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Vael - Jamming The Matrix

Coleman Horn of Vael has created his new line of footwear and accessories with purity in mind. His sharp looking modern shoes are pitched at an itinerant creative ‘jetset’ class, who live out of their suitcases and maintain a compact lifestyle. In a world of ‘same same but different’, Vael is determined not to sit on the metaphorical fence. You’ll either love it or you won’t, but at least Coleman is putting his you know what’s on the line. As he says, “stop watching negative TV, only drink decent liquor and avoid sullen friends”. What’s this got to do with sneakers? You’ll learn...

Before we get into Vael, let’s touch on MEDIUM, where the designer had a connection to their product, even in the naming and sharing of profit. Please explain.
We initially setup MEDIUM as a platform for designers to get their ideas to market. Being from the design-community, we were constantly aware of the talent floating around and we wanted to provide a means of expression for it. We had set up the access to production and distribution and it worked rather well. Each shoe was in itself an expression of the designer, it was also a wake-up call to a few designers. The compensation for the design was linked to the commercial success of the project which forced them to think about what makes good product versus what is just an ‘art project’. Sometimes designers just flow off into left field and we end up with the Karim Rashid-ification of stuff when they are not held responsible for the success of the product. There is often a disconnect between actual market viability and design for design’s sake. I have seen it firsthand, where some design at corporate levels can become like this. Designers just creating ego-extensions. We wanted to have some market reality built in. Not every idea a designer has is a good one and I know this from experience. Good ideas are solutions, not expressions. MEDIUM was an exercise in culling the gems from the chaff.

MEDIUM was described as ‘footwear by designers, for the design-minded’, were you ever concerned that it might not translate to the consumer without a design background?
Yes, we were always aware that the concept of the brand was far more heady than the actual product. We had setup this irony or dichotomy from the beginning. We aspired to have a ‘fast’ brand and slower product which meant that the ideas behind the brand and the overall brand ‘vibe’ were much cooler than the actual product.  On the product side, we offered bags footwear and apparel that was rather conventional. You could have almost stuck a Ralph Lauren logo on most of the MEDIUM product and it would not have appeared out of place. That being said, consumers without any real understanding of branding or design in general could appreciate a well-made shoe or bag and rock it without trying too hard. This led us to be able to try to keep the ‘alpha’ consumers (people whom read Honeyee or Sneaker Freaker) on our side as well as guys who just like the look of some of the shoes.

Did you set out to do something totally different with Vael, or is it a continuation of what you’d started?
It would be impossible to step away from all the things you understand about a market when starting a new venture because your past follows you. That being said, I’m not creating a platform for designers to use, like MEDIUM was. Vael’s genesis is born of totally different matter, it’s a solution for this itinerant, wandering creative class, like yourself or my peers. We live on jets – we’re not the jet-set, nothing that glamorous – it’s just the way we have to travel in order to complete work for our clients. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for a while now (quite literally, I don’t have an apartment or home). I crash with my girlfriend often in L.A. and the rest of the time I’m in China, Japan and the east coast.

Living like this, you start to have a very different relationship with the clothes that fit in your bag, your shoes, with your toiletry-kit even. These few objects are your home. They are the membrane which ultimately protects you from the outside world and also set you apart.  On a cellular level (biology here), the first thing a cell has to do is set up a wall around itself to delineate what is outside and what is within the cell. It then uses resources to keep the wall intact, in other words it’s the same with the ego, we create a ‘personality’ which is what we project to the outer word. Vael has been created to represent that membrane in the simplest of forms. It’s a thin ‘veil’ which we can use to set ourselves apart from the rest. A fair amount of thinking goes into the brand and what it represents, but this is what I respect in brands, personally. It also makes every decision regarding brand direction straight-forward when you have developed a strong brand DNA foundation.

Jeff Staple has described Vael as ‘if Timberland and Arcteryx had a love child’. You seem to have a classic traditional look with a sharp modern edge. What are your influences when creating your footwear?
I’m influenced by everything I absorb. I have this kinda silly theory called the ‘sponge theory’ which states that you just naturally imbibe all of your surroundings constantly.  All of your current resolves, ideas and passions have been formed or influenced by your past. It’s not a simple regurgitative action though; we absorb, then modify, then disseminate or transmit. This is a constant cycle. There could be an analogy with eating as well. We consume food and then it’s converted into energy which is stored or used. Same process, but we also do it with information. So for influences for Vael, I make sure I feed myself and my team with a very healthy diet of information. This comes from the blogs, mags and industry tradeshows and images. It comes from travel, from observing myself and others in different environs and from communicating with diverse people and co-opting some of their ideas. All of these ultimately find their way into shaping the products that Vael will market. When you are aware of this process, you become rather meticulous about what info and surroundings you are exposed to. You avoid restaurants with bad lighting. You stop watching negative TV, only drink decent liquor and avoid sullen friends.

