An empire built on goofy socks: The Santa Cruz saga of Socksmith

Eric and Ellen Gil survey their corner of Pacific Avenue.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“A sock shop? How long do you think they’ll be in business?” That was the greeting Eric and Ellen Gil got when they opened in downtown Santa Cruz in 1988, but with their company, Socksmith, now an industry giant, the sock is on the other foot.

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There was a time, not too long ago, when “statement socks” weren’t a thing. To your grandmother’s generation — maybe even your mother’s generation — the term would have been baffling. The idea that socks could be anything more than … well, you know … socks was absurd.

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Today, though, it’s unremarkable to see a man in a conservative suit sit down to expose a splash of color in his socks, or a woman in a drab exercise outfit wearing an image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg around her ankles.

Statement socks — socks that exhibit a bit of personality or panache, especially when the rest of your ensemble plays it straight — are everywhere these days. And look closely enough at that particular fashion trend, and you’ll see the fingerprints of entrepreneurs Eric and Ellen Gil.

The Gils are the founders and owner/operators of Socksmith, the Santa Cruz-based mini-empire in the sock industry that grew out of the Gils’ original company, Sockshop & Shoe Company, which is one of downtown Santa Cruz’s foundational corner-store retail businesses, with satellite locations in Aptos Village and on the Santa Cruz Wharf.

In the task of covering Americans’ bare feet, giants like Nike and Adidas are still the rulers of the universe. But that’s largely in the utilitarian (read: boring) sock market, the kind you buy in bags of a dozen pairs, or more. Socksmith has carved out a lucrative niche using the lowly sock as a means to express creativity and personality.

With pre-pandemic revenue around $15 million a year and products in about 3,000 stores and outlets such as zoos and museums across the United States (and a growing stake in the international market as well), Socksmith has transformed the sock from an apparel afterthought into a go-to gift idea and a gotta-have fashion accessory.

In terms of messaging, the company has distilled its ethos down to one remarkably effective branding slogan, sometimes displayed prominently and in big letters where its products are sold: “No Boring Socks.”

The Gils now manage two separate enterprises: the retail stores in Santa Cruz County, and the manufacturing company that designs and markets socks across the country and overseas. They’ve also now added designer insulated water bottles to their portfolio through the Bottlesmith brand.

Downtown's Sockshop and Shoe Company has something for every foot.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Walk into the downtown flagship Sockshop — in the beautiful old People’s Bank building (also known as the ID building) on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Locust Street — and you’ll likely be gobsmacked by the sheer variety of designs and imagery on display, from a variety of brands (many of which are Socksmith spinoff brands).

From Jimi Hendrix to tiger stripes to Maya Angelou to cannabis leaf to … well, we could be here all day … the choices are bedazzling. Many come by way of iconic artists, from famed hippie-style illustrator Rick Griffin to Frida Kahlo, who has her own collection.

And the term “statement socks” is often taken literally with socks that feature bold catchphrases, some of which would flat-out scandalize your grandmother (probably a good idea to be especially judicious about who on your gift list might be a good match for a new pair of “Fuck Racism” socks).

This bounty of imaginative products and even the idea of a cheeky, audacious spirit applied to socks (of all things) can be traced directly to the groovy, creative atmosphere of post-1960s Santa Cruz. So say Eric and Ellen Gil, who opened their first Sockshop in 1988.

Eric and Ellen first met one night in 1980 at the now-closed Moffett Drive-In movie theater in Mountain View. Ellen remembers the movie — “Caddyshack” — and one of the first things Eric said to her.

“He said, ‘Have you ever been to Santa Cruz?,’” said Ellen, “and I said, ‘Uh, this is my first night out in California [from New Jersey].’ And I happened to meet him that night, with my sister.”

Two years later, Eric and Ellen decided to move from the South Bay to Santa Cruz together. Ellen got a job working in the basement of the same building where Sockshop is today. Even at that time, Eric wanted to open his own business, and he wanted to do it specifically in Santa Cruz. “The vibe was creative, artistic, motivating,” he said. Eric grew up in a family in which running a small business was a common pursuit. His father worked in the sod and lawn business, and others in his family worked as independent contractors. He was certain that was where he was headed. But the vexing question was: What kind of business?

The answer came to him one morning in 1984. Somewhere suspended between sleep and wakefulness, the idea came: “I had a vision waking up that I was in a room and in it was nothing but socks.”

Ellen and Eric Gil at Sockshop & Shoe Company in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Socks! Why not sell socks? Eric allowed himself to get excited about the idea. “It was a flash of weirdness that I recognized was achievable,” he said. He figured it wouldn’t cost a lot of money at the beginning, and that downtown Santa Cruz — this was still in the pre-earthquake days of the Pacific Garden Mall — was the ideal place to test the concept. When Ellen woke up that day, he shared his vision. Her first comment was, “I don’t get it.”

