I Gave Up Ballet and Built a Sock-Doping Empire

In an exclusive interview – one that nearly never happened because of the rain – Sean Sakinofsky, creator and founder of SaK07, lets Bicycling magazine into his creative space and talks us through his life, work and inspirations.

Words By Aaron Borrill // Photographs By Desmond Louw

Sean Sakinofsky is to cycling what Paul Smith is to the fashion world – a sartorial genius, who meticulously crafts his creations with unwavering passion. In Sean’s case, his creative process is fuelled by everything from cycling to fashion, from aviation to the great artists of cubism, modernism and surrealism.

While his inspiration stems from all he encounters, it’s the time Sean spends in the saddle that has produced some of his greatest work. It’s sad then that he’s better known internationally than here in South Africa; but this may very well change in coming years, as cycling becomes more lifestyle-orientated and less competitive.

I wouldn’t come home until I’d registered a training stress score (TSS) of at least 120; but often I’d hit 130, sometimes even 150.

With over 48,000 followers, Sean is one of the biggest cycling personalities on Instagram, and his engagement with fans and supporters is what sets him apart from his rivals. The growth of the SaK07 brand has been meteoric, but organic in every sense. “It literally was organic. The momentum wasn’t forced, and there was no budget applied to the marketing and advertising. It was all passion. I have a passion for style, visuals and photography, and seeing it through my eyes – particularly the involvement in the engagement – has been incredibly profound.”

However, success didn’t come overnight. Sean spent the better part of two years (2014 to 2016) working tirelessly to get his message out to the world. “I was sleeping between 4 and 6am every morning, and going straight to social media on waking up – even when I was on the toilet. The only time I had a break was when I slept. In the afternoon I would sleep between 2 and 4pm, and then wake up and go for a ride.”

When I stopped ballet, I took to the bicycle; and I think it was an easy transition, because it allowed me to find a way of being free and alone at the same time.

His life now may sound glamorous, but one of the negative side effects of his success has been chronic fatigue – something that’s forced him to take time off his bicycle. “In the early days I’d ride hard almost every day, hitting the hills around Bishopscourt for 90 minutes at a time. I wouldn’t come home until I’d registered a training stress score (TSS) of at least 120; but often I’d hit 130, sometimes even 150.

Despite the limited time Sean spends on the bicycle these days, the forced rest has done little to affect his physique. He’s as ripped as his Instagram feed portrays – like a Michelangelo sculpture, only with tattoos. What Sean Sakinofsky and his SaK07 brand as a whole have done for cycling fashion is indisputable, as he continues to raise the standards and set the trends. He’s the godfather of sock doping, a pioneer of perfection, and a man every South African – particularly those who enjoy on-the-bike style – should know.

Have you ever let anybody into your personal space before?

Sorry, Aaron – before I answer that, do you mind taking off your shoes? I don’t like the marks they leave on the floor, and they’re a real pain to clean!

But to answer your question: no. I’ve taken a chance here, as I’m a very private person, and my space is personal.

My passion and love started with my aspiration to become a racing cyclist. I fell in love with Greg LeMond and what he stood for.

This is a world first, a spontaneous thing – and besides, bru, our original on-the-bike interview plan was never going to work in this rain!

What about cycling and its culture first captivated you?

The absolute sense of freedom. When I stopped ballet, I took to the bicycle; and I think it was an easy transition, because I was always a loner at school, and cycling allowed me to find a way of being free and alone at the same time. I also love the history and romantic characters such as Fausto Coppi, Tom Simpson, Jacques Anquetil, Raymond Poulidor. It’s important for me to have this history, and the romantic and tragic stories. Look at Marco Pantani – he took his own life, on Valentine’s Day. There are just so many stories it’s almost like a bible. That’s why I love road so much.

Tell us about the journey…

My passion and love started with my aspiration to become a racing cyclist. I fell in love with Greg LeMond and what he stood for. He was shot in a hunting accident just after he won his 1986 Tour – the same year I began cycling. It took two years for him to return to the professional echelons, and that’s what inspired me. He was a role model; and the history behind these greats and heroes is what fuels my passion.

