Prof. Adam Shoemaker with Vince Lebon

Episode 36: Prof. Adam Shoemaker with Vince Lebon

Vince Lebon sees peoples' feet first and then their face. This is to be expected as the Founder, CEO and Designer of Rollie Nation—one of the world’s most interesting and successful shoe design enterprises.

Show notes

Vince Lebon sees peoples' feet first and then their face. This is to be expected as the Founder, CEO and Designer of Rollie Nation—one of the world’s most interesting and successful shoe design enterprises.

Today, Vince speaks to studying multimedia design at VU, his “cool-comfort” approach to footwear design and making calm decisions in business and life.

I was delighted to speak with Vince about our shared love of trainers and welcome him as VU's 2024 Executive in Residence.

Episode Transcript

Speaker 0 00:00:00 Hello and welcome. I'm here to provide acknowledgement of country. For those who don't know me, I'm kj Karen Jackson, director of Moon Dani Balletic. My genealogy tracks back to Moira Lakes in Barma Forest and Mount Hope in Pyramid Hill. Giving me my connections to Yorta, Yorta, and Barra language groups. There's a couple of things I'd like you to take away from my acknowledgement. The first is to remember the hidden history of Aboriginal people since invasion, our loss of language removal from country, and our new extinction from massacres and pandemics. The second is our strong and inherent connection to community and country. These connections have given us the resilience and courage to rebuild our languages, gain access to country, regenerate our cultural practices in acknowledging the traditional owners of the country on which you are now on. I'd like to sincerely thank them for their generosity and kindness in welcoming people onto their lands. Lands never seeded and lands that run deep into their being and spirit. I wish to pay my deep respect to the ancestors, elders, communities, and families of the rung wri on whose land I stand and who create connection and share knowledge with all of us. Thank you.

Speaker 2 00:01:19 Hello, colleagues. My name is Adam Shoemaker and I'm really, really delighted to be vice chancellor of Victoria University. I'm also the host of this podcast, people of Vu, where we delve into what I think are the fascinating stories and achievements of the exceptional individuals who make up the vibrant community of vu. And before we start, thank you KJ for the acknowledgement of country that we just heard. I wanted to echo and acknowledge and pay my deep respects, not just to ancestors and elders and families, but all the traditional owners on all of our campuses. And extend that to whoever you may be listening to this podcast. Thank you. And today it's a super pleasure 'cause we're talking to the founder, the CEO, and the designer of Rolly Nation shoes. And this year's Victoria University executive in residence. And his name is Vince Sson. Vince, it's great to have you with us.

Speaker 2 00:02:13 Thank you so much for having me. So honored. That's just super. And Vince going back to 2004, which is not that long ago in my world, but you know, it's, it's 20 years and your impressive portfolio includes so many things. But you actually did study with VU in something, which has quite a long name. I'll read it for people. It's the Advanced Diploma of Arts in Electronic Design and Interactive Media. What a fabulous bringing together of skills. Do you wanna just tell us a little bit about why that particular thing interested you at the time that it did? I think, yeah, back then there was this incredible movement of the internet and graph design and it was just like, it was a collection of all these cool arts all coming to one course. And I was absolutely fascinated by that. I loved web design, I loved the idea of animation graph design video that was all captured in one course.

Speaker 2 00:03:06 Pretty sure it was the first year they had done it. So it just, you just really got immersed into all multidisciplinary sort of design areas and just the right moment to do it as well, it seems. So when you think of it now you're an executive in residence. Looking back on that moment, can we just go a bit further back in time and talk about, you know, school and where you grew up and how it led to even applying for that course. Like, just tell us a bit about you. Yeah, so I was born in Mauritius, moved to Australia when I was very young, about six months old. Grew up in the western suburbs, so St. Albans Taylors Lakes area, you know what would be considered a sort of underprivileged area. And just sort of watched my way through and found myself working on doing all the art subjects at school.

Speaker 2 00:03:50 Really fascinated by Photoshop and video design in particular. And I was doing some art classes outside of school, working on my portfolio. And yeah, just really got an opportunity to, to be seen by a vu to one of the courses there. I had tried to get into another course at the time, to be very honest, and didn't get in, but was given the opportunity to, to see someone. And they looked at my portfolio absolutely was really impressed by that portfolio. Which was, which was unreal. I wasn't actually qualified to, to do that course. So it was a post-grad. I came shown outta high school and applied for the course and he said, oh, you know, why have you kept this section blank? Which was, I had to have done two industry experience and a degree. Mm. And he said, this is not the right course for you.

