It’s one thing to go into an interview expecting to learn about a store you’re covering, and it’s another thing to end that meeting knowing so much more about the sneaker business as a whole. Sole Academy is a hidden gem located in Manila and it’s been on our radars for a while, so I linked up with Merchandising Director Jojo Hizon to learn more. I definitely learned a thing or two, but was more or less schooled on the lifestyle retail industry—the store’s name is very fitting because the dude knows exactly what he’s talking about. Jojo, who’s also a Nike alum, is in charge of working with all the products and talking to the brands, and making sure that those products fit into Sole Academy’s assortment. If you don’t already know, the store has two retail outposts in Manila, Philippines and is a Tier One Nike and New Balance account, which means they carry all the Quickstrike and special releases you hate sleeping on. They’ve also been making noise with some of the more limited Asics releases that recently dropped. Keep reading and let us know what you think via our Twitter and Facebook pages!

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Mariana Mandanas: What shoes are you wearing right now?
Jojo Hizon: Asics Gel Hollands, these are one of my favorite shoes right now.  I’m currently into sleeker stuff, so I’d rather wear running silhouettes because they match my shorts perfectly.  They also match my “basketball” legs. I joined the varsity basketball team at my school at a young age, and it just never stopped from there. When I entered college, I had to think about the future and chose not to pursue basketball. I ended up taking Industrial Engineering, which is a totally different field compared to sports or retail.

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MM: How’d you end up owning a sneaker store with an engineering degree?
JH: My first job was at Nike doing marketing, and I was there for about ten years. I took on the role of coordinating the retail trips of this promotional bus called the “Swoosh Mobile.” It was a good 6 month run, then I was given the role of an EKIN Training Specialist [Nike spelled backwards–an EKIN has to know Nike inside and out]. For me, that was one of the best jobs back then, even until now. I was exposed to all kinds of staff, training people, teaching people about the history of Nike, the technology that makes the brand innovative, etc. That gave me my first retail background, which actually helped form my high standard for retail excellence. Then I did sales with Nike for three years. Nike moved me to their Southeast Asia office in Singapore, where I did marketing specifically brand management where I covered Jordan Brand, Nike Basketball, Action Sports and Nike SB, and Nike Sportswear [NSW]. One of my dream jobs was actually to work for Jordan Brand, but in my tenth year with Nike, it just came to me that I should put up my own retail store. There was a big opportunity for me to move to the Nike Headquarters in Portland, but things turned around. I quit my “dream job” then moved back here and put up my first retail store.

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MM: Sounds like a huge risk. I mean, most people dream of working with Nike.
JH: [Laughs] Yeah, well my first store was actually an outlet store, not Sole Academy. It’s called MJ46, I started it with my best friend Michael in 2009. We had all categories there, sold everything but it was all discounted.  I told Mike that I wanted to elevate the whole factory outlet experience back then because I got exposed to a lot of factory outlet stores during my working years at Nike.

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MM: When did Sole Academy come into the picture?
JH: Back in 2010, my business partners and I were talking and asking ourselves how we could elevate our business relationship with Nike. Back then, there were so many Nike stores in Metro Manila—all the big malls have a Nike store inside. So we said—how do we take this to the next level? We saw a gap in NSW for Nike. Meaning, there were not a lot of retailers focusing on NSW, but people always brought back products from the States, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The way I was thinking about it…I’m always into bringing something new and trying something different. Back then, everyone was looking at basketball and I saw an opportunity for NSW. Actually, there weren’t a lot of retailers comfortable with NSW. So I thought—why not do that?

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MM: Were there any difficulties starting out?
JH:
Definitely a lot. Since I came from Nike, I thought it would be easy, but it was actually tougher because I was treated as a colleague. I wanted to be treated like a retailer. Product availability was also a problem. When we first started bringing in NSW in the Philippines, it was mostly your basic Tennis Classics and Blazers—none of the more exciting items we have today.

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MM: Clearly there’s been a big shift from that from carrying the typical, basic lifestyle styles to more exclusive exciting stuff. Just recently I saw you guys carrying the Independence Day pack and there are a lot of Quickstrike items in store…
JH:
Actually, Sole Academy officially opened in late 2011. Our first store opened across The Ateneo de Manila University, and we were the only shoe retail store there back then. It wasn’t really your typical retail location. There was just a lot of energy in the area because of all the people walking around at any time of the day. You don’t really think of that place as a mainstream retail area. People weren’t used to that because they usually went to malls. We felt we kinda changed the whole mindset of people there. Our original concept was inspired by the famous Dave’s Quality Meats [DQM] shop in NYC.  We wanted to open up a store in the middle of nowhere, where you would surprise the customers with really cool shoes inside. Back then, Nike actually convinced us to open up a multi category store at first, we had basketball, cross training, running and even Women’s Training. Nike wanted us to attack all categories and see what we were good at. That wasn’t the original plan though, but eventually things changed when we felt our assortment wasn’t relevant to the what we originally planned. In March 2012, we made a shift and really just started booking NSW for future releases.  It was a paradigm shift we felt was really timely.

