Hoka co-founder Jean-Luc Diard with three of his shoes
Maxwell Frank
Hoka co-founder Jean-Luc Diard with three of his shoes
Jean-Luc Diard with a number of his creations. (Photo: Maxwell Frank)

The Mastermind Behind Your Favorite Shoes Is About to Disrupt the Shoe Industry. Again.

Jean-Luc Diard, cofounder of Hoka, has been innovating in the outdoor world for decades, and he’s not done yet

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The Willy Wonka of the running world is walking down the sidewalk of a sprawling office park, taking a new shoe for a ride. “First there are little movements that help us notice the feeling,” he says in a thick French accent. Jean-Luc Diard, 65, is the mastermind and cofounder of the wildly successful running brand Hoka and—as he does almost every day—he’s testing another one of his inventions outside the Deckers X Lab in sunny Goleta, California, just north of Santa Barbara.

I’m trying to keep up as he begins to jog, then accelerates up a hill, his tanned silhouette and longish gray-brown hair bouncing rhythmically. He cuts left and runs down a steep stretch of pavement behind the lab and its warehouse while zigzagging sharply to assess the shoe’s cornering ability. He reminds me of a child playing with a new toy.

It’s the spring of 2022, and Diard and I are on the fifth and final pair of the day, all run on the same test loop through the parking lot, just outside X Lab’s 3D printing facility (which features signs like: “Warning: Potential Combustible Dust Hazard” and “Danger: Keep Fingers Away from Blade”). Any promising attributes will be filed away for future testing and, if they pan out, work their way into offerings from Deckers’ subsidiary brands, which include Hoka, Sanuk, Teva, and Ugg.

The last shoe we try is a sneaker, then called the XS Speed, that he’d given me to wear to lunch. It looked good with my white jeans, like an urban-ready pair of kicks for summer. “It’s a casual shoe, right?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, “But you know—catch me if you can.” It was a confusing statement, and one I’d only understand later.

The XS Speed came as a surprise after the earlier performance models we’d run in. It was monochromatic and seemed a little too on trend to run well—it reminded me of an all-white Tretorn, but with the bounciest foam I’d ever felt beneath my feet. The unassuming shoe was my favorite of the bunch. Which, it turns out, is sort of the point.

It was both light and stable, with a three-dimensional, sloped, and swallow-tail-shape carbon plate sandwiched between new foam compounds. Now called the Hoka Transport X, the shoe is what Diard calls a super sneaker—not a runner, but a sneaker, as in Converse or Vans. The Transport X was launched by Hoka on April 18. With it, Diard hopes to upend the footwear industry forever once more.

Diard and writer Lisa Jhung share a laugh on the X Lab campus. (Maxwell Frank)

As a young ski racer and business school student, Diard took an internship with global ski, run, and hike giant Salomon at its headquarters in Annecy, France. While there in 1982, he raced the French national ski championships in a competing brand’s ski boots. Company founder George Salomon saw Diard at the event and asked him why he wasn’t racing in Salomons.

“I wasn’t sure what to say,” recalls Diard, “I told him it was a good concept, but it has this, this, this, and this issue.” Salomon replied, “All right, do you mind coming down with me in the car and coming straight to the R&D department? You are going to explain why.”

Diard’s feedback and growing interest in the brand’s products grew into a fanatic devotion to research and development at Salomon. Over the span of 16 years, he went from intern to CEO of the company, filing numerous patents along the way (he now has 35 under his name). One of them was for a “ski with dissymmetrical lateral surfaces,” filed in 1987, which became the first monocoque ski  followed by the first parabolic short ski. Melding his experience on the slopes as a ski racer with his natural ingenuity and innate desire to push the status quo of product design, Diard had a huge part in developing modern skis. When he was CEO, Salomon had 3,000 employees. The joke was: there were 2,999 employees to make Diard’s ideas a reality—and that still wasn’t enough.

