Anyone that’s ever worked in skateboarding knows that the industry is kinda fucked. Margins are terrible, it’s extremely volatile and most pros get paid peanuts to risk their lives. I won’t even get into the logistics of skate shops.
Which is why Shawn Baravetto – the founder of Proper, a new independent skateboard shoe company – is one crazy fucker. Shawn worked for years at Circa, DC Shoes and most recently at Nike SB as a Product Line Manager, before parting ways with the shoe behemoth with hopes to apply some of what he’s learned (and his entire savings) to this new project.
Our friends at Ripped Laces recently spoke with him about the process behind designing some of skateboarding’s favorite skate shoes – but wanting to know more about his upcoming company – we called him up and found out how much money & risk it takes to start a truly independent skateboard shoe brand in today’s locked down market.
Before starting Proper, you were at Nike. Did they make you do any rituals or some sort of oath when you worked there?
[Laughs] What do you mean, like a sacred ritual? I’m pretty sure I’m not breaching any confidentiality agreements here, but there’s actually a thing they do called EKIN, and some of them get swoosh tattoos on their ankles.
Do you have a Nike swoosh on your head with the other tats?
[Laughs] I do not have any swoosh tattoos!
Is it true that Nike SB bought out the “Janoski” name so they didn’t have to pay him anymore royalties on his shoe?
No, not as far as I know. I don’t even know how you’d buy someone’s name out.
Can you mention some other shoes you worked on in the past?
At DC, I helped with that Stevie Williams shoe. I worked on a couple of the AVE shoes. I actually worked on that first vulc Manteca shoe called the Pure, I think. The big one before I left was Wenning’s shoe, which I still think is dope. At Nike, I worked on the Janoski, the Tre AD, Koston 1 and 2, Omar Salazar, Ishod Dunk and Cory’s All Court…mostly signature and classics.
Do you think you’d get laid easier working at Nike SB or now that you run your own shoe brand?
Hm. Depends on the crowd, if it’s a sneaker event I think the GLF (Get Laid Factor) of dropping Nike would be higher. But I reckon the sex is better when you run your own brand.
If I wanted to start a shoe company tomorrow, what’s a ballpark amount of money I would need to get molds and start the brand?
I would say, depending on who you know or who you link up with, $25,000 – $30,000 maybe. That’s like getting a sample and a full rubber tooling, but you can probably get a foam or printed tooling to look at or some of that kind of stuff. It just depends on how far you’re gonna go and how many you wanted. But that’s a ballpark estimate to start.
So let’s say I design one shoe and I want the minimum amount of that shoe printed. One model, one color way.
Probably around another $7,000 – $8,000. It kind of depends. There’s a lot of things that go into that. I’m not the “money guy” but at least as far as when you’re building shoes, things to consider are how much you’re gonna charge for it, how much you’re hoping to make off of it, and what kind of materials you’re going to put into it. It just depends on how expensive things are and duties and what you’re willing to do or not do in the game.
With Proper, did you have any limits to what you could do with your designs, since you’re starting from the ground up?
There’s certain things, like proprietary stuff. Nike has Lunar and adidas has Clima-Cool. One of the problems I always had back at Nike was jamming that stuff in where it wasn’t really needed. Like, “Oh we got this new thing, let’s put it in our new shoes.” Skaters don’t really care or need that thing. It’s one thing if the technology helps skaters and they can use it to make a shoe fit better, but you don’t usually need to put it in there.
Are you talking about the sock liners like in the Koston 3 and stuff like that?
Yeah, exactly. Me personally—and maybe because I’m an old dog—I don’t talk to a lot of skaters that want their shoe uppers to be made of string. Then with other things like weight, they’d be like, “We can make it 10 grams lighter!” I’m like, “Do you see kids on the street? They wear keychains that probably weigh 20 grams alone, it doesn’t matter!” These companies are trying to draw parallels between Olympic athletes trying to shave .3 seconds off their time and a kid that’s just out skating and wants to have fun and look cool. They don’t need a shoe that’s a tiny bit lighter when they’re carrying a bunch of shit anyways. It’s kind of unnecessary. It’s nice to not have to deal with that or worry about it anymore.
“One of the problems I always had back at Nike was jamming that stuff in where it wasn’t really needed”
You posted on SLAP about Proper months ago. Why did you go there to get feedback out of all places?
I get it, message boards are message boards and a lot of times it’s just going to be trolls, but I felt like being transparent was the opposite of what I had been doing for so long, where everything is secret and you can’t talk about anything because of politics. I wanted to invite the hate. It’s not like I have a giant conglomerate of a company to spend money on research and focus groups, so I was like fuck it, throw it on the internet and see what happens. But it’s also contradictory because you can see them being like, “Sign this pro, sign them,” and then there’s a 20 page thread on where to get shoes on sale. [laughs]
When you reach out to those guys who have seen a lot, you never know, you might just get a good piece of feedback. At the very least it’s just a good sounding board. I thought it was nice to go to the place where it’s usually the worst.
How does a kid get into skateboarding footwear or becoming a designer?