Speaker 2 00:04:43 But I said, look, if you don't mind, this is where I see myself going. Would you, would you mind having a look at my portfolio? Gimme some tips. And he had a look at it and said, love it. We'll see you on Monday. So it was incredible. These are famous words. Love it. We'll see you on Monday. Yeah. This was, was it on a Friday or was it the end of the week? Yeah, absolutely. It was a Friday. It was what a weekend you must have had. Oh, it was incredible. Do you remember what you did when you went home? Oh, I just, I, I called my art teacher and told they were absolutely over the moon. I told my parents, it was just a surreal moment, to be really honest with you. And, and that's why I've come back as a executive resident. 'cause I feel so indebted to what this university, the opportunity that it gave me, particularly at a time in my life when I thought I was gonna get into the top design schools and all of a sudden I felt like I had no, no options to then come in and go straight into a post grad course and be given an opportunity based on talent alone was mind blowing.

Speaker 2 00:05:40 It really opened my eyes up to what, I guess the, the beauty in humanity and what the world could offer. It's such an reinforcing story. We, we like to think that talent is always there, but it doesn't always get seen, you know, even though it's there and if you can just ignite it, you know, know, set it a light at the right time and place. That is just so exciting. And what you described is that various thing, you just seem to do that in your day job as well. Yeah, I mean, I think because I, I, the, the upbringing that I had, I just didn't have the resources available to me. So I try to just really work on my own craft. I'm very curious. I'm always learning, always doing courses to my own detriment to be honest. But, you know, I just, I love it.

Speaker 2 00:06:22 I have a thirst for knowledge and, and I wanna also share my story so that I can start to inspire some, some other kids from the western suburbs, you know, to, to be able to go, Hey, if you wanna design for celebrities or travel around the world and do some of the things that I've done, it's totally possible. It's so interesting. And if you look at it, just to put some numbers on the table, we've got about 45,000 students. It was a bit smaller at the time when you were here. And about maybe a third of those students are in the TAFE division, the rest in higher ed. But we also have students from all over the world, 160 countries. Wow. And all over Australia and some of them online. So when we come to the graduations, you know, many people have studied online and the first time they physically come to the site is when they're crossing the stage.

Speaker 2 00:07:03 Wow. So it's, the world has really changed, you know. But I understand when you studied was quite personal and on campus, wasn't it? Absolutely. A really tight knit group. Yeah, a hundred percent. I went to the actual St. Albans campus, which at the time in my head I was like, oh, cool, I'm going to Swinburn, I'm going to the city, it's gonna be cool. And then all of a sudden I found myself going 15 minutes from home. And, you know, it was a humbling situation. But to be honest, once I was on campus, it was such a vibe. Like it was, it was so cool. I spent two years, you know, in just learning about stuff that was absolutely brand new. Like coding for web 20 years ago was an incredible experience. It was completely brand new. We had to, we literally coded every single line word by word, letter by letter.

Speaker 2 00:07:43 Wow. And yeah, it's just, I'm forever grateful for that and for the opportunity and experience. Well we, we see this even today, like St. Alban's is a beautiful campus. And in fact we recently have in instigated having a lot of very important NGOs on that campus. So things like Melbourne City Mission has a building. Yeah. Lifeline has a whole building and in fact autism spectrum too. So all these are things where our students are studying, let's say psychology or mental health nursing. They get actual placements and the public uses it and it's all at St. Alban's. It's very interesting. Yeah. Still is that role. Wow. That's incredible. Yeah, I just came back from the tech score that you guys have in the west. And man, the resources that you have there is just absolutely mind blowing. Like it's just, I got to test drive the spot Boston Dynamic Robot the other day.

