Moncler’s head of footwear design, Nathan VanHook, traveled a very long way to get here. The journey spanned almost 6,000 miles, reaching from his longtime home in Portland, Oregon, to his new home in Milan. He moved for work, switching continents in 2021 after his career at Nike ended in 2020. His Italian setting has influenced his diet (pasta all day) and infected his salutations (buon giorno, ciao, etc.). Although VanHook is an expat in a foreign country, he might be right where he belongs.
“My strong suit is doing footwear for the outdoors,” he says, speaking in calm, focused sentences, “and Moncler’s DNA matched perfectly with what I think I’m really good at.”
The Moncler Trailgrip, a chunky $750 hiker with Gore-Tex paneling that released this month, is the first example of VanHook’s distinct style channeled through the footwear of the luxury outerwear label. It’s a well-timed shoe, arriving as brands like Salomon capitalize on sneaker buyers that are newly keen on more rugged footwear. For VanHook, the Moncler shoe is a natural extension of an aesthetic that’s defined his output for years.
VanHook is most famous for designing the Air Yeezy 2, the apex of Kanye West’s collaboration with Nike, but his portfolio from his 12-year tenure at the brand runs much deeper than that. The designer gave the Nike Sportswear line depth beyond standard retro fare in the 2010s with silhouettes like the Free Inneva Woven and Air Footscape Woven Chukka. VanHook had a stint as senior design director of footwear for Nike’s soccer boots, working on cleated performance models. Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s god of footwear design, has publicly sung his praises.
In his last chapter at Nike, VanHook was the senior creative director of footwear for its beloved ACG (All Conditions Gear) line, which may end up as his most important contribution to Swoosh design. He made shoes like the React Terra Gobe, a popular water-resistant model, and the Mountain Fly, a sharp trail shoe with design cues from Nike running. It’s this work that most informs the latest era of his career.
VanHook’s time at Nike ended amid significant corporate restructuring at the end of 2020. From there, he began talks with Moncler, discussing with CEO Remo Ruffini how they could build a new kind of footwear business. He made the move alongside Gino Fisanotti, another Nike veteran, who is Moncler’s chief brand officer as of June 2021.
Moncler wants to use VanHook’s work to create a new footwear segment that matches high-end function with outdoor luxury. VanHook feels his employer is equipped to deliver on this because of the company’s rich heritage in mountaineering and present-day relationship with its geography. If there is a Vibram outsole to be tested, there is a mountain range for that. If there is a temperature a quilted bubble jacket must withstand, there is a snowy peak for that.
“Just as with some places in the Pacific Northwest, the outdoor culture is so ingrained in Northern Italy,” he says. “So ingrained.”
His notes about the company being genuinely engaged in the Italian countryside are immediately confirmed on our video call. There are also two Moncler execs on the line, one enjoying a patch of sun in a tree-bordered terrace and the other joining from an actual gondola descending down a mountainside. In August, one of them explains, the whole country is on holiday.
VanHook, maybe still burdened by the American work ethic, sits in a more sterile environment, detailing his latest work in front of a plain beige wall on the call. Here, he talks about creating the Trailgrip sneaker, his move to Moncler, and how the Italian approach to cooking informs his footwear designs.
The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you land at Moncler from Nike and when did that happen?
So I started conversations to come to Moncler in late 2020. My friend Gino was coming and [there was] the opportunity and push from Mr. Ruffini to really transform the footwear business. Had conversations with them, just being a fan of Moncler and how it really pushes and takes big risks and is constantly evolving. I think anybody in product who saw the launch of Genius and how that product evolved was super inspired by the product.
And then also for us, being in quarantine for two years in Portland, it was a big opportunity to make a big life change with our family. And we enjoyed traveling Europe in the past with our two children. So it was also an opportunity to do something totally different. And then also my strong suit is doing footwear for the outdoors, and Moncler’s DNA matched perfectly with what I think I’m really good at.
It’s almost like this move is the total opposite of the pandemic. You’re stuck inside for a while, and then you’re moving across the globe and doing all this outdoor-focused stuff.
Yeah, I think just also, I think COVID, or quarantine, for everybody put things in a perspective of how quick life is and how to take opportunities when you have a chance. And to me, this was a really unique opportunity.
And as well as working with Moncler, it’s also the people you work with and the lifestyle of living in Milan and also what that allows you to do, having all this stuff and traveling around. And then also for me, I like to work on stuff where you’re really pushing and doing something new. And I think that was a really amazing thing, having the trust to have a blank slate and to really shape something. Of course with a team, but [Moncler] really had a lot of trust in what I was doing, in my abilities. And then somebody like Mr. Ruffini having great taste, a great eye. Having Gino, having a great support team there. But having that trust was really huge.
How much of an adjustment was that to have a blank slate coming from somewhere that has much more history in footwear?
