Launched in 1972 in Copenhagen, Denmark, as one of badminton’s first performance shoes, the canvas shoe company has been marketed for more than four decades to European customers under the label Kawasaki. Now rebranded as Backyard Footwear for its global expansion — which started in South Korea in 2013 and reached the U.S. in March — the name is different, but the heritage story remains the same.
“We want to build our distribution worldwide by romanticizing a bit with the Danish culture and values, and it starts with the name,” said Jan Guldbæk, chief sales and marketing officer for Backyard International.
According to Guldbæk, the area between buildings in Copenhagen is where friends and families gather to play games and hang out. “In America, the word ‘backyard’ conveys that feeling of gathering with friends,” he added. “It’s also an idea. Your backyard can be anywhere you are at any given moment.”
The move to take the footwear abroad arrives after a “slowdown in the last three to five years” in consumer demand for canvas shoes in European markets, Guldbæk said. “We see North America as an important market because a lot of people travel to the States, and there’s a greater life cycle of canvas — the same with Asia. It’s hot and trendy and moving faster. Within the next 12 months, we will start with Canada, Central America, China and Japan.”
To seduce the American consumer, the label entered stores in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida and California in the spring with a soft launch at independent, trendy sneaker boutiques. The small-scale approach works in tandem with the brand’s U.S. sales model — that is, to build an intrinsic relationship with influential retailers.
“We find that we are doing well with retailers who want to engage and help build our business with us,” said Eliana Reffue, chief marketing officer of Backyard USA. “We work with sales staff and make sure they have sneakers so that they know when they are asked, what’s different [about Backyard Footwear] from Keds or Converse.”
As a bonus, independent retail partners might find the venture with the new brand appealing because of its low minimum order requirement. “We only have 12 pair as a minimum, and we’d like to keep it that way just to get them started,” Reffue said. “Bigger brands won’t do that small of an order.”
The styles introduced for U.S. customers include the brand’s core looks, the Tivoli and Copenhagen. The canvas sneakers are handmade in a facility in the Czech Republic and feature a distinctive patch of suede on the toe box to protect the materials from wear and tear while in action — a nod to its origins as a court shoe. Prices range from $60 to $70, and silhouettes are unisex-style.
“It’s a 44-year-old company, so there’s a huge catalog as to what we can do, and we wanted to see how the American market would take to a new silhouette in canvas,” Reffue said. “It’s manufactured in an old-school way and not mass-produced. Everything sold in the U.S. canvas market has been around for the past 20 years, but U.S. customers want something more unique.”
The appeal of a European heritage brand with a striking design is what piqued the interests of Kixters CEO Jason Brown, who carries Backyard Footwear in his Boston and New Haven, Conn., stores.
“In a market that’s dominated with sameness, customers are looking for unique products in the sneaker category,” Brown said. “To have a product that doesn’t have a lot of exposure that most people haven’t heard of is attractive to customers. As a retailer, unproven brands are relatively risky, but we’re giving them access and advising them on what’s working.”
Reffue estimates that nearly two-thirds of Backyard Footwear’s U.S. consumers have been women, and ages for men and women range around 18 to 40 years old.