Designer Interview Series: People Footwear
Posted: Jul 07 2015
We recently sat down with Damian Van Zyll De Jong and Matt Penner at the People Footwear office to find out everything there is to know about their fresh footwear line. This Vancouver-based company has made huge strides in an extremely short time, and they have already solidified their niche within the footwear market by offering a range of unique technical innovations in their shoes.
Tell us a little more about yourself and why you chose a career in footwear.
Damian: I was in a place in my life where I had to do something, and I chose footwear because I always had a passion for it growing up skateboarding; we both did. Out of the few things that I was choosing, footwear bubbled to the top. It was one of those things where I just went with it. So footwear it was. From there, the rest is history. We started building a footwear company.
When we first started, we started a brand called Native; that’s obviously in the past. But when we left we just transitioned right into People Footwear, so some of the “how did you start” things transitioned from that brand over to this one.
Matt: We had a way of working. We already had a pipeline in the way we develop ideas and it’s just been a natural transition.
The Team at People Footwear
What sets you guys apart with People Footwear is that there isn’t quite anything like it to compare. You guys incorporate technologies that bring a new aspect to footwear that no one has seen before. What was the drive or inspiration that led to creating People Footwear?
Damian: It was more of just an evolution of what we had started. It wasn’t really “Ok People Footwear is next”, it was more of just us being in the footwear realm and learning about shoes, which shaped our own ideas of what footwear meant to us, and that transition just continued.
Matt: It’s about discovering new things. That’s where a lot of the inspiration comes from, thinking about new ways of doing things, new technologies and just being challenged with the idea of “why can’t we do it a little differently” or “how come nobody has done this”.
"Only because it hasn’t been done in the past, doesn’t mean it can’t be done now."
That’s usually the opportunity where a lot of people get stuck in the same way of doing things and play it safe. Damian cultivated this culture of thinking a little differently: about what’s possible and pushing the envelope. We’re both natural problem solvers and that is the drive.
Co-founders Matt Penner and Damian Van Zyll De Jong
Damian: Everything I’ve done in my life up to that point, skateboarding, living the way I lived, the way I looked at the world, all emulated to what I’d do next. It all bunched up and was an outlet to let the next thing out, whatever it was creatively. So what’s interesting thing about creative people is that it's not always just, “oh I’m going to do something creative today.” It’s usually a lot of stuff from the past that bundles up, and you let it out. So, it was really all of my perspective in some ways and us collaborating together, but it was my take on what footwear is.
Matt: I also think it’s the willingness to just dive in and do it. Sometimes you can overthink things and our drive to just dive in and produce leads us down a path where you discover new things. If you’re working in China at the factory level and ask some questions and just by being a curious person and figuring out how people are doing things, you start with an idea and that idea evolves as you get into the process. For us just being very hands on and just going for it, you discover things along the way and that becomes part of the process: making new stuff.
Damian: Use your mistakes as an advantage not a disadvantage. Part of it is just being able to roll with the punches and when you’re passionate about something, you don’t give up: you take it as it comes and make sure to get through it.
The Stanley with Ezy-Breezy™ upper: a fusion of 3D printing and breathable mesh
With People Footwear, there are quite a few newer patented technologies like the EasyBrzy™, SkyLite™, the SuperCush™ that really shaped the brand. Was there a unique drive as to “this is what People Footwear is going to be”?
Matt: Some of those hallmarks definitely! The fact that it’s lightweight, comfortable, and accessible; we wanted to make a product that wasn’t for one specific person. We wanted to make a product that really spoke to a wide audience and just combined what we thought was a tasteful timeless design with all the fun, progressive stuff that we see all the time being used in other ways for very specific sports and activities; why shouldn’t that be applied to just everyday wear-ability?
Damian: We definitely looked at the classic silhouettes that could’ve been done better [and made] more comfortable updates to them. About the technologies: everyone has a sole and insole and all those things, but we wanted to make a stamp on our own ideas of what these things were, put some names to them and build them as their own little keynotes for our products.
Are you planning on branching out into other classic silhouettes in the future?
Damian: We play it as it goes, there are not a lot of them, so we have to be careful of which ones we do use and when we do them, but that is definitely in our plans for the future.
Matt: It's hard because we don’t want to speak too much on what’s next, but there are two fronts; there is taking the platforms we've built and expanding those with the outsoles and other elements we built, and finding ways to continue evolving the product we’ve made. But, introducing new product and expanding the line is definitely part of the process. We have a women’s and a men’s category, we also just launched kids. There are tons of opportunities to have some fun within the kids category. So we have these three pillars and we see them all expanding and becoming strong elements of the brand in their own rights.
Damian: Its taking a classic silhouette and then redoing it in our own kind of way that gives [the product] its own identity in itself. It’s really easy to make something super wacky super quick, but if you have this premise of keeping to a core and classic look, construct it and make it a little different, you get just the right amount of amazingness. It stays nice and won’t be too far out there.
The Senna Moulded Driver with Skylite™ EVA upper
Do you see a gap in the footwear market right now that needs to be filled?
Damian: We’re filling it right now as we speak as we move forward. I mean there are not a lot of people doing what we are doing. We just stood out and that’s our signature. We are going to continue to own it, and as it grows I’m sure that we will do different things.
Matt: Some brands have a certain perspective that they’re known for and it can be hard for them to step outside of that without degrading what they already have. So I think, being a new brand in this category of high performance elements and leisure, there’s a lifestyle there and we can really own it.