I think the big thing is that Moncler has such a rich DNA in the outdoors. I mean, starting from 1952, creating product for mountaineering and for exploration and really functional product. I think using that ethos in what you’re creating—and Moncler technically is a luxury brand—but for me it’s all about creating function. Like you wear down clothes to stay warm. So to me, it’s the same ethos as where you work anywhere. You have a great product that’s super functional but in a really unique and utilitarian way, in an only Moncler way. And that’s what I enjoy doing: taking the rich ethos of the brand and pushing product in a new way.
Was part of that actually using the function of the items, being outside, and being able to put the jackets on or put the shoes on and explore the outdoors in your new setting?
Yeah, I think that’s what’s amazing. I mean, I talked a little bit about moving to Italy, living in Milan. We’re an hour and a half from the Dolomites. Our family was super fortunate. You can go to Switzerland, you can go to France, you can go everywhere. And the product is the pinnacle product for staying warm. And I mean, that’s what we wanted to do with the footwear as well. It’s Gore-Tex. It has the best of the best traction; it has everything you need to function in those spaces. And I think that’s key.
Just as some places in the Pacific Northwest, the outdoor culture is so ingrained in Northern Italy. So ingrained. If you just follow Mr. Ruffini, to everybody at the company, it’s a very Milanese thing. Everybody goes to the mountains in the winter every weekend.
Is there any formal footwear testing program in that? Or is it something that’s a little bit more informed by just personal experiences?
I’d say two ways. One of it’s personal experiences of myself having a deep understanding or knowledge in traction and design and also being someone who avidly tests the product I’m working on. Luckily, samples [are] in my size—I’m sample size. But also, that’s why we have Gore-Tex, which has a very rigid standard that they uphold the product at. And that’s why also, working Vibram, they test the product in their rubbers and their compounds. So that was the idea with all this product is: use the best of the best to really help authenticate at another level.
For a shoe like the Trailgrip, what does the Gore-Tex testing look like?
So for the Trailgrip, the Gore-Tex standard is they take all Gore-Tex shoes and they run it through their lab. Every single thing on the shoe has to be a non-leaking material, so nothing can hold water. Everything’s designed to be breathable. So I mean, they’re very strict on sending us back, “Hey, this isn’t going to work,” or, “Hey, I don’t know if you have enough breathability here and here.” So there’s a really rich, functional standard. And I think to me, that goes really hand in hand with pushing aesthetic as well to get to a unique place.
The Trailgrip has obviously been the biggest sneaker from your output so far. What was your role in that shoe? Is it right to call you the designer of it?
Yeah. So I’m the head of the footwear design, but I also designed this entirely new Trailgrip and also what we’re calling the Aqua Boot family. So they’re all kind of in the same family. But of course, we started with the Trailgrip. So the idea was to design that product as the all-around low-top hiker. And then, from there, we have the Trail Boot, which we have in leather and also nubuck that is waterproof as well but also has a little more classic mountaineering to it. And then we have a Cordura version of that same boot. And then we have the Apres Trail, which uses the Moncler iconic quilting for a more lounging-style shoe. And then the two rain boots, we have a high and a low coming out as well. So that’s an entire family that really wanted to drive the pinnacle vision of our new forward strategy. And then, from there, we’ll be evolving off of this first big season launch.
Is there a big team around you already? Is that something that you were tasked with as soon as you came to the brand, building that?
Yeah, so I have three other designers and that’s something that we’re building out. I’ve acquired one designer, one brand-new designer, since I’ve been here. She’s super amazing. She worked as an intern at Yeezy before. We have another amazing designer, and the idea is to slowly build that team.
But also, I would say one of the amazing things at Moncler is that it’s super streamlined. Mr. Ruffini is our CEO, creative director, owner, and he has a very sharp eye and I work very closely with him. He’s my creative director. So when we present ideas to him, he loves it. He gets a stamp of approval and then we go. So it really streamlines what we’re able to do and how efficient we can be through that process. So I think that’s why I’m able to be super productive with all this first season of product.
Is there certain stuff that you have to explain more just coming from a sneaker background to somebody who doesn’t necessarily? Who you report directly to?
No, I think that’s why I was saying Mr. Ruffini is…and I mean, everybody at Moncler, I think that’s a big shift. Milan is the design capital for a reason. The attention to detail and also the thoughtfulness of the product and also knowing what great product is is out there for everybody. And I think that’s what I was saying earlier: the trust level of like, “Hey, we want somebody to reset this footwear strategy,” and having me come in. I think that’s what I was saying before. There is such a high level of trust, but everybody on the team is familiar with great product at any level of what that product is. So those two things hand in hand, I think, really helped drive this first collection that I was able to work on.
In terms of resetting the strategy, when you get there, is it immediately you want to put out a shoe in order to show them what you can do? Or is it more just trying to think big picture in terms of what the long-term plan is?
