Some entrepreneurs spend their first years in the fashion industry riddled with anxiety, penny-pinching at every corner just to stay afloat. Others, like Native Shoes cofounder Damian Van Zyll De Jong, end up with Oprah singing their praises and business propositions from the music mogul who launched Madonna’s career.
“Three weeks ago I got an e-mail from this guy named Mark Kamins,” Van Zyll De Jong tells the Straight during a recent visit to his company’s headquarters, housed in a sparse but chic Kitsilano walk-up. “The beginning of the e-mail was, ”˜Hey Damian, I discovered Madonna and released her first album. I’d like to come up there and talk to you. I feel like Native is something I could lend my expertise to.’ So the guy bought a ticket and is randomly flying up here.”
By marrying iconic silhouettes favoured by brands like Vans and Converse with lightweight, EVA-foam-injected moulded material, Native has clearly hit a sweet spot in the footwear market. Ho-hum terms like durability, antimicrobial, and odour resistant have never been synonymous with killer style, but thanks to Van Zyll De Jong’s handiwork, these descriptors have received a Heidi Montag–scale facelift.
“When I explain the shoe and say that it’s an EVA–injection shoe, people are like, ”˜What?’ ” says the 33-year-old visionary, who dabbled in real estate before deciding to give Chuck Taylor a run for his money. “If you go, ”˜It’s like a cool Croc,’ then they’re like, ”˜Oh cool, I get it.’ ”
“Crocs might be the closest resemblance to our product,” he continues, “but I think what we’re shooting for is a completely different vibe than what they’re portraying.”
Not that Native doesn’t intend to win over everyone with its sleek designs, but the company is looking to make its mark with a slightly hipper clientele with three unisex slip-on styles ($59.99 each) for spring/summer 2010. There’s the Jefferson, a low-top, Converse-y perforated sneaker with contrasting white toe cap; the Miller, a Vans Era–type kick sans laces; and the Corrado, which offers a nod to Wallabees with its streamlined moccasin design freckled with ventilation holes along the sides.
Available locally at El Kartel (1025 Robson Street) and Mr. Lee’s General Store and Haberdashery (109 East Broadway), as well as at Antisocial (2337 Main Street) (swing by the East Van skate shop during the month of May to admire a Native window display that plays up the company’s mantra, “Keep it Lite”), the casual shoes are certain to score big with those who insist practicality is best served with a dollop of eye candy.
A no-brainer for fashion-savvy Vancouverites (could there be more appropriate footwear for pounding the rain-soaked pavement before kicking up sand at Jericho once the clouds clear?), the line, which comes in a crayon box of shades, from Pylon orange to Torch red, also has a strong universal appeal. With distribution in 12 countries worldwide, Native isn’t just a local phenomenon.
And while Van Zyll De Jong admits that having major players like Mark Kamins and Dolce & Gabbana (another unbelievable story) knocking on his door is certainly a confidence booster, right now, Native is a homegrown project and he and his team don’t want to loose sight of that.
“We want to grow off the platform that we’ve put in place,” he says. “We just want to offer people fun, comfortable, and affordable shoes.”