“It’s like a peloton,” says Chrisophe Aubonnet, who interned and worked as a developer at Salomon before helping Diard launch Hoka. “Someone in the front leads the pack. It’s not always easy to be behind if he’s going too fast. Sometimes people in the back suffer to keep the pace.”

In 2007, his last year at Salomon, Diard attended the Outdoor Retailer trade show and was milling around a booth displaying minimalist backpacking and adventure-racing apparel and equipment when he got an idea: What if I tried something completely opposite? He’d been following trends in skis, mountain bikes, and golf clubs, and noticing that they were getting bigger and fatter while remaining lightweight. If we make a shoe that is actually very light, and that would be oversize, there’s probably something there, he thought. He left the booth and scribbled down a note for himself that simply read: “XXXL.”

If you know running shoes, you know the rest of the story. Diard and fellow Frenchman Nicolas Mermoud introduced Hoka One One and its then highly unconventional thick-soled running shoes to the U.S. in 2009, disrupting a thriving market of minimalist shoes in the wake of Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run. The company set a course for running shoes that hasn’t shifted yet: almost a decade and a half later, there’s virtually no running brand on the market that doesn’t have at least one oversize, cushy shoe in its roster. Deckers bought Hoka in 2012, and Diard became global vice president of innovation for the larger company. In August of 2022, Hoka reported $1 billion in sales.

Diard partway through the multi-day, multi-sport 2003 Raid Gauloises in Kyrgyzstan, one of many adventure-racing events in which he competed as part of Team Salomon. (Courtesy Jean-Luc Diard)

So Diard has earned the right to tinker. He and his team of engineers and designers—five in Santa Barbara, six in China, and four in Europe—test and create boundary-pushing concept shoes. They sell these insanely comfortable parkour shoes (really), slides, and casual sneakers and boots direct-to-consumer under the boutique Deckers X Lab brand. If the products show promise in testing or in sales, the other Deckers brands integrate aspects of those shoes into their own lines.

That’s why I’m in Santa Barbara: to see how Wonka’s candy bars are made. I’m standing on concrete in between gray office buildings after lacing up a ridiculously oversize running shoe—even by Hoka standards— with a shape so radical and so top secret that I’m not allowed to describe it here.

I walk a few steps, then run a few. “Crazy!” I exclaim. And it is. Too crazy to come to market, Diard tells me. Instead, just 20 pairs were made to “investigate new concepts,” he says, like if it increases the feeling of floating. “Go extreme, and then scale back,” says Diard.

The too extreme shoe, a prototype first produced in 2018, led to some of Hoka’s wilder designs, including one of the hot trends in running shoes right now: the swallow tail. Trademarked by Diard, the SwallowTail is a protrusion of the midsole and outsole extending off the back of a shoe like flames from a rocket, with a notch cut into the center of it. It’s purposely shaped like a split-tail ski or snowboard. In a running shoe, the two sides of the notched foam are meant to work like independent suspension systems to “level out imperfect strides,” says Diard.

Versions of the SwallowTail now appear on 80 percent of all Hoka shoes, including Outside’s summer 2022 Gear of the Year winner, the Tecton X trail-running shoe, and the past few iterations of the top-selling Clifton. And, as often happens in the running-shoe industry, midsole shapes resembling the SwallowTail have since appeared on shoes from many other brands, from the New Balance SuperComp Trainer to the Brooks Aurora-BL.

That first SwallowTail iteration may not have sold millions of models, but they did what Diard wanted them to: “When you come to market, you shock. You surprise. You go big boom,” he says. “You know that it’s going to be controversial. But at the same time you start to develop the takedowns that are not as radical, and after a year people start to get used to the idea and it becomes more normal.”

On the wall of Diard’s X Lab office are the words “Ripping up the rule book,” in letters cut out from magazines, like a ransom note. Next to the sign are product samples. And mixed in among final versions of shoes are funky prototypes, inspiration pieces, and Deckers X Lab products, like the KST-21 and updated KST-35 for parkour athletes. “Parkour, and freeride as a concept in general, is the ultimate in versatility,” Diard explains when I ask about them.