No, I think that was the very beginning of coming to Moncler. I showed a strategy based on the DNA of the brand. And no, it’s not one shoe. It’s a total vision of footwear and then everything will lead up into it.
But no, you have to have that full vision of where you want to go at the very beginning. And then, everything that corresponds to it from a rain boot to a hiking shoe to a casual puffer relaxing shoe; everything needs to build into that focus. Just as everything does with apparel, everything built into what Moncler’s known for, the quilting and the Maya jacket. So very, very clear vision from the holistic and then everything builds on it.
Do you see these more as fashion sneakers or hiking shoes, or does the technical difference matter to you?
I don’t think I do fashion in any correspondence of anything I’ve done. I see it as a product for utility. So it’s product you can go hiking in, product you can go working in the city, and product that’s going to keep your feet warm, products that keep your feet dry. And I think that’s what’s super needed now, especially I think after quarantine, is having product that has so many different uses and product that’s going to really last. And I think that’s where we’re fortunate at Moncler to work with the best of the best, from Genius collaborators to material specialists, etc. It’s a product that’s going to survive the daily commute but also getting out and having some fun in the outdoors.
One of the things about the Trailgrip is, being at Moncler, the price point is naturally more expensive than stuff you were making at your last gig. How does that affect the work, if at all?
I think the only way it affects the work is you’re able to use more and more of the best materials and you’re not really holding back on anything. Like I said, the brand stands for great product, great design. And that’s what, for me, has been a great ability here, saying, “Hey, we want to use this. Hey, we want to use that.” And then, it’s like, okay, let’s sort that out.
So, for instance, working with Vibram, working with Gore-Tex in footwear, these were all partnerships that we really built long term when I started. And Vibram, literally they have one of their main offices around the corner from us. So we’re constantly going over there talking to them, getting them to help us with various things, getting input in the product. And to me, that’s why I have liked this experience of working here, because of that “utilize whatever you need” mindset.
One of the cool details I saw in the sketches but don’t totally understand is the spatula and the French eggs. Can you explain that to me?
Yeah. So my wife is super into cooking and my contribution to the house is making eggs, but of course, French eggs are the best. The spatula we have has these two slices in it. It has these two open grooves in it. So we took that and used that in this carbon fiber plate so it increases flexibility in the plate. And then, the plate’s shaped like it has a rocker to it. And at the forefoot, the arch comes up and then it goes back down the heel. So it’s less for running marathons, but it’s more about daily use over time. So if you hit on your heel, it rotates through the forefoot, hits on the forefoot, can rotate through the heel, and then it acts as arch support. So yeah, just looking at everyday inspiration and then how that can infuse in the product.
Any other little details like that you feel like people may have missed?
Yeah. I feel like also the TPU piece off the heel, it’s also for containment, the heel clip. And it’s a very unique shape, but it’s also to help kick off the heels of the shoe. I mean, also the toe, probably one of the more iconic shapes on this shoe, wraps up super high over the toe. But I mean, you can really just smash your foot into the ground, into rocks, and it protects your foot. So I think those are some of the more iconic elements of this shoe that people might be looking at as why are those there or this is just for the look or silhouette change. But definitely for function.
The functional part is important, right?
Yeah, of course. And to me, if you’re really pushing function and pushing it in a different way, that’s where you’re able to get a new form or some new aesthetic, which obviously is what my job is to do.
I feel like there are so many brands right now who are just making an outdoor shoe just to make it without necessarily knowing why each piece on it exists.
Yeah. To me, I mean, that’s why you have to work with the best of the best if you’re doing product. I mean, obviously, these partners such as Gore-Tex and Vibram, I mean, Vibram’s been doing this since the ’30s. They’re amazing for a reason. Same with Gore-Tex. When you see that Gore-Tex branding, you know it’s going to keep your feet dryer, keep you dry with a jacket. So I think that’s why you have to utilize people that are really great at this, just as you would for anything, any product. If you’re making great pasta, you’re going to get the best tomatoes. It’s the same thing. It’s very Italian style.
Is there anything specific planned yet in terms of the rollout for the next models after the Trailgrip?
No. I think that I was kind of saying before, the building plan is to really get the Trailgrip cemented in with people’s knowledge of the brand and footwear and get people to trust in the product. And then, the idea is to now build off of this mindset and build off of this idea. It’s not like, “Hey, this is a one-season idea.” This is the reset in the building blocks for the future. So everything that you see coming in the future should have this same mindset, should have this same ethos, and everything should tie back into the start of the brand and why the brand’s there. So like I said, this isn’t something we’re chasing for a season. This isn’t something just to create a really unique sneaker. This is the overall vision. And I think once you start seeing the products coming out and the evolution, you’re going to see how everything starts folding into one and supporting and building off the foundation.