She didn’t really get it until about three years later, when the Gils were in New York visiting Ellen’s family during the holidays. “We were coming up from the subway,” remembered Eric, “and right there, there just happened to be a sock store.” In their research on socks, they had never come across this particular store. Once they went inside, Eric could barely contain himself: “See, this is my vision!” he said. Ellen had her epiphany as well. “OK, OK. Let’s do it. I get it,” she told him.

Finally, on April Fool’s Day of 1988, the first Sockshop opened in the old St. George Hotel, right across the street from today’s Sockshop, near where the restaurant Chocolate is now. Their inspiration sock store in New York sold leggings and hosiery and scarves as well, but at Sockshop Santa Cruz, the Gils vowed to keep it simple, only socks. “I used to work right inside the front doorway,” said Ellen, “and I would hear people say to each other passing by, ‘A sock shop? How long do you think they’ll be in business?’”

The Gils were optimistic, even opening a second shop in Carmel in 1989. But a year and a half after the original Sockshop’s opening, the Loma Prieta earthquake slammed downtown Santa Cruz, and many businesses didn’t survive. Sockshop did survive, leasing out space in one of the city-owned pavilions downtown. Post-earthquake, Sockshop bounced around from location to location but built a loyal clientele. In 2005, it found its home at Pacific and Locust .

At first, Sockshop’s inventory was conservative and utilitarian, mostly because those kinds of socks were readily available. The Gils kept on the lookout for other styles, finding more adventurous, colored socks, for example. Then they chanced on themed socks. Later, they added shoes as a secondary product. But they kept close tabs on the market for novelty socks. They noticed that Santa Cruz consumers were eager to buy them.

“I like to think — and I could never prove it — but I believe that our store in Santa Cruz created the beginnings of the sock buzz around so-called ‘statement socks,’” said Eric.

Soon after moving into the corner location , the Gils watched on as Hot Sox — a pioneering manufacturer of themed and novelty socks and one of the Sockshop’s most popular suppliers — was sold and, according to Eric Gil, abandoned its core creativity and went for mass production.

“When that happened,” said Eric, “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m pissed. I’m going to create my own creative sock company and Santa Cruz is kind of the perfect place to do it.’”

Katie Foster, Socksmith's creative director, plays with the product.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thus was born Socksmith, to design and manufacture socks in the growing novelty sock business. “We were going to do it from a West Coast perspective,” said Eric. “Because [our competitors] were all East Coast people. And I just knew we were going to have unique ideas.”

Today, Socksmith employs about 30 to 35 people in its local warehouses and offices, including six graphic designers who design and develop an astonishing 450 new designs for socks every year. Socksmith also owns a manufacturing facility in western North Carolina.

The company creates both its own organic designs and designs from licensed products, from big consumer brands like Coca-Cola to celebrities/historical figures like Albert Einstein. Socksmith’s creative director, Katie Foster, said that many of the well-known brands can be expensive to license and the company has to be judicious in what it chooses to license. But even in that arena, there can be pleasant surprises.

“[Hot sauce brand] Tapatio is one of our oldest, and one of our best sellers,” said Foster. “It’s kinda crazy because it’s just one simple design, just an image of a bottle, but it does so well. It’s gotten this cult following. And then we have [the luncheon meat] Spam, which really only does well in Hawaii. But Hawaii really wants it, so we try to keep it going.”

Socksmith can also point to its own celebrities who wear their socks, from Lin Manuel Miranda and his love for “Hamilton” socks to NBA owner Mark Cuban, who likes Socksmith’s “Shark Attack” socks. “On the last shuttle mission in the Columbia spaceship,” said Eric Gil, “there’s a high-def shot of this woman floating backwards. And she’s got our astronaut socks.”

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From the myriad categories of sock designs — animals, portraits, music, food & drink, Americana — several dependable bestsellers have emerged over the years. Among those favorites are (for women) Rosie the Riveter, a sock featuring various images of cats trying to fit into boxes, anything featuring former Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For men, the big sellers have to do with Bigfoot, sharks, guitars, tacos, avocados and — no list for men is complete without a punny, dad-joke item — a sock featuring a fox with the slogan “Zero Fox Given.”

Eric and Ellen Gil strongly believe that, through Socksmith, they are essentially exporting a distinctly Santa Cruz brand of self-expression and individuality. The Gils can still reminisce about the pre-earthquake vibe of downtown, when they’d hang out at the Cooper House drinking Long Island iced teas, surrounded by exactly the kind of people who would wear statement socks if such a thing existed then.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” said Eric Gil. “I would 100 percent not be in this business if it wasn’t for the Santa Cruz creative spirit.”

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