‘I was just this kid out of the western suburbs in Melbourne’: Rollie Nation founder Vince Lebon on his experience designing sneakers in the US

Rollie Nation
  • Aussie footwear company Rollie Nation was founded by Vince Lebon in 2012.
  • The company’s shoes are sold in 11 countries around the world including the US, New Zealand and Dubai.
  • Lebon shared what he learned after travelling to the US to learn how to design sneakers.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

For many Australians, the US can seem like the ultimate place to be if you want to take your business global. But that wasn’t the case for Vince Lebon, founder of Aussie footwear brand Rollie Nation.

Lebon founded the company, which produces men’s and women’s footwear – including boots, sandals and flats – in 2012. Its products are sold in 11 countries around the world including the US, the UK, New Zealand and Dubai. Just this year it rolled out a new line of sneakers.

“I like to joke around and say ‘I’ve always wanted to be a shoe designer… since I was a kid’ but that’s not true,” Lebon told Business Insider Australia.

In high school Lebon had been into maths and science, but when Year 11 came around he had a change of heart.

“I woke up one day and was like, ‘This is not the life I want, I want to be into art,” he said. So he dropped those subjects and went into photography and graphic design. “I just love that world,” he added.

Lebon later got a job at a shoe company in Melbourne where he worked as a multimedia designer. He had the opportunity to shadow his boss for five years, learning the ins and outs of the industry – from going to trade shows to visiting factories. From there, Lebon did some consulting for another footwear company for a number of years before deciding to start his own brand.

At Rollie Nation, Lebon did everything himself, including the patterns, the designs, the website and sales – an experience he described as being “intense”. But after around five years he decided to take a design sabbatical, which saw him travel to the US to learn how to design sneakers.

Lebon had grown up playing basketball and fell into sneaker culture.

He thought the best way for him to learn how to make sneakers was to go to Pensole Design Academy in Portland, Oregon, but he was rejected the first time he applied. It was a pretty big blow as Lebon already had his own business, so he wrote to the academy’s founder, D’Wayne Edwards, and asked for some feedback.

“He said it takes most people three to four times, so keep applying,” Lebon recalled. “It was really humbling. and so I applied again.”

Lebon finally got in and took part in a three week masterclass with Asics and Footlocker. This turned into a competition, which he won. The shoe he designed was released with Foot Locker, which made about 2000 pairs. They sold out within an hour.

“It was really nice to dive into sneakers after doing traditional casual footwear for such a long time,” Lebon said.

Vince Lebon

Getting onto YouTube

From there, Lebon was invited to audition for a TV show. After a six month process, he was accepted and flew back to the US for filming.

The show was called “Lace Up: The Ultimate Sneaker Challenge”, and it aired on YouTube Red. It was brought together by D’Wayne Edwards and executive producer Ken Mok, who was behind “America’s Next Top Model”. In the show, 12 footwear makers from around the world would compete to design and produce an amazing sneaker and get a job at Adidas.

“We would meet a new celebrity, they would give us a brief, we’d come up with a concept, pitch the concepts, make a physical prototype, and then pitch it to the celebrity in four days,” Lebon said. “And then they would wipe everything off our computers and start again for the next celebrity and we did that nonstop for eight weeks.”

The celebs included rapper Macklemore, model Ashley Graham and actor Anthony Anderson. Although it was intense, Lebon considered it an “incredible experience”.

Lebon ended up winning that competition, and had the opportunity to design a shoe for US basketball player James Harden.

After his victory, Lebon got a job at Adidas’s Brooklyn Creator Farm, the company’s innovation hub in the US, where his job was to create products. He would only work there a few days a week because he still had Rollie.

“I’d walk in and T.I. would be right there or Beyonce’s team’s right there, Alexander Wang is just working a couple steps down,” he said. “And I was just this kid out of the western suburbs in Melbourne.”

When asked whether working in the Brooklyn among these celebrities was a dream, Lebon was more circumspect.

“I always feel like there’s so much more that I can achieve,” he said. “I’m very humbled by it but at the same time I don’t want to see Alexander Wang, I want to work with you. I want to co-create and that’s where I get my energy.”

Rollie Nation

Finding new perspective

Lebon had hoped the show would take his career further, but its impact ended up being far more muted. Instead, it offered Lebon a new perspective.

“It really opened a lot of doors and my mindset to the global stage,” he said. “I just came back and was so pumped to really get Rollie on a global stage, I realised that I didn’t need to be in New York to do that.”

While he didn’t necessarily fall into the trap of thinking New York was the “be all and end all”, Lebon hoped the show would create more momentum for him and his business.

“I lived in Brooklyn and wouldn’t even go to Manhattan,” he said. “I would go there once a week, once a fortnight at the most. Because it takes a lot of time to get across even though I was so close.

“America is a huge country so a lot of the time you’re on Skype anyway or on Zoom talking to people in LA or you’re doing trade shows and I can do that from Melbourne. I could go out and spend probably a week every two months over in the States and build a huge brand.”

By launching a sneaker line, Lebon to merged the “two worlds” he was living in – the Rollie life and the sneaker life.

“There was a genuine place where I didn’t want to just ride a sneaker trend,” he said. “I really wanted to be genuine.”