Why Keds’ New Leaders Are Making Changes to the 101-Year-Old Brand

Keds Rifle Paper sneakers
Keds x Rifle Paper collab sneakers for fall.
Courtesy of brand

Its 100-year milestone is in the rearview mirror, and Keds is speeding up its plans.

President Gillian Meek has marked one year at the helm of the heritage brand, while industry veteran Dave Grange is six months in as VP of sales for North America. And though it’s only the beginning of both Meek’s and Grange’s tenure with the company, change is happening fast.

“My No. 1 focus is positioning us for organic growth in 2018 and beyond,” Meek said. “What we’ve done in the last year, aside from working on team culture, is exercise a laser focus and up the intensity on [specific] strategic initiatives.”

Keds Dave Grange Gillian Meek Dave Grange and Gillian Meek Doug Levy

One part of the plan is reorganizing product into three categories: “Classic,” which holds the iconic Champion sneaker; “Sport,” including retro-court styles; and “Contemporary,” which is home for more fashion-forward designs.

In addition to breaking down product into specific categories, the company is refining its distribution strategy — and that’s where Grange comes in. The executive, who spent 16 years at Pentland Brands, was most recently CEO of its U.S. division and president of Lacoste Footwear in North America. Grange was tapped to expand Keds’ presence in key retailers across the U.S., while also building new premium distribution relationships.

“We did some consumer insight [research], and some of the feedback we received was that consumers loved the Keds brand, but they were not sure where to find it,” Grange said. “Between my understanding of the industry and having that data, this gave us real confidence that we could go out with a clear segmentation strategy and extend distribution.”

Keds Dave Grange Doug Levy

Since Grange has been in place, the company has added a number of doors for 2018, including Urban Outfitters, Tillys, Robert Wayne, Shopbop and independent retailers such as The Shoe Box and Beyond. “We’ve made good progress in a short amount of time,” he said of his segmentation strategy.

Made up of four tiers — Foundation (which would include stores such as DSW), Lifestyle (e.g., Tillys), Premium (Nordstrom) and Blue Label (Concepts) — the plan allows Keds to reach new consumers, while also offering shoppers different product within the three categories at each distribution tier. “It enables the brand to breathe more extensively and speaks to different pockets of consumers for a point of difference,” he explained. It also broadens occasions-to-wear and allows for Keds to “trade up” to the premium sector, according to Grange.

“What Dave has done is take our product architecture and map it to the U.S. distribution landscape to make sure everyone has an appropriate assortment that is unique to their channels but is also well-balanced,” Meek added.

The lineup for fall and the year ahead will emphasize and expand the key categories. Holly Curtis, Keds VP of product and global creative director, said: “We are aware of all the trends, and we’re on the pulse of what the young consumer is looking for.”

A new sneaker boot will hit the market this fall to bridge the gap between seasons, while this month marks the launch of Keds Studio, an athleisure-inspired capsule collection. “We spent a lot of time to create a robust assortment of new constructions, cup sole bottoms, leather products, sneaker boots, athleisure styles, while also looking at the Champion as a vehicle for collaborations,” Curtis added.

Keds

Keds Studio Dash sneaker, $65; keds.com

Collabs are a strong selling point for the Keds brand, and 2018 marks more development in that realm.

For example, within the popular Kate Spade New York partnership, Keds will be expanding with more bridal-specific styles, with plans to launch in January. Meek said, “My view on collabs is all about finding partners with whom you share values and equity, and the goal is to make sure you’re introducing yourself to new consumers. We are looking for mutually beneficial partnerships, and we use our filter of female empowerment as a way to find collabs.” The brand also has extended its Kate Spade partnership into the kids’ category.

keds-kate-spade-kids A rose-gold sneaker from the new Keds x Kate Spade New York kids’ collaboration. Courtesy of brand

Keds’ “Ladies for Ladies” initiative, which spotlights up-and-coming female entrepreneurs by creating capsule collections, will also continue into 2018, with three more projects in the works.

Also part of Keds’ next phase of evolution is the relaunch of Pro-Keds — the company’s male counterpart known in its heyday as a basketball shoe and then adapted as a must-have street-style sneaker.

Grange is spearheading its revival and is banking on its partnership with renowned sneaker shop Concepts to move Pro-Keds forward. The worldwide exclusive collaboration with Concepts will launch for spring ’18. Urban Outfitters in the U.S. will also release Pro-Keds in spring, with New York sneaker shop Extra Butter on board for a collaboration as well.

Keds Gillian Meek Gillian Meek Doug Levy

For Meek and the team, Keds’ strong history is something that can’t be ignored, so while looking to the brand’s roots for inspiration is key, it’s about staying relevant and communicating with today’s consumer.

“Being laser-focused on our mission, which is female empowerment and ladies-first, helps,” Meek said. “There is no confusion when you come here on a daily basis who you’re gearing up to talk to.”

The president said the brand’s biggest point of difference is its ability to create product and stories that connect with women everywhere. She said, “It’s not a message of exclusive, it’s a message of inclusion, and we are bullish on the fact that that is going to give us a great opportunity as we move into our next phase.”