Damian Van Zyll De Jong grew up on Vancouver’s west side devoted to two things: skateboarding and snowboarding. Maybe three. Van Zyll De Jong always loved shoes, but he was bored with the selection. On the way home from a snowboarding trip, he told his friends he thought he could design something better. He wanted his kicks to be funky, functional and, most of all, unique. So in 2009 the Vancouverite founded Native Shoes. “I twisted everything I grew up loving into my own little rendition,” he says, “and I just put it out there.” The brand’s nine styles, including his takes on Chuck Taylors and boat shoes, are injection-moulded and made with EVA, an ultralight material that’s odour-resistant, animal-free and washable. Some of them have holes, leading to an obvious comparison with Crocs. “They’re two very different brands but we use the same material, so it’s easy to be pigeonholed in that group,” he says. “It reminds me of the Mac and PC ads.”
Native is the cooler Mac kid, of course. South Park creator Trey Parker, American singer Travie McCoy and TMZ reporter Harvey Levin are fans. Paparazzi have photographed the kids’ line on the offspring of Halle Berry, Barack Obama and the Jolie-Pitts. Canadian rocker Bif Naked has a Native habit that started when Caroline Boquist, co-owner of Walrus boutique in Vancouver—a woman who “knows everything and is the epitome of cool”—gave her the sell job: “Local. Hot. Like Crocs but better.”
For their part, the folks at Colorado-based Crocs don’t seem fussed by the comparison. The injected foam may be similar but spokesperson Claire Tindall says they use a proprietary material called “Croslite.” “I’ve heard of Native shoes, but I’m not familiar with what exactly they’re doing.”
Naked bought a pair of Keds-inspired Jerichos and “fell in mad love with them,” she says. “I promptly bought two more and have never looked back.” She just bought the Jimmy boot, which was produced in collaboration with Marc Jacobs after one of the New York designer’s team spotted someone wearing Native shoes. “It’s very telling of the brand and how it is,” says Van Zyll De Jong. “It’s small and gaining strength daily—and it’s always through word of mouth.”
When Van Zyll De Jong, 35, wrote his business plan, it wasn’t for ages 14 to 34. “I want this shoe to be from one to 100. I want a family to go in, get them, and all walk away in Natives and all be stoked. Almost like something that brought them together as a team.”
His team of 12 has been working like mad. With more than one million pairs sold and business that’s tripled in the past year, they’ve had their hands full. The validation is sweet for Van Zyll De Jong, who wondered whether his idea would catch on. “I knew Native would go nowhere or somewhere really quick, because that immediate love-hate is there. You either like it or you don’t.”
These days, he is preparing to relocate to an office space he’s renovating and taking on another dozen or so people by mid-2012. His hiring approach? “I look around the room and I see who’s stressed the most and think, ‘Okay, that person might need some help.’ ” As for the design, Van Zyll De Jong is thinking about making shoe parts in moulds and piecing them together to build a new shoe. “We started with our roots and now we’re thinking of different ways to evolve,” he says.
This will please people like Jonny McKay, a sales associate with Gravity Pope in Calgary. Personally, he owns the Jefferson shoe in white. “I decorated them with a Sharpie pen, because they were a little too white,” he says. “They look pretty cool now.” Professionally, he says Native sales are strong. Who’s snapping them up? “Definitely the fashion-conscious people who know about the brand,” he says. “People who don’t know any better buy Crocs.”