September 30, 2022


Sports Really Satisfies

How it started: Charlotte-based Feetures grew from small-town NC to a global sock brand

John, Joe and Hugh Gaither. Courtesy of Feetures

How it started is a regularly recurring series that takes a peek behind the curtain of Charlotte small businesses. It’s inspired by NPR’s How I Built This, a podcast hosted by Guy Raz.

Today in Charlotte fun facts: Did you know Peloton’s sock partner is a local company.

Yes, it’s Feetures, a brand started by a family with a long history in North Carolina textile manufacturing,

Why it matters: Textile manufacturing helped establish many small towns throughout North Carolina. Now this company is modernizing processes the family learned decades ago to adapt to a changing sports apparel industry.

  • Today, Feetures develops one of the most popular socks around, and they also have that partnership with Peloton.
  • The Feetures sock, made of sustainable fibers, is form-fitting and aims to prevent slipping and blisters, the management team tells Axios.

“The one thing about socks, if you’re active, whatever it is you’re doing, you don’t want to be thinking about your socks,” president and CEO Hugh Gaither tells Axios. “If you’re thinking about your socks, that means there’s a problem.”

Flashback: Gaither spent 27 years working in a hosiery manufacturing along with his father, grandfather and cousin. The firm, Ridgeview, produced private-label hosiery products for big-name customers such as Target and Walmart.

  • In 2000, the firm went out of business, and Gaither began to think about his next move.

One day that year, Gaither, an avid runner, was in a mall in Hickory shopping for socks. The options, Gaither said, looked “stale.”

“The socks that were there in 2000 were the same ones around in the 1980s,” Gaither says.

Maybe, Gaither thought, there’s an opportunity to make a different product, a superior one to what’s already out there. He decided in this next phase of his career, he wanted to focus more on the brand rather than the manufacturing part of the business.

  • At the time, funding for the business came from the family, plus a little from friends and a little borrowed from the bank. Gaither started subleasing a small space about two blocks from the family home in Newton.
  • Gaither found a manufacturing partner in South Korea and began designing a sock with a seamless toe.

“In my previous world, everything was about price. … This time I thought we would make a better product and sell it to a different kind of marketplace,” Gaither says.

Zoom out: The running boom in the U.S. began in the 1970s, with the launch of city marathons all over the country, including in Charlotte.

  • The Charlotte Observer Marathon started in the late 1970s and eventually became the Novant Health Charlotte Marathon.

By the time Gaither launched his new venture in 2000, people were looking for performance gear from head to toe. The  timing worked out well for his family, too. Gaither’s son, John, had just graduated from Davidson and was looking for a job, so he joined his father.

  • Gaither’s other son, Joe, was in high school at the time of the company’s formation. But he came up with the Feetures name as a teenager, and ultimately joined the family business after graduating from UNC in 2009.

Courtesy of Feetures

Early on, the Feetures team had sales reps distribute the socks all over, including to specialty stores like Run For Your Life. It was those smaller stores, Hugh Gaither says, that began calling back more often for re-orders.

  • Soon, John began focusing the company’s marketing specifically on runners, Hugh says. That, he adds, helped Feetures gain significant market share early on. It also opened the door eventually to larger retailers such as Dick’s and Sports Authority.

“Runners are some of the most demanding consumers when it comes to a true performance sock. They saw the value in it and were willing to pay $10-plus (per pair),” John Gaither says.

About eight years ago, when Joe and John were living in Charlotte, they started pushing their father to relocate the company’s headquarters from Newton to Charlotte. Here, the opportunities were greater to tap into a larger talent pool to fill jobs in crucial areas like marketing, planning and product design, the sons say.

The company’s grown its sales every year since its inception, Hugh Gaither says. Demand for running socks continued to rise during the pandemic, the Gaithers say, as gyms closed and people began running and exercising outside.

What’s happening: Feetures recently hired its 50th employee. Today, they’re in 1,500 specialty running stores nationwide.

  • The company has its corporate offices in the Design Center of the Carolinas in South End, a neighborhood increasingly popular for employers seeking top talent.

“We’ve been able to attract talent recently from some of the larger employers in Charlotte,” Joe Gaither says. “Somebody might work for a law firm in marketing and realize they want to come work for a brand in a small family firm where they can make a big impact.”

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