Speaker 2 00:08:28 I'm still a bit on a bit of a high from that, from seeing it on YouTube and all those crazy videos to actually doing it myself. Yeah. It's really impressive where the, the universities come and, and where it is at. And there's another, I think the Pepper, which is the other robot, is the one which is welcoming people when we were doing, you know, COVID vaccines Yeah. And Pep was welcoming people to the queue. Absolutely. So, you know, you have this personal and and dynamic, so I, I know that a lot of what you do is, is computer enhanced And in fact, do you start though with an idea just in your head and then draw it like ever by long hand? Or do you go go straight to a computer? I start my process differently almost every time. Sometimes it'll be starting a sketch on a napkin and then actually converting it through AI to come up with an, an actual sketch.

Speaker 2 00:09:12 Sometimes I'll start an illustrator. Sometimes I'll start with 3D or sometimes with a physical last, which is the technical, you know, base on the shoe. So I've actually started a shoe in Excel also, which was a biodegradable Yeah. Eco shoe that I did. So for me it's, it's not about the same process, it's about following what feels right and working towards an outcome. The way you describe it sounds a lot like people who are composers describe music inspiration or artists sometimes when they're starting a painting. Is it happen to you just any time, any place at sometimes you just get an idea, you might be somewhere else and it just pops into your head. Oh, absolutely. I always talk about like, stop focusing on the outcome and focus on the environment. Yep. So that's why people, you know, come up with the best ideas in the shower.

Speaker 2 00:10:00 Mm. Or in ice bath or it's like, you know, if you create the right environment, the answers will come to you. So yeah, I'm sketching all over place. Hence why I don't put any pressure on having to feel like my process only starts when I have a blank piece of paper in front of me or a computer. If it's a napkin, if it's, it could literally be anything. Even when I walk around and I'll meet someone, I see people's feet before I see their face. Really Interesting. You're looking down and just seeing the sheep. Yeah. Or yeah. Oh, just everything I like. It's just where I start and I work my way up. Luckily my wife understands that that's not me checking anybody out, it's just the way I, you know, it's like feet first and then work your way out through. So yeah, it makes sense.

Speaker 2 00:10:37 Right. There's a lot, a lot in it. Now if you go back in time and just think about some of the, the major companies, and by the way, for those who haven't yet worn your first pair of Rolling Nation shoes, we're talking about the most comfortable air light shoes you could imagine. You know, this is what everyone describes, right? Yeah. And so to get to that isn't just the componentry, it's the design. Okay. So just tell us a bit about who really helped you most in sort of getting on that journey? 'cause there must have been some mentors. Yeah. Yeah. I mean my most sort of, my dad was a big mentor just seeing the way that he sort of navigated through life and always said, don't do a half job. Right. And so he was my earliest sort of mentor. But when I applied for a scholarship over at Pencil, which is the world's number one sneaker academy, that was my first professional sort of mentor.

Speaker 2 00:11:27 Yeah. Dwayne Edwards was the creative director of the Jordan brand. And I was, I was awarded a scholarship to learn under him. And he's just, it's another level the way he thinks, the way he approaches design and problem solving and emotional connections. I really, really sort of warmed to that. And so I did a, a scholarship, the first scholarship, which was with ASIC and Footlocker. And that turns into a competition, which I ended up winning. And they released my shoe and sold out within an hour. Yeah. And then on my way back, 'cause that was in Portland America, on my way back, they invited me to be part of a TV show. Mm. Which I ended up getting a part end up sort of being selected for that. So I left my family wife and two kids to fly over to the States and be on a reality TV show for eight weeks.

Speaker 2 00:12:14 Hidden cameras, hidden mics, everything. And so I was able to work again with Dwayne and Suzette Henry, which was the Nike's first color materials designer. Wow. So I was very blessed to have those two mentors in my life. Can just imagine. And if you just imagine even just the sense of unreal reality TV as well. Yeah. You know, because it is so con composed. But how did you relax in that environment with all the cameras and the, you know, the audio materials and everything around you? How did you just pick it? Easy. It's quite a hard thing to do when you first get there. 'cause it was the first time the show had been aired. You sort of are a little bit mindful of what's happening around you. Like literally there's hidden cameras everywhere and man cameras in front of you and you're like, how are they gonna try to depict me?

