Sneakerheads Johannes Quodt and Chris Wichert first met while studying at the Wharton school of Business. Both German natives, the idea for their wildly popular “anti-luxury” Italian-made sneakers sparked from a shopping trip in Manhattan in 2014, after picking up a pair of Louis Vuitton kicks with a $1,000 price tag in a stuffy boutique. They asked themselves, what would it take to create an accessible high-end leather goods brand that is approachable for a generation who care about quality versus excess?
So they set out on a mission to create their perfect leather high top, one that fuses practicality with the artistry of luxury. Straight from the world of finance into New York’s fashion industry, the German duo adopted an empire state of mind to establish an impressive advisor network and toured Italy to find their perfect manufacturers. In 2015, they launched the brand with their first pop up, selling out their first collection within hours. We visited KOIO’s latest experiential sneaker gallery in SoHo, to chat with Johannes and Chris about what it took to build their wildly successful New York brand.
Where does the name “KOIO” come from?
Chris: “KOIO” leans on the Italian word “cuoio”, which means “leather”. This goes back to our roots: we’re producing everything in Italy and everything is made of leather. It’s important to us to build a very authentic brand that reflects that.
There are a lot of frustrating things about established luxury brands; there’s a big focus on offline versus online; the customer service is often very impersonable and stiff; and the price point is inaccessible. With KOIO, we wanted to establish a high-end leather goods brand that is more approachable, accessible and relatable.
Neither of you had any fashion experience before starting KOIO. How did you get around this?
Johannes: We were both into saving up and buying high-end sneakers when we lived in Germany. There has always been a personal fascination with the product. So we just dove in, really. Previously, Chris was at JP Morgan and I was at McKinsey. Both of us have experienced what it’s like to work in situations where we’ve had to achieve crazy amounts of things in short periods of time. Our mindset was just to get stuff done, which was how we approached KOIO.
It started with research: from working on the first sketches to finding a prototyper here in New York that would help us create the first few pairs of shoes. Then, traveling to Italy to find the best manufacturer. We really took it step by step, and always pushed ourselves to move along to make progress, which is how we were able to create a product that was really well received when we launched it.
Chris: Getting to the right people as quickly as possible was also important for us. We approached shoe professors at FIT and Parsons and spent a lot of time with them initially, as they taught us how to construct a shoe. Then, we set out to find people who were successful in the direct-to-consumer and startup world, such as Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker. From there, people introduced us to their networks, and we were able to set up our own network of advisors.
What was the point when you thought ‘this could really work’?
Johannes: Finding our Italian manufacturers. The factory we work with in Civitanova is a family-run business who used to work exclusively for Chanel. We are the only new brand that is working with them. Getting them to commit to our project gave us a lot of confidence to enter the market with this product.
We visited 34 different factories for over a month before we found these guys. Their factory looks almost like a pharma R&D lab– it’s just beautiful to be in there– and the shoes they make are on a different level in terms of quality and craftsmanship. For each and every shoe, they hand paint the edges of the leather, which is usually only done with handbags, for example.
Why did you choose to launch your shoe brand in New York, and not Berlin?
Chris: New York is a trendsetter city. Everyone is watching to see what comes out next. We have a lot of friends in Europe that are watching what we’re doing and requesting our shoes, but we’re not yet set up to deliver to the European market– which can actually be an advantage for us. We’re becoming known as a New York brand, which will only increase demand.
The sneaker market in general is fascinating and has been growing like crazy. It will soon be the most prominent footwear in most people’s closets. We wanted to create a versatile shoe that can be used for different locations and occasions, from work to going out to strolling around the city. They’re always comfortable and prepared for what’s next. New York is the perfect place to build this kind of brand. Our target customers are these hustlers and go-getters that really need quality footwear in their everyday life.
Recently, you decided to position your shoes from men’s only to unisex. What made you decide to do this?
Johannes: When we launched, we had produced four ranges of men’s sizes, but after opening the doors, all the smaller men’s sizes were the first ones to go– not to men. We quickly realized that we should be expanding into women’s sizes as well.
As a next step, we did both men’s and women’s sizes, and some color ranges specific to men and women. But then guys were asking for the women’s colors, and vice versa. So now, we’re pretty much completely unisex, which is working really well for us. Nobody wants to be put in a category or have a brand define what’s good for you and what’s not.
Chris: We’ve discovered that a lot of female shoppers complain that other sneaker brands only do cool stuff for men. If they do something for women, it’s very girly. This is something we wanted to overcome.
KOIO has experimented with several pop-ups and retail locations. How has this worked out for you?
Chris: We’ve been experimenting with pop-ups throughout our short brand history. We started by doing weekend pop ups to try out different spaces or locations and saw that customers responded really well. When they see and feel the shoe, they want to spend money on it. All in all, our biggest lesson has been that we should have done this earlier!
Johannes: Our latest sneaker gallery space in Soho, is more of an immersive experience. The pop-up has been profitable since day one. Doing this for a longer period of time, has let us spread out the workload and get more brand exposure. Those who work in the area might only discover on week 3 or 5 that there is a store here.
You’ve also produced a lot of great events in your retail space. How has this helped build the brand?
Johannes: We’ve been doing events almost weekly in the space, partnering with different brands, creatives and artists who we feel really match the KOIO brand. For us, it’s really important to partner up with people like tattoo artist JonBoy because we feel this gives much more depth to the brand– it’s about pursuing your own creative path, doing something interesting with your life, expressing your personality and connecting with people.
Chris: If you want to build a new brand, there’s a limited potential to talk about the product in terms of craftsmanship and design. What excites people is something experiential, which is what we want to provide with our brand.