The sneaker industry has long been overdue for a technological upgrade ever since brands and retailers have been selling tons more of them via digital means in the last decade. For industry veteran and sneakerhead Karim Wazani the decision to create Zen, a new hybrid media and e-commerce platform, was easy.
Officially launching in July, Wazani’s ultimate vision is for Zen to become more than just a destination to discuss sneakers, but to actually make a sneakerhead’s experience more tangible online. “We’re enabling our users to actually play a role in the site itself and not just make it a catalog where people can click pictures,” explains Wazani. “We’re working to create a fluid experience that creates that interaction with everybody that comes to the site.”
We spoke with Wazani to get a better idea of what he has in store for Zen, advancements in digital raffle technology that just might be able beat the bots, and more about his background in the sneaker industry that led him to where he is today.
Can you talk about your background in the industry and what made you start Zen?
I've been in the industry for about 15 years. I was born and raised in New York, started at Dr. Jays, then worked Sneaker VILLA. I had the privilege of working at Converse and Nike for a little over five years in various aspects with products, merchandising, and then went on to head up Shoe Palace and Nice Kicks for almost 7 years, overseeing all aspects of product/marketing and most recently started my venture with Zen. Throughout that process I’ve been able to work with amazing people and learn a lot of amazing things about a consistent passion in my life, which is footwear.
Having all these different experiences and interactions has driven me to start Zen to create that opportunity for the kid who doesn’t have $1,000 to pay resell prices for something, to be able to get a pair of shoes that they love for a retail price or even for free. It’s a unique opportunity and from an industry standpoint that’s really what’s needed right now is getting these super coveted shoes onto a regular kid’s feet, a kid that just loves the shoes. We’re really looking forward to that.
Tell us about Zen. What exactly is it?
Zen is a hybrid media and e-commerce platform that’s dedicated to sneaker culture. I’ve been in the industry for 15 years and footwear has evolved so much, but there hasn’t been a ton of evolution online as it relates to e-commerce and how websites are speaking to or engaging with consumers. So we saw an opportunity to work with brands to create a unique platform where people that love shoes can actually get the shoes they love and experience the stories behind the footwear.
How do you see Zen positioned in the world of sneakers?
Ultimately it should be a resource for accessing the best of the best from a limited product assortment while also having a chance to experience the foundational stories behind the greatest shoes of all time. Working with designers, people at brands, and even consumers themselves to share and discuss everything from the original CAD work to the inspiration behind certain projects and to create an interaction where people can find out as much as they want to learn, but at the same time looking at the problems in the industry now with bots and things of that nature. And how long it takes for customers to get the product they’ve ordered and looking from a customer experience standpoint to get them what they want.
What can readers expect from Zen?
They can expect more engagement than they've ever seen online. They can expect to see an opportunity to dig deep into the culture to experience things like VR and AR that enhances their overall shopping experience. We’ll have a ton of events nationwide. We’re working with influencers and brands to create touchpoints for people to experience the things they love and to give them access to the stories, products, and events that tie to the culture. We'll give users an opportunity to express themselves.
Sneakers are the thread of commonality with everybody. Whether it’s a kid in New York or an athlete or a designer, you’ve got this one consistent thread that really ties all of these people together. So we want to create this platform where people can share their love of this common thing to provide their perspective on it.
Can you touch on the sneaker show you helped create and how you promoted it?
We had the great privilege to create a show with Complex called “Sole Origins.” The purpose of the show was to tell the stories behind some of the greatest shoes of all time through the lens of the creators of the product. We wanted the people to tell their own story. In that process we got a chance to meet with a lot of the designers and touch a lot of the product. One thing that struck me is how little access consumers have had with some of these shoes. We wanted to change the way things have traditionally been done, to just make all of these shoes available for free. People [at ComplexCon] had to wear the shoes out in order to win them, so 350 kids got to walk out with grails.
Ultimately our goal is to get grails on people’s feet. We want people to wear and interact with the shoes that they love so much, rather than the burden of selling them to someone else. So we took away the opportunity for them to sell them by making them wear them and it’s definitely something we’re interested in continuing whether it’s through the launch of the e-commerce platform in July or through our social channels, which is why we’re looking to partner with High Snob to give away some grails again to create that interaction and touch point where customers can finally get a pair of shoes they’ve wanted their whole lives.
What are some stories, contests, and other things coming up that people should know about?
There’s a lot going on. We saw success with the consumer interaction at Complex Con. Since then we’ve done a lot of events in New York, LA, and Las Vegas. We’re continuing to increase that output. We’re doing an activation at Sundance Film Festival and we’ll be activating at Super Bowl with the Tao Group. Pretty much every week we’re doing something around the country to give people interactive moments and we’re looking to increase that radically. It started with Complex Con and now it will continue across the country.
What kind of innovation can we expect to see within Zen?
We actually launched a proprietary raffle system. Every time someone has a raffle, you’re in a situation where bots are involved and no one knows where the product is going. We’ve created a proprietary raffle system that picks winners by size. We gave away a substantial amount of product and had zero issues or incidents because of our system. Having that kind of positive interaction was great. We gave away Nike Mags and Undefeated Jordan IVs, arguably the greatest shoes of all time, and had no drama, no problems. We’re looking to bring that seamless, fluid consumer experience across the country.
How did this raffle system come about?
It’s something I could tell was building over time. When you look at what’s happening with releases and riots, that’s not something new. Riots have been happening since the Pigeon Dunk. So, we think buying online should be a way to make things more democratic. When you think about what online represents, the opportunity for people around the country in the comfort of their own home to be able to access product, it should be safer and easier. The limited nature of product means that not everyone is going to be able to get it, but you at least want it to be fair.
You don’t want someone to be able to hack the system to get every single pair. You shouldn’t have to be rich or a programmer to be able to buy shoes you love, that’s not fair. I think that every brand in the world has been looking at ways to improve that to decrease the opportunity for one system to take all of the inventory. We’ve been fortunate to work with great tech minds in addition to great product people and we think we’ve figured out a unique resolution for it. It’s our sole focus. We’re very passionate about it, which means we want to find a resolution for it. It’s critical for our company to make customers happy and for people to to feel like they have a chance so that it’s fair for every single person.
Can you talk about the archive section of the site?
We wanted to create an opportunity for people to have access to a place where they could learn about the greatest shoes of all time. Part of what we’re doing in conjunction with launching the ecommerce site is creating a digital museum where people can feel like they’re touching and shoes that are 20, 25, 30 years old which in a lot of cases have never been shot. That will be one of the most fun things. Personally as a collector, I would always marvel at being able to touch a pair of shoes that I’d heard of like a Wu-Tang Dunk or something and it was amazing. In a lot of cases, a customer hadn’t even seen it.
They've talked about it or heard about it, but we wanted to add this experience to the platform where people can really see the shoe really looked like. We’re in the process of archiving not just my personal collection, but a super comprehensive collection across brands where every single thing will be archived in a way that customers can interact with it, hear what the original stories behind it were, in some cases hear directly from the designer of the shoe, and really take the time to understand things better.