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James Curleigh’s Keen Success

The Keen Footwear ceo talks innovation, creativity and looking outside the box.

James Curleigh isn’t your typical chief executive officer.

With Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” blasting over the speakers, the scruffy, long-haired Keen Footwear executive took to the stage at WWD’s CEO Summit Tuesday morning like a rock star ready to give an encore performance.

But if you look beyond his dudelike exterior, laid-back fashion sense and distinctively noncorporate way of speaking, Curleigh has all the trappings of a dynamic business leader.

“Music starts with a creative spark,” Curleigh said, explaining that he compares his eight-year-old outdoor shoe company to a band.

“When it comes to a brand, we talk a lot about consumers and strategy. And we talk about complexity and we talk about concept,” he said, doing his best to unload all the business buzzwords used when describing brand building. “Well, I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan never talked like that.”

Using the creativity needed in music as an underpinning for a company’s success, the ceo spoke of giving a brand’s “fans” — not customers — something they “didn’t know” they wanted, but something that once they get it, “they can’t live without it.”

“Did anyone say, ‘I’d like a pair of pants that was invented during the mining era of 1873 in blue denim that will last a long time and makes me look cooler?’ I don’t think so,” he said. “Did anybody say, ‘I need a coffee experience that will teach me a new language — venti — and a surrounding that will make me feel better than I truly am and, in one minute and 36 seconds, I would like to customize my drink and they better know my name.’ Did anybody say that?”

With Levi’s, Starbucks and a host of other innovative brands in mind, Curleigh and his team set out to give the world something it never knew it wanted — a sandal that protects your toes.

Dubbed the Newport sandal, Keen created a rugged, all-weather shoe with a thick rubber sole that looks like something that one would imagine if a gladiator sandal and hiking sneaker could mate.

“We love the fact that there are some people out here — I won’t ask for a show of hands — who would never put this shoe on their foot, no matter what happens, right? That big ugly toed strappy thing, forget it, but there are plenty of people that value the protection and breathability…and we’re OK with that,” he said before an uproarious crowd of fashion execs and industry hands.

Curleigh spoke of the importance of Keen’s brand extension to footwear categories like utility, snow and hiking boots, as well as the exploration of segments like backpacks, totes and performance socks.

Expanding beyond the Newport sandal is just one element of growth, according to Curleigh, who said creating a sense of “inclusivity” is paramount to gaining traction in the marketplace. On the flip side, realizing who your audience is — and isn’t — is also important.

For instance, the ceo said Keen doesn’t target the teen market, but instead focuses on the 30- to 60-year-old demographic, as well as the kids’ market because those consumers tend to be drawn to the brand’s functionality and comfort.

Bringing in a “multidimensional, 360-degree look” of what your brand stands for and where it can go is part of Keen’s model. Curleigh noted that part of his firm’s focus is promoting the “hybrid life,” a somewhat intangible brand motto that encompasses fusing concepts such as “innovation,” “sustainability” and “living outwardly.”

In practice, this recently translated to the jump into vulcanization, an old-school shoe-making process that doesn’t involve adhesives.

With the aim to revitalize a craft that can produce a greener product, Keen scoured the globe for vulcanization machines. After refurbishing dozens of them, the Portland, Ore.-based brand set up a factory in the Dominican Republic and began producing a vulcanized shoe line.

But the “hybrid life” motto, that being one of somewhat harmoniously existing juxtapositions, extends beyond product.

“We’ve got the Keen Mullet going on,” Curleigh said, of his firm’s business mantra. “Keep it simple on the front, but sophisticated in the back.”

That sophistication includes an aggressive digital strategy and a studied domestic manufacturing plan. Unwilling to be at the mercy of China’s rising transportation and labor costs, Keen built its own factory in Portland, where it assembles materials that it sources globally.

While this will cause Keen to raise its prices from the $100 range to upward of $220, it will also give the brand an opportunity to educate its consumer about the craftsmanship of its product through new marketing campaigns, Curleigh explained.

“What I love about our product and our brand is that we’re like ‘Forrest Gump’,” the ceo said, grinning. “People are just willing us to win. Like, really, with these big, goofy shoes? We’re the reluctant hero.”