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For as long as he can remember, Victor Lee has had a healthy (bordering on obsessive) relationship with his footwear: you might say they're a perfect fit. Which is a good thing because Mr Lee, 45, is a founder of bespoke shoe brand Diamond Walker, a go-to place for fashion-forward males with a taste for one-of-a-kind loafers, brogues and oxfords. Now, Mr Lee has gone a step further with YSNEAKERS, an online boutique that offers highly customisable luxury leather sneakers. On the opposite end of the sneaker spectrum from, say, classic Stan Smith tennis shoes or Nike Air Jordans, YSNEAKERS are intended to appeal to an older, dressier demographic, at a price point (US$349-US$420) that gives them an aspirational quality. The brand's website, launched earlier this year, offers online buyers a dizzying array of interchangeable parts and detailing options, allowing them to tweak virtually every aspect of a base model shoe and make it their own. Innovative software also allows them to visualise their creations in a hyper-realistic 3D format.
According to Time Magazine, "Sneakers are suddenly the most covetable style objects on the planet." Mr Lee intends to fill a gap in the market with what are in effect personalised high-end sneakers designed and made by craftsmen in Korea using Italian leather. While athletic shoe brands led by the likes of Nike and Adidas have a firm grip on the multi-billion-dollar sneaker industry (estimated at about US$65 billion in 2017), with teenagers comprising the biggest target audience, high-end brands have also jumped on the streetwear bandwagon, catering to anyone willing to part with US$400 for a pair of rubber-soled designer sneakers from fashion powerhouses such as Gucci or Ferragamo - or much, much more (we're talking thousands here) for a limited-edition number, launched in collaboration with a hip-hop star. Mr Lee, whose sartorial choices - distressed jeans, mock snakeskin jackets and eye-catching footwear - often attracts attention from strangers on the street, is a prime example of the YSNEAKERS mantra: Express Yourself. "I make statement pieces," he says.
Why start a bespoke shoe business with Diamond Walker in 2012?
One of the biggest things is, I'm a shoe lover. At the time we started, the focus was more on the ladies' category so we wanted to change that, be a disruptor. I didn't like the way shoes were presented to me as a customer, there were times I wanted some individual detailing but you couldn't do that with off-the-rack shoes. The existing bespoke shoe brands were astronomical in price and I figured there was room for a bespoke brand that was slightly more accessible. People didn't take us seriously at first. A bespoke shoe could cost S$14,000 and take six months - our shoe prices range from S$500 to S$1,400 and take four to six weeks. We removed a lot of layers, reduced price and did away with one part of the traditional process - the personal last (the made-to-measure mechanical form that a shoe is moulded around). We have a huge library with all the shapes and will invariably find something that fits. The most important thing to note is that our feet can expand and contract up to 7 mm on any given day. If you're a normal dude, who cares about the last?
You seem to have gauged the public mood and entered the made-to-order sneaker business at the right time.
I knew that Diamond Walker as a bespoke brand couldn't go online, so I thought about it for the longest time and about 18 months ago I had a eureka moment: online customisation for luxury sneakers. It's a made-to-order, customisable luxury sneaker, but removing the bespoke element. Sneakers are no longer a trend, they're here to stay. Big brands are made to mass produce, our DNA is interesting, custom-made. We received support from Enterprise Singapore and I have a shoemaking mentor in Italy who told me my timing was right. Several clients asked me to work on a sneaker collection that will allow customers to make their own masterpiece. We are not targeting teens, we're targeting people in their mid-30s to 55 or more, trendy Gen X'ers and baby boomers. Our sneaker brand is new and the business is growing, so we need to differentiate ourselves with a level of customisation that empowers our customers.
How do you overcome the challenges of selling sneakers online?
The two main things that stop people from buying online are fear of sizing - getting the size wrong - and discovering that what they see onscreen is not what they actually get. So, I need to remove at least one of those barriers to purchasing. We came up with a hyper-realistic 3D visualisation software that allows customers to select the model they like, proceed to the customisation phase where they can rotate the shoe, choose different details - even the stitching colour, zip colour, type of sole, inner lining colour and so on. Only the auto industry has 3D visualisation that's anywhere close to ours. In terms of the different permutations we have about five sextillion possibilities - a five followed by 21 zeros. Being an online brand, we can also share information about what makes us different: we can tell our story and gain traction faster. The beauty of being online is you get to feel the vibe first-hand - it's every brand's dream to own the relationship between the brand and the consumer. They key thing is to collect user data. We are also the only fashion or luxury sneaker brand that offers resoling. The next step is an offline store where people can see and feel the leather.
You're working with celebrities in the Korean entertainment industry - members of K-pop bands - to design shoes for a limited-edition collection that was just launched as part of a Korean streetwear brand.
When it comes to people I subscribe to the 1-9-90 rule: One per cent are the Rembrandts and Picassos, 9 per cent are the activators and creatives and 90 per cent are the followers. Our brand targets the 90 percenters. Collaborations are useful because they address the group of people who have no idea what they want and also because it helps to acquire users - a fan base that will know everything about the shoes and who will collect the freebies (like shoe trees) that come with the limited-edition shoes. There's no end to what we can do with collaborations.
How do you hope to grow the YSNEAKERS brand?
First, we need to educate the customers, get them to understand why they are paying over US$300 and explain the reasons behind the price differential. As a brand we want to evolve and I believe it will be a different brand one year from now, and again five years from now. YSNEAKERS lack outside markings: we don't hard sell; our brand comes second, you come first. I want to play a lot more with exotic skins, offering stuff to the one percent and 9 per cent as an option in terms of leather can be rewarding. About two thirds of the sneaker industry belongs to the athleisure group, I see us in the luxury fashion catching up.
How many pairs of shoes are in your closet?
I used to have about 45 pairs of other brands but now I have 20 pairs of my own shoes at any one time. The difference is that as an ambassador for YSNEAKERS, I cannot wear other brands of shoes. When I was younger I used to buy three or four pairs a year. If you treat them well, they will last five, eight, 10 years. My wife sees this as a necessary evil for the business: I rotate my shoes religiously - that's my golden rule.