Sole Stories: An Introduction to Volcom Footwear From Director Jason B. Smith

Everyone knows about Nike, adidas and Vans, but there are some new footwear lines emerging in the industry. In our new series, Sole Stories, we’re taking a look at the new kids on the block making sneakers, boots, and other footwear styles you should take notice of. Volcom is a brand that’s been around since the early 1990s, primarily making apparel for those in the skate, surf, and snow scene. However, recently Volcom has decided to step into the footwear game, producing sandals as well as a line of lifestyle footwear using premium materials. We caught up with the Director of Footwear at Volcom, Jason B. Smith, to talk about how the brand decided to start making shoes, the challenges of getting noticed among the long standing companies, and what they have planned for the future of their footwear line.


Why did Volcom decide to launch a footwear line?

Basically, we've been a sandal brand for the past six years already, so we have a pretty robust sandal business in the core surf distribution channels. It was kind of a natural progression when Volcom was bought by Kering, which owns Puma as well. They brought it up for us to get into closed toe footwear since we have the resources built in under that umbrella, and we definitely felt that there's a lot going on in the core skate and action sports footwear industry right now, a lot of change and a lot of shift. We thought we would bring something a little different than your basic everyday vulcanized skate shoes. We do cover that aspect of footwear, but we also have focused a little bit more on lifestyle as our approach. We're not necessarily going after skate. Lifestyle is where we've seen success thus far. We've been in the market just over a year, starting in July 2013.


When did you start working at Volcom?

I actually was brought in when Volcom first decided to start doing closed toe footwear. I've been here for almost three years. I came from a footwear background, working for Sole Technology for 17 years. I've always worked on the skate, lifestyle, and sandal side of the business my whole career.


What does your role entail as the Director of Footwear?

I oversee the design, development and production teams. I work with the designers all the way through from concept to market. There are touch points all the way throughout the process when I'll brief designers on the direction we want to go in and where we're headed for future seasons. I also work with the development teams and the factories to pinpoint style, design, build, function, pricing, and all the background stuff. We have a pretty small, tight team. There's only five of us, so we're all pretty heavily involved throughout the whole process. I've pretty much done it all in my career from top to bottom. Mainly I'm guiding the team and making sure that we're getting the product back that we're looking for. Also pushing things further for our future direction.


What is one of the biggest challenges for Volcom to enter into the closed toe footwear industry?

Since Volcom is an apparel company and we're not looked at — at least from a retail or consumer standpoint — as a footwear brand, that's one of the toughest things to get over. Volcom is a pretty prominent brand and we're in all these stores, but people don't necessarily want to be head-to-toe in one brand. They buy their footwear from a footwear brand, their jeans from a denim brand, or their shirts from a shirt brand, so one of the toughest things has been to be looked at as a legitimate footwear brand.


Do you have a plan to make your presence known more in the footwear industry?

Initially when we started, we did a little bit of everything. We did a boot, a skate shoe, and a slip-on. We dabbled a little bit across the board. The year that we've been in retail, we've really found our niche to be more within the lifestyle and premium sector. There's a little bit of a void in the market for that kind of stuff, at least in action sports, so we’re really seeing success with our boots, particularly our chukka and oxford styles. We think it's different than what everyone thought we'd be doing versus just vulcanized skate shoes and basic stuff. We're pushing more in the direction of premium lifestyle product.


What do you think are some of the benefits for the brand to head into this relatively new territory?

I think it's good for us to be doing footwear because it still ties back to the brand. We're surf, skate, and snow strictly. Our sandals are strong on their own, but through those, we cover the surf side. Doing legitimate, functional boots kind of covers the snow side. Skate is the one in the middle where we're not really playing yet, but definitely all the footwear we are making is tying back into what Volcom does as a brand as far as design elements, color palettes, and seasonal stories. Skate is definitely in the conversation. We definitely have Volcom team riders who are head-to-toe, including footwear, but only in the snow and surf sides, so the skate shoes are something we've talked about and not something we'd rule out. Right now, though, it's not a focal point for us.


How do you think the brand can really set itself apart from other shoe brands out there?

That's always the big question, right? [laughs] I think what we have done is to bring something to the current shoe wall, which is being dominated by basic canvas or suede bulk product, that no one else is really doing. It's something a little bit different than what's out there. We're doing styles that are in the marketplace, but not so much in action sports right now. We'll do two shoes, one with a basic suede and one with a premium full grain leather that is $20 or even $30 more retail, and we'll definitely see more product sell on the premium side. There is tons of canvas, suede and other basic stuff out there, but I think what sets Volcom apart is that we have access to some of the best material supplies in the world thanks to our connection with Kering, so we can bring in a nicer, more finished product to the marketplace.


Are you planning to do any pro models?

We've definitely talked about it. The first collab you'll see is probably from the snow team, some of the historic snow team riders who have been with Volcom forever like Brian Iguchi or Terje [Haakonsen], which will be some kind of boot colorway for Holiday 2015.


What about the artists you work with? Are you considering bringing them on as well to collaborate on footwear?

That's always something on the table. We've used a little bit of art from some of those guys on all-over prints, but we're launching the second Skullphone collaboration in October. We did a collab with Skullphone at the end of last year, and now we're launching another shoe with him. It incorporates some of his artwork. He does some niche marketing behind it and we'll do a push on it as well. It's just one shoe, but we'll definitely be tapping into the huge library and history that Volcom has in the future.


What's the highlight of the Holiday 2014 collection? Is there any specific model that is your favorite?

Across the board, the highlight would definitely be the use of of colors and materials together. You'll see a lot of really nice, premium, water-treated materials, all-over tonal prints, wool linings, and even uppers that really do work well for the season. Some recent success we've seen besides our boots are with two shoes during the back to school season called the Del Mesa, which is like a chukka, and the Dapps, which is more of an oxford style and a take on a classic, but they're super lightweight with an EVA outsole and comfort foam footbed that make them really comfortable. When we first received feedback, we learned that those premium, upper scale materials on lifestyle footwear is what is really driving our business, so as we moved into Holiday 2014, that was what really became our focus.


My favorite is probably the Smithington, one of our newer boots that was just launched for the back to school season, which is not after my namesake, but kind of indirectly is as a joke. It's a super rugged, durable all-weather boot you can wear. Besides boots, the Del Mesa chukka has become definitely one of the favorites for me because it's so light and comfortable. You can almost wear it like a sneaker all day, trooping around the city or whatever you're up to. Between those two, those are the top ones for me.


Where do you think the footwear industry as a whole is going?

I think people are looking for more comfortable shoes in general, regardless of whether it's a basic canvas or more of a runner silhouette. I think we'll definitely see that trend continue. I also think that the basic canvas like Authentics and Chucks are not going away at any point. They've become staples globally. For us, it's providing a good quality product and comfort is the key story. Once the consumer puts the shoe on, if it's not comfortable, they're not buying it. Our goal is to always put a nice, comfortable footbed inside or build the shoe internally so it is lightweight and comfortable. That makes a difference for the initial sell.

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