The beauties are coming for the Hokas – Triathlete

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It’s not often that athletes, social media influencers, sneakerheads, and service workers have similar interests in fashion. But one brand born in the French Alps that fuses performance with a distinctive aesthetic point of view seems to have united people all over the world — so much so that it’s fast heading towards $1.5 billion in sales this year alone.

Since its launch in 2009, Hoka has risen from the seed of an idea – an easier, more thriving downhill running shoe – to what is widely considered the fastest growing brand in the sneaker market. But was it word of mouth, clever marketing, an effective celebrity attraction strategy, or just a happy (and commercially successful) accident?

The anti-minimal boot

The Hoka’s chunky soles were outliers in the running shoe space at first—but they quickly became the norm. Vintage Kailua Tarmacs circa 2014 (Photo: John David Baker/Triathlete)

Let’s take a step back to find out. Deriving from the Maori phrase “to fly above the ground,” former Salomon employees Nicolas Mermaud and Jean-Luc Diard founded Hoka One One (pronounced in one dayIn contrast to the number) to design a shoe with a large, cushioned sole that simulates the feeling of bouncing in the air by adding cushion and a wider sole, using lighter materials, and placing a rocker in the midsole. They hypothesized that this would solve a universal problem for all runners: conservation of momentum.

“Jean-Luc is a visionary,” says Adam Chase, a triathlete who has reviewed thousands of running shoes. “The first iteration was ahead of its time. It was like a marshmallow, and at first everyone laughed. But the founders really saw where the ball was going.”

Chase contextualizes that in 2009 and 2010, the barefoot running movement was all the rage, led by Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book made to run, Which encouraged the contestants to feel the ground beneath.

Chase counters, “Most of us don’t live in the mountains, we live on concrete.” “It was bound to be a pendulum swing (away from simple ‘five-toed shoes’) and Hoka really drove that charge to the fullest extent of my run.”

But Hoka’s market capture wasn’t just an overnight success. Erica Gabrielli, the company’s senior director of global integrated marketing, recalls that in August 2009 the founders were at the UTMB in Chamonix, using the race as the first litmus test to see if the shoe would be a hit.

“It wasn’t a huge success,” says Gabrielli. But there was an early fan base, (our) missionaries, thanks to the unique, distinct design. It was a slow burn, but word of mouth in the trail running community and adoption by elite athletes (helped). I got first and second place in the races in 2009, and from there it really started to grow.”

The first Hoka shoe launched in stores in 2010. Around this time, the founders themselves were actually on the ground, trying to get accounts at specialty running stores in the U.S. At a trade show that year, the Boulder Running Company installed Ordered 770 sneakers. “An account like this was touching,” says Gabrielli. “In terms of exposure and measurement. Our founders got excited and started experimenting with adding other types of shoes.”

Triathlon effect

Athletes on the Hoka One One running course at the 2017 Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
Athletes on the HOKA-sponsored running course at the 2017 Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image)

Of those 770 pairs, the ultra-flexible shoes have become millions. In just a few years, it was estimated that 40 to 60 percent of superstar racers wore Hokas. Triathletes (and their solid reputation as early adopters of new technology) soon followed suit. By 2017, the Hoka was the top shoe on the annual Kona Shoe Count, providing knockouts to traditional favorites like Asics and Saucony.

“It’s a functional triathlon shoe,” says Chase. “Runners need a good recovery shoe, which the Hoca is. It’s very cushioned, but it’s not just soft and light, there’s also the bounce. In many ways, it’s the perfect shoe to get back on your feet for a run after cycling 112 miles, because you’re the kind of person who has a shot at You need to move your legs, avoiding the “iron man shuffle”.

Hoka fans have become almost evangelical about shoes, recommending a pair to everyone from runners who quit the sport with knee problems to workers who spend all day on their feet.

“The postal workers on their feet yearn for something like that,” he adds. “Or cooks on rubber mats. It’s a counter reaction to standing all day on a hard surface. They really made for recovery.”

