INTERVIEW: VICTOR HSU OF FACTO

Victor Hsu is the founder of new luxury sneaker brand FACTO. With the collection in it's first season, FACTO has been received with great success, selling in key stores around the world including at Level Shoes here in Dubai, as well as being showcased as part of this year's Sole DXB concept space Early Retirement. 

We managed to speak with Victor Hsu who told us how his journey in shoes began, from Director of Marketing for JUMP to independently living in Japan and creating his brand. He delves into his upbringing, his education and his muses - the "slightly badass older gentlemen" of Tokyo. 

You are the new kid on the block when it comes to luxury sneakers, where did your passion for shoes come from and when did you start designing them?

In some ways, I’ve always been the new kid on the block and perhaps the perspective that comes with being an outsider is something I’ve come to appreciate as an adult.  My fascination for shoes must’ve started when I got my first pair of Nike Air Max in middle school.  I’m not even quite sure why my Mom got me those but essentially, my interest in fashion took root in sneakers from that point on.  Although I was born in America, I spent the first five years of my life living abroad in Taiwan.  So while I grew up as somewhat of an introvert, it was, in fact, fashion that enabled a great deal of self-expression for me.  I would have to attribute my passion for shoes to this time in my life.

Both my parents are architects by trade - my mother, a naval architect and my father in environmental engineering.  They designed every home we ever lived in which was something that was always very impressive to me.  I basically grew up in a product of their conception.  Beyond that my father was a truly skilled portrait artist, inspiring a love for me to sketch at a young age.  Drawing was something I could get totally lost in, sketching anything and everything for hours, completely running wild with my imagination.  Yet it was my father’s innate ability to capture an essence of an individual’s soul in his portraits, which became something I felt like I needed to emulate. 

I don’t necessarily come from a design background per se.  I studied Finance and Marketing at NYU and only got involved in fashion when I took a job as a buyer at the American department store, Lord and Taylor.  It certainly was a great way to cut my teeth in the business of fashion and to learn how to understand the consumer, but even then, I felt a sort of pressure that I was underutilizing my creativity.  I got into a product development role at Express, then part of Limited Brands, but I still felt like it wasn’t enough.  Finally, I sought advice from my friend’s father whom, at the time, was the President of Steve Madden Men’s.  Understanding my background and with his own endeavors in mind, he invited me to join him to launch his own family’s 30 year old brand, JUMP, in the US as he prepared to leave Steve Madden. 

I joined his team initially as the Director of Marketing and it was the first time I got involved in footwear.  I came to learn that it was a very specific industry, unlike anything else I’d ever dealt with in my career.  Over time, I got more involved in sales, utilizing my merchandising background as a vendor, and managed to develop that into a specific division of his brand to cater to the luxury market.  It was at a time when Lehman had just collapsed and the American economy and housing market were experiencing tremendous upheavals.  It certainly wasn’t the most opportune time to try to bridge an overseas brand to the US but I felt that there would be more of a play in the luxury segment of what was then, the beginning of a fashion sneaker epoch.  It was quite a departure from the core of the JUMPbusiness, which was more mass market oriented. 

Developing this new business unit meant traveling to China to oversee the production and to work directly with the masters and technicians at the factory.  It was like going to the Wild West at the time, a truly once in a lifetime experience and it was there that I began to understand what went into creating the shoe.  In essence, I learned that making a shoe was almost like making a hollow sculpture, with a variety of components, made of different materials, that had to be pieced together perfectly to fit comfortably on something as oddly shaped as a foot.  And then you had to make it in all different sizes, no less.  I got to understand the sort of time, effort and resources that went into creating the lasts and developing the moulds for every shoe.  Most importantly from being at the factory level, I learned how to design.

And it worked.  We caught the attention of luxury department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales, even opening our own flagship store in SoHo where celebrities and stylists regularly came to get into our patent sneakers, which had become our signature look.  I was able to learn the art of brand building and how to communicate a message to an audience, even engaging in a collaboration with a member of The Black Eyed Peas, whom at the time were at their peak of fame.  Eventually the Japanese market took interest in JUMP and through a licensee, we began opening retail outposts in Tokyo.  To support the business and to satisfy an interest in Japanese culture, I decided to relocate and spend a few years abroad, something I hadn’t done since I was five years old. 

Living in Japan completely affected my perspective on craft, my passion and what it meant to be in business.  In every aspect of Japanese life, the attention to detail, quality and customer satisfaction was something that was very noticeably different from anything I’d ever experienced.  Whether you’re at a convenience store or having highbrow sushi in Ginza, there is an understood expectation for service and quality.  It was at a small fishing town at ahot spring resort where I started talking to a barkeep.  The drinks he was making were amazing and before he served each drink, he would dab a drop of it onto his wrist to ensure the quality.  I’m not typically a fan of cocktails but his were something else, inventively distinct yet with a simplicity of ingredients.  I was also impressed with the breadth of selection he had for such a remote place and he told me that his collection at home was even more extensive.  That passion and dedication to the excellence of his craft made me think more deeply about my career and how I could find that sort of bliss in what I do.