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MM: What’s been the craziest release for you guys?
JH: I’ll answer this by brand. For Asics, it was the Highs & Lows Pack—we released that during the opening day of our second store [ in Alabang Town Center] and there was a long line for that. It was like, a $240 pack with a shirt, shoe, and a pair of socks. In this market, for a brand outside Nike to sell a pack for that much, it is kind of expensive, but it still sold out in a day. For Nike, it was one of the first few Roshe Run Quickstrikes—a fight broke out for that which we managed pretty well. And with New Balance, it was the Benjamins. They were really well-received, and because of that, now people know we have Tier One New Balance stuff.  But my favorite release is definitely the Air Max OG Pack. For me, it was the start of the whole sneaker game for Sole Academy.  Imagine waking up at 5am on January 1 just to be at the store to make sure everything was well-prepared.  Well, I don’t think you can imagine that as you may still be on a high after a good fireworks show on the eve of the 31st [laughs].

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MM: How do you guys get the word about releases? Do you use social media a lot?
JH: Yes, to a certain extent. But one of our partners—Carlo—is into the bar and nightlife business and sports runs really deep in his family.  We kind of leveraged on his contacts within the celebrity world. Through that, word spread pretty quickly. Martin David of SoleMovement.com was also a key person during that time [and he still is until now]. Back then, again, nobody really focused on lifestyle so people were sort of excited about it.  Beginning this year, Nike really just started to bring in the best products for NSW. I think they realized that we were really serious with the NSW products and they saw the energy that our group had, so that kinds jumpstarted the whole Quickstrike program for NSW. We’re now a Quickstrike account with them, and it’s been a work-in progress for close to two years.

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MM: Let’s talk about New Balance…you guys receive a lot of exclusives from them as well.
JH: We’re a Tier One New Balance account and yeah, we’ve got some crazy collabs from them in the past.  I think our dedication to elevating our brands was one major factor why we have been blessed with such a partnership.

MM: How about Asics? They’re one of the brands you carry pretty heavily here.
JH: Asics is growing so quickly, it’s a fast upcoming star. We were actually the first to come on board to carry this “heritage” Asics line—Gel Lytes, Gel Sagas, and the GT’s. A few years back, Asics here was mostly just running and Onitsuka Tiger—two extremes, there was no middle part. And that middle part is where you actually compete with Nike, New Balance, and whole lot of other brands. It worked out pretty well because we knew what we wanted to carry because we were really immersed with our core market.  We offered to elevate the products and I feel we have been successful with that so far.  The brand felt that if they spread the products to thinly across a myriad of channels, there was a chance that this category might die down if not taken care of.  The Gel Lytes really bring in the noise, though.

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MM: Was it your intention to have this “exclusive” vibe to your product lineup?
JH:  
When I talk to the brands, I’m not demanding. When I was with Nike, I hated it when other retailers bugged me for exclusives. I always think, you haven’t proven anything yet. Why would you ask for exclusives? I don’t approach brands with that angle, I tell them what we can do for them and show them that we can handle and elevate them. We were able to do a lot of justice for the brands, so confidence came in.

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MM: Do you find it difficult that you carry different brands that all compete outside of your store?
JH:
That’s a good question. When we streamlined the brands in the store, we made sure the brands were the best in their class, and that’s why our slogan is “Best in Class.” Based on feedback from people coming in, our top dogs are Nike, Asics, New Balance, Vans, and Puma. Now, if you compare an Asics Gel Lyte, an Air Max 1, and a New Balance 1600, you’ll think that they all look the same, that they all compete.  To some extent, yes they do, but for me, they are totally different and that they all have distinct core markets.

MM: Sort of like a different type of guy or girl would be wearing a different type of shoe. Like, you definitely have the “Nike guy” and the “New Balance guy” and they can be two completely different types of people…
JH: Exactly, it’s not that direct of a competition. They’re all the best brands in their respective fields. I want to have the best lifestyle products for Nike and NSW, the best lifestyle and heritage Gel running products for Asics, and the best lifestyle heritage products for New Balance. We also carry Vans Vault, Puma and Adidas, and those are completely different animals as well. We don’t intend to bring in everything just because it’s becoming hot at the moment or because it’s a fad.  We just want to make sure we have the best possible lifestyle proposition for this market.

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MM: What kind of person shops at Sole Academy?
JH: We get the authentic shoe collectors, people who want to try out something new and cool, and we get a lot of resellers. Here, we want customers to feel like we’ve edited the products, when they step inside the store they’ll think that these shoes are the best, unlike when you go into a bigger store and everything is there, literally everything! It really takes a lot of discipline when choosing an assortment.  Every product has to have a reason why it’s selected.

