Sole Man: The Story Behind Hoka Shoes

Hoka was purchased on April 1 by Deckers Outdoor, the parent company for UGG, Teva and other footwear brands.

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Hoka was purchased on April 1 by Deckers Outdoor, the parent company for UGG, Teva and other footwear brands.

Three years ago, a gregarious Frenchman named Nicolas Mermoud called me to tell me to meet him at a Boulder trailhead because he had some new shoes he wanted me to test out. He said they were nothing like anything I’d ever worn.

I’ve tested a lot of shoes in the past 15 years and have seen several new brands spring from radical ideas in footwear design. Having known Nico for a few years (he’s a top-tier mountain runner and formerly worked at Salomon), I figured there might be some hyperbole in his proclamation, but I knew whatever he had was definitely something I should see.

Nico was right. I had never seen — or imagined — anything remotely close to the Hoka One One Mafate trail shoes he pulled out of the trunk of his rental car. They were absolutely huge! With an oversized midsole cushion and widebody design, they were almost cartoonish in appearance. But they were so light — lighter than many traditionally designed training shoes on any store’s shoe wall at the time.

Nico gave me the quick run-down: more cushioning, wide, stable platform, super-light materials and a rockered profile all contribute to what he said (and what his lap-top slow-motion lab videos apparently showed) would lead to better running form, less impact stress and the smoothest ride I’d ever experienced. “It’s like flying, Brian,” Nico told me.

Cut to the chase: we went for a short trail run, and — Wow! — they felt like nothing I’d ever run in before. Yes, it took a few runs to get used to the super-soft, bouncy and very resilient sensation under my feet, but the Mafetes were shoes I wanted to run in again and again.

(The point of this blog definitely isn’t to endorse Hokas; Everyone has their own likes and dislikes about shoes, not to mention plenty of individual foot characteristics that need to be addressed when choosing shoes. I typically run in dozens of different shoes every month and am loyal to my quiver of shoes, not a particular brand. For example, in the past two weeks I’ve run in the Brooks Pure Connect 2, Skechers GOrun 2, Scott T2 Evolution, adidas Energy Boost, Saucony Virrata, New Balance 890v3, Saucony Kinvara 4, Newton Gravity Trainer, Altra Superior Trail, Pearl Izumi N1 and the Hoka One One Bondi Speed.)

At the time of Hoka’s launch, uber-minimalist running shoes were just making headway in the mainstream and at running stores, but here was Hoka going in the opposite direction of “maximalism.” It was a cool and totally different concept that seemed to make sense, but could it sell?

Hoka One One (pronounced “O-nay, O-nay”) was started on a wild idea by Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, who also formerly worked for Salomon as the head of its now-defunct design center in Boulder and later as its CEO. Originally, the intent was to make modern trail running shoes for the rugged mountain races in the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites. The widebody design concept was somewhat based on the oversized technology that had been successfully used in powder skis, mountain bike tires and tennis rackets. A bigger sweet spot, Mermoud suggested, would apply similarly in running.

Early on, they considered making a downhill-only, slip-on overshoe of sorts, one that could be carried in a pack on uphill sections and attached for long, rugged downhills. But once they developed such a lightweight working prototype, they knew they weren’t making a technical accessory but a real running shoe. They used similar design ethos and technology to develop road running shoes and, after spreading the word at hundreds of retail shops and races around the world for the past three years, you can now find Hokas in races from 5K to 100 miles across the U.S. and at numerous local running shops. (They also gained visibility and credibility by sponsoring two of the country’s top trail runners in Dave Mackey and Karl Meltzer.)

What’s the point of this blog? It was announced on April 1 that Deckers Outdoor Corporation (which also owns the Teva and UGG Australia footwear brands, among others) has purchased Hoka outright. (It had originally invested in the brand last summer.) That’s no April Fool’s joke, but a sign that Deckers CEO Angel Martinez believes in the concept as much as Mermoud and Diard did from the start. (Hoka’s oversized cushioning concept has already appeared in a few UGG shoes.)

What does that mean for Hoka? It means they’ve got a good chance at surviving in the tumultuous and ever-expanding running shoe industry. With more than 40 brands of shoes out there, it’s hard for a small start-up to make it on its own. Among the newer running brands to the market in the last dozen years, the ones that have made the most headway — i.e., Newton Running, Pearl Izumi, K-Swiss, Altra Running — are generally those that have received a major influx of capital or been purchased by bigger parent company.

Perhaps the best thing that Hoka brought to the table was a divergent school of thought that countered the barefoot/minimalist trend. There has been plenty learned from both the minimalist and maximalist concepts and it will ultimately help all shoe brands keep pushing the envelope to develop better shoes. I’m actually surprised that other brands (aside from Tecnica) haven’t tried to copy Hoka, although the adidas Energy Boost and Saucony Virrata are two examples of other new shoes pushing the boundaries with lightweight and/or unique foam configurations in different ways.