One to Watch: Elie Man of SoleWood

He’s ready to break out.

After five years of behind-the-scenes work in the footwear industry, designer Elie Man launched SoleWood, a collection of men’s shoes and accessories for spring ’13. As the name implies, each piece has some element of wood — even the sneakers are trimmed with 100 percent cherry and the seersucker fabric loafer has a wooden keeper.

The collection has been picked up by independent shoes stores and boutiques around the country. Steve Jamison, owner of Blue Sole Shoes in Philadelphia, carried the new label for the launch season and will reorder for fall ’13.

“There’s been a good reaction across the board,” Jamison said. “[My customers] gravitate toward something new.”

Man’s industrial design background inspired the launch, said the 29-year-old, who continues to work full-time as a product manager for Brain Lab, a design and product development firm. And while wood may seem an unlikely material for footwear and accessories, Man said the challenges of the medium are worth the extra effort. “I picked wood because I loved building furniture as a student at Carnegie Mellon,” he recalled. “I always loved the old craft feeling of wood and being able to use [a range of] textures and species. There’s something about the warmth of wood when it’s on a product.” However, he emphasized, “It has to be treated with a lot of time. It’s trial and error, prototyping over and over.”

Man has managed to incorporate wooden touches in wearable ways. The penny moc’s keeper, for instance, is a wood veneer backed in leather for flexibility. On the flip-flop, wood lines the heel of the insole and accents the upper. All the wood pieces used in the line are sustainable and sourced from countries including China, Malaysia and Canada.

In addition to footwear, the collection includes leather wallets with wood panels, ebony and bamboo wood sunglasses, wood headphones and wood skins for iPhones. Retail prices range from $65 for flip-flops to $120 for shoes, with wallets sold for $43 to $65, and headphones for $140.

According to Man, about 40 percent of the label’s offering is devoted to shoes, with the spring ’13 collection focused on three styles in a range of colors and materials. “I’m hoping shoes get to be the biggest part of the business because that’s my passion,” said Man, who has designed footwear collections at Brain Lab for brands including Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and Armani.

It was the line’s unique wood treatments that caught the attention of Portland, Ore.-based retail chain UnderU4Men. “There’s a fashion trend on the West Coast for things with a natural feel,” said owner Steven Lien, who bought SoleWood’s footwear, wallets and sunglasses. “The collection complements our other wood and wood-based products.” (Lien also offers a selection of men’s underwear in bamboo and rayon.) According to the retailer, the sandals are sophisticated and well priced. “Our swimsuits are a great match with the sandals,” said Lien, who plans to continue to offer the SoleWood sandals as a year-round look, thanks to the number of his customers who take cruises.

Brain Lab owner Max Debiase said the positive reaction to Man’s line comes as no surprise. “Elie has a great ability to combine marketing and product [skills],” he said. “He’s extremely up on what’s new in the [footwear] business. And he’s in tune with what the current generation is looking for.”

Moving into fall ’13, Man plans to expand his footwear offering with such looks as a high-top sneaker. “I’ve always thought [simple styles] were some of the best-selling shoes. I’m probably going to keep the line more casual and affordable for now,” he said.

While Man sees expansion opportunities down the road, he’s taking it one day at a time. “Everything I do is funded by my salary,” said the designer, who works on the collection on evenings and weekends out of his home studio. “Just to get to where I am today was a huge challenge. I plan on doing a lot of things. I have a huge appetite.”

Elie Man
Launch season: Spring ’13
Headquarters: Miami
Training: Man graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial design. Prior to his work in footwear, he designed luggage as well as medical devices.
Mentor: “[Max Debiase from Brain Lab] taught me everything about the shoe business. He’s taught me how to be a businessman and not just a designer. I’m constantly striving to do better and become something even bigger.”
Icons: Twentieth-century American designers Charles and Ray Eames, who pioneered trends in architecture, furniture design and photographic arts
Business lesson: “The Golbert family of Pajar, who I [design for], are a great example of what a business relationship should be. They treat everyone they do business with like family, from retailers and salespeople to those in their showroom. They’re genuine people.”

Access exclusive content