Omar Bailey, the former head of the Yeezy/Adidas fashion line, is opening a new factory of his own; one that’s not just more inclusive and diverse but also operates outside the box compared to anything that’s come before.
Co-founded with Abishek Som, a former Wall Street executive and investor, FCTRY LAb makes its official launch on Thursday in Los Angeles as a “prototyping lab and venture studio.”
Equals parts design academy, state-of-the-art shoe factory, startup thinktank and marketing agency, FCTRY LAb looks to be flexible in ways the big brands like Nike, Under Armour, Adidas and Puma could never dream. And Bailey might be the sort of master of all those trades who could actually pull it off.
But why now, Sourcing Journal asked Bailey on the eve of the launch.
“I’ve been in business 20 years; I’ve lived and worked in India, China, Brazil and ran sample labs, production lines—I’ve put a lot of time into shoe factories and this is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Bailey said. FCTRY LAb is working to “bring footwear innovation domestically but open-source it for creators of all kinds, whether it’s brands who don’t have access to facilities or up-and-coming designers and artists who want to let their voices be heard through footwear,” he added.
The launch comes thanks to a $6 million tranche from a group of investors that include founders of Tinder and WeWork, as well as a ‘consortium of NBA and NFL stars’ and the West Coast head of private equity giant Warburg Pincus and at the perfect time for relaunch for Bailey. Three years of growing the Yeezy/Adidas line into a $1 billion brand, hit a wall when collaborator Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, was dropped by Adidas and all of his sponsors after repeated antisemitic rants.
“I think [the Yeezy experience] reinforced to me, personally, that all of my years were leading up to that moment and three years there innovating and bringing some of the creative issues to development and market gave me more confidence that what we’re doing in the factory can be done,” Bailey said.
By having a stateside innovation studio, FCTRY LAb says it can avoid supply chain hiccups and reduce product development time from 8-12 months to 90 days or fewer.
As to whether FCTRY LAb will be able to continue to produce shoes domestically even after the product development phase has passed, COO Ravi Bhaskaran said the Yeezy example provided a blueprint of exactly how that could be achieved.
“Part of the Yeezy model was not doing huge manufacturing runs; they perfected the art of doing small bunches and getting people excited,” Bhaskaran said. “If you can do it in small batches, it doesn’t have to be done overseas if you can do it in strategic, smaller, pre-planned ways.”
“3D plays a massive role; It really allows us to speed the process of development,” Bailey said. “It gives us the ability to make wearable prototypes and get real, valuable feedback.”
As for FCTRY LAb’s commitment to sustainability, Bailey said it all starts with assembly line practices.
“Solvents have always been a big problem for assembling footwear; fumes and how not great they are for the environment. Water-based adhesives are very important,” Bailey said. “I think this is an instant opportunity for us to develop best practices and pass them on to the brands and creators. It’s not a problem that can be solved overnight. It’s been difficult to make a 100 percent sustainable shoe, but I think our role can be to introduce what these options are from a small creator to a company the size of an Allbirds. We take that very seriously.”
In Wednesday’s press release, the company said “FCTRY LAb is working to provide equity in an industry where large sneaker corporations often make an overwhelming majority of profits off the creative power of minority designers, influencers and athletes.”
Sourcing Journal asked the executives to elaborate on that statement and what will make FCTRY LAb different.
“I think, just from our approach with looking at these creators as partners instead of endorsees,” Bailey said. “We know there’s a way in which we can collaborate; there’s enough of the pie for everybody. Going with that structure in mind and giving them that empowerment, I believe we’ll be very different than what’s been done in the past.”
In creating an academy, of sorts, for footwear designers, Bailey turned to the lessons of his own journey to success in shoe design.
“My path, in particular, it was a bumpy road. There was no blueprint or reference to follow, just one breadcrumb after another and I kept following it,” said Bailey, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in industrial engineering, before deciding to go out on his own and pursue a career in footwear design. “I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur and go to China. One of my biggest accomplishments was to go to China on my own dime and get that experience in a factory. I stayed on that track. It was very windy, bumpy and rocky, but in the end it made me a much more versatile person in this space as a designer, engineer and footwear marketing specialist.”
Bailey, who hosts the footwear industry podcast called ‘Kicks Factory,’ started his first sneaker line back in 2006.
“Back when he was interested in getting into the sneaker world, they’d say, ‘go work at Foot Locker’ unaware of the design path,” Bhaskaran said. “There are very few people like Omar who know all the things he does end-to-end. In India he camped out on concrete bunkers with workers. He knows materials, the process, machinery, manufacturing—we couldn’t do what we’re doing with the FCTRY LAb without someone with that kind of experience. You have to make the right decisions early on otherwise it will never become a real project.”
Customers may be able to purchase a pair of shoes rolling out of the FCTRY LAb as early as the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, slated for Feb. 17-19, 2023 in Salt Lake City.
“One of our pillars is to do some brands of our own to launch our name,” Bhaskaran said. “We’re partnering with Slam Magazine to launch one of our shoes in that venue.”
Bhaskaran likens the other pillar of the FCTRY LAb concept to a competitive singing show, the format for which, the company may be implementing.
“Our business model is not just about launching shoes,” he said. “It’s a combination of empowering other people to bring their ideas to life in the venture studio idea, kind of like American Idol in that it’s not just polishing up their talent, you have to put them out into the world because they don’t know how to do that.”