Eventually I decided to explore the possibility of working with Italian producers.  Being of a Chinese background, it had almost felt like a manifest destiny to be working with Chinese factories but it became increasingly difficult and expensive to achieve the sort of quality to satisfy Japanese clientele.  I got lucky and happened to meet an Italian factory that not only worked with many Japanese customers but also with some of the world’s most storied fashion houses, including Lanvin, Louboutin and Jimmy Choo.  As I began developing a collection with this factory, I came to realize that it had become a complete departure from what I’d been doing for the better part of a decade but one that embodied everything I was seeking creatively and professionally.  It was then that I decided to make the de facto move in my career and launch the brand, FACTO.

What distinguishes your shoes from other luxury sneakers on the market?

FACTO is meant to appeal to the luxury connoisseur that is accustomed to the finest in quality and comfort but I hope that it can also appeal to a new consumer that may have not always embraced or had the wherewithal to own luxury sneakers.  It’s a new type of luxury, predicated on different values: it’s limited in quantity, but not exclusive, premium but not just for sake of being expensive, it seeks to make a statement of shared values rather than being elitist.  I wanted to offer a luxury product, crafted with the highest quality calf and sheepskin leathers, even fully lined in calfskin and handmade by Italian artisans, which would obviously require a certain pricepoint.  However, I wanted it to remain accessible, opting to be towards the opening end of the luxury segment, in hopes that I could encourage a maturing sneakerhead to appreciate a new echelon of craftsmanship similar to the experience I had as a designer moving production to Italy. 

As I’d mentioned, it was my father’s ability to capture the essence of an individual’s soul in his artwork that inspired me to try to emulate him.  With FACTO, the endeavor was to use sneakers to enable the owner to express his very soul; to allow a pair of shoes to be a conduit into a person’s personality, spiritual tastes and intellect, just like a pair of eyes.  I feel like shoes ought to complement someone’s aesthetic, not override it and I think the luxury sneaker genre now is vibing on a trend of flashiness and opulence, which I think is cool but to me isn’t something that will endure past its moment. 

The concept of timelessness became a cornerstone of the FACTO brand, which to me was somewhat divergent from what I was seeing in the market.  I felt as a consumer, we were becoming increasingly conditioned to like things based on hype and being herded into a commercial cycle of planned obsolescence and waste.  We’re taught to love it, leave it and then move onto the next thing.  To me it’s a wasteful practice, albeit profitable, but something I wanted and even felt obligated to distance myself from as a creator of a new brand.  And I’m also an aging creator, one with a very different set of tastes and sensibilities as I had thirteen years ago when I got into fashion.  FACTO had to allow someone like me at 35, to be able to wear cool sneakers elegantly, without feeling like I was trying to wear cool sneakers, if that makes any sense. 

It’s not the easiest endeavor but one that for me was the crux of what I wanted to do with FACTO.  When a shoe is produced with this level of artisanship, they will naturally endure a longer lifespan if properly taken care of.  As such, the design would have to endure the tests of time and trend, to be something that could be adored just as much years from purchase, and possibly become an object of even deeper affinity.  To achieve this I looked into the classics, heralded from iconic sneaker archetypes.  I thought about how cool it would be to be able to appreciate the awe of that new pair of Air Max I got as a kid but made with the finest materials. 

It’s a delicate balance.  On the other end of the spectrum of the blinged out shoes démodé are the minimalist brands, which have become increasingly abundant, many to me are nothing more than knockoffs of Common Projects, a brand I greatly admire.  I didn’t want to fall into that abyss either and wanted to offer the consumer something that could be clean enough to be timeless yet have just the right amount of subtle detailing to make it interesting and fresh.  It was really trying to coalesce a respect for the heritage of sneakers with a touch of futurism, grounded in currency so that you could look at a pair of FACTO and appreciate the homage to yesterday yet still get a sense of tomorrow, today.      

What was you main inspiration when designing this brand?

I touched on this above but a lot of it has to do with the places I’ve resided in.  As I’d mentioned I went to NYU for business school and stayed there for fifteen years.  The energy of New York is truly special.  I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world, which is probably why people make such a big deal about being a New Yorker.  Even in a huge metropolis like Tokyo, when I tell people I’m from New York, there’s quite an admiration for it.  You encounter on a daily basis, the diversity of ethnicities and cultures across an array of socioeconomic strata all seamlessly driven forward, in concert somehow, by ambition and a sheer desire to make it.  