Speaker 2 00:12:59 But what happens is you get to the point where you just get so tired and you always forget that, that they're there, it becomes your normal. Like, I remember getting home and I said to my wife, why haven't you opened the door for me? I haven't opened a door in like eight weeks. So that's very funny. But I think for me it was always about product first. When I talk about product, I don't mean just the shoe, I mean the shoe, the storytelling, the experience. So I focus on just creating the best product, the best experience I could. And by doing that, I didn't put the pressure on saying I have to try to win. And by doing so, we were winning almost every week. Yep. And look at the, looking at the history of some of these major brands, you know, the, the kind of German tradition, you know, the, the Dassler brothers and they split and one went to Puma and one did Adidas. You know, there's a lot of family dynastic connections with these things. Is that changing now? Is it much more corporate? Or is there still a strong family connection? Like yours is really family orientated, your company? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, rolly is named after my wife. That's her nickname. And so I, I think shoes is really hard to break into shoes. And so I think that's why there's traditionally it was always about family groups because it takes a lot of effort to, to get it to market.

Speaker 2 00:14:10 I think when you're starting off, family is really important. But what happens is, is they get bigger, they become public companies and then from there it just sort of branches off. But certainly you need to have a love for the football industry because it's so hard that you need to be able to love it that to wake up and fight through it every single day. Yeah. Because I remember being featured by WGSN as a brand to watch, which is the world's number one trend forecasting site. We got features as a brand to watch and I celebrated for about 10 minutes and then realized we're gonna be copied by everyone now. And so that's the, it's an industry where copying other brands is acceptable. So you've gotta try to grow your business, grow your brand, and sort of create emotional connections with customers as quickly as possible.

Speaker 2 00:14:53 It's so interesting that you have to almost stay ahead, but even just a millisecond ahead all the time. Yeah. You know, every day time is important to you, isn't it? Yeah. You're very good with time. Yeah, absolutely. I think that's probably one of my biggest strengths. Mm. So were you always like that? Or did you, have you honed it? No, I've definitely honed it. Yeah. For sure. I think what's happened is I've, I've realized that, you know, I wanna get the most outta life and perform at an optimal level. I sort of say like, I'm training to be a professional athlete for no sport. Like, I'm just always trying to improve. Yeah. I enjoy the journey, but I time, I block out time in my calendar. I run my entire day and week through my calendar. So I focus blocks around what do I wanna achieve so I'm not guided by my inbox.

Speaker 2 00:15:38 Right. 'cause there was one point where I'd wake up and I have two 50 new emails every single day. Yeah. And I'm like, that can't be a good way to run your life. Right. Being reactive. So it's really about being proactive. I answer emails only on Monday and Fridays now I check them every day just to make sure there's nothing urgent. Yeah. But I don't action them unless it's urgent or it takes less than five minutes. It's this cursive technology versus productivity. Yeah. And how you balance. Right. You seem to have a great balance and a lot of joy in the balance, despite your fact that the fact that you're busy. Yeah. So how do you get this kind of attitude of I am just gonna be calm? How do you do that? For me, it's once again about the environment, right? So I do a lot of ice baths.

Speaker 2 00:16:20 I do the fire and ice, so the sauna and the ice bath, I meditate a lot. And so for me it's about creating the right calm environment for them to make calm decisions. Right. So if you are not calm, you're gonna most likely make frantic decisions. 'cause that's your natural state of being. Yeah. So for me it's about always taking the time out, working out what are the three things I need to achieve today and what are the two things out of those three that if I achieve them, I feel like my day's been a great day, great way to measure it. Pressure on myself. Great way to measure it. You know, interestingly, design is a very spiritual thing too. And for lots of people, again, it has lots in common with art. Yes. And if you look back, I, I've speaking with you before about going to Japan and going to the headquarters of Asex, right.

Speaker 2 00:17:02 Which is their r and d lab, effectively, like where you were with say Adidas or with Nike in the States. And they have a big statue at the opening of the, of the factory. Like it's a, it's a kind of sculpture. Right. With their name. And what I had not realized was I thought it was a Jap for many years I've had ASIC shoes on my feet. I never knew that it wasn't a Japanese name, but it's an acronym for Latin. Yes. You know, and it's like asic is anima in ano a healthy mind or spirit in a healthy body who knew that they would be so spiritual about shoe design. Absolutely. Who knew? I remember when I was designing for them, they actually took us through who their customer persona is, what the brand represents. I didn't quite remember the actual phrase of what it represented, but I I did remember that.

