Former Adidas President Rob Langstaff has gone solo with RYZ, a new sneaker company with a fresh outlook on how to do business, how to do design, and just what we think sneaker heads want. With new product now in the online store, and another collection in production now, Rob sits down with EveryGuyed editor Xiaoli Li, and marketing coordinator Natasha Ferro to talk shoes, business and just what makes RYZ so special.
RYZ: The Business
Xiaoli Li: Tell us a little about RYZ.
Rob Langstaff: We pronounce the name ‘Rise’, and it means rise to excellence. We started as a design competition, as a total crowdsourcing model, and that’s where the name came from.
XL: How did that total crowdsourcing model work?
RL: What we did is we had online design competitions. We had a rendered silhouette and we had artists that would upload their graphic design. It would be rendered onto a silhouette, and then there was voting and critiquing on the website. We would choose a winner, and give an award to the designer, make the shoe, and then sell it.
XL: That’s a great way to use new media.
RL: It is, and if you get on our website, there’s an article from Success magazine that we’ve uploaded, on the model. It was founded by the editor of Wired magazine, Jeff Howe, and it’s reaching out to your public, to get designs, to get ideas, and so forth, for creating product.
So, rather than having your own staff do all the idea generation, the concept is to just go out to the crowd, and, through this competition model – engage the public in creating product, or other ideas for your brand.
Crowdsourcing… it’s reaching out to your public, to get designs, to get ideas
XL: The driving idea behind the current RYZ sneaker, is a sneaker that can go from the street into the boardroom – was this something that came from the crowdsourcing?
RL: I came up with the idea on my own. When we first started crowdsourcing product, we had a canvas sneaker. Although we had some very good, great artwork, we weren’t meeting our commercial targets. We had to think about the consumer that would buy what we were selling.
We re-trenched and elevated the demographic. We targeted in the beginning a seventeen year old, and we changed to a twenty-five to thirty-five year old. Somebody a bit more mature, more confident, more sophisticated. We felt that they would appreciate crowdsourcing. We subdued the artwork and created a leather shoe for that consumer.
Although we’re designing our own silhouettes in house, we also run design contests for silhouette ideas – and by silhouette I mean a specific model and shape. So for example, we’re launching product in two weeks at Platform. In that trade show, two of the five came from a crowdsourcing competition.
XL: It feels like a real democratization of the production process for shoes, consumers have their voice better heard.
RL: Right. That was the initial idea. My background – and I’m sorry to jump around like this – I was the president of adidas America, and prior to that, the president of adidas Japan. I was really frustrated with the design approach of, not only adidas, but almost all big corporations, who design in ivory towers.
I was frustrated by the lack of consumer input into the design process. I decided to try, on my own, to launch a brand, that really taps into that consumer, so that they would feel that they’re part of a brand. As you said, where their voice is heard.
XL: With the crowdsourcing model you get to really engage your consumer. You get to see and hear and understand what they’re thinking. What has surprised you the most about this process?
RL: One of the things, that I’ve found, is that crowdsourcing can’t be left totally along – it needs to be managed. If the crowd would vote on a design, for example, it’s not necessarily the most commercial.
We found, oftentimes, that the crowd would select a product, that we made, but – well it was kind of a lime green shoe. In our sense, we thought, “Oh it’s not going to sell”. And in reality, it didn’t.
We had to work with the crowd and interpret what they liked, and understand that just because a crowd likes something, does not necessarily equal commercial success. The company needs to be engaged, and needs to manage the process appropriately. You can’t just sort of take a totally hands-off approach.
If the crowd would vote on a design… it’s not necessarily the most commercial.
XL: The idea that what the crowd wants it not what the crowd will buy.
RL: Right. And the idea that what they like isn’t necessarily what they will buy, and that was a huge insight for us. That was one key aspect of crowdsourcing.
The other thing about crowdsourcing is that if what you’re requiring from the crowd is sophisticated, you need to understand that there’s not many people in the world that can give you that kind of sophistication. For example, less than one percent of the community have the necessary skills to do shoe designs.
You need quite a few people participating in this, which takes resources – to get the word out. We’ve tried to come up with ‘entry-level’ projects that allow more participation. To be more attainable for everybody.
XL: In what way?
RL: We’re crowdsourcing a photography contest, which would require a lower level of skill than designing a shoe. We’re running a video contest; who can design the best video for RYZ? We’re running a contest to design our shoebox, our hangtag, our logos for certain subsets of our brand.
What we’re trying to do with crowdsourcing is use it as a method to gauge our consumer, and get the word about RYZ out. I also crowdsourced my creative director.
The guy who has joined me as creative director, Todd Breland, he won competition number six for us. After that, we started working back and forth before he joined me full time. You could say the entire design of RYZ is based around crowdsourcing.
I also crowdsourced my creative director.
Natasha Ferro: How many of these crowdsourcing competitions have you run so far?
RL: We’ve done about thirty five. We’ve got a business partner in Japan that runs these competitions several times a year. We’re running them on a continual basis. Our Japanese partner, they want US-based designs into Japan, and we run them for him, and choose designs that are exclusive for him.
RYZ: The Shoe
XL: How has the response to RYZ been overseas?
RL: We launched in Japan in 2008, and just launched in America in 2010. The response is good. I probably won’t try to enter the other markets until we get more momentum in the US and Japan. That’s the focus for the next year and a half or so.
