It's quite clear that KEEN's footwear offerings favor a non-traditional approach. Since starting out in 2003, the label has moved from a trail and hiking brand based out of the States' Pacific Northwest, to a label with international presence and a reputation for unconventional design.
Central to this is the label's UNEEK shoe: a piece of footwear that's somewhere between a sandal and a trail sneaker. While the UNEEK cannot be classified, what it stands for can. Crafted from nothing but "two cords and a sole," it revels in the fact that it's completely unclassifiable, it wants that double-take, but it also challenges established notions of what footwear can be.
We sat down with Michael Minter, the VP of Marketing and Creative Keen, so we could dig a little deeper into the brand's offbeat, unconventional design ethos, the rise of hybrid design and footwear, and why the UNEEK is exactly just that.
What is KEEN and who are its people?
KEEN is an outdoor lifestyle brand known for its unexpectedly versatile products and its commitment to giving back to the community. We’re a living contradiction in a lot of ways. We think of ourselves as a “global tribe,” comprised of an eclectic mix of creators, innovators, do-gooders and rule-breakers. But it works.
Well, KEEN takes its name from one of the founders, but we like to think it also captures the spirit of the brand…as in “Are you keen to try this? Yeah, sure, I’m keen for whatever.”
It seems the label actively tries to be irreverent in what its style. Would you say this is true?
We definitely aspire to be disruptive, and we certainly don’t take ourselves too seriously. I guess there’s a certain level of irreverence to that.
What is the "HybridLife" that KEEN aims to represent?
We believe in the balance of form and function, work and play, capitalism and community. Having fun, giving back…those things are as important to us as building shoes.
You guys are big in Japan, right? We've seen a number of influential boutiques stocking UNEEKs and a fair amount of people wearing them. Are you trying to bring the Japanese culture of sandals and comfortable functionality to "the West?"
It’s true, we are big in Japan. “The West” has been wearing sandals for a long time now, but you’re right that our Japanese fans constantly inspire us. The KEEN brand seems to sync really well with the Japanese appreciation for unconventional style, imaginative products, and uncompromising quality. We believe that spirit can be unlocked everywhere. The collision of sock trends with sandal trends has also been fun to watch, and certainly UNEEK sits comfortably at that intersection.
Comment on the current trend for "hybrid products" and hybrid footwear (e.g. sneakerboots). Do you see the UNEEK shoe as part of that?
We were making hybrid footwear well before the trend. UNEEK is yet another example of our brand rejecting the traditional categorization of footwear. I think people are tired of being defined and limited by end-use definitions. We see this in cars, technology, everything. Just like people, shoes can be for more than one thing. I guess you could say hybrid living requires hybrid shoes.
What inspired the creation of UNEEK and how long has it been around?
Interesting story. UNEEK was created by Rory Fuerst Jr., the head of our innovation group. His design brief was to create a shoe without the benefit of any traditional shoe-making equipment, materials, or factories. It took several years to get it right, but the response suggests it was well worth it. Because it’s made with only two cords and a sole, the entire shoe flexes with the natural contours of your foot. There are no tension points. The interlocking cord system provides a custom fit every time. It’s pretty amazing. The outdoor industry in Germany honored us this past year with the Gold Award for Innovation, a fairly unprecedented distinction for a small footwear brand from Portland, Oregon. All in the backyard of a region known for its design and engineering.
The UNEEK shoe proudly defies categorization, when was the moment that KEEN spotted that "niche?" Was there a moment at all?
We spotted the niche about 13 years ago with the creation of our now-iconic Newport sandal. Yeah, it’s clunky, but it’s truly the first “SUV for your feet.” It created a category of hybrid footwear, which is essentially an anti-category. UNEEK is a continuation of this philosophy. If the Newport was designed to protect your toes on and off the trail, then the UNEEK was designed to protect your options, to wear however, whenever, wherever. It’s being embraced by serious outdoor enthusiasts and by stylists who realize it can be mixed and matched with almost anything for unconventional looks any time of year. It is truly unique. Sorry, pun intended.
With this being UNEEK’s and even KEEN first major creative campaign, can you expand on your master plan?
While UNEEK was developed with comfort and functionality top-of-mind, it's polarizing because the aesthetic and innate boldness have really made it a symbol of self-expression and a rejection of the status quo. Our creative campaign is based upon this. Where most brands are telling consumers what to do and what to be, we’re aiming to inspire creativity and freedom by reminding them that they don’t have to be anything other than themselves. We know our fans don’t define themselves by any one activity or one subculture, so our campaign isn’t designed to simply “sell shoes.”
Rather it’s crafted to empower the pursuit of an interesting and fulfilling life. UNEEK is about fearlessness and creative confidence. It’s social currency with a sole. Because the UNEEK has struck a chord with an extremely diverse set of audiences, our master plan is to stay focused on emotional and functional benefits that are common to everyone. Who doesn’t want to feel good? Who doesn’t want to express themselves? We are partnering with many different artists and collaborators, but in terms of the campaign itself, photographer Tim Tadder has been my key partner in crime. Tim and I are old friends and have been looking for a project to do together for some time. Because UNEEK is about bold innovation, Tim was the perfect collaborator. That’s his playbook to a tee. It’s been a ton of fun and we’re just getting started.
You’ve mentioned that UNEEK makes use of responsible processes and materials. Could you talk about those materials and the production process for the shoe?
KEEN is a values-based brand. Period. We aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination and have learned many lessons the hard way, but our goal is always to produce products in the most transparent, earth-friendly, and community-friendly way possible. While I can’t share all the details about how UNEEKs are made, I will tell you that we’ve been able to dramatically increase efficiency, reduce waste, and minimize the production of non-functional parts and adhesives.
Talk us through your collaboration with the Japanese retailer Oshman’s? Can we expect more collaborations?
Our team in Japan has done a fantastic job collaborating with a spectrum of artists, designers, and retail partners. From Oshman’s to BEAMS to mita Sneakers and United Arrows, we’ve built some great momentum on the collaboration front. We have more exciting projects on deck with designers like Takashi Kanokogi, Tokyo Hemp Connection, Naohiro Fujisaki, and Takashi Imai. I look forward to similar efforts here in the USA.
You’ve recently released block monotone colorways for the UNEEK, what does the future hold for the shoe and for KEEN?
Honestly, we’re just hyped that the organic response has been so overwhelmingly positive. As long as we can protect our DNA and stick to the values that brought us this far, we’re ready for anything. We are expanding the UNEEK franchise carefully. It’s a special product and we don’t want to see it watered down with overly rapid development or distribution. We are launching a lighter weight, closed-heel version in June 2016 called UNEEK O2, and will be dropping several new color packs and cord variations for Spring 2017. I’m personally most excited about the premium leather versions, which will be offered in limited numbers. They’re works of art. Our design team crushed it.
For more on KEEN's unique UNEEK creation, check out their site.