awesome cars which was my favorite part outside of my business I headed to London to see my boy and brother from another mother Daniel Bailey. Daniel and I go way back to our days when we were trying to figure out our way through the crazy shoe business in NYC. It was also my first time in London so that was dope as well, but after being on the move so much for the days prior in Germany it was nice to slow things down a bit. I had some much needed computer work I needed to get done and new shoe projects that I needed to get started on.
Day 8 (1/17/18): Dubai, U.A.E.
After a great trip in London catching up on some work and getting to see my boys Daniel and Luke as well as making some new friend’s it was now time to change my focus to my brand Omar Bailey Footwear. As I mentioned earlier January 2018 is the launch of my SS2018 collection in Dubai. In Feb 2017, I established a relationship with Level Shoes in Dubai which is known as one of the best shoe department stores in the world. Just 2 weeks earlier I shipped the first order to there store and wanted to stop by to make sure everything was good in terms of clearing customs. I also needed to meet with there sales and branding team to discuss the displays and our shared marketing responsibilities for the collection. Its important that both parties bring something to the table when it comes to marketing so one party is not completely depending on the other to sell there shoes.
Unfortunately the shoes were still clearing customs and I was not able to see the shoes on display as I wanted, which is fine and not that big of a deal.
After my meeting I had a couple days to enjoy Dubai. Ive been to Dubai many times already (8 times in 2017) so I have a pretty good understanding on the city and how things work there. I personally love it and depending on what part of town your in you will get a different experience.
This time I chose to stay in the Marina district a-pose to downtown which reminds me of Miami Beach mixed with a little Las Vegas. Although I’m from NY I grew up in South Florida and I have always loved being around water. Dubai is just dope from the design, innovation, the flashy cars, etc. I understand I could have a very different feeling if I lived there full-time but as a visitor its a great place.
Day 12 (1/21/18): New Delhi, India
After a positive experience in Dubai with my brand and enjoying the city its time for me to continue my journey East…Next stop New Delhi, India. Since November 2016 I have been the creative director for Lotto india. If your not familiar with Lotto then look them up when you get a chance. They started in the earlier 70’s just like Nike and establish themselves has a top performance brand in just about every market outside of the united states…in other words there a huge fu#@!*& company. I have been working with there India division for over year and I am now on my 3rd season with them. Last year alone I was in India 10 months out of the year and in this past fall between Sept and November I was cranking out styles for the FW18 season (my 3rd season).
My primary responsibility is to help this brand reshape there creative direction and introduce new styles and new thinking to the market. If you follow markets outside of the United States and China you would know that India is on the up and up, and every brand, and businessman wants there piece of this place. India is new to many of the things we have enjoyed in the west for so long when it comes to fashion, technology, and culture and I am doing my part to help them infuse this into there products.
I am in india to give final approvals on samples and to be present for our FW2018 collection preview and presentation to all of our retail partners throughout india. If you ever worked at a large shoe company then you know many of these things usually come down to the 11th hour wither your still making samples, making pattern adjustments, waiting for supplier deliveries, etc. its always “all hands on deck” until the curtain opens.
So as of today or as you read this I am still india and will be for another week before I head to Hong Kong, and Mainland China before I return to India to attend the trade show for FW2018 collection before going back to NYC on Feb 10th. Check out my IG for stories and post @thekicksfactorynyc or @omarbaileyfootwear to follow my journey on this trip and future ones as well. I will be writing a Part 2 at some point once this trip has concluded when I am back in Brooklyn or chilling on the beach in Mexico with my girl for vacation.
I hope you enjoyed, and to be continued….
Behind the Design: SS18 Tyndaris Knitted Collection
February 2017 was the first time i visited Dubai, it was a city I was always intrigued by from afar and during my trip I wanted to do as much as I could to soak it all in. If you know anything about Dubai one of the first thing that comes to mind is the heat.
When I started to think about the design of the OB spring/summer 2018 season while I was 4 wheeling in the Dubai desert I started think about performance and luxury fused as one. Being that our sneakers are all handmade in NYC and when most people hear handmade there first thought is usually “Leather” I wanted to go about this collection a little differently.
My design background started in performance working for New Balance, Adidas and even doing some work for Nike. Sports and performance has always been in my DNA but I also love style and high fashion.
The knitted upper aka fly knit, a name that Nike coined for this process has become popular with all the top performance brands (under different names) and recently has trickled into the mid tear casual footwear markets. Due the to nature of the manufacturing process of knitted uppers and the high quantity’s that are required from factories Its difficult for smaller brands to incorporate a process like this into there shoes. So by using my supplier relationships of over 10 years I was able to introduce this technique into my collection of handmade luxury sneakers.
