Taft is a brand that lives in a unique space—and if you’ve ever seen their shoes or boots, you probably already know that.
The four-year-old Utah-based brand that feels like it’s been around forever combines something between creativity and raw design insanity with legitimately high-quality construction, materials, and fit. And Taft exists there pretty much by itself, especially when weighing the How It’s Made part of things.
The story of how the brand started is…well, it’s great, and random, and fun, and feel-good. And Kory tells it very, very well, below. The story of where Taft goes from here is yet to be written.
About a year ago, Taft raised $5 million from investors including Highly Stylish NBA Person You May Know Dwyane Wade. The brand just opened its first retail store, at 135 Prince St. in Soho. After four years of running almost every aspect of the company with his wife Mallory, Kory hired Brigham Wilson as Taft’s first president. All are a representation of Taft’s explosive growth that’s rare to see from a new company making quality shoes.
Of course we cover that rollocking history, and Kory’s unique design sensibilities, and a whole lot of factory stuff. But one of the things I’m happiest we hit on in this Stitchdown Conversation is Taft’s lasts: what they are, what they’re used on, how they fit, how they look. For a lot of quality shoe brands, the lasts are known like bible. For Taft, they aren’t—yet. Hopefully this can give people—mostly internet customers—a better sense of what they’re getting into.
Let’s hit it.
Stitchdown: Ok, take me through how Taft started.
Kory: So I grew up in Burbank, California. I was pretty good at school, and I always thought that I’d be a lawyer or doctor. And as a kid I spent a lot of my money on shoes, like Diesel sneakers and D-Squared knockoffs—shoes that not everybody else was wearing in high school. But I went to college and studied linguistics, and had no idea what I wanted to do. Eventually I decided I wanted to get into management consulting. Come senior year, I got my interviews lined up, but I didn’t get a single offer, and I had put all my eggs in that basket. I was married at the time, had a baby on the way.
I had been saving up scholarship money and Pell Grants to take my wife to Europe after graduation. We were in France, and I was seeing all these guys wearing cool shoes and no socks. And I was just like, what is the deal? Nice shoes, no socks. So I started asking guys: “Are you wearing socks? “No, no socks.” “Would you like to wear socks?” “Sure, but I don’t have any of the right ones.” OK. So on the steps of Sacred Heart in Paris, I had the idea to make no-show socks for men that were really durable in cool patterns.
We got back and I started designing on like MS Paint. They are hilarious. They’re so bad. They look like a little kid drew them. So I had Anonymous Ism no-shows, and I was sending a picture of them to every Japanese factory I could find, saying, “Hey, did you make did you make these?” Finally, I found it. And so, about 14 or 15 months after that trip, I launch a Kickstarter campaign for our no-show socks. During that time, I was buying and selling board games on Amazon, which as you can imagine is not very lucrative.
Stitchdown: So I heard this on a podcast you were on—why board games??
Kory: I had a friend that was doing it, he needed help. I was like, “Sure man. I’ve got nothing going for me.” I was a fly fishing guide here in Utah, but I was not even a fly fisherman. I did not know how to catch fish. But I was trekking fly fishing gear through a forest for like 20 or 40 bucks a day. It was scrappy, man.
At this point, we had a baby. And no job. Finally, in the middle of 2014, we launched our Kickstarter. At the time it was called Wimbleys, because I love sports. Wembley Stadium in London. Wimbledon. I was just like, this sounds really classy and cool, let’s do Wimbleys. So of course during the Kickstarter campaign, I got like a cease and desist for using that name.
Stitchdown: From who? One of them?
Kory: No, there’s some old tie company called Wimbley, and they were like, yeah, you cannot do this. So I’m like Mallory, what do we call this company? We’ve got to change this right away. And our son’s middle name is Taft, so we decided to name it after him. And we ended up doing $46,880 on the Kickstarter campaign in 28 days, which just blew my mind.
Stitchdown: And this is before the Reddit break, right?
