Rihanna designs them, Jay Z sings about them and the rest of the world can't seem to get enough of Stance socks.
The company's comfortable, colorful and well-made take on humble hosiery is turning the sock into the next pocket square and becoming a pop-culture status symbol along the way.
In just five years since the first Stance socks hit retail, they've earned a shout-out in Jay Z lyrics ("This ain't gray sweat suits and white tube socks / This is black leather pants and a pair of Stance"), attracted a constellation of celebrity investors (including Jay Z and
At the same time that Stance's fashion-brand approach of employing seasonal inspirations and designer collaborations has made the label a hit in the lifestyle arena, its line of performance socks for runners, golfers and the like has attracted the attention of the sporting crowd, leading to a deal with the National Basketball Assn., which makes Stance the league's official on-court sock starting when the 2015-2016 season tips off Oct. 27.
Perhaps the only thing more improbable than what Stance has done in such a short time is where it's done it from — a nondescript industrial park on a San Clemente hillside, smack in the middle of a sockless stretch of Southern California coastline better known as the stamping grounds of the surf-and-sandal board sport brands.
The location isn't the brand's only connection to the surf/skate world. Several of the five co-founders have roots in the action sports industry, including the company's president John Wilson (who had stints at Reef and Oakley), chief creative officer Aaron Hennings (who spent a decade at Billabong) and chief marketing officer Ryan Kingman (Element). Rounding out the founding quintet are chief product officer Taylor Shupe and chairman and chief executive Jeff Kearl.
It was Kearl, a venture capitalist and self-described "serial entrepreneur," who had come to San Clemente to punch out for a few years after one of the start-ups he'd worked with was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2007. By 2009, Kearl says he was itching for another project. "I was the chairman of the board of [headphone maker] Skullcandy," Kearl said, "and one of the lessons I'd learned from the founder of that company was to look for categories suffering from what he called 'benign neglect' — where there was a lot of potential."
He remembers walking the aisles of Target in San Clemente, considering products like sunblock, jewelry and luggage. "Then we came to the sock aisle," he said. "And it was literally black, white, gray and brown. The crazy argyle patterns were on the bottom rack and most of the socks were in these big value-packed plastic baggies." Over the next few months, Kearl dove deep on socks, paying attention to how they were displayed in stores, how they were priced, how sales associates reacted. He says he bought hundreds of pairs on his way to the realization that that this was exactly the sleepy, overlooked, under-valued category that had serious potential.
Stance was officially founded by the end of 2009, with the first pairs of socks hitting retail in late 2010. The first three accounts were specialty surf shops: Surfside Sports on the Costa Mesa/Newport Beach border, and Jack's Surfboards and Huntington Surf and Sport, both in Huntington Beach.
Surfside Sports co-owner Duke Edukas called the decision to stock the new sock brand a "no-brainer." "We were always low on socks, people always needed socks and as Jeff [Kearl] pointed out, socks were more of an afterthought in our industry. But I never thought in my wildest dreams [Stance] would catch on as quickly as it did and we'd sell as many as we did. Sales have reached epic proportions. Last year we sold 460 pair in one day during the Christmas season."
Stance socks are now sold in more than 40 countries and at major retailers, including Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Macy's. Although the privately held company doesn't disclose specific sales figures, Kearl and company say they sold 15 million pairs between the late 2010 launch and the end of 2014 and estimate they'll sell more than 12 million pairs in 2015. Prices range from $10 for near-invisible socklets to $40 for premium pairs, with most socks falling in the $12 to $15 range.
The brand has a reputation for designs that are quirky, cheeky and fun. Some of the current bestsellers on the men's side include patterns inspired by paisley bandannas, woven Baja hoodies and several versions of a bold Art Deco style called Gatsby (from basketball star Dwyane Wade's signature
series). Women's bestsellers include trippy kaleidoscope prints, a pastiche of roses and polka dots in black and white and several styles from the Rihanna X Stance collection including dollar bill designs, B-movie motifs and knuckle-tattooed toe socks.
Timing has played no small part in the brand's meteoric rise since it hit the market at the same time men were changing the way they dressed.
The rising popularity of socks "goes hand in hand with the kind of pants guys are wearing," explains Caleb Lin, vice president and buying director at L.A.-based American Rag, which stocks Stance socks. "Guys are showing their ankles a lot more in general. A lot of guys are wearing cropped pants and [sweatpant-style] joggers. Whereas before it didn't necessarily matter as much, now it becomes a part of your statement. It's definitely an accessory that's become more meaningful for our consumer."
Stance is far from the only company to make cool, colorful, conversation-starting socks (Sweden-based Happy Socks, launched in 2008, is another high-profile player). What makes the brand a real standout are the things you don't immediately see.
"The appeal is the quality," says Lin. "The weave is tighter, it feels more comfortable around your foot, the fabric doesn't wear through as quickly, the fabric doesn't get all fuzzy and old after you wash them a couple of times."
Making socks that fit, feel and wear better is the responsibility of the company's on-site SHRED lab (for Socks Hosiery Research Engineering and Development), which includes hosiery torturing devices that stretch, abrade and launder the life out of every prototype sock (as well as competitors' socks) before it goes into production and a Lonati circular knitting machine that can spit out a pair of prototype socks in as little as eight minutes. That lab helped birth the
This season also marks the first time a company has been allowed to put its own logo on a game-worn sock.
"We were serious about having the logo [visible]," said Clarke Miyasaki, Stance's executive vice president of business development, who helped broker the deal. "If there wasn't a logo on there you'd just have well-designed socks, but what would that do for our brand? What we need right now is reach. We've got the cool kids, we've got the influencers. We need reach to get to the masses. And this — millions of eyeballs every night — is going to do that."
Stance is already poised to leverage the halo effect of the NBA deal in two ways — beyond just selling a Staples Center full of socks (which it almost certainly will). One is the company's first product extension — the launch in mid-November of men's underwear (in three silhouettes including a boxer short that could be mistaken for a pair of board shorts) and the opening of the brand's first flagship store — 2,000 square feet of retail space in New York City's SoHo neighborhood — in late November or early December.
So where does Stance go from here?
"We're just getting started," Kearl says. "If we can do men's underwear [right], we could probably take a fair crack at doing women's."
He pauses for a moment and then adds with a chuckle: "That's right, we're going to do what every dude dreams about — we're going to make hot bras and panties!"