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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.