Updated: Mar 3, 2019
A former refugee strives to build Richmond’s hometown fitness brand
This is what the American dream looks like.
A tiny office stacked high with cardboard boxes (S, M, L). Molded foot models, spools of yarn. A whiteboard scrawled with a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” And an entrepreneur who hates wearing shoes.
Vincent Vu, the 36-year-old founder of Kinis, invented barefoot-like athletic footwear he calls the Nomad 804. Made of breathable and machine-washable Honeywell Spectra Fiber, with a flexible, grippy outsole, the Nomad 804 is designed for indoor wear and exercise.
This footwear — Vu calls it “the un-shoe” — is intended to help wearers improve their balance and better feel the ground. “It’s natural to be connected to the earth, to be connected to your body again,” he says.
To understand Vu’s zeal for barefoot-style exercise, and the determination that drives him, you have to go back nearly 30 years to his childhood in Vietnam.
One day in 1990, when Vu was 7 years old, his mother pulled him out of school without warning. They fled the country, along with Vu’s 3-year-old brother — first in a wooden canoe, then joining around 165 others on a fishing boat meant to hold no more than 15.
The family hoped to escape the persecution they’d experienced after Vu’s grandfather fought with the U.S.-allied South Vietnamese army in the Vietnam War. They were among the more than 800,000 refugees known as “boat people” who left Vietnam in the two decades after the war’s end.
By day, they hid below decks, fearing the Vietnamese authorities and the pirates who were known to attack boats. Vu’s boat was eventually rescued by a Dutch cargo ship. The family ended up in Indonesia, where Vu’s mother applied for official refugee status and resettlement through the United Nations.
Lacking the required documents, she failed the interview. As a result, the family spent six years in the Indonesian Galang Refugee Camp. Vu describes his childhood in the camp as tough but also fun. He remembers walking miles to go to the beach and playing soccer, barefoot, with balled-up plastic bags.
In 1996, the family returned to Vietnam, where they stayed for two years. In 1998, they got a second chance to apply for refugee status, and they followed Vu’s uncle to Sioux City, Iowa. They later moved to Richmond, where Vu graduated from J.R. Tucker High School. He put himself through the Savannah College of Art and Design, earning a master’s degree in architecture.
Through it all, Vu maintained the commitment to exercise that he’d begun after high school, when he first got into weightlifting. But in his early 30s, he developed chronic ankle and knee pain. Frustrated, Vu wondered how he’d lost the resilience of his childhood. “I’m turning into weak sauce now!” he said.
Then, Vu read the 2011 bestseller “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, which details how the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico developed the ability to run hundreds of miles in simple sandals. The book popularized the minimalist running movement, which advocates wearing thin-soled, lightweight shoes.
Vu enthusiastically adopted the concept, but he disliked the confining toebox and the arch support of the minimalist footwear he tried — and his joints didn’t feel any better. Quite simply, he says, “I didn’t want to wear a shoe anymore.” So, he glued some craft foam to a pair of socks and wore those to the gym. People gave him strange looks, but he didn’t care. His pain vanished.
He decided to put his design, engineering and manufacturing expertise to use crafting his ideal footwear. Working with a North Carolina knitting mill and a silk-screen machine in his garage, Vu developed prototypes, testing each one with fellow exercise enthusiasts at ACAC.
Once the design was finalized, Vu launched his business. He began manufacturing Kinis footwear in China and moved into an office at Startup Virginia, a nonprofit incubator for entrepreneurs in Shockoe Bottom that’s underwritten by Capital One. Startup Virginia offered more than a physical address; through its network of 200-plus mentors, Vu met Marc Oosterhuis, a retired marketing executive who became a fan of his footwear and an investor in the company.
He found other local supporters, too. Trainer Kyle Adams owns Adams Performance, which specializes in training high-level golfers and baseball players. “The feet are loaded with receptors that tell the body where you’re at in space,” Adams says. Wearing Kinis footwear allows his athletes to better sense the ground and “use their muscles more explosively” in strength training.
Vu has been deeply touched by how his adopted city has supported Kinis. When the company shot its first promotional video, which features fit Richmonders lifting, leaping and stretching in their Nomad 804s, people participated without pay. “They believe in this — they want to be a part of it,” he marvels.
Just as Beaverton has Nike and Baltimore has Under Armour, Vu hopes that Kinis can become Richmond’s hometown fitness brand. “This is the beginning for us, here.”