If you’re just starting from ground zero, I’d say design school. That’s what most of the guys I worked with in the past all did. That or art school. I never had formal design training, so it’s different. There are also a lot of internships you can do. I think an ex-Nike guy started a school in Portland called Pensole. It’s a new, strictly footwear design school. There are cool little programs that teach you how to draw shoes, if you really want to do that.
The other way is working at shops and trying to get lucky. When I was a shop kid, I was the nerd that memorized every catalogue and would talk to the reps and be like, “Isn’t that supposed to be 8.38?” They would be like, “I dunno, kid.” [laughs]
Have you ever tripped on acid or use any mind altering substance to get more creative with shoe designs?
[Laughs] Yeah, sometimes. I mean, if you’re tripping, just have a sketchbook around and draw some weird shit. I definitely smoke hella weed and draw shoe designs all the time. There’s been some shroom stuff and maybe some acid stuff. I don’t know how direct it is. I’m not like, “I’m gonna do acid and draw shoes!” But if it comes that way, why not?
Is Proper Footwear going to be in Zumiez?
No, I don’t have any plans to be in Zumiez. I get it, people have to be in there, and I get that people want to be in there, and I don’t have anything against it. I just want to see if we can do it without being in there. We are going to be in CCS, which is mail order and a little bit different, and I know some people will have their thoughts on that. I grew up with it back when it was like the bible and you’d circle everything in it, so it’s cool for me to have those guys be down. I think that’s probably the biggest we’d go right now.
I would love to prove to the community that we can have something that doesn’t have to be in there. I would rather sell direct to the kids, or drive it to skate shops ourselves if possible. In my head, it would be a rad thing for a kid to go to a skate shop and have the employees be like, “Nah man, you can’t get these from anywhere else.”
All of my retirement money is going into this, so I’m making a run. No one else is helping and we’re doing it, but we don’t have the pressure of the next season and next season and the next season. Right now it’s just, “Here’s the money that we have, here’s what we can buy with it, now let’s work on it and get this stuff out there.”
Do you think big shoe brands are running the game right now because they have more marketing power, or are their products just that much better?
It’s a combo. For me on a personal level, at Nike I tried to look at things and think, even if a kid fucking hates Nike, maybe I could make a shoe good enough that when they put it on they’ll be like, “Fuck man, this is a good shoe.” It was smart of Nike to put together teams of people that were likeminded, so then as the business gets built up, the company incorporates that vibe.
Then, once they’ve got the right team of dudes, the kids on the street start to respond to it. Now kids are kind of over the “corporate” stigma; they’re younger and don’t have bitter memories about stuff, so they’re already into it.
And there’s the marketing, for sure. That Nike Loud Pack video is insane. Corey, Grant, and Ishod could be a team on their own for any company and it’d be fucking amazing. And that’s just a side video that goes along with all these other launches. I think that added to their success and the current situation we have, because it kind of normalizes it. It used to be that the only people that wore Nikes were the dudes on the Nike team, and now it’s like there are more people wearing them than aren’t.
“People want to look down and see something that feels familiar to them and puts them in a good mindset, which is always hard to explain to people who don’t skate”
A lot of shoes you see from skater owned companies seem to be derivative of big brand models. Why do these brands have a hard time coming up with original designs?
I think within footwear design, you’ll see there is a big mental component to it. People want to look down and see something that feels familiar to them and puts them in a good mindset, which is always hard to explain to people who don’t skate. They don’t get how important it is to look down at your shoes and like how they look on the board.
How a shoe makes you feel is just as important as how it works and interacts with the board, and I think that gets lost sometimes. A lot of it is mental and hard to let go, and it’s hard to come up with new shit. But as you see the rise of different shaped boards and different sizes, it shows that there is an appetite for some different shit out there, and more creative stuff. You see it go and then it comes back around, and I think we’re back to a little creative cycle right now.
How are you going to separate Proper from other skater owned shoe companies?
There’s a difference between skater owned and pro-skater owned. Pro-skater owned companies already have a brand around them that they can work with. I’m just trying to think of this as more working class style. It’s skater owned in that I still skate everyday and love it more than I ever have. I’m just super psyched and want to work on skateboarding. I happen to have gone through this much of my career learning things at these different places that I can use to affect skateboarding in a personal way. I also want it to be a little bit more art based. Not everything has to be this perfect presentation of everything.
Underdog shit is always rad and I love it. I just want to focus on that and see what we can do, while using this experience and knowledge that I’ve gained and just try to make a shoe fit in a good way, last long and also just look cool. Look good, feel good, work right, and not break the bank. I’d rather use the advantage of us being small and doing it on our own so I can pass a little bit of the savings onto the kid buying it.
You might have a shitty patch of concrete, a shitty garage, or a shitty curb that you spent months waxing so that it grinds… those are the kids that I want to reach out to. I feel like that’s our people. The people who just want to do it because they love it. You love it and you hate it, and it drives you fucking crazy, but it’s the best thing ever.
I like that pitch, you have to write that one down.
Well, I hope you recorded it because I didn’t write it down [laughs].