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Can This Upstart Athletic Brand Take on Nike and Adidas?

The twins behind Athletic Propulsion Lab, footwear’s most ambitious brand, share their unique strategy to steal market share.
APL Spring/Summer 2018 campaign | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Mosha Lundström Halbert

LOS ANGELES, United States — For the athletic behemoths, nothing is more sacred than their inescapable logos. Think of Nike's commanding swoosh and jumpman, or Adidas' iconic three stripes and trefoil. Sneaker upstart Athletic Propulsion Lab (APL) wanted none of this; their emblem-free aesthetic was just the first singular statement in an ascent that has been nothing short of remarkable.

APL’s California-based twin founders, Ryan and Adam Goldston, 30, are marketing the fusion of fashion with performance to elbow their way into the hardest to crack segment of the athletic industry. “We’re competing with giants,” says Ryan with ample bravado, of the $86 billion value of the global athletic footwear market. “That’s what makes it so exciting. The fact that there are so few players and it’s such a big ocean creates a lot of opportunity.”

In seven years, since their business plan served as Ryan’s grad thesis at University of Southern California, APL has become a player in performance sneakers, selling in 300 doors, including those of Lululemon. In the process, their refined trainers and running shoes have resonated with a discerning female customer, for whom they began a dedicated collection in 2014. Today, they say the women’s business makes up 65 percent of APL’s sales. “We have always felt that consumers, whether male or female, were craving products that didn't feature big emblazoned logos,” says Adam, whose own signifier is his long sculptural beard. “Instead, we let the materials, colours, technology and design tell the story.”

Or, as Ryan, the more close-shaven and blunt of the two puts it, in reference to the clichéd approach of their rivals, “We don’t just shrink it and pink it.” When APL does include a blush pink or “greige” colourway in their assortment, it’s for both men and women, while other novel unisex upper fabrications include a glow-in-the-dark knit, animal print calf-hair, woven metallics and even cashmere.

APL's atypical aesthetic is coupled with an unconventional retail approach.

The majority of footwear ranges from $140 to $160 for core performance styles made in China, but reaches to $495 for Italian-crafted quilted-leather lifestyle sneakers. They recently launched Lusso, a crocodile skin high-top painted with 24 karat gold, which rings in at $20,000. They say they have customers who have purchased multiple pairs. There is also a new assortment of sports apparel. “It was something our customers kept asking for,” says Ryan, though he notes that it's a small component of the business.

APL's atypical aesthetic is coupled with an unconventional retail approach. The brand has bypassed key sports points-of-sale, such as Foot Locker, in favour of department stores such as Selfridges and Bergdorf Goodman, high-end e-commerce portals like Net-a-Porter and concept shops from Level Shoes to Intermix, totalling 300 doors. The bulk of sales are made up of performance and active-casual trainers under $200, which are merchandised nearby the likes of $900 embellished Gucci sneakers. Effectively, it makes APL an easy athleisure add-on purchase for customers.

In 2017, activewear juggernaut Lululemon began selling APL’s knitted TechLoom Phantom and Ascend in some exclusive hues and a reflective yarn as their first and only footwear brand. Like the multiple campaigns, fitness videos and magazine shoots which have featured APL (most notably, Oprah on the cover of her 2016 Favorite Things issue) it’s the kind of prime placement their insignia-splashed rivals would be unlikely to score. “Our partnership with APL has enabled us to offer a one-stop shop to complete an outfit,” says Celeste Burgoyne, executive vice president of retail, Americas, for Lululemon. “[They] share our brand values of providing a quality technical product.”

The tipping point for their women’s business was Net-a-Porter, who picked up APL in early 2015 as part of its athleisure vertical. “Adam and Ryan offered exactly what we wanted — integrity as well as style,” says global buying director Elizabeth von der Goltz, who notes the APL’s sales volume competes with much bigger brands on the site.

Ryan and Adam Goldston, founders of APL | Source: Courtesy

The footwear industry is paying close attention to APL. Other notable sneaker start-ups include the buzzy All Birds, a Silicon Valley favourite for their simple wool "Runners" not actually intended for running, Swedish sneaker minimalists Axel Arigato, the Skechers-backed Brandblack, and Brooklyn-based Greats. While they all may share customers, price point and demographic with APL, Brandblack is the only other company offering shoes intended for training and actual sports activities.

Additionally, engaging female consumers with aspirational brand positioning has brought APL unprecedented results. While the company is solely owned by the Goldstons and does not disclose financials, they say that revenue has tripled year-over-year since they introduced women’s shoes. They personally value their business in the hundreds of millions (an optimistic figure for which they would provide no backup). “Our doors are being knocked down by private equity and investors,” boasts Ryan. “There isn’t anyone like us in this space.” APL will open their first standalone store this summer in Row DTLA, a co-working space in the downtown Los Angeles area. The company, which has twelve full time employees, is also moving its offices into the complex.

Growing up, their father Mark Goldston was the chief marketing officer of Reebok and president of L.A. Gear. After he showed them an early version of the latter’s light-up kids’ sneakers, the twins, then five, had some constructive criticism, suggesting he move the lights from the back to the sides. The elder Goldston took the advice and the L.A. Lights sneakers sold over 5 million pairs a year throughout the nineties. “Seeing kids all wearing them, you couldn’t tell us that it wasn’t our signature shoe,” says Adam. Extreme, unbridled confidence is another Goldston signature.

The twins studied at University of Southern California and both made the basketball and football teams. However, standing at under six feet did not lend itself to big-time dunks “We legitimately felt we needed to jump higher to compete at a higher level,” Adam says. They spent their college years developing their patented Load 'N Launch technology, a compression spring-based system that sits in the forefront cavity of the shoe, which they claim makes the wearer jump higher. “It takes the potential energy stored in the load phase of a jump and turns it into kinetic energy during the launch phase,” says Ryan. “The best way to think of the technology is like a diving board.”

Engaging female consumers with aspirational brand positioning has brought the company unprecedented results.

Despite a professor cautioning that selling the dubious-sounding sneakers online was never going to fly, they launched direct-to-consumer with the $300 Concept 1 basketball shoe. In a PR ploy, they earned the distinction of getting banned by the NBA, who cited the sneaker’s “undue competitive advantage.” The Goldstons saw this as the ultimate endorsement.

If big-name athletes eluded them, their closeness to the Kardashian/Jenner family afforded another form of lucrative superscription virtually for free. "I have known Ryan and Adam since they were in grade school," Kris Jenner tells BoF. "They were tremendous athletes, students and the best friends to my son, Rob," she says. With Kim Kardashian West as the first celebrity photographed in APL, followed by Kendall, Kylie, Khloe and Kourtney, it's no wonder that their women's business picked up. In October of 2015, she bumped into the twins in Paris during fashion week while they were meeting with the Barneys New York team and effectively closed the deal. "You couldn't ask for a better pitch," says Adam.

With impressive growth, accolades such as being named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2016 and being invited to speak at Harvard Business School, where the Goldstons participated in the recent Retail and Luxury Goods conference, APL is eyeing the big leagues. "From the moment I met them, they were such a force to be around," says Steven Kolb, president and chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Indeed, APL was the first athletic brand to be accepted to the CFDA. And while Kolb says they don't need his business advice, he does offer some sage personal coaching for the hyperactive duo. "They are incredibly driven. It may be helpful for them to take a deep breath every so often, just chill and enjoy the ride. Success is a marathon, not a sprint."

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