From the NBA to Rihanna, a San Clemente sock company becomes a canvas for artistic vision.
By Steve Bramucci
Disrupt. It’s the word of the decade for entrepreneurs. How do we change the game? What’s the best way to shake things up? Where can we to topple ‘business as usual’? The idea is easy to recognize in tech—think Netflix shifting the way we watch TV, or Facebook revolutionizing communication—but it can also apply to consumer goods. Just look at how Lulu Lemon turned yoga pants into a global phenomenon.
The leadership team of Stance Socks kept all of this in mind while forming their company. They were hunting for a consumer category to upend, seeking a script to flip. That’s when they found hosiery. The industry felt boring, vanilla, and, above all, old. The displays hadn’t changed in ages and no single brand dominated the space. It was a retail success powder keg—perfectly primed and waiting for a spark.
The catalyst arrived in the form of Stance co-founders Jeff Kearl, John Wilson, Ryan Kingman, Taylor Shupe, and Aaron Hennings. The crew was young, hungry, and full of big ideas—traits the hosiery world hadn’t seen for decades. They set up a base in San Clemente and hit the throttle with a dual focus. First, they wanted to build a better sock, a “hero product” that mattered to active people, much like Lulu Lemon’s famous pants. Second, they wanted to create a brand that people connected with stylistically, something that made customers feel engaged.
“We had this opportunity to create a brand that was actually exciting,” CEO Jeff Kearl explains. “Our approach to product and brand really was pretty unconventional compared to everything that we were seeing in the sock market at that time… and even to this day.”
The result? A product that’s both functional and Instagram-able; a high-performance fashion statement. It’s the sweet spot that the company founders were hoping for, and they stuck the landing. So far, the approach has paid big time dividends both on the athletic and aesthetic fronts.
Stance’s belief that a sock can be a vital piece of performance gear helped them to impress sports stars and equipment managers at the highest levels of basketball and baseball. The company’s R&D team pays close attention to moisture wicking and targeted cushioning—there’s a science to it, in a way that feels completely fresh.
“We build an incredible sock,” says Taylor Shupe, the company’s Chief Product Officer. “We rarely talk about the durability, the wicking, the utility, the comfort or the fit, but those are things we’re highly invested in. We want the consumer to experience and feel them themselves.”
Pair that emphasis on quality with Stance’s ability to create custom logos, throwback designs, and photo-realistic images on their products and it’s easy to see how they became the official sock of Major League Baseball and the NBA. Those moves opened up a new lane for the company, which got its start with less mainstream sports like skateboarding. Rather than feeling fragmented, Stance’s leadership and strong branding keep the company unified—even as they become increasingly mainstream (they just launched a Star Wars series of socks).
“We’re less about rebellion or being anti-establishment and more about celebrating human originality,” CEO Kearl says. “We didn’t want to create a brand that said, ‘Oh we’re a surf brand, or we’re a skate brand, or we’re action sports, or we’re fashion… we’re Stance.’ We have a tag line, ‘The Uncommon Thread,’ and we think that that speaks to originality, creativity and expression.”
Art as the Universal Language
This passion for creativity reverberates across the company, from the choice of partners, to the sock designs, to the look of Stance’s San Clemente headquarters. The space is loaded with artwork by the likes of Don Pendleton (who illustrated Pearl Jam’s Lightning Bolt cover), and rising-star Zio Ziegler. Many of them are painted right on the walls, street-art style. The love for expression extends across departments—which feels very novel considering the history of hosiery (particularly men’s hosiery).
Art is a universal message, a universal language,” Hennings says. “It doesn’t have boundaries. There are no language constraints, which works well for a global brand. Human originality, expression, and art are universal symbols of creativity that would be able to exist around the world… so it was a nice platform to set everything up on.”
Stance was right to think globally. Their women’s line is absolutely booming and the NBA and MLB deals have extended the brand’s reach dramatically. Amidst growth and ever-expanding product lines (the company has entered men’s underwear and has a women’s collection on the way), the founders decided to take on $50 million in Series C funding. It wasn’t money they were desperate for, Stance reports turning a profit after their very first $8 million investment round, but the cash influx offered a chance to grow and take on partners who also make incredible brand ambassadors—both Will Smith and Dwyane Wade poured cash in.
Hearts and Headquarters in SoCal
Through all of this growth, Stance’s heart remains in Orange County. SoCal culture is embedded in everything from the laidback dress code to the morning surf club. And the company wants to celebrate the city they call home.
“We really look up to brands that give back to their communities,” says Kearl. “We do custom socks for all the elementary school and the junior highs. We sponsor the local skate contests and surf contests. We talk about wanting to create jobs and become a part of the culture.”
Stance’s President, John Wilson, adds that this local love is a two-way street. “It’s kind of cool to have this Southern California thing happening,” he says, “but the key is to take all that and say, ‘Okay, now how can we export that to the world?’ At the same time, we’re really conscious of trying to infuse elements and influences from around the globe into our culture here.”
Here again we see the company’s even-handed approach: The OC beach-vibe with a dose of worldliness. It’s clearly working. Stance’s products are already in 50 countries and retail shops are on the way. In an era in which style and personality are increasingly intertwined, clothes have become a cornerstone of identity, right down to the socks. Stance walks a tightrope—between fashion and function, acting locally and thinking globally, and making a profitable product while offering a canvas for bold voices. It’s a delicate balancing act, but they pull it off in style.
It’s just the sort of disruption we can all root for.
The invention of Stance’s most famous initiative, Punks & Poets, is a program that highlights brand partners, allowing them to curate and often design special styles of their own. NBA star Klay Thompson is part of the program. So is champion surfer John John Florence. But the imprint isn’t just for big names. Author Stephanie LaCava also has a series of socks.
“You can go on down the list and it’s painters, photographers, surfers, stylists,” Kearl points out. “It’s this really diverse group of individuals who come from different walks of life and have amazing talents.”
The biggest name on the roster, Rihanna, has become a part of the brand’s consumer-facing identity by designing some of the company’s most stylish products. But Kearl notes that she wasn’t chosen just for her fame—it’s more about her approach: “Rihanna’s very much of that attitude of ‘look I’m going to do it my way and express that unapologetically … I don’t really care if you don’t like it or not.’ Then we end up loving her because of that—not in the spirit of rebelliousness, just in the spirit of ‘I’m going to be true to myself.’”
Rihana’s newest and third collection for Stance, a hosiery collection of 19 unconventional styles, includes a footless thigh-high sock that Vogue described as “somewhere between Betty Boop’s lingerie drawer and a ’70s locker room, and the kind of thing you can imagine RiRi working into one of her many pantless street style looks.”
Aaron Hennings, VP of creative for Stance, sees the Punks & Poets series as a departure from typical sponsorships. Instead, he views the partnerships as a more pure form of mutual amplification and a way to help creative souls thrive.
“They’re individuals who are uniquely original and uncommon in their own right, so they’re chosen to be part of the creative front of the brand,” he explains. “We get to collaborate with them. We get to work with them. In the beginning, we didn’t have a lot of highly paid endorsement-type arrangements—you joined Stance because you liked what we’re about and wanted to have an outlet for more of your artwork or more of your own expression.”