On the back of an office chair is a rainbow-colored fuzzy swatch of fabric that must be for something Ugg related. Then there’s a material Diard is considering for the X Lab Ko-Z Slide: shearling, used for an upper that’s mounted on a Hoka-like oversize midsole. And on Diard’s desk is a prototype sandal that has what appears to be a bubble underfoot.

Geoffrey Gray, who heads up the shoe-testing Heeluxe Lab just down the road in Santa Barbara, knows Diard’s demands well. His facility is where Deckers and many other shoe brands go for quantitative testing of fit, cushion, stability, traction, flexibility, volume, durability, and more. “Jean-Luc is probably one of the only people who comes to us and says, ‘All right, we have to find a new measurement. I know why we’re measuring this with carbon-plated shoes, but I think there’s something else. Go measure everything, and let’s see if anything sticks,’” Gray says. And he’s usually right.

Diard is always thinking about the next shoe. (Maxwell Frank)

Diard’s garage wall dons a homemade rack system that holds hundreds of shoes—his own prototypes and models from various brands. In front of the shoes sits a forest green Porsche Macan, which he drives through the winding, eucalyptus-lined streets of swanky Montecito to get us to the Romero Canyon Trailhead, one of his favorites. Due to his early-morning meetings with Europe and his late-night meetings with Asia, Diard’s workweek runs consist of midday test loops around the concrete office park in Goleta. On weekends, however, he heads out for six-to-nine-hour product-testing trail runs.

On the three-mile, 1,500-foot climb up Romero Canyon—where we’re both wearing X Lab prototype trail-running shoes embedded with plates of some sort (he won’t tell me what material the plates are made of) and waist belts that wear more like a girdle than any others on the market (“to lay flat on the body”)—we talk about how a global view on product, business, and life is important. How adventure racing, with its multiple disciplines, is sort of like a 30,000-foot view on product development. How having employees in their twenties provides fresh perspectives on business. “I always hire young people who do many sports,” he tells me. He is always searching for another way to understand a product.

Most of his ideas come while he runs, so he has taken to recording voice memos of his thoughts on his phone as he goes. “Because you are there, you run, and things kind of sink in some ways,” he says. “They digest naturally, and all of a sudden—pop! bop!—you have something.”

At the top of the climb, Diard and I swap shoes (we have the same size foot). He sometimes runs with a second pair in his backpack, he says, and switches them midway or runs with one model on one foot and one on the other.

On the descent, we talk more about the super sneaker, a category that he doesn’t believe exists yet. He says he loves the idea of general consumers as well as colleagues at Hoka thinking, Oh, I didn’t know I needed that, but now that I have it, it fully makes sense. Or just that they’re cool. When I arrive home in Colorado wearing an all-white prototype of what has since been released as the Hoka Transport X, my budding sneakerhead 14-year-old son gives me a, “Yoooo, those are sick!”

Sometimes Diard’s presentations to Hoka go so well that the brand decides to roll a Deckers X Lab shoe into the Hoka line. When I visited, Diard wasn’t sure whether the prototype shoe would come to market under the Deckers X Lab label or be adapted in some form by Hoka. When I asked him if he’d rather get credit for industry-changing designs, he just shrugged and smiled. He does, however, admit that it’s sometimes hard to let go. “There’s always that little moment of handing over the baby,” he told me, laughing.

Hoka, as a brand, seems to benefitting greatly from the resources of Deckers, sure. But also from Diard’s ongoing innovations and ability to think five steps ahead, his internal compass leading him to push boundaries in areas of design, materials, and categories. Diard, in turn, seems to be benefiting from having generous funding from Deckers for a 3D-printing lab, and a team of engineers and designers around the world, and the green light to basically keep playing around.

In fact, Deckers is so impressed with the Diard’s work on the Transport X that the company is planning to launch an entirely new brand around the concept, to be announced this fall. With that, Diard is on to the next thing—which he couldn’t share with me. At least not yet.

It might not be a perfect idea. It might even be a mistake. “But,” he says, “it’s a permanent quest.”