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.
It was back in the days when DeFeet was a unique custom cycling sock manufacturer and before China entered into the production scene with cheaper production. Cooper’s determination to manufacture domestically was understandable by some industry professionals, but his vision was to create microsockery that would be true to his core principles: sustainability and performance.
DeFeet’s 30th anniversary celebration in November saw it remain the same. The company’s poly, nylon and Lycra all come from within 80 miles of its headquarters. DeFeet also uses Repreve, a recycled performance fiber. Cooper told BRAIN in October that DeFeet will soon announce that it has received Responsible Wool Standard certification. This voluntary designation addresses the welfare and land use of sheep. DeFeet sources its wool from Shaniko Farms of Oregon.
“The wool then travels to South Carolina where it is washed and then goes to Valdese in North Carolina to be dyed. Then it returns to South Carolina to be spun into yarn and then on to DeFeet. RWS certification will cover the entire wool supply chain from the ranch to the end consumer. This certification is a first in the industry.
DeFeet purchased wool from New Zealand fifteen years ago and sent it to China for washing, dyeing, and to Canada for spinning.
DeFeet continues to set the industry standard in sustainability. However, DeFeet is also determined to create a performance sock. DeFeet offers small-batch custom options that are branded with customers’ logos.
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 explained that DeFeet was the one who created the Aireator. He switched the nylon to the exterior for strength and durability, while keeping the CoolMax soft fibres against his foot. 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.
DeFeet manufactures nearly all its products at its 50,000-square-foot factory. This includes shoe covers, base layers and arm and knee warmers. DeFeet’s success was based on its 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.” “So many things were taking place at the pinnacle. We had athletes who were able to test out our products. 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 really exciting to be recognized instantly and have our manufacturing done here.
Cooper stated that DeFeet has other relationships than cycling, such as golf, motorcycle and equestrian. “They are fit people, and they want a socks that will perform.”
QBP and HLC are DeFeet distributors, and the brand manufactures socks for approximately 50 private-label businesses. However, the portal also offers direct access 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 not a standard sock. It’s a custom made sock using our technology. I’m confident that IBDs will find it. Our footprint is as small and compact as possible. It’s also responsible. It’s responsible. If I work in a bike shop, I always have socks nearby the shoes. When I tell people to try socks on with new shoes or socks at the counter, they’ll be amazed how quickly I can turn their socks around. That product will make me a 50%-60% profit.
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 small businesses just like they are.
DeFeet sales increased by 12% during the pandemic and dropped by 2% in 2021. DeFeet, which outfits its cross-country and cyclocross teams, announced that it had entered into a multi-year partnership agreement with Trek Factory Racing.
Cooper smiled and said that “the great thing about a bicycle sock” is that even in bad times, you can still buy new handlebar tape, new socks and go riding.
A new machine can also transform a brand. Cooper bought a direct to-garment printer in 2019. This allows for greater customization and detail than knitting. DeFeet could create PrintMySock, which allowed customers to design their own pair of DeFeet sock.
Cooper stated, “The knitting technology in itself is amazing, but the printing technology is time-consuming.”
DeFeet is not just about sustainability and technology. Cooper continues to chase the carrot of proven 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 back 2020 to inform him that it had successfully tested the DeFeet aireator socks in a London wind- tunnel and was interested in working with the brand.
DeFeet previously proved in a wind tunnel test conducted with Quickstep that its socks saved 8 watts. This is 4 watts less than the cut and sewn Aero socks popular in England.
Cooper explained that “Suddenly, there were 12 watts saved by a Dutch company using their socks.” I had to call BS because they used a mannequin for the wind tunnel test and didn’t use yaw. (Yaw refers to the vertical Z axis that positions the rider in relation to the wind. 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 hope to achieve that at the Tour de France in 2019.
Cooper smiles when he thinks back to the past 30 year and says he’s satisfied with DeFeet achievements. These include sustainability, performance enhancements and even survival of a 2001 fire which destroyed DeFeet’s building.
Cooper stated that Hope, Cooper’s wife, is a financial genius. “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.”