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.
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