What Goes Into a Dress Shoe That Steve Nash Can Hoop In?
Boardroom styling meets basketball court construction
Recently, your correspondent ran across a clip on Instagram of legendary NBA point guard and recently-minted Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash dropping buckets on a Venice Beach basketball court in a suit and dress shoes. Now, Steve Nash being Steve Nash, I’m sure he could light it up in a suit of armor and a pair of cowboy boots — however, it was an impressive performance nonetheless, and upon further research a result of Nash’s partnership with Wolf & Shepherd, a Los Angeles footwear concern blazing a path through the world of “crossover” kicks that marry classic dress shoe silhouettes with the comfort tech of an athletic shoe.
“From a design perspective, their unique yet practical approach to finding comfort is what impressed me — it speaks to their ingenuity.” Nash told InsideHook. “So after developing a friendship and wearing their product, it made sense to take the next steps to officially collaborate. As fellow athletes, we found that we shared the belief that sports are a way to bring out the best in people and communities. Wolf & Shepherd donates 13% of proceeds of sales from our collaborative style the Crossover Longwing to The Steve Nash Foundation to support our work.”
Cool shoes, good cause. Dig it. But we were still curious: what goes into making a dress shoe that one can hoop in if so inclined? We sat down (virtually) with Wolf & Shepherd founder Justin Schneider to chat about pushing the boundaries of dress shoes, COVID adjustments, and working with an NBA all-star.
IH: How did Wolf & Shepherd come to be?
JS: I started the business in January of 2015 under the premise of “Dress shoes are uncomfortable.” I had a friend who complained about his dress shoes. He had your typical New York commute and would use that as, kind of, a mile each way as exercise to and from work. Then spending his bonus check on a pair of nice, English-made, classic dress shoes, spent the first month breaking them in, and still couldn’t get to work without his feet killing him.
The big problem here is that the brown shoe industry, for nearly a hundred years, has always been built on heritage and nostalgia. It’s always been built on this concept of being made in Italy with craftsmanship, Goodyear welted, cork cushioning and all of these things, and marketed to us to create a preference for premium dress shoes. We’re of a different approach, which is more the mindset when you’re selling athletic products.
So knowing that I had designed products at Adidas and New Balance and worked as an athletic shoe designer, was like, “Can you just make a shoe that looks good and feels good?” I took that challenge seriously, and at the time, I was coaching college track — so I got started just hacking up some old dress shoes and some running shoes, and thinking, “How can you pick the best of running shoe comfort and materials and conceal that in that classic silhouette of a dress shoe?”
And so the testing was more along those athletic shoe lines?
To launch, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a guy run a marathon in our shoes?” We had this guy, Juris Silenieks run the Hotlanta Half Marathon and won the whole race running a 5:50 mile pace. That earmarked our launch, having what we felt was the world’s most comfortable dress shoe, I guess you could say.
And what was the response like out of the gate?
We opened our first store here in LA, two years ago. Last fall we launched on Madison Avenue with a store, and both performed very strongly. We were seeing that retail could be a great way for people to touch and feel. Our value proposition is differentiated by comfort without compromise on quality, touch and feel — that’s how you really get hooked by the brand.
When you come into the store and you feel the shoes, one thing that we know is far above the industry standard is that we have a 76% conversion rate for people who put on the shoe. More than 75% — three out of four people who put on their shoe — purchase on the spot. So, we do know that for a premium product, and for the price point that we offer, for customers to have that kind of conversion is a nod to the level of differentiated comfort provided by our shoes.
And then of course COVID came along and shot the whole retail landscape to hell.
Certainly, when the pandemic hit we noticed, just like many other brands, you do notice a drop in consumer demand. There’s the shock to the market of, “Oh my goodness, what is this going to be? And how long is it going to take to recover?”
What that did for us is, it only further accelerated the timeline of bringing up products and bringing them to market. It also allowed us to focus on something that was already truly our authentic best. Because we’re not a sportswear company. We’re not Nike, starting to make dress shoes via an acquisition of a dress shoe company. And we’re not your hundred-year-old, Italian or English-made dress shoe that’s been doing welts and cork cushioning, and boasting cork as the most relevant cushioning system to date, when we live in the 21st century.
Here’s the thing, anytime you have a more complex product — you have injected components, you have 3D-printed components, you’ve got woven components and hand stitching, you have your own leathers — all of these things extend the time it takes to develop that kind of product. A lot of our roadmap that we have been releasing over the last four months was in the works in June of last year. So, we had already developed these designs and been working on refining and improving them so that they were ready to go to market.
And you think the pandemic has created a greater opportunity for this hybrid category?
Even pre-pandemic, people were already saying, “Is retail dead? Are people going to be wearing dress shoes forever?” I remember when Hope (Ed. note: Justin’s wife and partner in Wolf & Shepherd Hope Schneider) read the article about Goldman Sachs people going casual Monday through Friday. People’s minds are shifting towards “What do I wear to work? What do I wear to be equipped to perform in my profession?” And it’s not your classic dress shoe and it’s not necessarily a cupsole sneaker. So what is that in between? Is it going to be this new category of hybrids that we feel we could own?
There was already a mindset of, “How do I take respect and appreciation for heritage, and combine that with relevant materials and technology?” That story has become more true than ever today. During COVID, people want more certainty, they want more comfort. So, things that optically display comfort such as our SwiftKnit Derby, or our Crossover Loafer, you’ll find that they already exude a level of familiarity around comfort. That’s something that we’ve emphasized more and more, especially in our storytelling — there’s a level of comfort and care, and the care comes from the craftsmanship.
What has it been like working with Steve Nash?
I actually was introduced to Steve Nash through a mutual friend here in South Bay. Steve came by our office just to meet, and it was funny — we showed him the brand, what we’re about and told him our story. And he’s like, “Are you guys looking for an investment?” And we’re like, “No, but we’d love to explore doing something together.” And he says, “Yeah, that’d be awesome. I have over 400 pairs of shoes in my closet. Would love to start talking.”
Over the next three to six months, we started percolating ideas on how we could collaborate. As we started to talk more about our values and then our ambitions, both literally and figuratively, on and off the court, it came to include his foundation as well. He’s like, “Look, anything that I can make, any proceeds I’d have from something like this, I would be giving to my foundation in the first place. So, I’d love it if we could partner, the three of us together.”
So it’s been, Wolf & Shepherd, Steve Nash and the Steve Nash Foundation, and we launched last fall. We launched our collaboration with him in tandem with the Crossover Longwing, in which we gave a portion of proceeds to his foundation, from each sale.
Not to overplay this metaphor of, “the wolf and the shepherd,” but for people we want to collaborate with, we want people who identify with those things. You have the wolf, who’s ambitious, driven, never hesitates. Then you have the shepherd, who’s more of a leader or a guide, that helps you kind of, get from point A to point B. Sometimes you’re the wolf, and sometimes you’re the shepherd.
In this case, with Steve he’s the shepherd — he’s going to coach and he’s going to facilitate the growth of these elite players. But he was also the wolf at one point. So, now that Steve’s becoming the Head Coach of the Nets, we’re pretty excited to see him back on the court again, but now more as the shepherd instead of the wolf.
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