Kory: Well before the Reddit break. So I use all of that money to place an order for as many socks as I can. The next year, Mallory and I are taking pictures every day of our socks and shoes, and we’re starting to grow a good-sized Instagram account. I was going to shoe stores, buying all the unique shoes I could find, photographing them with our socks, and returning them.
Stitchdown: I love that.
Kory: My conscience is pretty strong. And so I would even ask the store associates like, “Hey, here’s what I’m going to do. Are you guys ok with this?” And everyone at Nordstrom Rack was all “Yeah dude, we don’t care.”
Stitchdown: We just work here!
Kory: And it’s either really amazing secret finds that end up in Nordstrom Rack, or it’s the crazy stuff that no one wants. I would find the crazy stuff and take it home and photograph it, and everyone on Instagram would be like, where in the world did you find these? So we were getting 1,000 to 2,000 new followers a day just from spending all our time taking pictures for our Instagram.
Eventually shoe companies that we now compete with started saying “Hey, can you photograph our whole collection for our website?” We had this sock company, but I was also basically a freelance photographer for a few pretty big shoe brands.
That first year we did $117,000 in revenue, which was really cool at the time. But in 2015 I realized, if we want this to be a big business, we can’t sell such polarizing, weird socks. And so we had the realization that we have this community of hundreds of thousands of men that like shoes. We look like a shoe company. I have some cool ideas for designs in my head. Let’s do shoes.
At this point now we just about have our second baby. And from the hospital, I book tickets to Spain. I go to Spain, I design some shoes, I get those samples a few weeks later. And then that’s when the Reddit thing happened.
Stitchdown: Ok, let’s get into it. From what I understand, it was a deal on no-show socks, and it hit the front page of Reddit?
Kory: Yep. So now I have two babies, and hospital bills. I have to do something to generate a little bit of money. And we have a bunch of socks. So I do 10 pairs for 20 bucks, and call it this men’s socks grab bag, and put it on the site. I’m not going to tell anyone, I don’t want to dilute the brand. But it’s gonna be up there.
That night I’m on my way to a Christmas tree lighting. On the way there, my phone is like, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, the text notification for when we had an order. And I’m like, “What is going on? What’s wrong with the site?” So I pull over and they look like legit orders. I think everything is ok. But the rate is accelerating. Cha-ching, cha-ching. And I see on the Shopify app that there’s this thing called Reddit, and it’s driving a lot of traffic.
So we rush home and there are hundreds and hundreds of orders for the socks. I make a Reddit account and realize someone from r/frugalmalefashion had posted the deal. I hop on there and say thank you, and go comment by comment, just expressing my gratitude. I finally go to sleep at 3:00 a.m., and I wake up the next day, and we have thousands of orders. I rush to the warehouse and count all the socks because I think we’re going to oversell.
And then I get a notification that Best Of Reddit picked up the post. And the rate of the orders increases even further, because that Best Of post was on the home page. And then that night I go to my family’s house for dinner, and on the original post, I did an edit to my top comment: “Hey guys, I actually designed some shoes. Does anyone want to see them?”
Kory: And I’m like, man, if we’re ever going to launch shoes, this is probably a really interesting time to do it. I have nieces and nephews running around. My kids are going crazy. And I’m trying to make the biggest decision of my life. But people are like, “Yeah, we want to see the shoes. Show us!” So I make an Imgur account, and figure out how to upload pictures of my shoes.
And all of a sudden everyone says, “Dude, put them for sale! I’ll buy them! I’ll buy them!” And I’m looking at my wife across the dinner table saying, “Oh my gosh. Are we going to launch shoes right now?”
So I scramble. I had just gotten the samples a few days before, but luckily I had done some crappy studio pictures in my basement, and I posted those to the site. And that very night we sell something like 400 pairs of shoes.
Stitchdown: Not bad. What were the shoes?
