5 Questions for Stride Rite’s Marc Loverin

Marc Loverin knows how to think like a kid.

As senior design director for Stride Rite, Loverin leads a product team that spends its days dreaming up creative footwear concepts for young children. “Innovation drives everything we do. We are constantly thinking about new ways to inspire kids with our footwear through active play or active imagination,” said the 12-year veteran of the Lexington, Mass.-based company.

For spring ’14, Stride Rite will debut Cybotz, a boys’ sneaker collection featuring Bionic Energy, a patent-pending performance technology inspired by cyborgs and robots. “The shoes are basically bionic suits for your feet,” Loverin said. “They have a technology built into the outsole to enhance the four phases of the gait cycle, propelling kids as they move. The idea is to make kids feel super fast, empowered.”

Loverin and his team also brought Stride Rite’s iconic Zips sneaker line out of the archives for spring ’14, giving it a more contemporary spin. Popular in the 1980s, Zips is built around zipper closures for fast on-and-off. “Reinventing Zips was a fun process for me personally, as Zips are the first sneakers I remember wearing as a kid,” Loverin noted.

Stride Rite constantly connects with its customer base through frequent focus groups and wear tests. Loverin also gets plenty of inspiration from his own family. A father of three, he often applies his personal experiences and insight as a parent to his work.

Here, Loverin talks about reinventing a classic, filtering trends for kids and the importance of consumer feedback.

Why did you decide to bring back Zips?
ML:
Sharon John, our president, has challenged us with the goal to have Stride Rite be the first shoe for every child. When we started looking at that first sneaker, we felt it was a great opportunity to reinvent Zips in a more modern way. The concept behind Zips is that the shoes have laces you adjust once to a perfect fit, and then the shoes just zip on and off. So you get the look of a lace-up shoe but with the ease and convenience of a zipper closure. We put together a tight collection of running-inspired silhouettes with a retro feel. [Moving forward], we plan to add other silhouettes.

What has been the biggest change in what parents look for in their kids’ shoes?
ML:
Versatility has become extremely important, especially over the past several years as budgets have tightened. Parents want shoes that address multiple needs. It can be tricky blending different wear occasions in one shoe, but there are a lot of ways to approach it. We might do a fashion-driven upper but build it on a more-versatile bottom. We can also do it through color and materials.

When it comes to trends, has the gap between the adult and kids’ markets essentially closed?
ML:
The gap has definitely closed, and that is largely because so many adult brands are now doing kids’ shoes. Still, some trends lend themselves better than others. There are trends we have to [pass on] because they’re not kid-appropriate. We have to make hard decisions, but the great thing is that our team is always in that kids’ mindset so we can determine pretty quickly what trends will work. We just know in our guts. And being a children-only brand is actually liberating in the sense that we can take a trend and own it in a way adult brands can’t. They are always worried about becoming too “kid.”

How valuable is the feedback from focus groups and wear tests?
ML:
It’s very important. Kids are the best because they never tell you what they think you want to hear. When you put shoes in front of a kid, you find out everything you need to know in the first 10 seconds. You can see it on their faces, in their body language. There have been collections we felt very strongly about, but when we got them in front of kids we realized they weren’t going to work and we had to pull the plug. On the flip side, we’ve had products for which we had a lot of internal resistance that were a big hit with our focus groups. We had a tough time internally getting people behind our Soft Motion shoes, [introduced in 2009], because they were so different from anything we had ever done. But when we did focus groups, the moms did not even want to give the shoes back. So we pushed hard to make sure Soft Motion lived, and now it’s an integral part of our baby line.

How have your own experiences as a parent influenced your work?
ML:
I started here when my wife was pregnant with [our oldest child]. As my daughter went through her infancy and early walking phases, I learned a lot. She had very pudgy feet like many babies. I discovered how important it is to develop footwear that conforms to different foot shapes. It led me to experiment with different closures, softer upper materials and more unstructured outsoles. As my kids have gotten older, closures have been a big focus. You need shoes that can be adjusted for fit but also are easy to put on so you can get out the door quickly.