Starting a shoe company is hard, but evoking the “Wizard of Westwood” isn’t a bad way to break into the hyper-competitive world of basketball footwear. For Thor Roner, his new shoe company, Fabled Inc., is an opportunity to use his love of design to tell inspiring stories through footwear. And Fabled’s first project is a shoe honoring John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches in sports history.
The company’s first signature shoe, The Wooden, was released late last month and pays tribute to the late UCLA men’s basketball coaching legend who turned the Bruins into a powerhouse in the NCAA during the 1960s and 70s. Roner, a former Major League Soccer player for the San Jose Earthquake, started the company as a way to create footwear honoring inspiring people and stories from the sports world and beyond.
“I’m not a sneakerhead, but I played professional sports and then got into the design world, so it’s a combination of those two things,” Roner said. “I like the aspirational element of footwear companies. I think there’s something exciting and inspiriting about that.”
That inspiration has resulted in Fabled Inc. being more than just a shoe company, as Roner hopes to pair different elements of art with its designs while targeting a charity related to its subject as a way to give back. In this case, Wooden’s love of poetry and education has Fabled seeking hip-hop contributions from fans and working with Milk + Bookies to donate books to young schoolchildren.
“We’d like to have some type of impact initiative tied to each story, each product.” Roner said. “John Wooden was such a believer in education and so we wanted to have an impact initiative tied around that concept and giving back to education.”
The attention to detail with the project is impressive. Each box opens up to reveal a slickly-designed showcase of the shoes and artwork of Wooden. It’s a fun conceit, but getting a shoe from concept to reality is always a challenge, especially for a small company. Fabled is actually Roner’s second Wooden-based shoe concept, but the first to actually reach consumers. His first company, Heroyk, had a design and Kickstarter campaign but never went into full production. The concept was retooled, the shoe was redesigned, and Fabled was born.
“It’s been an evolution,” Roner said. “I think bringing any product to market is difficult. I don’t think the average consumer realizes that. There’s just a lot to it and especially in footwear. The supply chain is really complicated. Footwear is capital insensitive, it’s a capital-intensive business.”
Steve Miller, an advisor for Fabled that worked as Nike’s global marketing director for decades, knows full well the challenges that come with making a shoe out of nothing. It’s certainly not as easy is some might think.
“I think that a lot of people have the idea that you can just go to somebody and say, “Can you make me a shoe?” And it’s done,” Miller said. “It doesn’t work quite that way.”
Miller pointed to LaVar Ball’s Big Baller Brand and the design changes that were necessary to bring the ZO2 Prime — ultimately the ZO2 Prime Remix — to bring that shoe to market so quickly. Eschewing a custom design, Big Baller Brand had to borrow pieces from another company’s shoe, the Rare Metal shoe made by Brandblack, whose parent company is Sketchers.
Brandblack executives called turning a concept into a shoe in three months “impossible,” but sometimes bigger companies might make it look easy. Nike, for example, brought back Shox earlier this week, going from concept in March to finished product in December. Typically, however, Miller said moving from concept to distribution is an 18-month process, even for major shoe companies. Yes, even for Michael Jordan.
“The making of Michael’s next iteration of shoe was 18 months. Here’s the concept. He plays in the playoffs 18 months from now,” Miller said. “We want the shoe to say this, this, and this. We’re looking for inspiration and aspiration. Put the product together, and then you come to market.”
And the obstacles a new shoe company has to overcome — from supply chain issues to material sourcing and durability testing — are expensive. Then there’s advertising, as gaining attention in the first place isn’t always as easy as guaranteeing all three of your sons will make the NBA.
“There’s a lot of good products in the world, and sometimes the success of a product has to do with an idea and a concept. I thought Thor’s idea was interesting,” Miller said. “It’s a complicated issue, and of course once you put your name on something and it doesn’t work out, it’s hard to say, ‘Time out. Give me another chance.'”
Roner’s second chance, however, is an impressive-looking shoe. Coming in Heritage Blue and Jet Black, the shoe’s logo features a shoelace-like typeface that creates Wooden’s iconic glasses in the two Os. Five stars on each heel represent the 10 national championships that Wooden won with UCLA in 12 seasons. But unlike Heroyk’s first effort, with a winged logo dominating the shoe, Fabled opted for a “thematic design” that focused more on the shoe’s silhouette and subtle touches than one major focal point.
“We wanted to let simplicity drive it, especially with a humble man, Roner said. “We wanted the shoe to reflect that.”
Roner said Fabled was looking for an “old-school heritage basketball look,” and the obvious design influence is Converse’s Chuck Taylor high-top. But it’s much lighter than a Chuck Taylor, just 7.5 ounces, and it feels sturdier than Converse’s signature high-top. The shoe’s stitchless quilted foam is surprisingly comfortable, and the shoe’s Achilles cradle made from jersey material is a nice touch. The sole of the shoe features a pyramid, meant to evoke Wooden’s famous Pyramid of Success.
There’s always risk involved in the shoe game. Focusing on specific stories means investing in people. And as Miller points out, the perception of a person to the public can change quickly if something goes wrong. The story is key to Fabled’s business model, but often in 2017 we’ve seen how quickly the story of someone can change, often for the worse.
“When you tie your company to a mouse or to a fictional character, they never change,” Miller said. “You never have to worry about Mickey Mouse getting hurt or breaking a leg, or not showing up for work. There’s a risk when you deal with the human factor. The human factor is sometimes embraced and sometimes dismissed. It adds a bit to the risk.”
There are few that would argue Wooden as a negative influence, though Miller also pointed out that many in the burgeoning shoe market, a young person’s playground, might not know who John Wooden is at all. Pulling once again from his own experience at Nike, he pointed out how quickly the market for shoes can change.
“There was a shoe that Nike made a long time ago called Huarache. For a period of time consumers said, “I want a Huarache.” Then there was styles within the Huarache. That went by the wayside after a while, and kind of ran its gambit.”
Miller’s point seemed to be this: in the ever-changing shoe game, you’re only as good as the last shoe you put out. And Fabled has started with something unique, but it might not have as broad an appeal as something a larger company can make.
There’s no timeline for Fabled’s next shoe, but Roner said they’re “in talks” with people for some future projects he’s excited about. Right now, the focus is on building Fabled’s own Pyramid of Success: spreading Wooden’s legacy, embracing the challenges of the shoe industry and getting people excited about the company’s overall concept.
“We’re a small team right now, a small company,” he said. “So we wanted to focus on the Wooden project and get that launched, but we definitely want to start ramping up and introduce some cool projects.”