Kory: The Jack boot in brown, the Jack boot in black, and the Lucca in cognac, three of our strong sellers still. Jack is my grandfather’s name, and also my nephew’s name. We were at Jack’s house for dinner that night and were like, “What do we name the shoe?” And I say, “The Jack Boot? Named after my grandpa, after my nephew? Sounds cool. Awesome. Let’s do it. How much should we charge? Well, I don’t know. I don’t even what these shoes cost to make yet. Let’s do $189. Seems fair.” And so it was a total spontaneous, off-the-cuff freestyle. That was November 2015. And then we fulfilled those orders in January 2016.
We’ve been selling shoes for almost three years. We now have a team of 11 people. Still very small, very much a family business. It’s been an incredible few years. But it all happened because of Reddit.
Stitchdown: All right, so now you’re a shoe company.
Kory: We don’t even sell socks anymore!
Stitchdown: And you still design all the products, correct?
Kory: That’s right.
Stitchdown: Talk me through the process of how you figured out how to do that without any training. What was your process? How did you do it?
Kory: It was a steep learning curve. When people figure out that I’m a shoe designer, they imagine, oh, this guy can make an incredible CAD rendering of a shoe. But I’m not a technical shoe designer. I just have an idea in my head and I search for the materials. It’s not like we’re reinventing the shoe. I’m taking the staple, basic silhouettes, making beautiful lasts in my opinion, and then applying really unique textiles and leathers and finishes to those basics. I go to Spain all the time, and I take my ideas, and there’s someone at the factory that actually makes the pattern much better than I ever could, and then I tweak and fine-tune it.
Stitchdown: If you look at the Jack, and a lot of the Taft products, you’re right, it’s the materials that make them unique. But there definitely have been instances of the patterns being pretty aggressive, too. Like the criss-crossing double monks or those swirly brogue boots. I don’t know if those existed before. Is that something you want to continue pushing, in the actual design? Instead of just the materials? And do you have anything bubbling up on that side of things?
Kory: I think that with men’s dressy casual footwear as a whole, the world has kind of identified these styles that work. Cap toe, plain toe, wholecut, Chelsea, ok. And so I don’t think that I want to go crazy inventing new shoes. We’re already pretty niche, and I feel like that would even make it even more niche. Those criss-cross double monks are not for everyone. And I know that. But I’m also super proud of them. I have a drawer full of unique designs that I’ve cooked up that we’ll slowly start to mess around with. But most of the time it’s more just how unique materials play to what men already show that they want.
Stitchdown: Let’s cover some construction stuff. Some of your products are Blake, some are Goodyear welted. How do you make the decision on which construction to use on which shoes?
Kory: I’m the designer for the shoes, but my personal style is not necessarily the shoes we make. And I’m also the guy that’s reading everything on r/goodyearwelt on Reddit. I care about hand welting, and Norwegian welts. I love Østmo boots. I nerd out about that stuff. If we could sell them, I would make everything hand-welted and a crazy level of construction. But that’s just not our brand. So it’s this constant internal battle of what I think our company needs versus what I want to do.
We kind of built a Goodyear factory that can can make shoes at very competitive pricing along with our Blake stuff, so that we don’t have to sell shoes for $400. We can sell a $290, really high-quality Goodyear welted shoe. So as we’ve been developing this new factory and starting to scale it up, I started to move some things over to Goodyear welt, and a lot of new stuff I’m making in Goodyear. I recognize the pros and cons of each type of construction more than our customers do. And so I am kind of selfishly starting to cater more and more to what I want, and what I pride myself on, versus just making it Blake.
Stitchdown: Is more of the product going to go in that direction?
Kory: Definitely. As this factory gets off the ground, I could make pretty much everything Goodyear welt. I’m not saying we’ll do that, because there are some definite pros with our Blake stuff. It’s crazy comfortable—our Goodyear stuff is, too, but there’s also a sleekness to the Blake. And I think some of our lasts just look a lot better in Blake. The clunkiness, that extra layer on a Goodyear shoe, it definitely changes the silhouette, it changes how the last presents itself on a mounted sole. So I think we’ll continue to see a healthy mix of both. Right now, Goodyear welted stuff is underrepresented. I think that it will come closer to 40/60 Goodyear to Blake over time.