Speaker 2 00:17:48 It wasn't a Japanese word. Crazy. It's incredibly global. Right. Yeah. And it's historical too. Yeah. And the founder, we were there and they were giving us a commemorative gift of the hundredth birthday of the founder, like the birth date of the founder and a particular design shoe just for the founder. Yeah. And also some yoga pants that you could wear to meditate about the founder. See, well there you go. See, you just think of them as a running brand, not connected to, I guess health and wellness and sort of spirituality. That's so cool. Much more. Yeah. Much more. And I'll tell you what else. They showed us the kind of body size this is for everyone in the world. They had a sort of, this is the typical Chinese Yeah. You know, version or the Japanese version and the North American one. Slightly bigger. Yeah.

Speaker 2 00:18:28 Australia in between. And they designed each one for each category. Yes. Do you do that sort of thing by country as well? Yeah, we, we pretty much do the same fitting, but I'm very aware of how it affects across all different sizes. So if you are, you know, western feet has a very different shape to, to Chinese feet as an example. Yeah. And so we use European sizing Yeah. Which is 6.6 millimeters between sizes. The US use 10. Yeah. That's why they have half sizes because it becomes five. So there's just, I mean, footwear is so technical. It's, it's an incredible industry. I've done clothing before. Clothing's so much easier compared to shoes. If I didn't love what I do, I would certainly be out of the business. Yeah. But yeah, it's, but I love it 'cause it's highly technical. Right. In the same way why I loved probably web design.

Speaker 2 00:19:15 'cause it was like you put the wrong full stop in the wrong area and and the website doesn't work. The whole thing stopped. Whole thing stops completely. Yeah. It's, it's incredible. And just like in anatomy, as many people know, there's more bones in the foot than any other part of the body. Metatarsal bones, there's more thinking that goes into the design of shoes than just about anything else you wear. Yeah, absolutely. It's not just for aesthetics. I mean, I think a lot of our decision buying process starts from does this look cool? Mm. But actually, if you wear the wrong type of footwear, it can have a serious impact on your, you know, referral pain with your hips, your wear, your, you know, your legs and just your mood in general. Mm. So yeah, I sort of pride myself in being a genuine shoe designer who knows how to make shoes.

Speaker 2 00:19:56 There's highly technical, but creating cool comfort. Cool comfort. What a what a what a super idea. You know, and we try to do that a bit here with our health sciences approaches. You know, it's very big in health, but to be honest, podiatry isn't always linked to the same sort of shoe design as popular shoes. It's almost seen as remedial. Yes. Yours is getting in advance of almost preventative. Yep, absolutely. Which is really, really good. Yeah. You know, it's a, it's a bit like if you think of, you know, Blackmore's nutraceuticals, you're the kind of blackmore's equivalent of shoe design. Yeah. I haven't heard that, but I'll take it. That's makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? Yeah. Like we've got a lot of doctors referring rollies all the time. Wow. And so all our, all our shoes can accommodate removable insoles. Wow. So good.

Speaker 2 00:20:38 Now what about getting back to the, the global trends? Yep. Okay. We've seen Covid come and not quite go, but you know, diminish and everyone who was wearing indoor clothing indoors and now they're wearing it outdoors. Yep. Has that changed the way you design shoes? Yeah. I mean I think it changes the types of shoes that we've produced. So we did a lot of lifestyle shoes, but we are very famous for the Derby shoe. But, 'cause I was trained at pencil, I'd done a lot of sneaker design. I was like, it's time to launch sneakers for Rollie. Yeah. And just as we were about to launch them, covid happened. And I remember there was an opportunity where we're like, sh sh should we actually launch these? And I'm like, we have to launch these and now's the time to launch it because people are gonna be walking around.

Speaker 2 00:21:22 They're gonna be stuck in their houses, they're gonna need to get around. And that's what we did. Luckily we launched the sneakers and they did exceptionally well. It's a big part of our business today. Is it like a half or more? It's about 30% of our business already. 30%. Wow. That's grown fast, eh? Yeah, absolutely. And of course they're saying that never before in human history have more people counted steps than now. Yeah. Right. Not surprised. So therefore they're, they're looking at your shoes Yep. As they do it and thinking, thank you. Yeah. Well we've, I mean the whole brand was anchor. Like I said, my wife was a flight attendant. It was named after her. And so she used to travel around the world in these shoes. So the core of the brand was always about comfort and steps, being able to go and travel the world and not filled way down, like way down by your shoes.

