10 Questions: Pro-Keds Pro League

Peter Koytroulis is looking backward.

The designer of the retro-focused Pro-Keds athletic line, Koytroulis, 27, was with the brand while it was licensed to fashion and music mogul Damon Dash, and he stayed on as head designer when Collective Brands’ Stride Rite division reacquired the rights to it this summer. Now he’s designing the line out of his newly opened Jersey City, N.J., streetwear boutique, The Daily Dose Rx, and commuting a few times a month to Lexington, Mass., to work with the team at Stride Rite.

He said he wants to refocus the almost 60-year-old line on what he calls its strengths: its deep catalog and historical cred. “Pro-Keds is a heritage brand that has a history,” he said. “That’s our biggest asset. That’s what got me most excited about it.” Here, Koytroulis talks to Footwear News about his vision for Pro-Keds, learning on the job and why he still waits in line for sneakers.

1. You studied graphic arts and animation, and most of your experience was in apparel before you started working on sneakers. How did you learn about making footwear?

PK: [Actually], my mom has a deli in New Jersey, with one of those meat slicers. It came to a point where, when I first started doing shoes [for Rocawear], I brought in a whole bunch of sneakers and cut them in half so I could understand them and know what I was talking about. That’s a true story. [Laughs.]

2. Now that you’ve had a few years to refine your sneaker know-how, what inspirations are you drawing on for the relauched Pro-Keds collection?

[What inspires me] is really our history and where we started, the sports heritage and the street style. There were a lot of graffiti artists, punks — lots of different people back in the day who wore Pro-Keds. And all these people can relate to the brand because they remember what it was and what it meant to them. They’ll say, “That was my shoe back in the day.” They’re excited about it. To be excited about an old-school sneaker like that in today’s market really means a lot. Pro-Keds is a heritage brand that has a history: That’s our biggest asset. That’s what got me most excited about it. We might have done certain things in terms of fabrication, but the footwear, as far as the shoes and silhouettes, comes from the original catalogs.

3. Being a division of Collective Brands makes you part of a huge shoe company. What’s been the biggest change?

Stride Rite’s material library is ridiculous. It’s great seeing what’s going on in the market today and what’s relevant — and what makes the shoes look rich and gives a certain quality to them. We’ve used nubucks, we’ve used really rich suedes and nice pebbled leathers that, on the shelf, give the shoe the appeal that makes the customer want to pick it up. Being able to see all those fabrics and see everything we can do and have accessible to us has been great. We didn’t have something like that to work with before.

4. You opened a streetwear and sneaker store this summer in your hometown of Jersey City. Does working on the retail side of things influence your designs?

For sure. I have streetwear people coming into the store all the time, and that helps when it comes to colors and inspirations because I see what they’re doing and I see what they feel is relevant, so I’m able to translate that into Pro-Keds.

5. Do you rely on your customers for their feedback as well?

Definitely. I’m constantly picking their brains, talking to them, seeing what they’re wearing. A few times, I’ve grabbed them and said, “Hey, come into the office, come see these sneakers we’re working on. What do you guys think?” One, it makes them feel like they’re a part of something. And two, they’re the customer, so their feedback is really important.

6. You say you’re looking to impress the sneakerhead. Do you consider yourself one of those obsessive shoe guys?

I’ve definitely stood in line. A few weeks ago, one of my co-workers was waiting in line for these new sneakers that just dropped at Nort, and I had to work at the store, so I paid his girlfriend $50 to wait in line for me and buy me my pair.

7. How long did they wait?

About 27 hours.

8. Sounds like you got a deal for $50. Would you have waited so long?

I’m getting a little older now. When I used to stand in line, it was only for 12 hours, and I would just stand against the wall and not move. I wasn’t losing my spot.

9. So does that mean your days waiting outside for sneakers are over?

It’s getting cold. [Laughs.] There are going to be some other drops coming, and definitely, [my co-worker’s girlfriend is] on my radar. I like this new way of doing things. But I actually respect the fact that these kids line up, so I don’t mind getting out there. Those are the customers, those are the people you want to reach out to, and that’s where you get to talk to them. You get to see what they’re wearing and hear their feedback. To me, it’s not just waiting in line for a pair of sneakers — it’s embracing the culture and actually being part of it.

10. Are you aiming for long lines outside stores for Pro-Keds?

: I’m hoping that comes with time. But I hope it starts with the shoes going into the stores and just flying off the shelves.

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