Stitchdown: So at this point, you have a factory in Portugal and you still have a factory in Spain?
Kory: Yes. Our sneakers are in Portugal. Some of our Goodyear welted stuff is in Portugal. And then we have a Blake factory in Spain, and a Goodyear factory in Spain as well.
Stitchdown: Ok, so four different production locations then? Presumably they’re each good at something specific?
Kory: Obviously the sneakers are different, and that factory is incredible. For me, sneakers are all about the silhouette and the last. I love that minimalist sneaker look. A lot of factories won’t work with the crazy stuff that I want to use. So we had to find people who were willing to work with, say, hair on hide, black and white polka dot stuff.
The Goodyear factory in Portugal makes a great product. In Spain, it’s all about finishing there for me. They’re just really good at it. Regardless of which factory, we have access to the best tanneries. The Spain Goodyear factory, that’s the one that we’re ramping up. We kind of built that from the ground up with with our partners out there.
Magnanni is right across the street, so these people have experience with really great quality finishing on Goodyear welted products, and a lot of them now work with us. They’ve been doing it from being a teenage apprentice to 60 years old. So I design shoes and then I know which factory would make them best.
Stitchdown: Makes sense. On the factories front, I feel like a lot of factories want a blueprint. They want to stick to it, they don’t want to do a lot of experimenting.
Kory: Yeah, they don’t really like some of my stuff. Haha.
Stitchdown: But your relationships seem different, and more flexible. How did you get there other than just being there, and forming a good relationship, and all that? How did you convince them that this was something that was going to be worth their while? And was it just: we’re gonna throw a ton of volume on you, so come along for this ride?
Kory: I think one, when we initially made a decision to make shoes, we had hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. And even though it was me and my wife in our living room, I think our social media following had them licking their chops a bit and saying, oh, man, Taft could really bring us some major volume.
Another piece of it that’s less tangible is, I studied linguistics. I speak Spanish. And that has really broken down barriers. A lot of these European factories have been really screwed over by Americans in the past. Everyone we work with has horror stories of when they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on kind of crooked Americans. And I think my ability to speak the language has created really friendly familial relationships.
And I video-call the owners of these factories literally on a daily basis. We’re very much partners, and friends. I eat dinner with their families. We vacation together. I bring my family to the factories. The approach we take with our customers is the same we have with our factories. We’re just very real, very honest, very human and transparent.
Stitchdown: Good! So they may be like, “Oh, here’s that Kory guy again,” but, how do these factories contend with the range of materials that you throw at them?
Kory: It’s interesting. My designs have had a really noticeable impact on the other shoes that those factories make, whether it’s a house brand or other third party work they do. Taft has come in, they see what Taft does and they see that it really works. And now a lot of their stuff looks more like Taft. A lot of wool, and plaid, and tartan. Initially they were like, you can’t use that.
Most don’t want to change. They’ve been doing it one way for a long, long time. And then Asia forced all of these factories into real hardships, because a lot of clients went there. So now they’re at this interesting point where they’re forced to look at themselves and say, ok, we have to be flexible and work with people like Taft who immediately don’t come in with a lot of volume.
Years ago this factory took a big risk on me. At first they were uncomfortable with it. And we had to train them and teach them exactly what we want, over and over to break their old habits. And now we’ve had a little bit of success and they see that there’s demand and that it works, and that it’s ok to make things a little differently.
Stitchdown: Obviously you use a lot of the textiles as well, but what do you think are the one or two most interesting leathers you’ve used? And the follow up: where’s everything getting embossed and whatnot? Yes I realize that’s two completely different questions.
