Sometimes a gem hides in the spam folder. This is how this story begins: with a Melbourne-based cycling shoe entrepreneur, Nick Squillari, who drinks a cup of coffee in the morning and cloudily deletes a series of emails sent through the contact form of the website for his company, VeloKicks.
“I need to sift through what’s 99% garbage in case there’s a request for sizing info or the like…or an offer to create custom kicks for Dua Lipa,” he said. recalls Squillari.
In his junk mail, he said, there was one that looked a little different. “That email seemed pretty well written for spam,” Squillari thought. “So I put it in the Google machine and saw that the guy’s LinkedIn page was pimping – he was on the management team at Toyota Center, Houston, and he wanted something for Dua Lipa. ”
“Either it’s the best scam ever or it’s legit,” Squillari recalls.
British pop star Dua Lipa had a show in Houston just four and a few weeks away, and the management there wanted a souvenir for her. “Whenever a great act happens, they try to give them something personalized, so that they have a great experience and want to come back,” says Squillari.
The site had received a warning that Dua Lipa was a cyclist, and she was going to be surprised with cycling shoes halfway through her world stadium tour.
There were about to have cycling shoes with Dua Lipa’s name (literally) on them, and VeloKicks had four weeks to make it a reality. Time passed.
VeloKicks was established in December 2015 as an Instagram account based on cycling shoes, before, on New Years Day 2017, pivoting into becoming a full-fledged shoe brand. One of the driving forces behind the company is Nick Squillari – not only a co-founder of VeloKicks, but also a podiatrist and practical cyclist in his own right. Since he launched the brand, it has grown to where it is today – with a range of seven models, having carved out a place in the market as an Australian alternative to the big brands.
According to Squillari, 95% of VeloKicks’ revenue is off-the-shelf templates, but there’s still 5% that moves the needle on social media — the custom stuff. VeloKicks was an early adopter of custom artwork on cycling shoes, a segment that has since grown exponentially. Custom VeloKicks offers start at around AU$699, but are priced per project. Compared to the growing crop of rivals, “I like to think we’re going to different depths and from new angles,” says Squillari.
“Custom painted casual kicks are a billion dollar industry,” says Squillari, “and cycling is really starting to get into it too.” On the one hand, this was driven by Instagram and, on the other hand, by advances in paint technology.
Market leader Angelus Direct has taken things a step further with its range of acrylic leather paints, others like Liquid Paints have followed suit. “[Angelus Direct] saw the trend happen and was one step ahead of everyone,” says Squillari. “You need paints that are flexible enough to use in a shoe application. The paint should flex – not stretch, not crack.
VeloKicks works with several footwear artists based around the world – artists who also make custom sneakers and football boots, as well as cycling shoes. It’s a time-consuming and detail-oriented process. “Normally it takes about eight weeks at best,” according to Squillari.
It wasn’t going to be enough here.
From the company’s headquarters in Victoria, Australia, Squillari contacted Northern Irish shoe artist Shea Gribbon – aka The Shoe Dr. – for quick mock-ups from a list of concepts suggested by Toyota Center management. The artwork they eventually settled on was inspired by a disco ball design, with an abstract pink depiction of Dua Lipa on the side – a nod to the album cover of nostalgia for the futureher critically acclaimed disco-pop hit.
Gribbon got to work with mock-ups and Squillari, on the off chance, shipped two pairs of all-white Blanco Dial shoes to Northern Ireland from the company’s Torquay warehouse. Dua Lipa was between shoe sizes, so Gribbon painted two identical pairs — a 39 and a 40 — then rushed them to Houston.
By the time they arrived at their final destination, the shoes had done some pretty serious air miles. “It was, uh, pretty expensive,” Squillari laughs.
Dua Lipa is in the midst of a pretty staggering streak of success, with her song “Levitating” reaching number one on the US charts; it has been in the top 100 for over 70 weeks, the longest song ever recorded by a woman. The musical album from which it is taken, nostalgia for the future, topped the UK charts and received six Grammy nominations. Dua Lipa is also an LGBT activist and part of a wave of politically engaged young pop stars campaigning for the rights of oppressed minorities in Sudan, Palestine and Kosovo – the country where her parents and parents are from. where she lived for some time as a child.
As a cyclist, she is a bit more of a blank slate. As you’d expect for an artist with 80 million followers, her Instagram profile seems like a fairly carefully constructed marketing tool, but there are some glimpses of a passion for bikes. She has a vintage green city bike on which she transports her dog in a basket on the front, and paparazzi have captured her for rides in the past.
Apparently, she’s also a spin bike enthusiast – and maybe even a secret road cyclist. After all, Squillari reasons, “these are road shoes, not spin shoes. As a cyclist, you are pretty much incognito once you put on the helmet and sunglasses. Maybe it’s his escape.
It’s a nice thought. Cyclists are a passionate bunch, and a world-class personality like Dua Lipa in the peloton could help grow the community. Perhaps it would even increase the visibility of cyclists – bring the slightest hint of promotion of the bicycle in the Billboard charts.
Either way, Squillari seems pretty happy with how it all turned out. In Houston this week, half a world away from the Australian warehouse where the shoes came from and the Northern Irish artist who painted them, after four and a half manic weeks, Dua Lipa received her surprise gift .
“She tried them both on, kind of like a Cinderella slipper, and we’re going to do a charity auction for the pair that didn’t fit,” Squillari said.
One of the biggest pop stars in the world wearing a pair of your cycling shoes: not a bad result for spam.