Your upcoming drop has a shoe for every occasion and each shoe is very distinct from the next to the point where someone can actually own and wear every pair. I’m sure that’s not easy to do.
We’re taking some risks with the brand at all levels. I look at traditional ‘merchandising’ schemes as obsolete. The trad way to merchandise a line would be to set up a matrix of product with one axis price and the other category, and then spread as much shit around the matrix as possible, the object being that you don’t want overlap in cost, value and product (if you have 12 SKUs of black hoop shoes at the same price the buyer will only buy one). The issue I have with this is brands just end up creating crap to fill out the matrix regardless of market need. How many times have you been shown a collection comprising 90% of the product existing because a non-creative merchandiser came up with a matrix and a designer with a PLM filled in the holes?

To begin with, it’s not an efficient use of resources, it’s not really influenced by market needs and it just creates dull crap. It will die out soon (hopefully). With Vael, we looked at the collection from the POV of a single user. No matrix and no hitting every price point. If you opened up your closet and looked at your footwear, I’d see some Redwings, some Dunks, some runners, some Timberlands and maybe a pair of expensive Italians to impress the ladies. This is how I’m merch’ing the collection. The overall DNA of the brand decides the scope of the offering. I have no problems with a white hightop trainer sitting next to a motorbike boot. I have both in my closet. Vael is a reflection of real-world situations, not PLMs and cost matrixes. I’ll leave that to Nike Sportswear.

You’ve also created a fresh set of bags and accessories for VAEL, something not many independent shoe brands pull off. Is it important for you to have other outlets besides footwear when you’re in design mode?
As stated above, in various ways, it’s not a footwear brand per se. It’s more of an arsenal of tools which can help you cope with global travel. None of these are abstract constructs ‘briefed’ as part of a product merchandising layout. These are a solid reality for how we live. Some travel more, to the extent of the gear that we need, some travel less, but at some point during the year we are all rotating above the globe on a jet.

Each product is formed around the idea of ‘manifold uses’ which means simply ‘will this one single pair be okay for different situations on a trip?’ I have developed a personal relationship with my shoes. I have an intimate understanding of which of my three sweaters are suited for which temperature. I can layout the exact amount of gear to load into my messenger bag and it will just close. I know how long the travel tubes of toothpaste last (4.5 days), I know which hiking boots look not so much like hiking boots in a bar. Will this bag look decent in an important meeting, but still be sturdy enough to be hauled through Cambodia to that crappy factory there?
It was out of these questions that we decided to create a brand for this lifestyle. I see the accessory (non-footwear) part of the brand expanding rapidly in the next few collections. Adding more bags and accessories as well as the de rigueur outerwear items, Vael will round out its offering. I’ll start to work with Tom Routh of DIY design next season for some of the more tech outerwear items and bags. We are in the process of starting work on a fragrance, which I see sitting quite well with the rest of the collection. Maybe even a single malt, as that’s important for this lifestyle as well.

When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose and meaning. Vael can’t fill the void; but it can make the void more comfy. Well, at least the flask of single malt can make it more comfy, though, good shoes can’t hurt...

You’re currently working with the legendary Shawn Stussy on some projects. How’s it been hanging around such a creative mind and how does it affect the way you create?

We have a bit of a ‘hive’ of design like-minds. I work closely with Shawn Stussy, who is a shareholder in Vael. His incredibly complex understanding of the market and trends, and his input, have been invaluable. We have been ‘trading’ services, as I have been helping him with his new S/DBL launch. I’m working constantly with manufacturers and it made sense to start sourcing his items at the same time, so it became efficient to work like that. We just spent a week in Tokyo doing, erm, ‘Market Research’, and it was really inspiring to see how he observes the market and what he picks up on. Some images of the trip are up now on www.vaelproject.com in the blog area.

If you had to sum up design, what would it be?
Bruce Lee stated that ‘the perfect style is no style’, meaning to me that objects, products etc are best when they are reduced to their core essence. Nothing superfluous, no goofy logos for the sake of branding, no extra junk, just the kit.


This article appeared in Issue 13 of Sneaker Freaker. Buy it here

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