Kory: We use Du Puy, we use C.F. Stead. We use JR outsoles—just the really good stuff. But a lot of times the best tanneries don’t make really unique articles. So I’m always digging through their stock rooms for old stuff they no longer make, to find something crazy. Stead, to me they make some of the best suedes in the world. But most importantly, their team is so supportive of the crazy ideas I have.
I love their kudus. It’s an incredibly lightweight but super-super strong leather that is properly harvested. But when I have an idea, like, ok, let’s impregnate the kudu with wax and then do a rambler tannage on it, they’ll try it. Whereas some of these other tanneries will not.
Our Havana boot is a double size-zip boot with that Western embroidery on the toe. But the leather is a kudu with this incredible crazy finish that almost looks like lizard skin. We developed that together. If you look at the Viking boot in stone, that’s Stead. It’s this pebbled suede with this wild print-embossed finish, and it looks like a million bucks to me.
Stitchdown: And that’s coming right from the tannery?
Kory: Right from Stead.
Stitchdown: Let’s talk about lasts. I would say that especially compared to a lot of the brands that I cover, you don’t have a ton of information about them on the site. They’re not really obsessed over and talked about the same way.
Kory: That’s right. For me, I do obsess over it. That’s what makes the shoe great. But none of that’s really public-facing because our guys just don’t care. That being said, in our New York store, we’re going to have all the lasts on display. I want to make that more of a story. I spend a lot of time getting these lasts right and making sure I love them, and I want to do a better job educating our people.
Stitchdown: Well, let’s start right now! How many lasts do you have, what products do you use them on, and how would you describe them?
Kory: So we have six lasts. Well, seven with the sneaker last. We have our Lyon last, which is our first last. That’s almost all of our lace-up boots basically. The Jack, the Holt, the Saint, the Troy, the Rome. All of our best sellers.
Stitchdown: Dragon too?
Kory: The Dragon’s a different last, the Kory last actually, haha. I didn’t get too creative with the name. That one’s kinda lame.
So the Lyon is is pretty narrow. That allows for a somewhat high instep. It’s a pretty long, narrow last. Not bulbous in the toe. Bulbous toes drive me insane. To me that’s what makes our Dragon boot quite different than a lot of other brands, the lack of a big bulb in the front.
The Lyon last fits a standard D width, but it’s not going to really fit an E or EE. And people that have a little higher instep, that last is ok for them. But if you have a low instep, with the pattern on that boot, your eyelets may join and meet when you lace them up, because it’s kind of meant for a normal instep or somewhat high instep. Because I have that myself, and a lot of these boots are modeled after my preferences.
Stitchdown: And the the Kory last is a little roomier?
Kory: Yes. I wanted to make sure people could wear really thick socks if they wanted to. One of the things I really try to do with our lasts is, you would wear the same size in all of them. I wanted to kind of remove that sizing risk. So the Dragon has a little bigger toe box. If you notice, I pretty much only work with cap toes. I just love cap toes. And while it doesn’t necessarily affect the last at all, the presence of a cap toe can limit how roomy the toe box is.
Stitchdown: Why is that?
Kory: Because a lot of our shoes are mixed media, wool and leather, or suede and leather. And some materials just wear and stretch a bit differently. Suede breaks in and has a bit more flex, whereas our wool doesn’t really stretch. So when you have a cap toe that’s one material and an upper that’s another material, it can affect the fit a little bit. The Kory last, the Dragon last, we’ve only ever done that in leather to leather The toe box is more roomy, which is where people have an issue with the Lyon last. If they do have an issue, they’re gonna have it right at that cap toe stitching. The Kory last was meant to not have that issue at all.
Stitchdown: And then Vikings is on a completely different last?
Kory: So the Viking and the Outback boots are a different last, the Rocker last. That one has a more rounded toe, and it’s slightly smaller. Some people will wear a 9 in the Lyon or the Dragon, and a 10 in the Rocker, especially since a couple of the Vikings are lined with a really light fur that fills it out. And people size up. So that’s where I kind of messed up on making the sizing uniform.
