A New Generation of Footwear Start-Ups Takes their Shot in Portland

Many have founders with roots at Nike, Adidas, and Columbia—like Velous, which is making recovery sandals.

By Julia Silverman May 26, 2022

Velous, the latest Portland footwear start-up from industry veterans, is hoping to carve out a niche for recovery shoes, starting with slides/sandals.

You may know them as “slides” or (if you’re in Hawaii, slippahs) or Umbros, if you’re from a certain, extra-preppy slice of New England.  

But the team at Velous Footwear—the latest in a series of Portland-based sports and outdoor gear start-ups seeded by founders who have deep roots in the area’s triumvirate of giants, Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear—prefer the term “recovery sandals.” 

The idea is that after an athlete finishes a marathon or a casual jog, they can slip on a pair of Velous sandals, which are priced between $64.95 and $69.95, depending on the model, and find supportive cushioning for strained muscles, a notch or five above the traditional flat, foam-based flip-flop. 

“We really saw some opportunities with the recovery category to come up with a better solution,” says co-founder and CEO Tim Bartels, a former vice-president of global footwear sales at Columbia, who has also worked at Nike, KEEN, DC Shoes, and Saxx Underwear Co. “It is fairly niche. We are going after the athlete when they are done with their activity. We are building something that will help them recover, go out, and do their sport again tomorrow.” 

“Niche” is the  key word, and shows up over and over in examples of Portland footwear start-ups that are trying to carve out a space in a crowded market.  

There’s BALA, which has focused on shoes for nurses and other health care professionals who are on their feet for hours each day. There’s Mise, which makes haute clogs for chefs, sous chefs, prep cooks, and anyone who’s ever worked in a kitchen. There’s HILOS, whose fashion-forward 3-D printed shoes recently won them a Best in Show event at the South by Southwest Pitch Festival in Austin this past spring.  

 There’s On, the Swiss-born brand of high-performance running shoes that moved its North American headquarters to Portland, and Holo Footwear, launched in 2020 and now selling their sustainable trail shoes everywhere from REI to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Norstrom’s, led by former executives from Columbia, KEEN and Merrell. 

Velous’s closest local competitors might be some of their former colleagues at startup Jack West, who make what they’ve termed “athleisure” flip-flops and slides design to appeal to trend-setting consumers in Asia, the US, and beyond. 

It’s not just parochial hyperbole or hometown pride to call out this growth, says Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, the co-founder and executive director of the Sports Product Management Program at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. 

“If the question is, could you start a new brand in footwear in Portland, Oregon, the answer is yes. There’d be no place else in the world that you’d want to do that,” says Schmidt-Devlin, who is herself a Nike alum. 

That’s not the same as a guarantee that every new brand will break through and be the next Nike, Schmidt-Devlin adds. It’s only in the last decade or so that Portland’s start-up infrastructure has evolved to support these fledgling companies, with efforts like the Oregon Sports Angels venture capitalist firm and well-staffed consultancies like Zefyr, which has positioned itself as go-between with brands, factories and the marketplace. It remains to be seen whether there’s a “new Nike” amid the current crop of hopefuls, she says. 

Velous is hoping, of course, to fill that slot. For now, though, the company has three flagship styles, two slip-on-slip off models and one more traditional flip-flop shape. What’s different is the design and materials, says Damon Butler, another co-founder and the company’s vice-president for design and creative. In a past professional life, Butler worked for Adidas and Teva; for design inspiration for the Velous sandal, he says he looked everywhere from that classic of midcentury modern design, the Eames chair, to the flexibility of an accordion, which can flex and bend in all directions. 

“An Eames chair has a molded plywood frame with a soft leather foam that you sit in. So it’s super-squishy and comfortable, but with a rigid outer shell,” Butler says. Velous are designed along those lines, with a rigid frame along the sides and a more cushioning, soft foam interior, designed to keep the wearer’s foot stable and centered, even when tired muscles are more prone to a rolled ankle post-workout. 

“If you look at a lot of flip-flops, they're just kind of like flat pieces of foam,” Butler says. “You stand on it, there's nothing much there. But if you look at ours, there's no straight lines on the whole thing. It's all scooped and curved and, and it marries beautifully with a person's foot.” 

Like many other footwear start-ups, particularly those that have taken root during the pandemic, Velous is still online direct-to-consumer only, though the founders say they are expanding distribution globally, and will be at outdoor retailer expos this year. Ultimately,  their goal is to expand into other styles—imagine a recovery shoe for aprés-ski, for example.  

But the flagship sandal is the entry point, which arrives at a moment when the “recovery” category is taking up more and more space in stores—think of the stacks of foam rollers and massage balls on sale at REI and other retailers now, says co-founder and vice president of product creation, Brad Bischel, as opposed to a decade or so ago when a few post-run stretches were thought to be all you’d need to get up and do it again the next day. 

Right moment or not, a footwear start-up, even in a connected market like Portland, isn’t cheap, says Schmidt-Devlin, particularly given factory order minimums and skyrocketing shipping costs. Given long lead times, it can be years before founders see any profits, she says. But starting by carving out a particular niche—as Velous and others have done—is a good strategy, she adds. 

“If you were sitting at Nike, and you asked them, ‘How can I compete against you?’, they would tell you, ‘If you build something that can move very, very fast, you could beat us in a particular area,’” Schmidt-Devlin says. “Because, you know, the big companies are like big aircraft carriers. They're very, very hard to turn and consumers are changing very quickly. And also, Nike, or any of these other companies, if they're going to approach [a new market], it has to be a certain size. And so going after a niche is a great way to get into the industry.” 

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