Not only is this technique cool, but it also provides functional benefits that compliments how we make our shoes. The most obvious one when you wear the shoe is the breathability which is important in warm climates like Dubai. The Weight; The Tyndaris Hi and Lo knitted version’s are much lighter than it’s original all leather style from the previous season. Leather is naturally heavy when it’s all stitched and layered together but since we’ve combined the two to make the shoe 50/50 it’s clear that these benefits have improved this collection and made these styles more desirable for the spring and summer seasons.
The process itself to create this collection is time consuming and took approximately 10 months from conception to inception.
Here is the quick run down…
- Create concept rendering
- Create the paper pattern for knitted area on the shoe (size 11)
- Draw knitted design on the paper pattern
- Digitize knitted pattern sketch
- Develop first knitted upper following original paper pattern (size 11)
- Purchase additional upper materials, lining, and hardware
- Develop pair of samples using knitted upper
- Wear test sample/make corrections
- Develop another pair of wear test samples
- Confirm sample size 11
- Order custom Last and have them graded from size 8 to 14
- Grade paper patterns for knitted area in sizes 8 to 14 based on custom Last
- Digitize and grade knitted pattern for each size (8 to 14)
- Develop 1 set of knitted patterns per size to test first
- Confirm graded knitted uppers
- Confirm order for knitted uppers based on quantity, colors and sizes
- Order additional bulk materials and components for production
- Start production
- Complete production
- Deliver production to retailer
The mission was to design and build a great sneaker using a current technique and technology meshed with the traditional art form of handmade shoes. Shoes and sneakers that are made in America is few and far between and what I want to do as a designer is push the boundaries in footwear development and achieve on a small scale what those may think can only be done on a large scale. The Tyndaris Spring/Summer 2018 collection is proof of that and no matter what…we will continue to do our best to tip the scales.
Our spring/summer collection will be available at Level Shoes in Dubai @ the Dubai mall and online in February 2018.
Recently I started watching the HBO series how to make it in America again since It first aired in 2010 when I was a struggling footwear designer in NYC trying to make a name for myself. If you haven’t seen the show it’s about two friends who are trying to start a denim line in NYC and are learning on the go.
In one of the early episodes in season 1, they are trying to find a denim manufacture and they hit road block after road block. There was even a scene were they go to a Jean shop and try to bait the owner into telling them where he makes his jeans and he gives them a fake address uptown that they later find out is a Boucher shop.
This made me reflect on how I was able to get into the footwear manufacturing business and connect with factories, and it also reminded me of the shit I had to deal with to get there as well. I get asked all the time about factories from a lot of different people, and some of those people maybe reading this post right now. I just wanted to share some of my story and maybe you might find some value in it…or not.
There is another scene in the show when the main character Ben goes to see one of his old professors at FIT to try and get a denim factory recommendation from him. The thing that stood out in that conversation is his professor says something like “I will see what I can do, but people are very sensitive about giving out there supplier contacts” and that is so, so true.
Why are people like myself so reluctant to giving out this information? Is it because we don’t want to give out a recommendation and that person make you look bad with your factory, wither its because of a late payment or the factory not thinking your serious. Or Is it because we selfishly don’t want you taking up our factories time therefore taking away time from something they maybe working on for us, or is it because we know how hard it was to establish that contact and what it took to build that relationship. I would say all of the above is correct and I can think of 10 more reasons as well. For me, the last point is what resonates the most.
In 2006, I had my first opportunity to go to china as an independent designer. The key word is “independent” because I did not go with one of my past employers like New Balance, or Adidas which would be a much different trip if I did. Going as an independent allowed me to be everywhere and do anything. Going as an employee of a brand is cool but you know there are certain restrictions and you have to be very careful when crossing that line of trying to make your own contacts when your employer just spent $10,000 for you to go to china for 2 weeks to work on there stuff only.
I was working with an old friend and mentor of mine as a freelance footwear designer at that time. He was well established in the shoe biz with over 40 years of experience working for all the top brands as a creative director and designer. We had a great relationship and we still do to this day. When he went independent he used his experience to get design and development contracts with brands. He used my youth and creativity to meet the requirements of those design contracts and it also helped that I was consistently being paid for my work. The arrangement was simple, I would create the drawings, tech packs and blueprints which is experience I had from my days of working at New Balance, K-Swiss, Adidas and Timberland and he would go to china and develop the shoes with his factories.