Speaker 2 00:22:04 And she could just go and travel and explore the world. And she did. Sounds like it. Yeah. Did. And did you travel together as much as you can? I know you've got children as well, but do you go as a group, all four of you as much as you can? Yeah, I mean we do at least three trips as a family each year. We just came back from Japan, which is awesome. I traveled a lot before I started the business. Mm. With my wife as soon as I started the business, you know, it just ties you down a lot. Yeah. And now I, most of my travel's for business, but I've noticed, I'm definitely switching that up. I mean, three trips for the family. I think it's pretty good. Oh, I, I think that sounds glorious to be honest. It's, it's superb. Hey, what's next for you?

Speaker 2 00:22:39 I mean, you know, this is a huge thing. It's growing, but if you had your druthers as they say in North America, you know, use that phrase if you were looking out, you know, you must have a five or a 10 year dream. Yeah. What is it? Well, the initial fa dream right now is about having one a hundred, we want 1% of the Australian population wearing rollies. Right. And so that gets us at a pretty good, decent sized business already at that. But I think my ultimate goal is to put Australia on the map for shoe design. Like when you look at so many brands, we don't really have an Australian brand that we can proudly call our own. Yeah. That's globally recognized. And so being the best in Australia doesn't really inspire me. Being the best at a global stage is what really drives me. Yeah. And we, I think most universities are a bit like that too. Our aim here is to be the leading university in our kind of dual sector nature in the world by 2028, you know, sort of aiming high. Yep. And even if you don't get all the way there, you get a lot further. Absolutely. It sounds like you're doing the same sort of thing. Of course. You know, it's, it, it makes a lot of sense. If you had to look back over a 20 year period, were there times where you doubted yourself?

Speaker 2 00:23:50 To be very honest, not really. I, I've always had this strong belief that I'm gonna do big things. Hmm. The doubt comes really from like, is it worth it? And that I have often, right. Yeah. And I'm always trying to check myself and go, because like for me, I do this for my family. Right. And so I'm always checking in, am I present? Am I a great father? Am I great husband? And so, 'cause like for me, I like, I love what I do, but I do it for my family and to make sure I can provide, but what I've worked out is like, well, looking out for myself and making sure I'm creatively fulfilled is just as important. Yeah. Right. It's 'cause like when a plane's coming down, you know, look after yourself before you can care for others. Yes. It's that same approach.

Speaker 2 00:24:34 And I'm a creative at heart. Yeah. So I, I definitely need to be creatively fulfilled in order for my, for me to be happy. Therefore my family will be happy and my business will be healthy. Yeah. And I really get this sense that, you know, the artistic and the technical, the sort of creative and the analytical, they come together beautifully in you and your work. Oh, thank you. It's just incredible. And you can even see the design of the, the shop and the online design of it as well. You know, it's like a gallery on the inside and outside. It's like a display of the best on the inside and the outside and it gives you the confidence and joy just to take part in it. Yeah. Yeah. I think there's lots of people that would be like, oh, I'd be cool to do this, but then don't actually execute.

Speaker 2 00:25:12 Like I had this vision of going, I want to have a digital gallery in my space. I wanna commit 50% of our space to a digital gallery with 17 screens, 150 artists from 150 pieces of art from 50 artists around the world. Wow. Like, it's just a big dream. And I was like, this is what I wanna do. This is what drives me and I'm so glad I did it. It just fuels me to do more. And when I see that store, I'm like, that store could be in Tokyo, in New York, it could be anywhere around the world. And that's what I, what really drives me. And I wanna continue to do that as I, as I push on in the career. A lot of pride in this. And I can tell you what we join with you in echoing just that sense, not just of achievement but giving.

Speaker 2 00:25:53 You're a very giving person and I think it's wonderful what you've given to VU and vice versa. We have a building just here, which is the oldest building on the campus and it has an ornate door in front of it called the door of opportunity. You banged on that door? Oh yeah. I'll tell you what you just said. Open it up on Friday and on Monday it opened. And I just think this has been one of the best podcasts we've had. 'cause it's just so inspiring to think for every student who comes to vu, they can open that door too. Vince, thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.

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