February 23, 2023
9 min read

Play&Co(nversations) | A Conversation with Rollie Nation Founder, CEO, and Designer Vince Lebon

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 I first met Vince in New York in early 2018 while we were both at the Adidas Brooklyn FARM. We immediately connected because of our shared focus, hands-on approach, and curiosity to learn new skills and tools. I had no clue about his background or his journey as a designer, but after an enlightening coffee chat I was blown away by what he’d already accomplished. Now back in Melbourne, Vince has clearly taken the learnings from his experience in the US and is bringing Rollie Nation to the next level.

-Jason McGinnity, Play&Co Senior Designer

Play and Co: Thanks for joining us today, Vince! First things first — who is “Vince” and what is your background as a designer leading up to founding Rollie Nation?

Vince: Thanks for having me! I am a father, founder, and forever curious design collaborator. I’m a first-generation Australian. I was born in Quatre Bornes, Mauritius and moved to an underprivileged neighborhood in the western suburbs of Melbourne when I was 1 year old. My father worked multiple jobs, which inspired me. He always told me to never do a half job. Growing up, I was one of the few black people in school and excelled in math and science. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, but I realized it wasn't what I wanted, so I shifted focus and pursued art and design instead, mainly in photography and graphic design. I refined my portfolio through weekend classes with the help of an art teacher who believed in my work. After graduating high school, I got a chance to interview for a post-grad design course, even though I was only 17 years old and had no experience. I got accepted and became a multimedia designer, specializing in website design, video design, and 3D animation. However, I struggled to find work because of my age and lack of working experience, so I started working at a shoe company as a multimedia designer. After six months, I moved into product design and brand management. I designed my first shoe collection in Photoshop and sold 3000 pairs without making a single sample. This was the start of my footwear career.

Unlike many footwear brands that are based in Portland, Oregon, or elsewhere in the United States, you founded Rollie Nation in Melbourne, Australia. How has being in the Melbourne and greater Australian community influenced the Rollie brand?

Being in Melbourne has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to creativity and inspiration. On one hand, being away from the mainstream allows for a unique perspective and original ideas. On the other hand, finding people with a similar level of skill and creativity can be challenging. However, building relationships with like-minded individuals and putting in the work can lead to collaboration opportunities. As one's portfolio grows, so does the potential for bigger and better projects. In the end, it's not about what one is capable of, but what they put out into the world.

Okay, clearly you have some entrepreneurial spirit and “magic” that blends well with industrial design. Where did that “magic” come from, or is it a learned skill for you?

As an immigrant, you reach a point where you can let the challenges you face hold you back, or use them as fuel. For me, I use them as fuel, although there have been times when it works against me. I had a blue-collar mentality, believing that hard work pays off, but I eventually realized that smart and focused work pays off more than grinding away until 2am every night. When I told my mother I wanted to pursue a career in art and design, she was skeptical about my ability to make a living doing that. However, I landed a job in footwear and was eventually promoted to product, which allowed me to travel the world and attend trade shows. I quit that job to start a joint venture with a Chinese printing company, which my parents also thought was crazy. Despite not knowing any black people with successful businesses, I had an inner belief that I would make it work. For me, I knew that if my business failed, I would just build another company and not return to a job so I was determined to make this one work. When people ask me how I succeeded and have plans to have their own company, I found that they were never focused enough on the customer's needs and the value they would provide.

Your background is fascinating and is surely one built on hard work and grit. How has this informed your approach to creative direction at Rollie, and how do you approach creativity in general these days?

Customers are not designers. They understand value, but not how to design. As a designer, it's my job to think ahead and bring delight into their lives by providing value through the experiences, comfort, innovation, and sustainability of a product. When I first launched my shoe brand over 10 years ago, I introduced a lightweight shoe, which wasn't popular at the time. After launching this shoe, Nike began promoting the benefits of lightweight shoes, which helped my brand. We also introduced a women's shoe with a men's tailored look, and a white sole on a dress shoe, which were innovative for the time. However, over time, we stopped innovating, and the shoe was copied by others, making it a bit stale. One of the reasons for this was my losing focus and spending too much time on other projects. That was a learning experience for me to come back and laser-focus on my creative direction and maintaining the focus, which emanates into the actual products we have on the shelves today.

Dialing in on that a little further, what does your design process look like? Rollie creates finished products in the form of footwear, but you also have retail and brand experience. How do you incorporate these together and where do you start?