One day he said to me, I think it’s time you come to china with me and see how all of this works. My first thought was, “sounds great, but I can’t afford that shit”. He said listen, let’s do this…you come up with the plane fare and I will pay for your food and lodging and you can pay it back with 2 months of free design work for one of my clients…without even thinking I said DONE DEAL!!! My next move was to try and get $1200 for a plane ticket, first I asked my parents who were both broke AF. Then I went to this guy who was a donor of my HS back in Florida and he also sat on the board of directors. He owned a massive accounting firm in NYC that was worth millions. I won’t say his name but I’ll just refer to him as AC.
AC supported the school, its students and alumni and i was always able to reach out to him for advance. I wrote him a letter that described the importance of this trip and what it would mean to go to china at this point In my career. I also included references, and a 6 month payment plan on how I would repay him the $1200 with interest. I thought for sure there was no way he could say no, and that’s exactly what he said to me…No! Of course I was pissed and I’m pretty sure at some point I even thought he didn’t like black people or something. It made no sense to me, but I knew I had to move on. I went back to my parents and told them what happened and they were able to give me a few hundred dollars, and then I went to my sisters and friends and was able to collect enough money to buy my plan ticket.
When we arrived to Hong Kong it was late, and after a 16 hour direct flight from NYC the Last thing you want to do is commute even more which is exactly what we had to do. We took a bus from HK to Dongguan which is a 2+ hr bus ride, were you have to cross the boarder from HK to mainland China which is a whole process within itself, but this was all apart of my learning process of how you get things done on this side of the world.
The next day we went straight to the factory. Shoe factories are very interesting, there are so many moving parts and just the size of them can be overwhelming. From this one trip I was able to meet and work directly with the factory GM’s and other shoe industry people who live in china. Once you know a couple of guys like that it becomes very easy to meet more industry people, the key however is you need to consistently go to china and I recognized that almost immediately.
China can be an intimidating place if you don’t go with someone who knows the ropes but after a couple trips with my colleague I knew I needed to build on the foundation of relationships that he helped me start. Eventually I began consulting on my own and would use those same contacts in china to make new ones, and I also started traveling to china on my own. I learned that when you show up people take you serious, I wasn’t trying to do everything through email and Skype and I knew I had to be there as often as I could and they respected that. I did whatever I could to keep buying those plane tickets, and before I knew it my network grew. My colleague didn’t just hand me the contacts he made me work for it, and when I was able to show him I was serious about taking that step and going to china, I am sure that showed him something that made him comfortable with introducing me to his colleagues and friends. He cracked the door open for me, then I kicked that shit in and took advantage of what was on the other side.
Even at that point there is still more work to do to gain the trust of people. The dinners and drinks you have to buy, bringing gifts from the states like “l love NY” t-shirts which was always my go to. It was those little things that allowed them to believe in me along with my work ethic and they were willing to help me and watch me grow. Like all relationships some of them come and go, but over the last 12 years I’ve been able to establish a core group of people, factories and suppliers that I will continue to work with for the next 12 years and beyond. I don’t even know how much money I spent over those years going to china, and I can’t remember how I made it, but I do remember the grind, always thinking ahead and how to get to the next opportunity.
So before the next time you ask someone “do you know any good factories you can put me in touch with?” really give some thought on how you can answer that question yourself. It could be an industry event in another country, or an article you read in WWD or you just wake up one day and say I’m gonna go to china and figure this thing out.
One thing for sure, I can guarantee your answer is going to require you to do something that everyone else is not willing to do and that right there is what will separate you from the rest of the pack.
Good luck on your journey and maybe I will see you on the other side of that door you kick down.
How to MAKE in America
As you could probably guess (or know first hand for those of you reading this) Building a shoe brand is very difficult and a constant up hill battle and sometimes can feel like your in a movie. It sounds funny but I am not joking, if you break down your experience after the fact, there will more than likely be some sort of Narrative Structure. There is obviously a plot and then there is the drama, the suspense, your lead characters, conflicts, resolutions and more. When you think about it a shoe factory could very easily be transformed into a Hollywood movie set or at the very least a great canvas for a realty TV show.
As I just mentioned, building a shoe brand is very difficult, and damn near impossible if your doing it in America. We are a long way from the early to mid 1900’s when shoe factories like LJ Simone and other NYC based shoe factories were thriving in the US market. A matter a fact that time in history is virtually erased as you can barely find any information on the web about it.