In 2005, I visited a friend of mine whom had just made the move to Brooklyn.  Despite having lived just across the bridge in lower Manhattan for several years, apart from accidentally taking the N train over the bridge and freaking out, I had never actually been to that part of New York.  I was astonished.  It was nothing like what I’d come to think of Brooklyn and actually quite nice in some parts.  A little later that year, I purchased a small studio loft in Downtown Brooklyn, nearby what was once referred to as “Murder Avenue”, a derelict street with only a liquor store and a dry cleaner that made all your clothes smell like cats.  To be honest I didn’t have many friends visiting for a while but gradually the mentality towards Brooklyn began to change. 

A few years later, the neighborhood was transforming and the city began taking initiatives to truly beautify the area, completely revitalizing the waterfront with great park space and soon luxury condos began sprouting up.  The idea was affordable luxury, being able to get something just out of Manhattan at a fraction of the price with all the amenities.  I think a lot of people were skeptical but having lived there for a few years already I thought it was an opportunity and went in on a larger place on the 16th floor of a building overlooking the East River and Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.  Not long after I went into contract, while the building was still being built, the housing collapse happened and everyone lost their minds.  What I thought was a great investment turned into a financial nightmare as other partially built buildings went into foreclosure and the banks began unloading units for far less than what I paid.  Despite all that I held on and closed on the apartment.  I moved into the new place and took in the view, enjoyed the pool and attended the free yoga classes every Thursday, even becoming the condo board President for a while.  Five years later, housing prices in the area are comparable with parts of Manhattan prices and you could ask, “what housing crisis?”

To make a long story short, this was a formative experience for my understanding of luxury and what it meant for FACTO.  For me, it’s not about how much you paid for something or even the prestige it carries necessarily, but I want the owners of FACTO to feel like they got more than what they paid for, almost through arbitrage, and then having that investment become something more valuable to them over time.  It means taking a chance on a new brand like FACTO and then realizing they’ve made a great decision in the long run.

After the fifteen years in New York, I’ve spent the last two years in Tokyo, where I encountered the choiwaru oyahji, loosely translated as the “slightly badass older gentleman”.  You could find these guys posting up at some of Tokyo’s most sophisticated bars, impeccably stylish and often getting inebriated.  While I might not yet be an older gentleman maybe I’m just slightly badass, but they became my muses, in that they did not allow time or age to slow them down.  It goes back to the concept of timelessness behind the inspiration for FACTO and these characters were always in the background as I was creating the brand.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributing inspirations for the brand was getting into transcendental meditation three years ago.  Taken from an Eagles’ song, “I used to worry a lot, I used to hurry a lot, I used to stay up till the break of day.”  It all caught up to me after a while and I decided I needed to realign my lifestyle.  I suppose what I gained from it was a better understanding of balance and patience, which is something that I’ve been able to apply to all aspects of my life, including FACTO.  How to be “just right” on everything you do, not too much, not too little.  From it I’ve learned how to imbue a spiritual connection with what I do for a living rather than have it simply be a means to earn a living and I endeavor constantly to share that emotional link with the owners of FACTO.   It’s not easy, especially as you put all your time, effort and resources into launching a brand, to get caught up, but the meditation helps to bring me back to the core of what and why I’m doing what I’m doing.  

You’re showcasing your brand at Sole DXB this year as well as having your shoes at Level Shoe District, how do feel Dubai is growing with regards to fashion and street style?

To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about Dubai but when the Sole DXB guys contacted me, it piqued my interest.  Once Level Shoe District decided to carry FACTO, I did my research and learned more about the store and was excited to have the brand in the largest shoe store in the world.  So a few weeks ago, when I had to travel to Italy, I decided to take a long layover in Dubai.  While I didn’t know what to expect going in, for the 22 hours I was there, I was truly astonished. 

And then I got a bit of a glimpse beyond the wow of the buildings, the beaches and the glitz.  Incidentally, unbeknownst to each other, Raj Malhotra, one of the organizers of Sole was an NYU Stern classmate of mine.  I spent an afternoon at his house talking to the guys and had the chance to learn about the streetwear scene and the event they were producing.  It was very inspiring to meet some likeminded individuals whom, very early on, completely understood my motives for FACTO.  We discussed the convergence of high fashion and street culture becoming a cultural zeitgeist and I thought to be at the forefront of this movement in a place like Dubai was very cool. 

Later on that day, I visited Level Shoe District to meet the staff and had a chance to shop the Mall of Dubai as well.  Needless to say, I found it breathtaking, in some ways akin to Tokyo in that the store was impeccably merchandised and very well thought out.  I had a chance to give the staff a talk about FACTO and was excited to find out they had already done their research and knew a lot about brand.  I found it interesting how culturally diverse they were and I could tell were very well attuned to their customers and how they would react to FACTO.  I left not only in awe of the store but also greatly impressed with the level of customer service, which I find to be rare in the world outside of Tokyo.  I would later find out that that day, Mario Götze, winner of the World Cup, would become the first to purchase a pair of FACTO from Level.

