There's no doubting the sneaker game changed completely with the advent of the Internet. Kids no longer have to trek to the fashion capitals of the globe to grasp their Grails because everything – for the right price – is available at the press of a button. The downside to that convenience is the subtraction of a crucial element – real human interaction. With that in mind, SoleHeaven sneaker store founder Dale Parr set out on a mission to create a hub in his humble hometown known as Newcastle Upon Tyne. With their fifth birthday fast approaching, Tom Kirkby of Breaks Magazine caught up with Dale to talk about the community his store has brought together, the relationships they've developed and their plans for the future.
What was the motivation behind opening a sneaker store in Newcastle?
I laid the very first cornerstone of what would become SoleHeaven back in October 2007, whilst in New York City. I was actually on my honeymoon but instead of relaxing, my brain was awash with business ideas and I realised I had spotted a gap in the British sneaker marketplace. I quickly decided to set about launching a store that remained true to the roots of the culture. It’s very pure out in the US, people don't just see a shoe, they see a narrative – where it came from, what the shoe has achieved in a sporting sense and who wore it. All silhouettes and classic colourways have a backstory, and that is what essentially makes them so well universally loved. My plan was to encompass all of that thinking and trade online but also socially interact and engage with our audience.
So how did you turn that idea into a real business? What experience did you have in retail?
My past and present lives have zero connection in reality. I left school at 17 and got a job in financial services, and that took me to London were I worked in the financial district with Merrill Lynch and The Bank of New York. It wasn't until I met my future wife and decided to leave London that setting up a business came into my consciousness. We moved 300 miles north from London to Newcastle Upon Tyne, where it turned out that my job experience was irrelevant. I found myself at a crossroads in life at the age of 27 and opted for a career in e-commence/retail of which I had no experience whatsoever. It was a bit of a crazy move looking back.
Do you think that naiveté actually helped you in the long run?
Possibly, I’ve simply approached it from a consumer perspective and operated the business in a way that puts the customer first. Giving them what they want rather than employing traditional retail techniques. It’s probably affected our profitability in some ways, but that is a cost worth paying when we have such a loyal and engaged customer base.
How was the transition from online only to a physical space?
Online is very simple and secure, but physical bricks and mortar makes it a real store. Our plan is still very much the same as it was on day one. We set out to be an established international brand and fortunately for us, that has happened very quickly. Online is our focus and always will be, but having a store helps the online brand carry extra gravitas. People, events and a traditional retail environment makes it tangible. Everyone can relate and understand, that goes from the brands we stock all they way through to the customers we serve.
Your location isn’t super central, why did you opt for something out of town?
That was intentional. We didn't want to be a boring traditional retailer. We had a new concept and wanted to take our own direction with that. Our store is located in a cool, creative hub alongside music venues, gallery spaces and creative agencies and it's still only a mile from the city centre. Being a sneakerhead before the Internet meant travelling from city to city to find your grails. We felt that having a destination store paid homage to that. It gives our customers a mini-adventure and builds the excitement before a release or event.
Our customers are all around us and we have the freedom to do anything we like. That’s how we were able to do a pop-up skate park outside the store for the launch event and why we’re able to have our annual block parties and 2v2 street-ball tournaments. We still see ourselves as consumers and spend time talking about releases and getting excited by the hype machine. It’s exciting to be able to share and take part in all of that. We are part of the scene and that is what makes it special.
What was the Newcastle scene like prior to your opening?
To be honest, I had only lived in the city for a few months and there was only one store that sold a decent range of sneakers, so the city was really starved of a great supplier and that played into our hands. Since we opened, the city has fostered an incredible sneaker scene centred around what we do. Our events and our sponsorship involvement with club nights, B-boy jams and outdoor paints has bought real focus and helped to build the local sneaker landscape. We try to share all this activity via our social channels and Vimeo.
The skatepark pop-up looks like it was a pretty epic day out. How long was that up and running?
For the store launch we erected a pop-up skatepark featuring a 6ft quarter-pipe and street section which was in place for just four hours and we had 40 local BMX riders hitting the ramps. Before we dismantled it at midnight I took my smart car up and down it a few times! (There was an incredible face slam… watch the video on video below 1:06)
Our next event is an outdoor retail event we call the ‘Yardsale’ which is followed by a full-blown block party. It’s a big social event for people to hang out, enjoy chicken and ribs on the BBQ and watch the 2V2 street-ball tournament.
Do you think that retail stores have a responsibility to build a culture around their location?
Personally, I think they do, but it’s certainly not essential and it will come down to the choices and aspirations of the people in charge. Our aim has been to achieve great things with the business and to be a globally recognised sneaker store and brand in our own right. My ethos has been that we need to go above and beyond the norm and that's what will ensure that people know and love SoleHeaven.
What are some of the challenges that you guys have faced?
Every business has challenges on different levels. We have been a rapidly growing business and we are pushing some of the established stores for market share and this can cause some complex political issues with the brands around who gets what releases. But we’re a mature business and we conduct ourselves with integrity so this type of challenge can be overcome. It's funny really, because I still say to my wife at times, if I knew how hard retail was I wouldn’t have done it, but at the same time, there is nothing I would rather do. Sneakers are in my DNA now and I love the heritage of all the brands we carry.
You’re closely aligned with ASICS. To what do you attribute their recent surge in popularity?
We’ve got a great relationship with ASICS. We’re a Platinum Plus account and that basically means top tier/quickstrike equivalent so you can always rely on us for the key ASICS releases.
It's my view that the bedrock of sneaker culture is court sport and performance running, so we got onto ASICS right from the get-go. At the time the company were more focused on Onitsuka Tiger, and the Mexico 66 was their strongest player, but we knew the Gel Lyte family was the future. We helped develop the market and bring some emphasis to the Gel Lyte III. We hosted several product launch events for them with our B-boy networks and that quickly turned into ASICS producing a colab Gel Lyte III for the UK B-BOY Championships. It's actually a global event with heats in New York, Amsterdam and Seoul, with the finals held in London. We operated as their preferred stockist of that release and future drops of that nature.
What is it about ASICS that you like so much?
As a business and a working relationship they are brilliant. Their ethos is beautifully simple, they want to produce premium products in the best colour ways and materialisation possible, then to have them represented by the globe’s best stores. Honest and uncomplicated goals are the route to success in my view.
I personally think that the Gel Lyte III is a design classic. You can do so much with the silhouette and it always looks fresh. It handles colour really well without looking bland. The overlays in places are three panels thick and this means you can create tonal depth to the colour palette. Gel is supremely comfortable and they always hold their shape and rarely look worn-out. The toebox almost never creases, and its been popping 3M detailing for decades, its always been ahead of the curve… I can keep going if you like [Laughs].
What are your plans after celebrating your birthday? That must a proud moment for you.We’re proud of the fact that we're approaching our fifth birthday in November. You’re right, it’s a huge landmark for any business, especially retail. Until very recently, we have only ever traded during a recession in the UK so there’s a lot of upside to come. We have loads of plans in the pipeline and the projects we have priorities on are our own in-house cut ’n sew apparel line. It’s not just printed tees, it’s going to be much more than that, we are also planning pop-up stores in New York City and Hong Kong. The birthday celebration plans are hush-hush at the moment, but we are planning 12 months of merrymaking with colab projects and events to mark this achievement in a big way. They're all part of the plan to set SoleHeaven up for the next five years and beyond.