A version of this article ran in the December issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.
HILDEBRAN, N.C. (BRAIN) — DeFeet founder Shane Cooper fondly remembers when the brand’s socks were “the currency of the trade shows” in the 1990s as industry types would trade them among themselves.
This was before China had entered the market with lower production costs and DeFeet was still the only custom cycling socks brand. Cooper’s determination to manufacture domestically was not understood by some industry professionals. However, Cooper’s vision was to create microsockery that would be true to his core principles: sustainability and performance.
DeFeet celebrated its 30th birthday in November. All the company’s nylon, poly and lycra are sourced within an 80 mile radius of its headquarters. DeFeet also makes use of Repreve, a repurposed performance fiber. Cooper told BRAIN in October that DeFeet will soon announce that it has received Responsible Wool Standard certification. This voluntary certification addresses the welfare and land use of sheep. DeFeet’s wool comes from Shaniko Farms, Oregon.
“The wool then travels to South Carolina. It is washed there, then it goes to Valdese (North Carolina) to get dyed. Finally, it returns to South Carolina for spinning into yarn. RWS certification will cover the entire wool supply chain from the ranch to the end consumer. This industry-first certification is unprecedented.
DeFeet sourced wool from New Zealand 15 years ago. He sent it to China to wash, England to dye, Canada to spin, and finally back to North Carolina.
DeFeet believes that sustainability is an industry standard. They also aim to make performance socks and offer small-batch custom options with logos for customers and brands.
Cooper stated that “domestic manufacturing” was something that he liked. He said this from his office in Asheville, which is about an hour away.
The birth of Aireator
Cooper stated that DeFeet invented the Aireator by changing the nylon from the outside to increase durability and strength. Cooper also noted that CoolMax soft fibers were kept against the foot like an “exoskeleton for a bug”. The inside was soft, allowing the foot to sweat. To allow the vapor out, we also created the Aireator mesh weave. This mimicked a bicycle shoe. These little vents let vapor escape from your feet, so you would feel your foot sweat. This was our secret recipe, and everyone loved it.
Nearly all of DeFeet’s products are made in its factory covering 50,000 square feet. The brand’s most distinctive product was the sock. Johan Museeuw, from Belgium, won the 1996 road world championship in DeFeet socks. This was a notable accomplishment in the brand’s early years.
Cooper stated, “We were with Team Quickstep. We were in the Tour de France.” “There were so many things happening at the pinnacle. Our products were tested by athletes. The yarn companies instantly loved us, as we were small and agile and they could use our new yarns to test them on the athletes. It was an amazing thing to have our manufacturing in the United States and be instantly respected.
Cooper stated that DeFeet has other relationships than cycling, such as golf, motorcycle and equestrian. They’re fit and want a sock that will perform.
QBP, HLC and DeFeet are distributors of the brand, as well as manufacturing socks for around 50 private-label firms, but it also offers a direct portal to dealers with no minimums. Cooper is trying to increase the number of direct IBD networks, which currently numbers 300. Custom orders for events or small teams account for half of Cooper’s business.
It’s more than a custom sock. It’s a custom made sock using our technology. I believe IBDs will be able to get it. Our footprint is as small and compact as possible. It’s responsible. If I have a bike shop, and I place socks near the shoes, and tell people to put socks at the counter or try new socks, I know that I will turn those socks around big time. And that product is going to have a margin of 50-60%.
Like a lot of the industry, DeFeet has had to raise prices — 20% last year — partly in response to supplier costs increasing and raising pay during the pandemic to retain its workforce, which numbers 35, Cooper said. Cooper said that the brand’s production was slowed recently due to lower third-quarter demand. DeFeet’s consumer site was “a lifesaver” and accounted for 25% of all direct-to-consumer sales.
“We need our bicycle shops to survive, and thrive, and with all the consolidation going on, I’d love to see that independent man stand up.” We are a small business, just like them.
DeFeet sales rose by 12% in 2020, and declined by 2% by 2021 during the pandemic. DeFeet announced that it has entered into a multiyear partnership with Trek Factory Racing to outfit its cyclocross- and cross-country teams.
Cooper laughed and stated, “The best thing about a cycling socks is that even in the worst times you can still buy some handlebar tape and new socks and you can ride.”
A brand can also be transformed by a new machine. Cooper purchased a direct printer for garments in 2019, which allows for greater customization and more detail than knitting. DeFeet was able to create PrintMySock portal that allows customers to design one pair of DeFeet socks.
Cooper stated that “the knitting technology is unbelievable, but this printing tech is space age.”
Performance is what you chase
DeFeet doesn’t just care about technology, but also sustainability. Cooper continues to chase the carrot of performance. Cooper thought that the brand had stopped sponsoring Tour de France and World Cup teams after a new company bought DeFeet’s Quickstep partnership of 20 years. Lotto-Soudal called 2020, saying it had tested the DeFeet aireator socks in a London wind tunnel. They wanted to continue working with the brand.
DeFeet had previously been able to show in its own wind-tunnel test with Quickstep, that its sock saves 8 watts. That’s 4 watts more then the popular cut and sewn socks in England.
Cooper stated that a Dutch company suddenly claimed to have saved 12 watts by using their socks. I had to call BS because they used a mannequin for the wind tunnel test and didn’t use yaw. (Yaw, the vertical Z-axis, positions the rider against wind blowing. We used a real rider to get 8 watts. So we are back in the wind tunnel. We are using what we learned from 2018 and what Lotto-Soudal has learned since then to help us again provide the fastest socks. We are hopeful to see that during the Tour de France.
Cooper smiles when he thinks back to the past 30 year and says he is satisfied with DeFeet achievements. These include sustainability, performance enhancements, and even survival of a 2001 fire which destroyed the company’s headquarters and stopped production for nine months.
Cooper stated, “Luckily my wife Hope is a financial wizard.” “Don’t give me money — I can make it, but she knows how to save it — and luckily 30 years later, we’re still in business.”