How did SaK07Socks come about?

SaK07? Well… I never had an ambition for it to become what it is today. It literally was organic. The story’s an interesting one: I refurbished an old Gotty Hansen steel frame with the help of Jared from BMC, who personalised it with my nickname, Sako, and lucky number 7. But I didn’t ride it much; and the bike became a clothing rack of sorts – I had a new pair of socks hanging on it. The socks were dangling facing the nickname, and… the rest is history, that’s pretty much the story behind the socks. I feel it gives them attitude, and it’s part of their success.

The inspiration?

I think the romance side of great artists, the masters, like Marc Chagall – his life story – Amedeo Modigliani, Picasso, and of course Dali. They’re great geniuses and visionaries of the art world – fantastic minds. The inspiration is almost my religion. But my inspiration doesn’t stem 100% from cycling. Some of my designs come from aeroplanes and jet fighters. I love the Concorde, the Dassault Mirage fighter jet, the Lockheed SR-71 and Starfighter 104. And of course the Spitfire – the most recent kit inspiration.

From what we’ve seen, you’re more a trendsetter than a trend-adopter.

With regard to setting a trend, I don’t force that – it comes naturally. There’s no plan. And there’s no weekly plan, or real structure. It’s more a case of what am I going to create today? I wake up with that challenge, of what am I going to post today? What photo am I going to take today? I love taking photos on my phone. I’m inspired by photography. Everything I do gives me inspiration. I love analogue photography – it’s so tragic that there’s none of that anymore. It’s kind of sad, actually. There’s something very special about paging through a magazine and holding a photograph. The same thing can be said for a beautiful painting. It’s real.

It started with socks. Now we’re seeing more kit, and more ancillary items such as casquettes and bidons. What’s next?

I think… there are big plans. My business partners, Isak and Terri Pretorius, are in love with the brand. Terri was the first person to see my vision and identify it. She says it has the ‘X-factor’, it’s unique, and stands out from the rest. And to be involved with passionate people is amazing and important. The key to the success of any brand is passion; without passion, you’re lifeless. You need passion to live.

I don’t make performance products – I want to make people feel and look good.

It is going to be more than just bike apparel and socks. There’s more coming that will encompass more than cycling. We’re here to stay, and we’re here to become global leaders.

Tell us about that French phrase we see in your latest work…

C’est la classe? It’s a complete social media happening. The French phrase C’est la classe means ‘This is the class’. There are nine new phrases and terms coming.

Your biggest market is Asia.

Yes. Japan is currently my biggest market, with North America growing rapidly – and of course the UK is becoming very big too.

How does SA fit in with your vision? And have you seen any growth?

Yes, definitely – we are doing sales here. South Africa has always been behind with fashion in general. Even street fashion. I started the sock-doping trend in this country – not the world, but this country. Other brands have also started, but it can’t be denied that I was the first. Bike fashion is growing. Even now, several pro teams are getting more au fait with designs, and looking less like moving billboards.

I don’t make performance products – I want to make people feel and look good.

Do you feel the average SA cyclist will change his or her views? Make cycling more about the lifestyle, and less about competition?

It’s not about getting to the top of Alpe d’Huez in under an hour anymore – it’s about enjoying the journey. It’s about saying, ‘How beautiful was that?’ The market is definitely going there, but in SA, it’s still largely about Argus (Cape Town Cycle Tour) times and the Cape Epic. For me, it’s simply ride your bike, enjoy your bike, and have fun. It’s about being an individual.

Social media, particularly Instagram, has been the biggest driver of your global success.

The first-ever 288 pairs of socks arrived here in late Jan 2014 – and when they arrived, I had no way to sell them. I literally made two editions of socks, and I knew nobody in SA was going to buy them. I mean, the colourways were pink and blue, and they had six-inch cuffs…

All my creativity comes post-rides. It’s the same as an artist taking drugs, really!

