These Portland start-ups represent a new generation of footwear


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You may know them as “slides” or (if you’re in Hawaii, slides) or Umbros, if you come from a certain extra-preppy slice of New England.

But the Velous Footwear team – the latest in a series of Portland-based sports and outdoor gear start-ups, created by founders with deep roots in the triumvirate of regional giants Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear – prefers the term “recovery”. sandals.”

The idea is that after an athlete has completed a marathon or a casual jog, they can put on a pair of Velous sandals, which are priced between $64.95 and $69.95, depending on the model, and find supportive cushioning for tight muscles, a notch or five. over the traditional foam-based flat thong.

“We really saw opportunities with the salvage category to come up with a better fit,” says co-founder and CEO Tim Bartels, former vice president of global footwear sales at Columbia, who also worked at Nike, KEEN, DC Shoes, and Saxx Underwear Co. “It’s more of a niche. We pursue the athlete when he has finished his activity. We are building something that will help them recover, get out and get back into their sport tomorrow.

“Niche” is the key word and appears time and time again in examples of Portland shoe start-ups trying to carve out a niche in a crowded market.

There’s BALA, which focused on shoes for nurses and other medical professionals who are on their feet for hours every day. There are bet, which manufactures high quality clogs for chefs, sous chefs, cooks and anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen. There’s HILOS, whose cutting-edge 3D-printed shoes recently won them a Best in Show event at the South by Southwest Pitch Festival in Austin last spring.

There are Onthe Swiss high-performance running shoe brand that moved its North American headquarters to Portland, and Holo Footwear, which launched in 2020 and now sells its durable trail shoes everywhere from REI to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Norstrom’s, run by former Columbia, KEEN and Merrell executives.

Velous’ closest local competitors might be some of their former colleagues at startup Jack West, who make what they’ve called “athleisure” flip-flops and flip-flops to appeal to fashion-forward consumers in Asia. in the United States and beyond.

It’s not just parochial hyperbole or hometown pride to call this growth, says Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, co-founder and executive director of the sports product management program at the University of Oregon.

“If the question is, could you start a new shoe brand in Portland, Oregon, the answer is yes. There would be no other place in the world where you would want to do that,” says Schmidt-Devlin, who is her -even an old one from Nike.

That’s not the same as a guarantee that every new brand will break through and be the next Nike, Schmidt-Devlin adds. It’s only been in the last decade or so that Portland’s startup infrastructure has evolved to support these fledgling ventures, with efforts like venture capital firm Oregon Sports Angels and well-staffed consultants like Zefyr, which has positioned itself as an intermediary with brands. , factories and market. It remains to be seen if there is a “new Nike” among the current crop of hopefuls, she says.

Velous hopes, of course, to fill this niche. For now, however, the company offers three flagship styles, two slip-on designs, and another traditional flip-flop shape. What’s different is the design and the materials, says Damon Butler, another co-founder and the company’s vice president for design and creation. In a previous professional life, Butler worked for Adidas and Teva; for design inspiration for the Velous sandal, he says he looked everywhere, from that mid-century modern design classic, the Eames chair, to the flexibility of an accordion, which can flex and bend in all directions.

“An Eames chair has a molded plywood frame with soft leather foam that you sit in. So it’s super plush and comfortable, but with a hard outer shell,” says Butler. The Velous are designed with this in mind, with a stiff frame on the sides and a more cushioning soft foam interior, designed to keep the wearer’s foot stable and centered, even when tired muscles are more prone to a rolled ankle after the workout. coaching.

“If you look at a lot of flip-flops, they look like flat pieces of foam,” Butler says. “You stand on it, there isn’t much there. But if you look at ours, there are no straight lines on the whole. It’s all hollowed out and curved and, and it blends beautifully with a person’s foot.

Like many other shoe start-ups, especially those that have taken root during the pandemic, Velous is still online direct-to-consumer only, although the founders say they are expanding distribution globally and will be there. at outdoor retailer shows this year. Ultimately, their goal is to expand into other styles – imagine an après-ski recovery shoe, for example.

But the flagship sandal is the entry point, coming at a time when the “recovery” category is taking up more and more space in stores – think of the stacks of foam rollers and massage balls on sale at REI and other retailers now, says co-founder and vice president of product creation Brad Bischel, as opposed to a decade ago when it was thought that a few post-run stretches were all you would need to get up and start again the next day.

Good time or not, a shoe startup, even in a connected market like Portland, isn’t cheap, Schmidt-Devlin says, especially given the factory order minimums and shipping costs that soar. Given the long lead times, it can take years for founders to see benefits, she says. But starting by carving out a particular niche – as Velous and others have done – is a good strategyShe adds.

“If you were at Nike and you asked them, ”,'” Schmidt-Devlin says. “Because, you know, big companies are like big aircraft carriers. They are very, very difficult to turn and consumers change very quickly. And also, Nike, or any of these other companies, if they’re going to approach [a new market], it must be of a certain size. And so, looking for a niche is a great way to get into the industry.

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