Designer Sung Choi launched the brand in 2001 to fill a void for sophisticated casual shoes with the comfort of sneakers. As the brand has grown, it has stayed true to that mission, steadily expanding its offering to cover more men’s footwear needs.
“When Sung started, [brands only offered] either a sneaker a 14-year-old would wear or a hard-bottom shoe. He wanted to bring men more options,” said company President Matthew Miller. “And we’ve continued to explore areas where we want to see growth and development.”
Over time, the Clae collection, which retails from $65 to $165, has expanded to include fashion-contemporary looks. “We’re evolving from that sneaker/casual shoe to a more well-rounded footwear offering,” Miller said. This fall, for instance, the brand is debuting a series of boots on Vibram bottoms, followed by loafers with removable kilties and other more dressed-up styles for spring ’13.
“[In addition to creating seven new silhouettes], we also completely revised the Bruce, [a pared-down laceup], using an open mesh. And we took a new approach with our Strayhorn [mid-top], giving it an easy, unlined design,” Choi said about the upcoming spring line.
Continuing to innovate and push the collection forward has been critical for Clae. Although the brand was among the early originators of the athletic-casual concept, the category is now flooded with other players, all fighting for the same shelf space. “There is much more competition now,” said Miller, who partnered with Choi and industry veteran Jim Bartholet to relaunch Clae in 2007 following a four-year hiatus to sort out production issues. “A lot of brands have popped up along the way, but [the competition] has pushed us to be better, which is a good thing.”
Steven Alan, owner of the eponymous chain, said Clae consistently offers “a strong point of view” in the market. “The styling is good, and they keep the collection fresh and interesting,” he said. “I also like that they’ve kept their distribution pretty clean. As a retailer, that’s important.”
At Boston-based sneaker shop Bodega, co-owner Jay Gordon said Clae has been successful at maintaining its edge in the market. “It’s a never-ending job, but so far they have done very well introducing new models that are innovative and relevant,” Gordon said. “They use great materials and classic silhouettes to make product that appeals to [a wide range] of customers. It’s a challenging role, fitting between the sneaker and shoe worlds, but they’ve done a great job.”
Being an innovator has its downsides, though. Clae has grappled with its share of copycats, a situation Miller attributes, in part, to the company’s decision to take a low-key approach to marketing in its early years. “We wanted to let the product speak for itself. We thought that if we made good shoes, people would find us,” he said. “But we were probably a bit naïve in that sense. When you have copycat [brands] out there that are louder than you, you suddenly are perceived as the imitator and not the originator.”
Today, Clae, which distributes to more than 50 countries, is much more vocal with its marketing. “We don’t want to hit people over the head,” said Miller. “We’re not traditional marketers, for better or worse. We’re still very product-centric.” The brand stages more publicity events and has significantly ramped up its social media efforts to connect with consumers.
Building buzz through collaborations also has been a priority. Last fall, Clae created a shoe with Japanese sound system Mighty Crown, and this fall it will release a one-off with menswear label Maiden Noir. “When we first came back in 2007, there was some collaboration fatigue, but there is a lot of excitement about that again, and they’re really great marketing tools,” Miller said.
And with the opening this past spring of its first retail location, Clae now has a bigger platform for showcasing and promoting its products. At Our Favorite Shop, in L.A.’s Mid-City neighborhood, Clae can present its brand message in a compelling, undiluted way, said Miller. The minimalist space, which includes the company’s design studio, stocks the full footwear offering, as well as an eclectic mix of other products, including U.S. Alteration clothing, Baron Von Fancy accessories, Yumaki toothbrushes, Ursa Major skin-care items and even vinyl records, books and magazines. “We wanted to bring in some brands we think are interesting and share the same point of view,” Miller said. “Not calling it a Clae store gives us a lot more latitude.”
He noted the shop also serves as a testing ground for new products such as socks, bags, small leather goods and camera straps. In addition to accessories, the brand is exploring adding a companion women’s collection. “We’re getting consistent requests for women’s shoes,” Miller said. “So we’re having discussions now about how we fit into that world, what our perspective will be and what the product will look like. We’re hoping to set some target dates soon for a launch.”