Vince Lebon’s wife worked as a flight attendant travelling around the world and it wasn’t “unusual” for her to walk 25km in one day leading to her luggage being stuffed with a range of shoes to try and counteract sore feet.
Yet, the Melbourne-based designer thought there had to be a better solution with no lightweight shoes that were super comfortable as well as sophisticated available on the market at the time.
He wanted to create a shoe that combined sneaker-like comfort with dress shoe smarts, moulding to the wearer on the very first wear, which was also durable.
“I looked at brands doing well in Australia and globally and … they were products like Converse and Havaianas, so I wanted to create a shoe version of that and I thought doing new colours each season would work,” he told news.com.au.
So 10 years ago he launched his shoe business at a South Melbourne market stall, which sold 500 pairs.
Fast forward to now and in the past twelve months, Rollie Nation has sold approximately 100,000 pairs across online and wholesale.
Covid also helped change the game for the shoe designer.
Rollie Nation’s biggest months and days have been post-pandemic, where comfort is key and high heels have become all but a Covid casualty, according to Mr Lebon.
In May, the company made $2 million that month and on one day sold a whopping $535,000 worth of shoes.
The 38-year-old said he set out to design shoes that were so lightweight that they would feel like people had “nothing on”.
“No one else was playing in that space and two years on Nike started pushing it and I could ride that trend,” he added.
Since that first foray into footwear, he has collaborated with some of the biggest
brands including Adidas, Asics and Footlocker and world stars such as professional basketball player James Harden, singer Macklemore and model Ashley Graham.
Rather than going direct to consumers with Rollie Nation, Mr Lebon actually turned to wholesale to build his brand.
“We picked up our first wholesale account and it was the world’s largest shoe store in Dubai, so we were pushing wholesale as the main channel to build community and validate us in the market and then started pushing the online store,” he said.
“Within three years we were selling to 11 markets around the world and selling in the states in stores like Anthropologie and Free People and … it really took off, particularly internationally.
“So what I did was use those funds to fund the Australian business and grow and push into online.”
Mr Lebon has also been all about the colour in his shoes, determined to help people feel “uplifted” if they are having a down day.
The rose gold shoes he created early on have been a top seller for six years and still continue to be popular, he said, while a snow leopard print has also done well.
“We have had a lot of success because we look at emotions and pick a lot of colours really early and ride those waves,” he noted.
“Right now definitely a lot of colour is doing very well because after two years of lockdown people are looking for ways to feel a lot more uplifted and with the economic downturn people are really considering a purchase and people are getting a kick out of it and getting out of that slump.”
But it’s not just about the design for Mr Lebon who said he’s keen on the technical aspects of shoes with a goal to be able to extend the life of them by 15 to 20 per cent.
“I’m looking at comfort or flexibility or layers, while fashion brands are trying to design the next big thing, whereas my strength is building a better shoe each season,” he said.
However, the pandemic was “tough”, according to Mr Lebon as the brand took a “massive hit” as discretionary spending “slowed down dramatically” forcing the brand to pivot.
“We looked at our audience and where can we provide the most and we have got a huge nurse customer base and they were all still in jobs,” he said.
“So to thank them for their work, we did a promo around them highlighting them and it resulted in a huge lift with 92 per cent of sales from that initiative.”
The brand has also made its first entry into the physical retail world.
Rollie Nation’s first brick-and-mortar store opened in Melbourne’s Fitzroy in July 2022, with two more stores planned in the next 12 months and a goal to reach five sites in the next two to three years.
Meanwhile, Mr Lebon has predicted that footwear is going to change “dramatically” in the future as in recent years big leaps have stalled.
“There had been big shifts around individualisation and quality products to mass production but that mass production mentality has really shifted and now we are starting to see quality products and innovation being the biggest drivers,” he said.
“Material is going to play a huge part in footwear in the next five to 10 years and people will be taking a more engineering considered approach.
“If you look at niche shoes that weren’t in industry 10 years ago they now dominate a huge percentage of the market, so there will be more innovation.”