QUOC exists to get more people on bikes through better shoes and better ride experiences. But before 'QUOC', the brand, came Quoc, the man: a cyclist and fashion school graduate who in 2009, simply set out to design a pair of shoes that he himself wanted to wear. In this interview, he offers an insight into the journey his namesake brand has been on: how it started, the lessons that were learnt, and where it's going next.
When did you start cycling, and how would you describe your history with cycling?
I was first drawn to cycling as a young child, looking up to my brother who owned a bike, and running after him through the streets as we grew up in Vietnam. At 5-years old, my family and I made an international move to the UK, escaping the political instability that marred the region at the time and spending 3 interim years in a refugee camp in Malaysia. In that time, I never forgot his bike and later, growing up in London, I saved up to buy my own. A red, second-hand road bike, which I used to cycle to and from school, and to the track and field.
Quoc (left) growing up as a child in Vietnam.
How did you get into shoe design?
I got into fashion design in textiles class in secondary school. Partly inspired by my mum who was a seamstress, and partly encouraged by my teachers who recognised my affinity for dressmaking, I enrolled in Central Saint Martin's to study Fashion Design. When I graduated, I started a menswear label, but was always drawn to collecting and designing shoes. When the label wrapped up in 2008, I looked at ways to merge the two main passions of my life: shoes and cycling – with cycling having increasingly become my main source of exercise, transport and mental retreat in the high-paced world of fashion – and that’s how QUOC began.
Where did you draw inspiration for the brand?
At the time, the cycling shoes that were available on the market mainly consisted of techy, race-orientated designs that were at odds with smarter, leather dress shoes that I was wearing off the bike. I felt inspired to create shoes that appealed to the discerning cyclist, and that celebrated the diverse ways that people enjoy bikes. At the time, I actually didn't do a lot of research into modern cycling shoes. I was really influenced by the classic era of cycling, the use of leather and suede, and the seasoned craftsmanship that had grown out of generations of British shoemaking tradition.
How did you go about learning the process of shoemaking?
I was a fashion designer and hadn’t trained in shoe making – so at the beginning, this process really came from love; the love of shoes, and the love of something very elegant on your feet. I started out visiting the tannery, learning everything I could about leather; where it comes from, what’s good leather, what’s bad leather, what’s the right thickness of leather for a shoe. Then I started educating myself in the last, visiting the final remaining lasting factory (based in Northampton), and understanding everything from the anatomy of the foot. The bones, the pressure points, how the blood flows. And finally, how the craftsmen sculpt their lasts from a block of wood.
How has the brand developed since then?
Coming from the fashion world, you're trained to adopt an entirely creative approach, to not worry too much about practicalities of making the product, to simply think outside of the box. But by growing a brand from the ground up, going through the motions of securing production, and talking to customers, you realise that cycling shoes need to be functional. You can't design a cycling shoe purely for fashion, or vanity. You can't ride comfortably in a narrow toe box. I really needed to adapt my thinking to design shoes that optimize utility as well as aesthetic. And that's when you see the Fixed England, or the classic Brogue designs develop slowly towards the more modern models, like the Gran Tourers or Mono II; when comfort, performance and function started to take priority.
QUOCs first shoe, Fixed England (left), launched in 2009. In 2021, QUOC launched
Mono II (right), representing the brand's most premium road shoe to date.
Do your more recent designs take a different design approach?
When we design our shoes now, we take a generative approach. We still retain that inherent design or artist thinking, taking inspiration from nature, thinking about colours and textures. We look at the customer’s feedback. We imagine what we’d create if there were no limitations. And we consider key sustainability issues and how we can contribute to minimizing those impacts. Then we take all those influences, and we assess the limitations and practicalities of production. The result is what we consider to be the optimal balance between style, function and manufacturing capability.
What do you think makes a good cycling shoe?
Something I realised about sports shoes in general, is that it’s much easier to make something complex than it is to make something simple. If you have lots of materials and pieces of fabric, you can hide imperfections. In a single cut of leather or microfiber, faults will show more obviously. However, at QUOC we construct uppers from only one or two single pieces of material, because for the user, it’s elegant and there’s less chance of something going wrong during a ride. Of course, that means the finishing needs to be better, construction needs to be more considered, but the result is an enhanced experience, a better product for the customer.
What did you learn from the process of designing shoes from scratch?
Some people might see learning from scratch as a hindrance but I definitely feel that we benefited from absorbing all of that knowledge first hand. When you’re a small company and go out on your own, learning everything from the factory floor, you retain greater control, and you make your own mistakes. And yes, if you’re not careful, it can bankrupt you, but there’s also the potential to learn and adapt quickly. Rather than being driven by huge, expensive market research exercises, we’re led by instinct.
How did you go about selecting your factories?
When I began visiting factories in Taiwan, Vietnam and China in person, I looked for partners that really understood the materials we were working with, (microfiber, carbon etc,) and that critically, really understood lasts. The mechanics of behind pulling the upper over the last is the single most important thing. And yes, the process can be automated as it often is now, but in any factory, a good last master and a bad last master can really make or break a product. Another thing I’ve learnt from having been part of the factory process for so long is how much waste is generated. In an average factory, 200 pairs of hands touch the shoes before they go into the box, which is 200 chances for defects to happen and products to go to waste. Good factories will produce better tooling and simplify methods to lower surplus material and defects. If you take the time to really understand the processes and methods, you can select your partners well and reduce the waste your brand generates overall.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt over the years?
How important it is to have a great team around you. The fact that I get to work with people who are involved in cycling and love cycling is a huge plus. You look forward to going to work because of the amazing culture that we've cultivated, and the huge collective effort it has taken to get here. I’ve also learned to have confidence in my own ideas and to trust my own instincts. If there's a status quo and you're new to the industry, there's a tendency to doubt that new approaches are going to work. But some of the biggest risks I’ve taken so far have been the ones that have most paid off.
One of the first designs of the Gran Tourer gravel shoe.
What's next for QUOC?
We want to continue to offer our customers the same quality and comfort, but at an amazing price. We want more people to share the experience of riding in our shoes and to make them more accessible. As part of this, we’re always keeping one eye on the future and experimenting with new production methods. Whether it’s 3D printing or zero waste materials, we might not have everything we want now, but when it comes, we want to be ready. Cycling is constantly evolving, and we don't know what it’s going to look like in 10-years time, but we know that people are always going to need shoes! However the sport ends up developing and whatever new technologies are involved, we're committed to being at the forefront of all that.