DeFeet touts sustainability and domestic manufacturing as it looks to increase IBD reach

A version of this article ran in the December issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

HILDEBRAN, N.C. (BRAIN) — DeFeet founder Shane Cooper fondly remembers when the brand’s socks were “the currency of the trade shows” in the 1990s as industry types would trade them among themselves.

It was back in the days when DeFeet was a unique custom cycling sock manufacturer and before China entered into the production scene with lower prices. Cooper’s determination to manufacture domestically was uncomprehensible to some industry professionals. However, Cooper’s vision was to create microsockery that would be true to his core principles: sustainability and performance.

DeFeet’s 30th anniversary celebration in November saw it remain the same. The company’s poly, nylon and Lycra all come from within 80 miles of its headquarters. DeFeet also makes use of Repreve, a repurposed performance fiber. Cooper told BRAIN in October that DeFeet will soon announce that it has received Responsible Wool Standard certification. This voluntary designation addresses the welfare and land use of sheep. DeFeet’s wool comes from Shaniko Farms, Oregon.

“The wool is then sent to South Carolina for washing, then it travels to Valdese (North Carolina) to be dyed. It then returns to South Carolina to become yarn before being spun to DeFeet. RWS certification will cover the entire wool supply chain from the ranch to the end consumer. This certification is a first in the industry.

DeFeet purchased wool from New Zealand fifteen years ago and sent it to China for washing, dyeing, and to Canada to be spun.

DeFeet continues to set the industry standard in sustainability. However, DeFeet is also determined to create a performance sock. DeFeet offers small-batch custom options that are branded with customers’ logos.

Cooper spoke from his office about an hour east to Asheville, saying that what we liked about domestic manufacturing was the control we had, the small production and the ability to reinvent the cycling socks.

The birth of Aireator

Cooper explained that DeFeet was the one who created the Aireator. He switched the nylon to the exterior for strength and durability, while keeping the CoolMax soft fibres against his foot. The inside was soft and allowed for the foot’s sweat to escape. We also designed the Aireator mesh weave, which allows the vapor to escape. It was similar to a cycling shoe. These little vents let vapor escape from your feet, so you would feel your foot sweat. This was our secret recipe, and everyone loved it.

DeFeet manufactures nearly all of its products at its 50,000-square foot factory. This includes shoe covers, base layers and arm and knee warmers. DeFeet’s greatest asset is its sock. Johan Museeuw from Belgium won the 1996 Road World Championship wearing DeFeet socks.
Cooper said, “We were there with Team Quickstep and we were at the Tour de France.” “So many events were happening at the pinnacle. Our products were tested by athletes. All of a sudden, yarn companies fell in love with us. We were small and agile and could test their yarns on athletes. It was an amazing thing to have our manufacturing in the United States and be instantly respected.

Cooper indicated that DeFeet also has relationships beyond cycling, including golf, motorcycle, and equestrian. They are fit and want socks that perform.”

QBP and HLC are DeFeet distributors, and the brand manufactures socks for approximately 50 private-label businesses. However, the portal also offers direct access to dealers with no minimums. Cooper is working to spread the word about its 300 strong direct IBD network. Custom orders for events or small teams account for half of Cooper’s business.

It’s more than a custom sock. It’s a custom made sock using our technology. I believe IBDs will be able to get it. Our footprint is as small and compact as possible. It’s also responsible. It’s responsible. If I work in a bike shop, and I place socks near the shoes, and tell people to either try new socks or to leave socks at the counter to get new shoes, I know I will turn those socks around big time. That product will make me a 50%-60% profit.

Like a lot of the industry, DeFeet has had to raise prices — 20% last year — partly in response to supplier costs increasing and raising pay during the pandemic to retain its workforce, which numbers 35, Cooper said. Cooper said that the brand’s production was slowed recently due to lower third-quarter demand. DeFeet’s consumer website, which accounted for about 25% of direct-to–consumer sales, was a “savior”, he said.

“We need to survive and prosper, and with the consolidation happening left and right, it’d be nice to see an independent guy stand up. We are small businesses just like they are.

DeFeet sales increased by 12% during the pandemic and dropped by 2% in 2021. DeFeet, which outfits its cross-country and cyclocross teams, announced that it had entered into a multi-year partnership agreement with Trek Factory Racing.

Cooper laughed and stated, “The best thing about a cycling socks is that even in the worst times you can buy some handlebar tape and a pair of socks and you can ride.”

A new machine can also transform a brand. Cooper bought a direct to-garment printer in 2019. This allows for greater customization and detail than knitting. DeFeet could create PrintMySock, which allowed customers to design their own pair of DeFeet sock.

Cooper stated, “The knitting technology in itself is amazing, but the printing technology is time-consuming.”

Performance chasing

DeFeet is not just about sustainability and technology. Cooper continues to chase the carrot of proven performance. DeFeet thought it was over sponsoring the Tour de France and World Cup teams when a different company took over its 20-plus year Quickstep partnership. Lotto-Soudal called back 2020 to inform him that it had successfully tested the DeFeet aireator sock inside a London wind tunnel, and was interested in working with the brand.

DeFeet had previously been able to show in its own wind-tunnel test with Quickstep, that its sock saves 8 watts. That’s 4 watts more then the popular cut and sewn socks in England.

Cooper explained that “Suddenly, there were 12 watts saved by a Dutch company using their socks.” I called BS on their claim, as they used a mannequin in the wind tunnel test. They didn’t use yaw. (Yaw, the vertical Z-axis, positions the rider against wind blowing. We used a real rider, and we got 8 watts. So, we are now going back to the wind tunnel. Based on what we learned in 2018 as well as what we have learned with Lotto-Soudal since then, we are working again to make the world’s fastest socks. We hope to achieve that at the Tour de France in 2019.

Cooper smiles when he thinks back to the past 30 year and says he is satisfied with DeFeet achievements. These include sustainability, performance enhancements and even survival of a 2001 fire which destroyed DeFeet’s building.

Cooper stated, “Fortunately my wife Hope is a financial wizard.” “Don’t give me money — I can make it, but she knows how to save it — and luckily 30 years later, we’re still in business.”