Beyond Nike and Adidas: Shoes Are Big Business in Portland
here’s nothing like a global pandemic to usher in an era of if-not-now-then-when energy. So it’s unsurprising that Portland, long the center of the global footwear universe, is now in the midst of perhaps its busiest footwear start-up scene in years, with at least half a dozen new companies vying for a toehold in this notoriously hard-to-crack industry.
They are aided by an ever-growing array of ancillary enterprises, venture capitalists to supply chain consultants, freelance designers to academic incubators. And new companies are still coming: At press time, Italy-based Fila had just leased space in Northwest Portland.
It’s a risky business, says Kate Delhagen, founder of Oregon Sports Angels, a VC firm that invests in sports-related consumer products and tech. “A lot of little players underestimate how difficult it is to make shoes, scale the business, and do it profitably,” she says.
That clearly doesn’t stop people from trying, she adds: “I met with a guy yesterday. He’s noodling on an idea to do 3-D-printed shoes. He’s in a building-a-deck-and-a-prototype phase. But he’s a former Nike guy, he’s got an idea. He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna try this.’”
Nike Market value: $150 billion.* About 14,000 employees in Oregon and Southwest Washington, about 79,000 worldwide. The world’s most valuable apparel brand, Nike celebrated its 50th anniversary by opening a glitzy new building named in honor of Serena Williams at HQ.
Adidas Market value: $23 billion. About 1,750 employees in Oregon, its US headquarters, and about 62,000 worldwide. Has partnered with the hautest of couture houses, including Balenciaga, Gucci, and Prada.
On Market value: $5.23 billion. Switzerland-based brand known for eco-friendly running shoes. Recently launched a collection with Loewe, a luxe Spanish design house; 222 employees in Portland so far.
Columbia Market value: $4.1 billion. About 2,000 employees in Oregon; 8,300 worldwide. Homegrown Columbia has collabed with big-name brands from Disney to Opening Ceremony.
Under Armour Market value: $3.16 billion. Based in Baltimore, but with about 150 employees in Oregon, who work out of the company’s Southwest Portland headquarters inside a former YMCA.
Lululemon Market value: $37.3 billion. Based in Canada, expanded here in 2022, now launching its first shoe, Blissfeel, a women’s cross-trainer. At press time, hiring footwear designers to work in Northwest Portland.
Allbirds Market value: $460 million. Silicon Valley’s favorite leisure shoe. Opened a creative office in Oregon in August with about 22 employees, and has poached talent from Nike and Adidas.
Keen Privately held. Several hundred employees in Oregon, including at its Pearl District HQ. Has cornered the market on toddler sandals.
Mise High-performance shoes, but make them for chefs. The former Adidas employee at the heart of this start-up, which shipped its first preorders in summer 2022, says its “athletes” are the line cooks who are on their feet for shift after shift in restaurants. The clever design includes a removable insole, and the leather outer layer is easy to clean.
Saysh When Nike tried to cut star runner Allyson Felix’s compensation after she got pregnant, she told the company to stick it where the sun don’t shine and promptly started her own shoe line. It’s based in Southern California, but designed and developed in Portland, by a team with previous connections to both Nike and Adidas.
Velous Founded in 2021 by a group of Portlanders with ties to Nike, Columbia, and Adidas. Its founders see room in the market for performance “recovery sandals”—slides that athletes can put on after a grueling race. The idea is a cushiony fit for feet that have been through it.
Jackwest A flip-flop/slide-focused company, founded in 2020 and PDX-based, this one aimed at the burgeoning athleisure category. Its founders have done stints at Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and Columbia.
Vimazi A Portland-Seattle hybrid whose founder has past ties to Columbia Sportwear. The young company’s pitch: personalized running shoes that are “pace-tuned” to how fast you run—one model for a super speedy five-minute miler, another for a slow-and-steady type who clocks in at twice that long. Its first line is due to come to market in early 2023.
Bala Founded in 2019 by two former Nike-ites, BALA’s niche is shoes for nurses, who are on their feet for long shifts, up to 12 hours a day. Its shoes have a fluid-resistant outer layer (because all manner of bodily fluids are apt to splash onto a nurse’s feet during daily rounds), an inner bootie for comfort, and a flexible sneaker sole for the inevitable sprints down a hallway when a patient is in need.
Holo A sustainable, fashion-forward footwear brand, led by a Latino founder with ties to Columbia and Keen, seems like it should fit squarely in the narrative Portland likes to tell about itself. But its founder has left for Michigan, saying he found more support from VCs there and that lacking a Nike background was a big liability to overcome in Portland.
*Planets are sized according to the approximate number of employees in the Portland market. **This and other market valuations on this page were accurate at press time, but the market is in constant flux.