Stitchdown: Construction sidebar on the Viking. It’s Blake?
Kory: There are a couple Blake Vikings, and a couple Goodyear that just came out a few weeks ago.
Stitchdown: Wait, so how do you get the double-row stitching?
Kory: Well the Vibram commando sole can come with that mock white stitching on top. It’s just a stylistic stitch.
Stitchdown: Ahhhhh. Ok, back to lasts.
Kory: There’s the Bristol last, and that is all of our Chelseas and Jodhpurs. I’m actually wearing it right now, so I’m looking down at my feet and I can tell you exactly what it’s like. It’s narrow and sleek. The toe box to me is pretty roomy. I have a slightly wide foot and it’s totally fine for me. But it doesn’t look roomy. The toe is a touch bulby. It’s a little more bulbous than I would want it to be, to be honest. But there’s the reason I did that. If you look at an Yves Saint Laurent harness boot, that last is so aggressive that most men can’t even wear it. And so I left a little bit of bulb in the toe box, just so it’s more wearable for more people.
Stitchdown: Got it. And then one more that we missed?
Kory: There’s the Royale last, which is all of our dress shoes. Until the cap toe, basically it’s the same as the Leon last. I actually have both lasts in front of me. On the cap toe the Royale is a little narrower. It’s not super aggressive. Some European shoe brands get crazy with the last and you’ll have this super almond toe. This isn’t like that.
Stitchdown: And that’s true of the Jack shoe as well?
Kory: That’s right. All of our shoes are on that last, yes.
Stitchdown: Ok great. I think this will be really helpful for people—I was looking for all that information and just couldn’t find it. Moving on, a lot of your customers are people who haven’t paid $250 or $300 or $350 for boots before. I bet many of them, before they get into Taft, haven’t spent over $100. They’re not shoe construction nerds. How do you convert them into people who believe in quality shoes that cost probably significantly more than they’re used to? Aside from, oh I think this looks cool.
Kory: It’s tough to compete with $60 Nordstrom Rack Cole Haans, to be honest. I love shoes, but even I hadn’t spent this kind of money on a pair when I started the brand. If I’m on top of a roof and you’re climbing up a ladder, and I put my arm down and pull you up to the top of the roof, that’s essentially what we’re doing. How do we bring people up?
And I think that a lot of it is having a willingness to be transparent and make some video in the factory and show people what’s going on. Like why in the world does this cost $250 and not $65 dollars like I’m used to? “Stitched Not Glued” is a caption that I run on some of our ads just to raise awareness and bring it to people’s attention that, look, all shoes are not the same.
I’m not saying that our shoes are the best made shoes in the world, because they’re not. The brands that I look up to, and I love, and I personally appreciate, they make a higher quality shoe than us. I’m not going to pretend like we are atop the hierarchy. We’re not in that discussion. Which is ok.
I want to be. I wish we were. I think that we deserve to be. But I also recognize that the forums and the aficionado groups that I’m a big follower of are not necessarily the people that like Taft. And that’s kind of hard for me. That’s how I kind of gauge success, and I seek approval from those types of audiences and we don’t really get it. But I know that our stuff is crazy and those people wouldn’t feel comfortable in them probably. And that’s ok.
I think it doesn’t matter if these shoes cost $50 or $500, people buy Taft because you can’t find it anywhere else. And quality, people don’t even care about it a lot of the time. They just want the shoe with the chain on it. I want to push construction. I want to push quality and raw materials. There’s a whole story there. But at the end of the day, if you can’t find these anywhere else, there’s only one way to go. And that’s Taft. And I think that’s why a lot of people do come up in price, because there is no $80 option at Nordstrom Rack for a camouflage woven boot.
Stitchdown: So, tangential to what you touched on a minute ago—I know, just from talking to you and from reading other interviews you’ve done, that pretty much every negative comment about Taft manages to stick with you.