Designing, for me, always starts with an emotional feeling that we want to evoke and provide value to the person experiencing it. This is the guiding principle behind our design process, but the method of getting there changes each time. It could be a simple sketch, a 3D animation or model, physically making a product, or collaborating with someone else. My background is diverse, from traditional shoe-making to modern techniques like using a sewing machine or adopting a scrum and agile approach to product development. I never tackle things the same way and it's about what the emotional feeling needs from the design process. The medium used to bring that emotion to life may differ each time, but my process remains consistent. It involves ideation, concepting, iteration, and constant refinement. The goal is always to bring that emotional feeling to life in a way that provides value to the person experiencing it.

What about design inspiration? Are there any designers or brands or design movements you look towards to kick off that process?

I get asked this one often! The answer to it might seem cliché, but it's like everything in life. I believe that as a designer, my role is to respond to the emotional needs of people in different times. For example, if there's an economic downturn, and people need to feel joy and positivity, then I'll focus on creating designs that have bright colors and fun experiences that can uplift their spirits. I also like to do the unexpected, especially when everyone else is going in the opposite direction.

When it comes to industries for color inspiration, I look to the tech industry and automotive industry. These industries have a longer lifespan compared to fashion, which changes every year. In these industries, colors have to stay in the market for at least three to five years. That's why I find these industries so interesting to look at for color inspiration.

Moreover, as a secret, I attend events like CES and keep an eye out for colors that haven't even been released yet. By the time I release my collections, and popular brands like Apple and car companies start incorporating those colors, I've already been using them for a while, and it helps my collections stay relevant for a longer time.

On the note of responding to the emotional needs of audiences, there's been a lot of tech layoffs so far in 2023 and general malaise with the “state of things”. Where do you look for positive vibrations that reverberate through the noise and into design sprints?

Life is all about perspective. If you want to feel positive, start by thinking positively and surrounding yourself with those thoughts. There's an old Chinese myth about a son who breaks his leg on a horse and everyone calls it unlucky, but when there's a war and he's not forced to go because of his broken leg, everyone says he's lucky. This mentality that things are neither good nor bad is a great way to live. We don't know if something great will turn out to be great or if something bad will only be bad. It's about living in the moment and enjoying the journey. And I think the beauty is I've traveled so much over the years that I've had time by myself to reflect and constantly be looking for, you know, I guess meaning and everything. And so it's a journey for me just like everyone else, but I love to take that approach of just going for it. I don't know if it's good or bad. It's as simple as that. It just is.

Great answer. So on that note, what’s next for Vince and Rollie over the next two to three years?

Well, last year Rollie turned 10 years old and 2023 will mark our 11th year in business. Thinking back to when our team began brainstorming what we could do to mark the first decade, our head of marketing suggested doing a golden ticket giveaway for a year's worth of shoes… but I wanted to think bigger. I wanted to use our birthday to lay out a plan for the next 10 years. My vision for Rollie is not just to sell shoes, but to build experiences and be a pioneering brand. That's why we have the largest digital art gallery in the southern hemisphere and have been winning awards since re-focusing the business. Focusing on what you want to achieve is key to a successful business. It's not enough to just want a business or a big business, you need to always focus on balancing profitability with providing value. My goal is to build a global brand and do cool things with cool people. It's that simple.

Finally, if there was a young and ambitious designer who wanted to build their own brand, who perhaps might be an immigrant or person of color like yourself, who might need somebody to look up to, what sort of advice might you give them?

It's important to understand that what matters is not what you're capable of doing, but what you put into the world. You know, your drive to act on your capabilities. There are many talented people who could be more fulfilled and living their dreams if they just put in the work, release that creative project they've been working on, or take the risk to pursue their passions. Your capacity for capability is meaningless without the discipline to put in the work and make it happen.

Vince Lebon
Founder, CEO & Designer at Rollie Nation
Instagram: @vince_lebon
Winner of 'Lace Up; The Ultimate Sneaker Challenge' TV show on YouTube Red with Adidas
Winner Pensole x Foot Locker x Asics
No.4 in Inside Retail's Top 50 People in E-commerce 2021
Advisory Board Member at eTail™

Rollie Nation
Learn about Rollie Nation: https://www.rollienation.com/
Instagram: @rollienation
Named 20 Coolest Retailers in Australia by Inside Retail
Finalist, Online Store of the Year. Inside Retail Retailer Awards 2023
Finalist, Best Store Design / Concept. Inside Retail Retailer Awards 2023.
WGSN Brand to Watch
Sold in leading stores in countries around the world including Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France, Netherlands, Germany, Canada and USA.

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