I launched my made in New York City brand of luxury kicks in the summer of 2017, but technically I started it in the fall 2015. I think there are some key things that are very important to know when trying to accomplish such a feet, but there are also something’s that are very important that you don’t really know until you need to know it as well.
Allow me to elaborate….
first off I don’t think there is much you can learn in school to prepare for launching a brand “yes I said it” and Yes I went to college, but I learned a great deal from my internships with brands like New Balance, K-swiss, Adidas, and Hewlett-Packard. I can still remember very specific lessons from those experiences that I do apply into my work today.
I think the number one thing you need more than anything when building a brand is relationships. In my mind quality relationships are key and more valuable than money itself in many cases. When I was in my late teens and early 20’s I was doing my internships and really worked hard to make a name for myself. I knew pretty early on from those internships that working full time for a shoe company was not my interest. So I busted my butt on projects and soaked up as much as I could from one brand and moved on to the next one.
I like to think that I am a friendly person so I got along with people very easily. I was broke as hell but that quality gave me a lot of value. Over the years I stayed in touch with many of the people whom I met through these internships and focused on developing and building them. My intentions were always genuine but anyone who knew me also knew I was hungry to learn. I feel that relationship building is a true skill and like all skills the more you do it and practice the better you get at it. I always tried to be ready for that random moment to give my 60 second pitch when standing next to a big wig in an elevator or on a plane sitting next to businessman (or businesswoman) and overhear them discussing a large deal on the phone prior to take off. you never know who you are sitting next to and how they can help you.
There are so many moving parts when trying to develop footwear in the United States. Wither you like it or not, it’s just not possible to complete all the steps in the US. Due to a lack of industry resources here it’s not easy to do the simple things like adding a heat transferred logo to your upper or building a Last without paying a fortune for it. Fortunately for me I am able to use my relationships abroad to get key components created which would otherwise be impossible or extremely expensive to create here in the states.
Even with the relationships in place it is still very difficult to MAKE in America because in many cases you need to coordinate the development of other components in different countries, and oh by the way you need to make sure your doing it in the correct order as well. For example, my sneaker soles are custom made in Asia, then the soles need to go to my last maker in Europe, then the last and soles need to come to me in NYC were my pattern maker grades all my patterns according to the last received from Europe. If you make a misstep and do one thing out of order or do step C before step B that can be disastrous… and the cynical part about it is you won’t know it until the very end, and at that very moment is how the shoe biz can chew you up.
Once my patterns are done then they need to be shipped backed to Asia were I have a very special component being produced that can only be made there because we do not have this kind of equipment in the states or it does exist but it’s extremely expensive. Next, After all that is done and multiple fires have been put out with the factory (there are always fires to put out with factories in the form of problems of course) everything is shipped back to our shop in NYC. This is the moment when you get on your knees and start praying to the heavens that everything in the DHL box in front of you fits and you have no issues which is still 50/50 even after taking all the proper measures and precautions.
…Yes, everything did fit.
Shipping gets very expensive and there is nothing like an $800 usd DHL bill for shipping shoe Last from Portugal to the states, or 80 pairs of rubber sneaker soles from China to Brooklyn. This is the one thing that scares the shit out of me the most because shoe components are dense and take up space and if your not careful a couple crazy shipping bills can put you out of business just like that. Everything adds up fast when starting a shoe brand, and the funny thing is even after everything I mentioned to this point I haven’t even made a shoe yet.
At the end of the day wither you like it or not in order to MAKE in America as far as footwear goes it’s not possible without MAKING outside of America in some capacity and the way you do it is with good relationships and reliable suppliers. One day I would like to think I will be apart of the change that makes MAKING shoes in America cool again, and it’s going to take those who really understand how to connect the dots when it comes to the footwear development and production processes.
I don’t think you have to have 15 years in the shoe biz like me or even have to do so many internships. Obviously some experience would help, but I don’t think it’s required. You just have to want it bad enough, be willing to learn, take risk and not wait on people to do things for you and with that kind of mindset you just may surprise yourself with what you can do.
Sourcing is KING
I’ve always said your products are only as good as the materials you source. Sourcing materials and components is crucial to creating new collections of footwear and knowing where to get them from is just as important and it’s especially more important when you or your clients are working on a budget.
I’m going to walk you through my journey on sourcing materials in Guangzhou China earlier this summer for a new collection of footwear I am developing for the India domestic market.
I live in Brooklyn NYC and fly Emirates out of JFK to Dubai on the 11am flight. With a quick stopover in Dubai to handle some business with a local shoe retailer for Omar Bailey Footwear it takes 22 hours for me to get to Guangzhou.