XL: Going over your site, what struck me was the idea of the versatile sneaker, that can go anywhere. Where did the drive for that come from?
RL: That was Todd and I. We focused on the consumer, this guy between twenty-five and thirty-five. What is his day like? This is a guy who travels quite a bit, travels business class.
He’s busy, and he wants to look cool, but he doesn’t want to pack a bunch of different shoes. He wants to look good if he’s working out, or going to a bar, or in the boardroom. We thought, let’s create something that will go seamlessly into all those various venues.
My background is very much athletic. I was the product manager of Track & Field, and a runner, so I have a passion for athletics, and come from that background. Todd lives in New York City, and has a passion for the fashion side.
In bringing those two together, we came up with silhouettes that allow somebody to wear them in a suit, and not look like a dork. Guys try to get away with a Chuck Taylor in a suit and they just can’t pull it off, but we have a sneaker that you can wear with a suit, and you look just a little bit edgier.
You wear it with jeans and you look a little classier. We think there’s market space in this fusion of fashion and athletic, and we believe because of my background, and Todd’s, we believe we’re uniquely qualified to do well in that space.
XL: How did you come up with the minimal side-zip design in the current line?
RL: We took a converse Chuck Taylor, and we took a British Chelsea boot, from the 1960s…
XL: The Mod boot.
RL: Right. And we merged them together.
XL: How do you set RYZ apart from the other formal sneaker offerings? Brands like Dior Homme and Maison Martin Margiela are also pushing similar sneakers in similar spaces. How does RYZ differentiate itself?
RL: We do this using the crowd, separating ourselves as a brand. The product offering is definitely in this hybrid fashion-athletic, but our branding is based in the crowd, and nobody else is doing that, and that is where we feel we can stand out and have a unique point of view.
XL: It’s difficult to define what the RYZ shoe is, would you call it a shoe or sneaker?
RL: I would say it’s… Dress sneaker would be the best description of this G-series, that you see now, but what we’re coming out with, is more of an athletic dress shoe. We went from dress, back to athletic. Now we have a wingtip upper with a running shoe bottom.
XL: Similar to the Generic Surplus wingtip…
RL: They use, what’s called a vulcanized construction, which makes it look like a Chuck Taylor. You know, with that white, rubber look?
In our case, we’ve changed the last, which is the shape, to make it look like a running shoe. Then we’ve used a running shoe midsole and outsole. Are you familiar with the term EVA? EVA is this soft cushiony material, that all running shoes have.
If you buy Brooks or ASICS, or even Nike running shoes, you know that white midsole? That’s kind of soft, and functions as cushioning? It’s called EVA, and that’s what we have on the midsole and outsole of this wingtip.
I know the Generic Surplus model you’re talking about, and several other manufactures have that same idea, but we’re the only ones that have this on a running shoe last. I’ll send you a few photos of it.
XL: Could we put them online, with the interview?
RL: That’d be great. We’ll be showing these at Magic and Platform.
XL: You said you launched in Japan in 2008, and America in 2010. The shoe market has had some really weird turns in the last two years. How has it been, launching in a period, of what people would call economic stringency?
RL: Right, in 2008 and 2009, the market contracted. I would say it forced us to innovate. I think that’s generally what happens in downturns. You find this a lot. Very strong companies emerge from downturns, because it forces innovations.
Because we were starting out, we didn’t have huge overheads and infrastructure costs, so we were able to stay very, very lean. It allowed us to refine our offering, and refine consumer interest, and innovate on it.
NF: It’s interesting, because when Xiao mentioned that, I thought that typically, during these times, it’s the hybrid companies that survive. In a way, you’re servicing two different markets with one shoe.
RL: [Laughs]. You’re right. We did think of that. There’s two aspects to this hybrid product. On the one hand, we didn’t think we’d be competing with the Nike and adidas of the world, because they’re so far on the athletic side, there’s not too many dress shoe offerings.
We felt that the world is becoming more casual, so we could take that wearer that wears a Florsheim, or Allen Edmonds, and we could take him into a RYZ product that he might say ‘Oh this is cool. I can wear this, but this is cool.’ We felt that the dress shoe market, there wasn’t much innovation in it, and it’s a big, big market.
Then in this space, as well, we thought that it wasn’t crowded with really, really big players. In the hybrid market. You have Clae, you have Creative Recreation, you have Alife, but none of these brands are behemoths that can crush a new entrant, so we felt there was room to survive there.
XL: I can see the appeal behind the hybrid shoe, but there’s that segment of the market that’s very conservative about their dress shoes, about what they wear to an office. How do you sell to one of those skeptics?
RL: What we’ve done is we’ve taken – for our hybrid wingtip running shoe – we have a total black version, with black midsole and, although the lining is sort of a green, and the laces are green, it’ll have black laces in the box. So somebody can wear this and they can sort of be, secretively edgy. In their own mind it’s edgy, but it’s black on black.
XL: A subversive kind of thing.
RL: There you go, that’s exactly right. Every one of our silhouettes has this black on black option, so we demonstrate, “Okay, the brand is a bit out there, but we’re offering you something that you know is different, but won’t get you fired.”
XL: Most guys who really love shoes have like 10, twenty pairs. What do you want RYZ to mean to them, where do you want RYZ to sit in the shoe closet?
RL: We would like to be the going out shoes. The shoe that they wear – that they could wear to the office, and they wear to the office if they want to show a little bit of attitude – but they’re most comfortable in that going out environment.
More information about RYZ can be found online.