Kory: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Stitchdown: But the reality is that there are overwhelmingly positive feelings about your brand. Even for people who don’t particularly feel like the products are for them. How does that happen? It’s impressive.
Kory: I really appreciate that. Taft is extremely hard for me emotionally. I take Taft very, very personally and I feel like my self-worth is almost tied to the performance of the business. And in this world of social media and anonymity, people have the freedom to say things that are really damaging.
I’m putting my heart on the line with every product I make. I’m putting my soul into a design. And I’m putting my money where my mouth is, and not going cheap, when that would be the easy thing to do. So I just take it really personally. And I shouldn’t. It’s something I’m working with. I go to therapy all the time to try and more healthily deal with this. But the reality is, I care deeply about what other people think about this business. And that’s really, really tough.
I read everything on Male Fashion Advice on Style Forum. I read everything on Reddit. I am very aware of how tough people can be. And with our community of footwear aficionados, it’s particularly difficult because not only are they super passionate about shoes, they’re also super smart. And that combination can lead to some really tough criticism that’s usually true. But thankfully, I think Taft has a great reputation, and we avoid some of the really tough criticism. I think that comes from a couple of things.
One would just be our general transparency and human and real aspects of the business. We are honest with who we are. We’re honest to the public about who we are. I’m honest with myself about who we are, and where we live in the footwear landscape. And I think that we don’t try and put on this facade of being anything but that.
I also think we’ve earned a good reputation just by doing the simple things really well. QC is really important to me. And I think that where a lot of brands run into problems is by just getting dumb with QC and not really taking that seriously. Just choose good raw materials, go name brand when you can. And I think that our audience appreciates those things. Because even if even if our product isn’t the level of Viberg, or Vass, or Crockett & Jones or Tricker’s—even though we’re not at that tier of footwear, we can at least have good QC like they do. So we can avoid crazy mistakes like a nail coming through the sole, or the wrong color coming out of the factory. Let’s not go cheap on these pretty elementary things.
Stitchdown: So you raised $5 million about a year ago. You’ve got this homespun, sitting-at-the-kitchen-counter business, and then all of a sudden, that business is doing very well. From what I’ve read, you’re doing very serious eight-figure numbers in sales already. Where does the $5 million you raised get you? What does it allow you to grow? What changes?
Kory: So only about half of that money went into the business. We are not burning money, we are cash-flow positive. And so we kind of have this interesting option of, do we want to hop on the hamster wheel, and go raise more money next year? Or are we content with where we’re at, and the level of growth that we’re achieving, and the rate of our growth?
You’re right—this business went from me in my living room with my wife, to now we are trying to be a nine-figure business four or five years down the road. We’re opening our first store. Earlier this year, I had this realization that we are literally taking pretty pictures of our shoes, putting them on Instagram, and expecting people to drop $300 without ever seeing them, without ever trying them on. And that’s a really huge ask. So I wanted to try a store. And the biggest cluster of our customers is in New York City.
Stitchdown: Taft is all about being different. How do you do retail differently?
Kory: I wanted the store to be really, really different. I don’t know if we’re going to achieve the level of difference with this first one, just because it’s 800 square feet and the budget’s pretty small. But we do have some fun stuff. There’s going to be a wall that’s some of the early pictures, and the people that our shoes are named after. Just that human element of, here we are in our raw, natural, imperfect, unpolished state. And when people buy shoes, we’re going to take a picture of them, and put it up on the wall. We want the Taft family to feel like they’re appreciated. I think that there’s a lot of guys out there that hopefully feel like they’ve had a part in this business.
We have an incredible shoe wall that’s going to be in there—the shoe wall in our office has kind of become a little thing on Instagram. And then it’s how the associates and the manager run the store. How we talk to you is going to be different. There’s going to be no pressure. It’s going to be, come in even if you just want to hang. It doesn’t matter if you have our shoes or not. Please come in and let’s just talk as humans. The try-on area, it’s basically going to look like a very comfortable living room. I want to Taft to look and feel like your best friend owns a shoe company. Come sit down and hang with us.