MM: Resellers…..wow. How do you feel about that? Most times resellers get hate for what they do.
JH: I feel they still bring energy to the sneaker game. Without them, we wouldn’t really be able to develop the sneaker business locally.  Sadly, most of the people who resell are just business people who just buy and don’t appreciate the shoe. One of the reasons we thought of putting up Sole Academy was to really bring in some depth in the culture of sneakers here in Manila. Although there are a lot of shoppers in Manila who are just resellers [people who just buy to sell], we’ve recently been able to connect with authentic collectors and users—we tap into our connections with other store owners, they will refer people and those people will vouch for other people. When we have releases, we try and make sure that these people are really taken care of. At the end of the day, we don’t want to alienate anybody, but we want to give priority to those “authentic” users–whose passion for sneakers goes beyond the peso.

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MM: So you’re basically helping out people who will help you back by progressing the whole idea of educating people on sneakers..
JH: Yes. If you’re a reseller, and you just buy it to sell it—the whole sneaker culture doesn’t benefit from that. But if you’re a real user, it’s more likely that you’ll spread the word. You’ll tell people that Sole Academy is a good place for sneakers. I always believe in “win-win.” You help us, we help you by welcoming you to the store.  But to be honest, we welcome everybody to the store because we believe that we all thrive in the same industry and if you eat us and we eat you, that’s not gonna help anyone. I really feel there’s a need for everyone to “preserve” the authenticity of this sneaker culture in this country.  Let’s help each other protect and develop this huge sneaker business because at the end of the day we’ll all benefit from it.

MM: It’s strange that you guys have accepted that.
JH: You have to, because if you don’t then you’re not “win-win.” What’s the most famous sneaker store that you know?

MM: Flight Club.
JH: See…and they re-sell for other people right? Why do you guys go to Flight Club?

MM: They have the best stuff. They have the most stuff.
JH: That’s true, but it’s not just that. It’s because they gave people an avenue to bring stuff in. I mean, they’re consignment, so it’s mostly not their stuff right? It’s just people hanging out there leaving and buying the best stuff. So, we wanted to bring that vibe here. Not that we wanted to resell, but we wanted people to have a place to converge. If you notice in both our store layouts, there’s a table in the middle of the store where you can just lean and talk and say, “Hey man, how was your day? Oh look at these sneakers, they’re cool.”

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MM: What’s the idea of the look behind your store?
JH:
We were inspired by the look and feel of some stores in LA and New York. Since our name is Sole Academy, we wanted our store to feel like a place where lifestyle and sneaker culture can be taught. So, if you look at our stores, you’ll notice the brick, wood floors—kind of like a library. We kept the minimalist feel with LED lighting concealed under the shelves to highlight the shoes so that they would really be the main focus.

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MM: You’re inspired by other stores, but what sets you apart?
JH:
If there’s one thing we really take pride on, it’s the customer service that our staff delivers–day in, day out. When we serve a shoe, we do in a very premium way.  We do it with gloves, we use a shoe horn, we tie the laces up for customers, and our staff is educated and trained on the shoes. Our staff encourages the customer to fit all they want and are trained to be approachable, and we want customers to feel like they’re not pressured to buy anything.  We want our staff to be the best brand ambassadors. That idea stems from us as well, my four business partners and I are a team, and our associates are part of our team. If you take note of how we are addressed in the store, it’s not by “Sir.” Instead, our staff calls us “Coach.” If you practice teamwork, it’ll work well for the whole store. We also refer to our staff as team members.  I’m a really hands on type of leader and ironically, I guess that’s why we haven’t expanded that quickly yet. One store is tough enough to run, there’s a lot of time, effort, and training to put into it. Two stores—wow. We’re targeting three more stores in different parts of Manila, but I want to make sure we perfect things first before we do so.

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MM: Let’s shift to non-business talk. Favorite sneaker of all time?
JH: The white, red, black Jordan 1s. They remind me of my love for Michael Jordan, growing up playing basketball, and it just reminds me of who I was, where I came from, and what came into my life. But I did collect most of the OG colors of Jordan I to XXIII, just because I couldn’t buy them growing up. One side of each pair is displayed in our MJ46 outlet store, and the other side is in our Katipunan location.  A lot of people ask us why we have Jordans there on display and we don’t even sell Retro Jordans.  We just tell them that this showcase will always be a reminder that all successful lifestyle sneakers, in one way or another, have been inspired by these shoes.  Well, who knows, we can always change the display to showcase all Air Max 90 versions in the past…

MM: That would be dope. What upcoming drops are you most looking forward to?
JH: We’re dropping cool Trainer 1s and 2s, and really any color of the Gel Lytes is exciting. Next year is gonna be big because the Brazil Olympics is coming up, so you can expect a lot of brands to come up with a Brazil story. Asics will have one, Nike will have one, New Balance too.

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MM: As a retailer, what is your ultimate dream?
JH: I want to come up with a collab with either Asics, Nike, or New Balance. At this day and age, I think you have to have a collab that has a story that connects to you. [Editor’s Note: Ronnie Fieg, holla at this guy!]

 

Special thanks to the Sole Academy Alabang Town Center staff. Select photos from the Sole Academy Instagram. For more information about the store and new releases, visit their website and Facebook page.