Keen Footwear, barely a blip on the radar screen of its competitors, and with only four SKUs that just debuted at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, has landed Angel Martinez as its president. Yep, the same Martinez who turned heads as the CEO of Rockport, was the 1997 Footwear News man of the year, and before that was the vice president of global marketing for Reebok.
While competitors might not have given the new Keen line more than a cursory glance at Winter Market, with Martinez's involvement, you can be sure all are taking a much harder look now. Just what does Martinez see in a company that seems mostly about slides and sandals?
"I discovered the company by accident at WSA after wandering by booth after booth of the same thing," Martinez told SNEWS. "I am a product guy at heart and had my product radar going when I saw Martin's ideas. I immediately saw them as a footwear concept and not just a sandal concept.
"Martin's approach to lasts, which is a sculptured last, is unlike anything else in the industry and it means footwear will fit so much better," added Martinez. "Martin is a visionary and has great vision for the brand that I happen to share, so we began collaborating."
Martinez, who is now an investor in Keen, thinks of himself as a brand builder.
"A lot of people can manage a brand," said Martinez. "I like building brands. At Rockport I was given the opportunity to deconstruct and then rebuild the brand and that was great fun for me. I now have the opportunity to build Keen into something that will turn heads with product design and fit, and a company that is retailer friendly."
Keen certainly generated buzz at Outdoor Retailer with a funky-looking sandal that left many wondering what it was they were looking at -- sandal or shoe? Born of a design by the company founder Martin Keen, a champion sailor in search of a better shoe, the hybrid sandal (OK, so he doesn't get points for name originality) features a sculptured last which the company claims is the only lasted sandal on the market worldwide. Keen also enclosed the toe with a toe guard that is patented.
Martinez prefers to call the "sandals" open footwear.
"It is a very different idea and very liberating. Certainly there is a need for closed footwear at work and for dress, but I have been wearing the hybrid since February and I live in the slush and cold and just put socks on when it is cooler. It is simply the most comfortable my feet have ever been," Martinez said.
You can hear the marketing and brand-building wheels spinning across the country.
"Our target consumer is the sophisticated younger person who grew up wearing athletic footwear and has spoiled feet and does not want to wear hard shoes or boots," Martinez said.
Apparently, the footwear has struck a nerve. Since only February, Keen has opened up over 200 accounts and thanks to an amazing sell-through and reordering flurry is officially sold out.
"I was nervous because Martin had done a great job of packaging this and we had assembled a great rep team who were completely passionate about the product, but until the product actually starts selling, you wonder if you are onto something that the consumer really wants or we are just talking to ourselves, which does happen in this business.
"I wish we had a lot more shoes right now because we would be selling them," Martinez told us.
Despite the initial success, don't expect Martinez to begin thinking big box though.
"Our distribution will be limited to those places that offer competitive product and service -- running shops, cycling shops -- cyclists love this shoe we've been told -- outdoor specialty stores, and independent footwear retailers that specialize in sit and fit service where the clerk actually knows what he or she is talking about."
Though Martinez won't be too specific at this point, expect the open shoe model to adapt into a few closed shoe cousins that will adapt well into the hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and travel markets -- perhaps as soon as Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.
Martinez is not alone in this. He's also landed former colleague and long-time friend Jim van Dine as the company's national sales manager. Van Dine was most recently the sales director at Vans and before that he directed the sales and marketing efforts for Deckers overseeing Simple, Ugg and Teva brands.
SNEWS View: Wow! We knew Martinez during his Rockport days when he turned that struggling brand around and molded it into a brand known for traveling comfort and dress-down Friday attire. We still occasionally wear our LaPlatas, which during their heyday were our favorite trade show and travel shoe. While we would ordinarily be raking Martinez over the proverbial coals wondering why on earth this industry needs another footwear brand, we're biting our tongues. We've seen the Keen line and it certainly offers a new and unique design. We also know Martinez and his energy and brand-building talent is second to none. And, we have seen how the brand has sold through at retail, most notably REI. So, instead of laughing until we're red in the face, we're eagerly awaiting, along with at least 200 other retailers, for Keen's next offering. We're also fighting the urge to pun away because Keen offers just too many possibilities.