Martin Keen has another shoe brand to call his own, only one year after he and Keen footwear, the company that bares his name, parted ways. For his second footwear launch, Keen, in partnership with Timberland, is debuting a new performance watersports footwear line under the company name Mion (pronounced my own).
Keen and Eric Burbank, who is directing sales and marketing for Mion, spoke exclusively with SNEWSÂ® in early July to announce the official launch of the brand, and upcoming presence at Summer Market where the company will, for the first time, unveil Keen's four new sandals encompassing approximately 30 SKUs.
"As a competitive sailor, I am always looking for a performance edge, and as a footwear designer, I am always looking for a manufacturing edge," said Keen. "Over the last year, I put two ideas together, turned to Timberland's Invention Factory as my ideal partner, and created what I believe is a true amphibious product for amphibious athletes -- designed for the highest performance in or out of the water.
"These shoes are very different than anything done before," Keen told us. "Mion is the name of the brand because it refers to the emphasis on fit in the sandal line and the fact that, thanks to the Ergomorphic foam we are using, each sandal will conform to the wearer's foot."
Burbank explained that the footbed in each sandal is molded to the 90th percentile, but a foam material the company has dubbed Zote provides exacting fit by conforming to the remaining 10 percent of foot shape variances. The nature of the Zote foam is that it has a memory that will not return to its original shape. If two people are a size 8 and one of them has been wearing one of the sandals for five days, it will not feel quite right to the other anymore.
"Within a few days of wear, each sandal's footbed actually mimics the unique contours of the foot -- toe impressions, toe bar, the arch," said Burbank. "As a result, you create more contact with the footbed which offers the wearer better grip and better overall performance and comfort."
The upper of the sandals is made of a material very similar to that used in the Croc brand's sandal (see photo to right). Mion's upper has fingers of foam that extend up from the side of the foot and cup around and over the vamp (top of the foot). What increases the customized comfort and stability of the sandals, according to Keen, is the integrated lacing system made of polyester cord (similar to climbing cord) that turns the upper foam fingers into a structural component as the lace is tightened.
"The fingers will deflect around your foot as the pressure of the lacing gets drawn down," said Keen. "The foam acts as padding and protection around the foot, providing unsurpassed foot stability and comfort."
Keen said he believes he has created the ultimate watersports performance sandal, called, appropriately enough -- at least in the planning stages -- the Performance Sandal (approximate MSRP $95). The sole of the sandal is quad cut siped (it has narrow grooves or channels, frequently used in boat shoes) to create a broken surface that when flexed, looks very much like the surface of a dog's paw. The quad cut siping provides for exceptional wet surface traction, Keen assured us.
Rounding out the line is the Performance Water Shoe (again, no points for naming originality, but we'll cut 'em a break since these were just working names and not finalized when Keen and Burbank spoke with us) for an approximate MSRP of $120; the Guide Slide for an approximate MSRP of $80 and the Pro Thong, for an approximate MSRP of $80.
Although there is some admitted initial visual similarity to the original Keen design -- "I'm not just going to change my style," Keen explained -- closer inspection reveals a shoe that is rather minimalist in design. It has clean lines and a form that, as Burbank likes to say, "Looks almost like it was created by the earth as an organic form that evolved with just a little help from Martin."
Burbank wanted to make it very clear that even though Timberland is behind the Mion project, and the brand is currently being operated through the Invention Factory at Timberland, Mion is very much its own brand -- one that Timberland has a significant stake in, but not one that will carry any indication that Timberland is involved.
"It will be understood by retailers that Timberland is behind the product," said Burbank. "But Timberland's involvement will be invisible to consumers, and for all practical purposes, invisible to retailers as well."
Mion will have its own management team and its own sales force, one that Mion was assembling in mid to late July. Burbank is considered a consultant and reports directly to Ken Pucker, COO of Timberland.
While the company is not necessarily visible to consumers or retailers, make no mistake that Timberland's influence is certainly going to be noticed on the environmental and social consciousness side of Mion's business.
"In keeping with Timberland's commitment to environmental sustainability, the injection-molded manufacturing technique we utilize in producing the Mion 2006 line will generate 90 percent less waste than shoes and sandals built using traditional die-cut methods with compression-molded EVA," Burbank told us.
Burbank told SNEWSÂ® that Mion is working on other ideas as well, but doesn't yet know exactly what it will be able to execute in the company's first year.
"Alternative packaging is certainly one thing we are working on aggressively," said Burbank. "Timberland has done a great job in making sure our packaging is made from 100-percent recycled materials with soy-based inks. (Timberland is) almost aggressive about recycling, even though essentially packaging adds no value to the consumer equation."
One concept Mion is considering is creating an air-tight, waterproof box that each pair of shoes is packaged in that can be reused on a boat or kayak like any other waterproof box consumers might purchase separately.
"As we approach all decisions, we ask ourselves, 'Can we achieve the same thing and be environmentally better?'" Burbank said. "Reuse and reapply can be a much stronger message than recycle."
Mion is also considering a program that includes a prepaid envelope with every shoe, asking consumers to put their sandals in the envelope when they are worn out, rather than toss them, and send to Mion for recycling.
SNEWSÂ® View: We do know that Timberland first approached Martin Keen about working for the company last year, but Keen was, well, keen to continue going it on his own. So, an unusual compromise was worked out where he gets his own brand but with Timberland backing â€“ sort of: Make no mistake that like with Keen's original deal with Rory Furst and the Keen brand they launched, Martin owns no patents or rights to any of the Mion designs. Only Timberland can say Mion is my own. That's not to say Martin won't be rewarded for his efforts and talent. Essentially, if Mion does very well, Martin does very well for himself. If it doesn'tâ€¦well, Timberland will have a lot of explaining to do to investors and retailers and Martin will once again be on his own. And whether or not the success of Mion is a given, as some at Timberland appear to believe, there are other questions that need answering before Timberland and Martin can start crowing. First, the design of the shoes look, at first glance, not so very different from what Martin designed for the Keen brand when he was with that company. We showed several individuals the Mion sandal image, above, and each one of them, without any prompting said, "Oh, a new sandal from Keenâ€¦" Which then begs the question, are these really different enough visually to unseat Keen from a retailer's wall space? Consider that Keen sandals are currently making quite a few retailers quite a few dollars. Think those retailers are going to replace the Keen with the Mion? We doubt itâ€¦at least not this year. Now if Keen sandals and shoes slip in popularity, all bets are off, but we don't think that is likely anytime soon. We also think that Keen will have an immediate and very aggressive response to Mion's launch. So, where does that leave Mion? We trust that Timberland expects to be in this for the long haul. We also trust that this Mion thing will not distract Timberland from a much more important mission â€“ continuing focusing on its own brand and the outdoor line of shoes the company has finally been showing some presence with. Mion or not, it is the Timberland brand that is really the company's own, and we'd hate to think the eye is being taken off the ball for any reason, no matter how talented the designer or good the idea.