Damian: It’s really about celebrating those silhouettes. You look at a bag company like Herschel and it’s a classic silhouette, but they’ve re-introduced it with slight new style queues and a barrage of new colours, and it’s turned into its own thing. That’s what we are doing in the footwear industry right now.
Are there any new fabrics or innovations that we can look forward to in the future?
Damian: Experimenting with new fabrics is part of our DNA. We are always trying new things in the background and playing with every piece of technology that we come across and some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t; It’s just part of the brand.
Now a lot of light materials such as foam or lighter plastic materials usually degrade easily, and I find that with People Footwear they’re quite durable even though they’re so light. Were there a lot of challenges coming up with a final product that was both durable but also extremely light?
Damian: You do come up with challenges of durability when you try and make the product really light. Everything kind of suffers, but EVA is a really good material for keeping its form and structure. EVA lasts a long time so its light and stays intact.
Matt: These materials are usually a mixture of a few different materials, but we really do have a proprietary formula. We worked with developing a lot of different variations of that material sort of like cooks in the kitchen, where we had that nice balance between weight and comfort.
Damian: We put enough energy into it to want to name it (Skylite™) and make sure that people know that we did take time to develop this.
The Skylite™ EVA outsole is both light and durable
People Footwear has only been around for a little while, but it has already been picked up by well known retailers such as KITH NY and Nordstrom, so how did you come about working with these high profile stores? Was it you approaching them or did they come knocking at your door?
Damian: Being in the Footwear industry for a while now we had a little bit of shown proof; people knew that we were capable of making a brand and delivering a product. Aside from that, we had great relationships within the industry and our sales agency in the U.S. has good relationships with these people so it really helps. Last week, I went down to Nordstrom in Seattle and I was talking to the buyers. Just being involved on that level is good for me to find out what the buyers are thinking, but it's also for them to know that we’re here for them.
As you guys entered these luxury markets such as Nordstrom etc. are there any plans to expand the range into more luxury silhouettes and fabrications?
Damien: We would love to build different categories as we go on and it’s definitely something we talk about. We don’t have a date for it but it’s for sure on the horizon. We are super excited to look into that in the future. My friend Tony does high-end footwear, so there are always people that we can talk to and build ideas on that front.
Are there plans on collaborating with other brands that would bridge you into luxury or collaborations in general?
Damian: Yes, definitely. The way we look at collaborations is that it shouldn’t just be about two names coming together. For us being a new brand, we need to continue to find our voice and who we are before we just try and do a collaboration so definitely. It’s a great thing to do and we love collaborations, but it will take some time to enter that world.
Left to right: Damian, Georgia, and Esme Smith (Colour Designer & Production/Operations Manager)
The website looks great and is very culture driven. Are there future campaigns that you are going to launch as part of your blog?
Damian: Matt did a great job of pioneering the website and when it comes to what’s inside that component we’re still building and learning about it. What we have right now are foundations of where we can take it. Whether it be people meet people etc.
Matt: Part of this experiment is also bringing in people outside of the group: building a creative network of designers and artists. I think there is a desire to collaborate with people on that creative side. The brand is still in its infant stages and we have ideas of what it's about, but [we are] also discovering the people coming to the brand, responding to them, and [letting the the brand] take a life of it’s own. We want to maintain the elements people talk about, and [celebrate] people.
On our website there currently is a campaign called "People Meets People," which is all about what inspires people and putting the spotlight on them. In exchange we introduce them to our products and what we’re about. There is also another campaign that we’re working on and its just called “Day out” and the concept revolves around celebrating the whole active adventure lifestyle, and exploring what people are doing in their free time. It’s interesting: going through that process is also a learning and discovering process for us. As we turn that into a campaign, it forces us to put even more energy into learning about what’s happening, whether it’s locally or what people are doing around the world. We want to create a hub within our blog (and within our site) that is a place where people can go and become inspired. [They can] be introduced to great things, places, and people, and have it all tied back to the experience that footwear offers.
Marketing/Sales Manager, Colton Showers, working away in the People Footwear Home Office Space
Damian: Just to add on that, for kids and entrepreneurs who want to start a businesses, we will continue to showcase what were doing: two friends who grew up together building a brand. You go through your trials and tribulations: it sucks, it’s the best, the worst, whatever. But, we’re trying to show all of that as well. So giving everyday people an understanding of what it might take to build a business that they want to build is dope.
Matt: When we were first starting this business, a lot of people were telling us what the limits were, and what wasn’t possible, or how long something would take. To discover that it is really possible [to surpass the limits], that there is a lot more than you can do is something we want to share.
Damien: And when someone says you can’t do it, you can. We got that a lot through both companies. “You’re crazy! What are you doing? That’s nuts!” Those are the people that were calling us for free shoes two months later, so its interesting how that works.
Matt: I really don’t underestimate people or what they’re capable of. If they’ve got an idea and drive, then anything is possible.
What is each of your favourites pairs of People Footwear?
Damien: I like the new Knit Stanleys.
Matt: Yeah, the new Knit Stanleys... and the original mesh Phillips in black.
Matt's current favourite style: the new Knit Stanley
So can we always find you in a white pair of stanleys?
Damien: Yeah, if I can keep them white (laughs).
Damian's current favourite style: the white Knit Stanley