For guys, choosing socks is a simple affair. Work socks are black or brown. Sports, white. Done.
But brothers Rick and Neil Levine don't see socks that way. They want color and pattern — some pizazz, please! — on their feet. They also want a quality product, made in America with homegrown textiles.
Had they known how hard it was going to be to realize that goal when they set out to change the sock market in the spring of 2012, they might have slipped back into their boring black socks and moved on.
But they had a dream. Now, after a lot of travel, time, money and trial-and-error work, XOAB is closer to becoming a reality. The name, pronounced "ZO-ab," is a twist on the kisses-and-hugs sign-off. It stands for "Love And Beyond."
"It's about passion," says Rick, 54, who lives in Boulder and brings his entrepreneurial and technology skills to the project. "It's what we love to do — and beyond — because it's a product completely made in the U.S. that is modern and has Internet appeal."
Neil, 50, lives in San Francisco, where he's a designer working in graphics, identity and branding. Neil is also an illustrator with experience in the fashion, home furnishings and textile industries.
"I'm an idea factory," says Neil, who creates bold color combos such as orange and green, and patterns that recall Calder sculptures, art deco architecture or Greek key motifs.
Men don't have as many ways as women do to express their personalities — particularly if they don't wear a tie — and jazzy, well-made socks can provide that spark, they say. It's also cheaper than buying a new suit or a pair of shoes.
If XOAB's Kickstarter crowdfunding effort is an indication, people seem to agree. With a little more than two weeks to the end of the project, they had at least 940 backers and $72,027, nearly 2½ times more than their goal of $30,000.
Unlike many of the scrappy millennials who launch businesses with Kickstarter because they have no other financial resources, the Levines took that route because they want to retain control of the company. True, they put their own money in the project, but rather than seek a large single investor, they wanted buy-in from customers, who are typically pledging at least $25 to get a pair of socks.
"It's a hybrid of the traditional approach to a fashion brand, because we are more inclusive," Rick says.
The Kickstarter campaign is important to their business plan because the Levines say they'll use the money to get their yarn dyed and to manufacture several thousands pairs of socks in time for the holidays.
"We're using it as our sandbox to see why and how the socks are appealing. It's an evolving process," Rick says.
With their backgrounds, investment and vision, the Levines are on to something, says Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center in North Carolina, which advises companies, creates prototypes and tests products.
"We deal with hundreds of entrepreneurs each year, but many have only an idea at first," he says. "Neil and Rick had thought it all through and knew exactly what they wanted to do, but didn't know how to execute."
The center helped them find some suppliers and a source in Italy for the programmable, high-quality knitting machine they needed. "It speaks well to not only Rick's technical skills, but to his people skills" that he could convince the Italians to work with him, St. Louis says.
The machine was key, because knitting the complex designs XOAB creates has its own set of challenges. Using many colors and complex patterns in men's socks typically results in products without much stretch. And men's larger feet need more cross-stretch than women's. So Rick invented a software program that would get rid of the structural limitations and allow the socks to end up pliant and comfortable.
Comfort also is a result of the materials and construction. The long-staple cotton that XOAB uses is grown in California's San Joaquin Valley. Wool comes from the western United States and is spun at Kentwool in Pickens, S.C., a company that has been around since 1843 and works with such apparel makers as Loro Piana and Smartwool.
The socks have a bit of Spandex for stretch, a two-stage welt so the calves aren't compressed, elastic under the arch to keep the sock in place, seamless toes so you don't get "toe bump" and extra stitching at the top of the heel to reduce friction.
Yet the way they look is going to be what gets noticed first.
"As a designer, I want to do a line in any colors I choose and I want to be able to shift and change over time. Now I can do that," Neil says.
It also means they can create socks not just with artsy geometrics, but reproductions of faces or objects. Among the XOAB prototypes is a pair of socks with the visages of the Supreme Court Justices. "We can do a commemorative sock and have it up on the Internet within 24 hours," Neil said.
"Fashion is about creating as much variety as you can, and this gets us closer," he said.
But are guys — and women — going to pony up $28 a pair for this hosiery? The brothers think so, and they are betting the socks will make great gifts, packaged in sleek matte-black boxes with a handmade paper lining on the inside of the lids.
"Socks are the way we can express ourselves," Neil said. "It's becoming accepted that you can be a gray, pinstriped lawyer but have this hidden, little flash of color with your socks."