Interview: Kurt Stockbridge and David Raysse from Skechers Performance Division
I admit it, a year ago when I saw Pete Larson AKA Runblogger posting about Skechers and the GOrun shoes, I stated I would never be wearing a pair. I was biased against the brand. I have been discussing running shoes with Pete going on three years now. Pete likes slightly less shoe than I do, but our taste and feel for running shoes is pretty compatible. I always trust Pete’s take on a shoe. Pete had good things to say about Skechers’ running line and I eventually got to try them myself. I had to eat crow as they say. Not only was I wearing Skechers, I liked them. I liked the GObionic so much I ran a marathon in them after having them for a couple weeks. Currently I am putting miles on the GOrun 2, and wore them in an 8k where I finished 1st in AG. My feelings on the brand have come full circle and I believe Skechers Performance Division is offering a very good product.
While doing reviews for Skechers, I had the opportunity to communicate with Kurt Stockbridge, Vice President Performance Division Technical Development. I asked Kurt if I could interview him and Skechers’ VP Design Performance Division, David Raysse to find out how Skechers has been able to bring innovative new products to the running market while other companies are struggling to create a decent running shoe. They graciuosly accepted my request. If we missed a question that you would like to ask, leave a comment on this post and we will see if the guys can provide an answer.
BITR: Tell us a little bit about your career in the shoe industry? How did you get started, and where have you worked?
Kurt: Prior to Skechers I was with Nike for 18 years. I started there in footwear production and knew immediately that I wanted to get my hands on the product. Soon I moved into a materials innovation position which was my ticket into footwear development. Fortunately for me they shipped me off to Indonesia and South Korea for a few years which really helped accelerate my growth and knowledge of how to make performance footwear. Then I returned to headquarters to work as a Senior Product Developer in the performance division for several more years.
David: I began my career at Fila in NYC, as a summer internship. It was a match made in heaven, being allowed to design footwear and actually seeing something you created on a kids (really my peers at the time) feet was beyond rewarding, I knew then that this was going to be my career for life. After designing shoes like the Grant Hill, and Jerry Stackhouse shoes, I wanted a bigger challenge and an opportunity to learn more about genuine performance footwear. Next was Adidas which was like athletic footwear design college. I spent three years there as director of Basketball design, working on projects with all our NBA players at the time. After Adidas I got a chance to work for philippe starck, which was an incredible opportunity. He is arguably the world’s best known industrial designer and he taught me a lot about how to see design from start to finish.
BITR: With Skechers being known for more of a style shoe than performance footwear, were you ever worried that you wouldn’t be able to get your product on runners feet?
David: Kurt and I have enough experience making performance footwear, and enough respect for the athletes we were working with that we never doubted we could make good shoes. We had a unique scenario in that we are part of a very small autonomous unit that has the full backing of our company, from marketing dollars to development money. That said there’s no question that we knew we’d be up against some pretty substantial preconceptions about our brand. There were many times where we needed thick skin, let’s leave it at that. We knew however that hard work, dedication and listening would eventually change perceptions. We kept thinking about how Hyundai had transformed their brands image through product and marketing and felt like we could achieve a similar shift in perception.
BITR: What is the process when you design a new shoe?
David: That depends on the project. If it’s an entirely new genre of product like GOrun 1 was, then we have more nebulous goals. On that shoe we set out to create the best mid-foot strike minimal shoe we could build. Our process is such that we have tons of impromptu meetings daily to discuss a project as it evolves. It created a very dynamic process where we covered everything from the last, to midsole hardness, to upper structure philosophy , etc. As testing began we had some metrics to help us guide the project. That’s where the hard decisions need to be made, do you go this way or that way.
GOrun 2 was far easier to design in that we had a substantial baseline of data from which to start. If you are starting from a good base the only thing to do is try and improve. We set out to create a better Go Run, by losing the mid-foot pressure, optimizing the mid-foot strike promoting geometry, make the shoe more flexible in the forefoot yet more stable in the mid foot. We worked on a roomier last since we were finishing up Bionic when we started GOrun 2 and people were raving about the roomier last. We developed a better stretch material for the vamp area, I could go on for ten pages. Every single component of the shoe was analyzed and improved.
BITR: Which of the shoes you have designed is your favorite?
David: I’d say GObionic, it’s by far the most innovative shoe we’ve built at Skechers and was the most challenging and ultimately rewarding. I remember redesigning the upper 4 times before it even went out to our factories because they kept worrying about what machinery could build the moccasin like upper construction. We had three mold shops (the factories that build the sole of the shoe) refuse to even attempt the ligaments like sole technology we were trying to engineer. It was also the shoe that really told the running community and the rest of the world that we are deadly serious about what were doing and trying to innovate not just be a player.
BITR: What are some of the major changes you have seen during you career in terms of how shoes are designed and built?
