If you wear shoes (and we assume you do!) the chance that you’ve put on one of his designs–or at least a knockoff–is pretty high. Coleman Horn is an industry personality who has left his footprints almost everywhere: the US-American has worked at Nike, Deckers (Ugg and Simple), Polo Ralph Lauren and even consulted for a Hollywood movie before he co-founded his own brand Medium that was later sold to the Pentland Group, followed by his next project Vael, a premium bags and accessories brand. With his design-developing bureau Phyla, founded in 2001, he works as a consultant for companies such as Giro and Aether. Even though he is also putting his hands on apparel and accessories his focus remains on footwear. We sat down with the Boston-based all-rounder and had a chat about what is revolutionizing the footwear industry these days.
You created your own footwear and accessories brands, but have been a designer and consultant for many other ones before. What’s the most important thing when designing for others?
To design great things, you need to take your ego out of the process. I’ve been working in the design business between Europe and the States for a while and I see the cultural differences in style directions between the two. For example, Americans like chunkier toe-shapes in footwear; Europeans like them a bit narrower; you have to try to make your client understand the differences and hope they take your advice; if they don’t like where your design is going, you don’t take it personally.
Have you ever created the perfect shoe?
No. I feel like the process of design is never complete, that you could always have done something better, something simpler. It’s probably why I can’t have previous samples hanging around my studio; I look at them and see things that I could’ve improved. I think that man creates out of rejected aspects of himself.
You do far more than just the design– how come?
My background is in industrial design, but then I took some graduate classes in business. Initially, I was only engaged in design, then I shifted into design and product development, and then further into sourcing. I build the relationships between the brand, the vendors and the factory; from a business standpoint, I find it more challenging. I also enjoy learning new business aspects of the sports industry, so one thing led to the other. When I started Medium footwear with my friends, we had to learn every aspect about running a brand including logistics and finance to legal- I guess the learning process stuck with me.
It even led you to Hollywood….
Yes, I was a consultant for Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and worked with Orlando Bloom on the character development for his footwear designer role, which was actually based on me during my career at Nike. For the film, I had created the shoes, sketches and design direction. It was an amazing experience.
With Phyla, your own design-development bureau, you bring design, manufacturing and sourcing under one roof. You also have your own brand Vael and currently consult for brands such as Giro and Aether. Could you ever imagine to be hired by just one company again?
Not really. I am grateful for all experience I gained while working for companies like Saucony, Nike, Deckers or Ralph Lauren; but these massive corporate structures are like a lamprey on creativity. I enjoy the autonomy I have with Phyla; selecting what projects I take on and keeping my organization small.
What does it take these days on an overall scale to run a successful footwear brand?
Its changing so rapidly. A few years ago, I would have replied that success was based on the brand-reach or the value proposition, but with ease of sourcing and factories advertising online, footwear has become a commodity; now I would say that success is measured in terms of technical prowess and social cohort status.
How long does it take to develop a footwear line approximately?
To do it properly, you need to about 18 months to design, develop and produce the product. In the end it depends on the level of innovation and tricky technical development–think about Nike’s Advanced Product Engineering Group which can work eight years out in the future developing the drop of new technologies like Flyknit and Zoom.
Is there any revolution in footwear today?
Integrations of automation into footwear production like flat-knitting technology means a true revolution in footwear manufacturing. Removing the labor-intensive aspects of cutting and stitching in shoemaking allows a leaner supply chain and a simpler production process with a potentially smaller supplier network. This is exactly what Adidas started with concept of local “Speedfactories”. It’s a brilliant solution using automation technology. Because production is no longer limited and by finding cheap labor somewhere around the world, small factories can be established close to large retail centers and simplify logistics by immediately reacting to sales trends. This reduces time on the water, import duties, risky far-out merchandising and having a bunch of inventory sitting in distribution hubs.
Is there any company that does it all right at the moment?
Brand success always comes in sine-waves, some years it’s one brand, and then it’s another one. Today I’d say Adidas is currently firing on all cylinders.
What do you think about hyped brands such as Supreme?
It’s an anomaly; as basically it’s only an appropriated logo. It’s a marketing message versus a producer of softgoods. If you wear it, it’s a nod to “Hey, I’m part of the secret crowd too”, but they succeeded by being adopted by the alpha crowd. It’s similar in the skate industry or left coast action sports. There is an inside and an outside. It’s amazing because the brand has all the exclusivity of a brand like Louis Vuitton, but with none of the great product. For every one Supreme, there are 500 failed brands. It’s a tough market out there.