Hooka leaned into that all-comfortable identity. Instead of doubling down on its identity as a running shoe, it has expanded its marketing to include the brand itself as a shoe for everyone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the brand has been marketed to healthcare professionals, noting the overwhelming physical demands of their jobs.

Hoka is still, of course, a running shoe company. Chase says Jean-Luc Diard’s innate ingenuity has created something much bigger than running.

“The French way of thinking is very different and unorthodox by corporate American standards. He’s able to think differently, and get ahead, which has allowed them to be brilliant. I mean, you can see his work now at Deckers X Lab. The company makes some really cool recovery boots that look They feel like extreme, more straightforward versions of the Hokas.”

Run, but make it a fashion

hookah fashion
(Photo: Hoca)

Speaking of stiff soles, it is not too surprising to trace the popularity of Hokas among the fashion-conscious public, since the 2000s were undoubtedly the era of the “dad shoe”. From the sudden proliferation of Crocs and Birkenstocks to luxury brands like Chanel, Gucci, and Prada selling $1,000-plus tourist-style sandals, and Balenciaga and Yeezy’s stranglehold on the sneaker market, all eyes were on the chunky, chunky styles. Hoka has even entered the lifestyle market in 2021, adding colorful suede versions of Clifton and Bondi’s iconic style.

One guaranteed way for a budding brand to gain mass interest is to team up with someone established in another space. Through partnerships with the likes of Moncler, the Free People Movement, Engineered Garments, and JL-A.L_, Hoka has been able to “connect to culture” and “expand its reach,” according to Gabrielli.

To get a sense of what that interest and reach looks like, consider that #Hoka has 377.8 million views on TikTok alone, while #Hoka and #HokaOneOne have been tagged in nearly 2.5 million Instagram posts.

“I think the brand has always taken a strategic approach in terms of collaboration,” says Gabrielli. “We’re still relatively young, and that’s by design, but we know there’s an opportunity in fashion. We see where we can find partnership that helps us do things right that we can’t do alone. We want to see where we can connect and be creative, and challenge convention, And we’re doing something that’s never been done before.”

She adds, “We still rely on performance. That’s where the special blending is.[Partners who focus on fashion]can help take that performance and put it in new and different ways without sacrificing innovation. One thing we’ve always found to be a universal truth is that everyone is looking for newness.” And they are looking for comfort.”

Another thing people are always looking forward to? big success. Influencers spotted hooking up include Hollywood heavyweights (Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Adam Sandler), models (Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid, Winnie Harlow), and pop stars (Britney Spears).

“It’s part of both,” Gabrielli offered when asked if Hoka cultivates its product among celebrities. “We have ambassadors, athletes, and influencers, but we also see a lot of organic adoption — whether it’s between the average Joe or celebrities. (Exciting moment) It was Harry Styles recently, who we saw working on hooka.”

Gabrielli also credits community events, social media, and the brand’s company values ​​(philanthropy and sustainability) to enhance the message and appeal. But when it comes to rapid public success, word of mouth seems to be propelling these chunky-sole shoes to new heights.

Madeline Yanni is a New York City-based fashion influencer who has been wearing Hoka for about a year now. “I first heard about the brand from my photographer, Madison White, who also works as my running buddy. She wore a pair to one of our races together and thought they looked really cool. She told me they were insanely comfortable and I was sold.”

Yanni, who calls herself a longtime middle and super runner, is a fan of cushioning and support. “I have high arches so I’m going to have to buy running shoe inserts to get the support I need, but now I don’t have to worry about that.”

As for style, which she says is important to her as someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes fashion, she says she loves how the design is “different” and “unique and fun” from other offerings on the market: “The platform feels like a wave and the colorful ways it’s presented feels very tropical.”

“Working in the fashion industry for almost ten years now, I’m very particular about the shoes I wear on any given day. Running shoes are no exception—they need to be aesthetically pleasing too,” she laughs. “My favorite thing about wearing a hooka is that style and comfort don’t have to be separate.”

Related: How to choose the right running shoes today

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