David: From a design standpoint, the process is almost unrecognizable. When I started we were hand drawing with markers and pens, faxing our specifications to Asia. I can’t tell you how many times a project came back wrong because something got garbled in the fax machine! Computers have made things possible that I could only dream about before. The ability to create multiple versions of something very quickly enables you to vet more ideas before committing to something. Creating the blueprints (they’re no longer blue)! Is so much faster and more accurate now. We can preview our designs in a few days in full 3D on our computers. The file can be opened in Adobe reader and you can move the object around as if you are touching it! The soles of our shoes used to only be visible when they were finished being molded, sometimes 40 days from the time you sent off the design. I can recall taping a picture of the mechanical drawing for the sole onto an existing shoe just to get a sense of what I had designed. Now we print full scale 3D models downstairs within a few hours on a giant machine that resembles and works like an ink-jet printer but it prints topographical lines of an object until you have a finished product.
Those are just some of the design tools that have changed, the manufacturing of shoes has changed a great deal too, it allows for lighter stronger better shoes. Switching from stitching of thick materials to welding ultra thin materials together to create strength only where you need it is such a boon to athletes. Now we are knitting whole shoes together so there are no seams and no extra components. We have developed new materials like Resagrip that blur the line between foam and rubber allowing you to do the job of both with this amazing technology.
What’s most amazing is I feel like the rate of innovation is accelerating exponentially, who knows what we’ll be building in five to ten years?
Kurt: The process hasn’t changed too dramatically over the years. Sure we now have better tools and software to help us make design iterations much more quickly and at lower cost, but the shoes are more or less built and tested the same way they’ve always been. That is, we still make the samples, test them, pour the feedback into improving the next test round… and repeat this process several times until our runners tell us that the shoes perform to their high expectations. This the most important part of building a good shoe, and it will never change.
BITR: What inspires your designs?
David: It sounds cliche but everything inspires me. I never stop designing, I’m always solving problems subconsciously. I can say that my design philosophy is to create the best most elegant solution to a problem. I love the German word “Gestalt” which means; a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts. Its perfect harmony and balance in a design. Its why we created the bionic moccasin construction, we simplified and removed unnecessary components. Its why we created resagrip, we took a part of the shoe that has always been two or more components and can now do it with one. How can the shoes we design help our athletes not impede them, that’s what inspires me.
BITR: How do you go about designing a shoe for an elite runner like Meb Keflezghi?
Kurt: Making a shoe for one person is actually much easier than one aimed at a hundred thousand. The key is simply listening to the needs of the athlete… in this case, Meb. When we first met Meb, David and I bombarded him with questions. We wanted to learn everything… from his training routine to his fit and performance preferences, training versus racing, midsole hardness, laces, stiffness, linings, collar foam, you name it. Regarding his racing flat, his insight was pretty pure. He wanted a shoe with absolutely no sloppiness or inaccuracy whatsoever. Meb needs a shoe that goes where he points it…. as if it were painted on. With every race Meb runs we learn something more about his shoe as it relates to his needs… then tweak accordingly. It’s a lot fun for David and I to pursue the perfect shoe for Meb. We’re close right now, but there is always fine tuning to be done to make it even better.
BITR: What is the secret to your success when it comes to putting a running shoe together that serious runners are praising?
Kurt: The first thing you have to do is put your personal biases aside… and listen directly to running consumers. The truth is, we can’t make good running shoes without their input. Sure, we have a very talented team with years of experience in how to make running shoes, but making shoes that perform to the precise needs of runners is different. Listening is critical… and something you have to commit to. The other key is persistence. We can make a first round sample that will get us 75% there… but it typically takes several more test rounds to get to 100%. The last 5% is the most challenging… but this persistence is what will separate your shoe from one from another brand regarding performance. We like to think that we report directly to the runners who work with us. As with any boss, it means a lot to us when they say, “great job…I really like this shoe.” We rarely hear that in early development… but we had better hear it in the end, or we haven’t done our jobs. Lastly, we have a leadership team that gives us complete autonomy to make our own decisions… based on what runners are telling us. It all starts with product. If you get that right, you won’t have to listen to anybody else.
BITR: Skechers are relatively new to the running shoe scene. Why do you think your team has been able to create a successful line of running shoes when companies like Under Armour and Reebok are struggling to come out with one decent running shoe after years of being in the market?
Kurt: I think a lot of our success comes from not being constrained. We’re here to answer to runners first… not managers inside the building. Our leadership team recognizes this and lets us do our thing. We talk to runners and very influential people in the industry every day… take what they say and harness it into our running shoes. It’s not that difficult to make a great product if we don’t have an arm tied behind our backs.
BITR: Do you run?
Kurt: Absolutely! I have been running recreationally for 22 years now and it’s a very important part of my life. I often use my runs to test and compare products, test ideas, and think of ways to make a shoe even better. Some of my best ideas have come to me while running.
David: Absolutely, I’ve been running ever since I started taking basketball seriously, its remained a core part of my life. I agree with Kurt 100% if we didn’t run it would be hard to guage some of the feedback we get from athletes. Having a shared experience and some first hand sense of what guys are relaying allows us to interpret whats being said far more effectively.