In the evening, I had dinner with an old friend of mine, Ayman, whom also works for Chalhoub Group.  After dinner he took me to catch the last runway show at Fashion Forward right before I had to head back to the airport.  The entire experience reminded me of what Tokyo was like ten years ago when it was beginning to become a fashion capital and brands were coming in and lavishing the city with beautiful stores and events.  As I understand it, shortly after I left there were a number of other big events that happened in Dubai as well.  

I think Dubai is at an interesting moment in time.  Like most new capitals of the world and tourist destinations, the culture of fashion becomes an intrinsic component of the city and will continually cultivate its own unique flavor.  But I think what would make it different for Dubai is its appetite for grandness and being the world’s most astonishing and international city.  I really think it’s just the beginning and to be able to be a part of this movement for a young brand like FACTO is an amazing experience.  Immediately after I boarded the plane, I made the decision to come back for Sole DXB and messaged my fiancée that she would have to clear her calendar for a few days. 

This is your first season of Facto, did you expect such a positive response?

I really didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve been on both sides of the table as merchant and as vendor and I’ve learned that in this line of work you must be able to deal with a great deal of rejection and how to get to yes.  I figured it would be an uphill battle to launch a new brand with so many others out there, but the response I’ve received has been nothing short of a gift. 

As I’d mentioned it was the “de facto” move for me to create this brand.  Right or wrong, I knew it was what I had to do to satisfy my professional, spiritual and intellectual desires in life, but I didn’t know if it was something that other people would understand.  When I received my first set of samples, it was already a little late in the game as most buyers were done with FW15, but I made a trip out to the US and began showing it to some buyers with whom I had relationships with like Saks, Kith and Fred Segal Feet.  They all got it immediately.  The message behind the brand seemed to resonate with them and they understood the impetus behind the collection and the design.  The press, whom could often be elusive for a new brand, seemed to also have a particular soft spot for what I was doing, which was amazing.  For something that came so deeply from my soul to be acknowledged and accepted so readily was a huge validation, not to mention a relief and deeply humbling.  At the expense of flattery, I would say, with every intention otherwise, that having the brand at Level Shoe District is one of the crowning achievements of my career.  

How do you see the brand evolving in the next five years?

In the one year since I first went to the factory to develop the collection to now where the brand is in stores, the evolution has already been incredible as it continues to develop more and more of a persona everyday.  It’s hard to say what it would be like in five years but I suppose I can try to imagine.  One thing that will be consistent is that I don’t seek any sort of supernormal growth for the brand but would continue to acquire distribution at a measured pace in more great retailers around the world, like Bergdorf Goodman whom will begin carrying FACTO for Spring 16.  The operation is very lean which means I can grow it at a pace that can allow for the brand’s longevity. 

I do think that the Internet and Internet of Things is and will continue to fundamentally affect how we live.  Making shoes is inherently a very traditional thing.  I have a lot of friends in tech that can create a piece of code and use that same intangible asset to resell and make money over and over again.  For better or worse, it’s very different from what I do but I thought about how I could take small measures to bring a tech element into what I do.  I thought about the online shopping experience and how a customer could get all sorts of information about a product via a webpage that they couldn’t necessarily get in the store.  I thought about how someone would be able to understand the story and the make behind a pair of FACTO shoes amidst a sea of other shoes.  

I began looking into NFC, which stands for Near Field Communications.  I thought about the application for shoes and what I could do with it.  Working with some of my tech friends, we found a paper-thin NFC chip that could be embedded into the tongue of the shoe, which would be activated when a smartphone was placed in its proximity.  The otherwise inert chip becomes charged when it receives a signal from the phone and would then send an instruction back to the phone to open up a webpage.  It sounds very complex but in practice it’s nothing more than putting your phone over the shoe and having a webpage open up without having to download anything.  It would either open a FACTO webpage or could go as specific as Level’s online shop to that particular item so that the consumer could get as much information as they would browsing a website.  The idea is to bring the information-rich, immersive experience of shopping online to shopping in store.   It’s a very basic usage of the technology but is something I hope to expand upon over time. 

I would also love to open flagship stores for FACTO.  Having done so in the past with JUMP, I realize it truly allows the brand to come to life and create environments to allow people to experience the brand in amazing ways.  It would be absolutely amazing to allow FACTO to have that experiential touchpoint with the consumer. 

Having a brand is like having a child and while I don’t have any children yet I feel I can probably relate to a parent now.  Once you’ve gone thru the process of giving birth to something you cannot help but love it and would do everything within your power to see it prosper and succeed.  It may be a strange attitude to take for something somewhat intangible but it’s become something of a way of life for me and while it’s hard to see how the brand will ultimately evolve, I know that I would do everything within my power to make it as great as it possibly can be. 

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