Stitchdown: Going back to the fundraising. I’m a huge NBA fan, too. So I think Andre Iguodala and Dwyane Wade being investors is cool…but are there unique benefits that they bring? You could have taken anybody’s money. Where else do they get you?
Kory: Having them on the cap table allowed us some press that came probably only because of the fact that they were involved. I think that it gives us connections with the professional athlete community that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We’ve had a lot of success with professional athletes organically—they find us on Instagram and they love the shoes. But I want to lean into that and make them more a part of our story.
So yes, there are things that they bring to the table that we wouldn’t have otherwise. And I think over the coming six months, it’ll be pretty clear. Whether it’s sponsoring a professional sports team, or partnering with an NBA team, or advertising at a stadium. We have this connection that we wouldn’t have otherwise, or would cost us a lot more money than it already does, if they weren’t on our team.
Stitchdown: If you’re willing to indulge me, what’s the whole list of NBA guys who wear Taft shoes?
Kory: There’s a bunch of coaches that wear shoes. But also James Harden, Wade, Iguodala. Some of the Jazz players, Donovan Mitchell, Marc Gasol. I was kind of shocked to see that a bunch of starting NFL quarterbacks have our product. And they just buy them, it’s not like they’re getting them for free, which is so cool. I don’t I don’t necessarily appreciate them any more than I do any other customers. But as a massive sports fan, it’s always really validating to see that happening.
Stitchdown: Back to shoes. Which do you love and wear other than Taft? You talked a lot about what was going on in high school. What about since then?
Kory: I have a pair of Iron Rangers and they just sit in my closet now, but I love them. That’s such a great, tough boot to me, the triple chain stitch is just so beautiful. I love what Viberg does. Shell. Shell anything. I have a pair of shell Aldens. I’m a shell guy, but Taft isn’t necessarily a shell kind of brand. I love Tricker’s. Their brogued wingtip boots are just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I appreciate what all shoe brands do, and a lot of them inspire me, inspire our products.
Stitchdown: So, for the record, despite loving it, is it safe to say you are probably not going to mess around with shell on any production products? Or even testing?
Kory: It is just so beautiful, such an amazing article to make footwear with. I just think our customer would see $250 boots, and then they’d see $450 boots, and they wouldn’t appreciate why they’re so much more expensive. Shell requires a certain level of being informed to really appreciate and understand. And I just don’t think our customer is it.
I have sampled shell before. I have Taft shell boots that I’ve made for myself. I have a lot of special Taft things that I make for myself. They’re basically shell Dragons on a Ridgeway sole. They’re beautiful. But I just don’t think it will be part of the Taft story, at least as the brand is right now. We’re not positioned to sell a $500 pair of boots.
Stitchdown: At $500, I think you’d sell a lot of them…just to different customers. Last one. This is the real hardball question here. The people want to know: when are you going to start doing half-sizes and widths?
Kory: So, a lot of the world operates not on half sizes. Let’s say 75 percent of people can fit in a whole size. At the beginning, it was, we can’t invest in basically doubling our SKU count. That’s a big financial investment. But now it’s something that we’re strongly considering.
I have all the lasts built out in half sizes already. I have a triple E and a double E width built out in all our lasts. So I’m very aware of the issue. I think we’ve done a really great job on extra large sizing. We go up to 15 and Rudy Gobert on the Jazz wears size 21. I would say that early in 2020 we’ll begin rolling out half sizes, starting with probably our best sellers and then slowly working into all of our products being available in half sizes, at least in the bulk of where men fit, between 8 to 11. Very good question. You’ve done your homework man.
Stitchdown: Well, it’s fun homework. Thanks for the time Kory, this was great.
Kory: No man, thank you.