But I’ve always been fascinated by social media. I think when I started on Instagram back in January 2014 I had about 148 followers. I spent long days on Instagram, and studied and watched how it worked. Looking and learning, looking and learning. Seeing how engagement happens. I do things differently now – I’m more reserved; and I’m a different entity to when I started, because of the evolution of social media, and what the Instagram platform has become. The new algorithms have changed it, and my ways.

It’s still a very important part of what I do and who I am; but in all honesty, it’s not who I am in real life. I also like it because I find it difficult to speak to people on a personal level, like, face-to-face. Instagram is wonderful for me, as I can end the conversation at any time.

The pictures we see on your feed – how much goes into executing just one shot?

Wow. Um… I can take up to 30 shots a day, and now that I know the formulas for the right adjustments on the photos, it can take me up to 15 minutes to go through and get the right picture. I find it cathartic, so I like to take my time on them.

Your daily routine?

Wake up. Social media (laughs). If I’m riding, I’ll get on the bike at a time when I feel comfortable that all the social media questions have been answered and posts have gone out. I don’t have a set time to ride my bike; it all depends on when I feel the job is done. I also don’t have weekends. I work every single day. I always find it strange when somebody says ‘How was your weekend?’, as I don’t have weekends. I have to engage with people on weekends – and public holidays are my busiest times, as more people are on social media. On New Year’s Day in 2015, I woke up to nine orders from Australia.

When I first started my website, in October 2014, the sales I made on the first night paid for the site. So it’s business first, bike-riding later.

You love coffee.

Absolutely. Coffee and cycling are synergies. You’ve heard the French cycling phrase, surely? Chaussette, casquette et café (socks, cap and coffee)!

And your bikes?

Ritte, for me, is more than a bike – it’s a brand. I have a steel Ritte Snob, and my two Aces are just so fast. I love the geometry, and the way they ride. There is a piece of the owner in the bikes. Spencer Canon is the creative genius behind Ritte, and has taken his love for cars and creativity and poured it into the brand. Getting to know him has made me fall even more in love with the brand.

I love Factor, too. It’s the best bike in the world in terms of the way it’s manufactured. Even though it’s a niche bike, it’s worth every bit of money you pay for it. It’s a phenomenal machine – it’s basically the fighter jet of bicycles! It’s the F-22 Raptor or Sukhoi Su-35 – it’s that kind of bicycle, and awe-inspiring in terms of the design.

Chapter 2 is wonderful, too – it’s a bike with difference. It’s a frame-set. It’s about individuality. Unbelievable colourways, and a personal experience. Through this, they’ve created a whole new experience. And the bike is wonderful to ride; I get so much joy out of it.

Your pro-solitude ethos: you ride alone, and you always ride hard. What’s playing through those earphones? Have any of your ideas and visions come from time in the saddle?

Oh, ja. Um… in fact, all my creativity comes post-rides. It’s the same as an artist taking drugs, really! It’s the by-product of the emotions, and does wonders for my creativity and well-being. Very few things in life compare to it – it’s wonderful.

I listen to high-tempo music when I’m riding – heavy metal, rock and electronic music.

Your new range is a big departure from the bright, geometric colourways of your previous offerings. What prompted this move?

Absolute thinking out of the box. So, basically… everything is very emotional. Anything can evoke some sort of inspiration – from a magazine or newspaper, to riding my bike. It just happens.

Do you ever check out the competition?

I’ve never studied design. I don’t do things from a textbook, I do things from my head; and I think this does give me an edge. I’m not saying that what they are doing isn’t beautiful and wonderful; there are some amazing brands out there, some of which I absolutely adore – make no mistake. I’ve worn many of these brands, and the reason is because I have a genuine love for them, and I respect their messages.

You’ve moved operations to SA. What encouraged this?

Well, we moved the central operations here because I needed to be more in touch with the brand, especially considering where it’s heading. Central distribution, which ran overseas for about a year, brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. It was in touch with the world, but it was also hurting the brand, because I wasn’t with it. It was a logical step and the right step to bring it back to SA.

That said, our growth is definitely taking shape, and we will have more of a global presence. In the future, everything from the manufacturing to the warehousing of stock will be all over the world.

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