I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve been to Asia but I’ve been there at least 60 times, and I’ve paid my dues flying economy on many occasions, so now when I get that business class upgrade I’m going to enjoy it.
Arrive to Guangzhou (CAN)
After arriving pretty late at night and grabbing a quick bite to eat at the hotel I start to get my game plan ready for the next couple of days when I’m in the materials market.
Sourcing materials can be very overwhelming if you let it be. In the GZ shoe market there are literally hundreds of options but you have to stick to your plan. I try to keep notes on me as a reminder of what I need to focus on. On this particular trip I was looking for some dope women’s sneaker soles for the Athleasure categories. In addition to that I was looking for embossed and textured neoprenes, pre moulded TPU components, and cool closure components.
I always try to look for things that are unique and I have never seen before and that is sometimes very difficult to do. If you know anything about china then you know there the masters of copies and as you go from shop to shop you will see the same things over and over again. Wither it’s Nike Vapor max soles or ballenciga copies its all right there out in the open, but beneath that all and with time and a whole lot of patients there are gems that exist and you know it when you find it, and that shit feels good.
Sourcing is exhausting and that shit can wipe you out, so after a few days of it and placing orders for samples of soles, materials and components I usually head to the factory wither it be in china or India to start my work with the sample room.
When I am in the factory we will make mock up samples and experiment with the materials I just purchased. I cant really describe it but when you create something that works using exiting components it’s just a feeling that you and your team can feel. I guess the best way to describe is like writing a hit song…you know when you hear it (btw-I have no experience with writing hit songs. ha)
Hi my name is…
For my first post it probably makes sense that I introduce myself and tell you a little about me and what exactly qualifies myself to even be give you any sort of professional footwear advice…so, here we go…
My name is Omar Bailey, I am from both New York and South Florida. I loved sketching sneakers as a kid, one day in HS I learned about industrial design through a recruiter from CCS. I applied and was accepted. Two years later I transferred to the university of Cincinnati for their Co-op program. Co-op is basically a fancy way of saying internship, except these were more like full-time gigs opposed to traditional internships. My first co-op was with New Balance, followed by K-Swiss and Adidas, then I switched it up to HP, M3 design, then back to a footwear design firm based in Southern California. I used my experience and got a full-time job with Timberland boot company and was laid off one year later. In 2006 I started my first company the Bright Idea design studios as a product design firm. I was able to pick up a couple good clients that got me into a good Rhythm and allowed me to establish myself as a design consultant.
Eleven years later as a 34 year old I have seen and done just about all you can do in footwear. Ive produced large quantity of shoes for large and small brands, I’ve blown through 250k to open a shoe store that failed, I’ve managed shoe factory’s, I’ve developed shoes for Supreme, and now I have launched my own shoe brand amongst many other things.
I now live full-time in Brooklyn NYC still working for myself. Today I have only a few priorities when it comes to my business and if you know me, you know that I always have multiple “sticks” in the fire.
Omar Bailey Footwear: I launched my made in NYC brand of luxury footwear in 2015. At the present moment we are focused on establishing this brand in the international market. By 2018 The brand will be available in Dubai, and we have plans to be in the Japanese and Egyptian markets in the near future.
Lotto: currently i am the CD for Lotto India. I oversee all design and Development for the India market. Currently I am working on the FW 2018 collection. You can find me in India once per month working in our shoe factories there.
Shoe Ventures: this is my consulting company that I established specifically for working with start ups and brands. Whether it’s sample making, design, development or production shoe Ventures is here to provide footwear development services to those who need it.
The Kicks Factory: we are working on something that will be special within the footwear community. I cannot give anything away as yet, but keep in touch through our IG @thekicksfactoryInt and concept kicks. Trust me it’s going to be worth it.
Now that the intro is over we can get to business…As a contributor to CK my objective will be to give you guys insight and authentic content when it comes to footwear design development, and the business of shoes. I am always on the move traveling from Dubai, China, India, Brazil, Portugal, etc in shoe factories, meeting with suppliers, departments stores, you name it. As a writer sometimes I may go off on tangents and other times I just might be pissed off about something within the industry. For example: what makes a shitty client? Or how not to get thrown out of a shoe factory. I’ve been in this business for along time and seen a lot of shit and it can and will drive you crazy and it will be my pleasure to show you the good, the bad and the ugly.
So buckle your seat belts and get your popcorn ready…I hope you enjoy the show.
I will do my best to post as often as I can but my schedule can get crazy at times but bare with me as it will be worth it.