10 Questions for Paul Overfield

When Paul Overfield joined Cole Haan two years ago as design director, he only had women on his mind. But today, his role has expanded to include overseeing the design of everything under the Cole Haan umbrella — from men’s footwear to accessories to licensed product for both genders.

According to Overfield, the iconic American brand has branched into a wide range of categories over the years, but footwear remains its cornerstone. The category accounts for 60 percent of Cole Haan’s business, with men’s footwear contributing 40 percent of that total.

While Overfield and his design team can take credit for the styling of the footwear, parent company Nike has brought its performance expertise to the table. Nearly the entire collection incorporates the athletic giant’s signature Air technology.

Still, while Cole Haan continues to innovate on the technology front, the brand is not losing sight of its classic roots. In fact, Overfield explained, the company is banking on its timeless appeal to keep the momentum going in a tough economy. “We see [the economic situation] as an opportunity,” he said. “[Classic product] is our heritage. And now, we’ve added the benefit of Air technology. We’ve brought the old and new together.”

1. What do you enjoy more, designing men’s or women’s?
PO: I have a lot of fun with both, but there is much more freedom to explore novelty and color with the women’s collection. The Cole Haan woman is a bit more adventurous. I would like to think, though, that men are starting to move in this direction as well. We work to integrate [the men’s and women’s collections] whenever possible — whether it be through pattern, design details, materials or color. We always want the collections to have a coherent theme.

2. Do you risk losing core customers by adding more directional product?
PO: Our spring ’09 collection is a fresh interpretation of the Cole Haan aesthetic, which has always been elegant dress and casual footwear with a distinctly American flair. For spring and moving into fall ’09, moccasins, drivers and bucks, which are all part of our heritage, have been updated in very modern and relevant ways. By using vibrant colors and updated silhouettes, we can embrace and attract a younger customer while offering the same timeless products our [core] customers expect. We like to think we are bringing our core customers on the journey with us.

3. How important is comfort in men’s footwear?
PO: Men desire comfort as much or more than women. Younger men have grown up wearing mostly athletic footwear, so comfort has always been their experience. They’re now looking for dress and casual shoes that deliver the same good feeling. We have worked very closely with our partners at Nike to develop a range of airbags that will fit in almost every shoe. The Nike Air technology has been a huge success because it has allowed us to fulfill this need in an authentic and innovative way.

4. How do you keep an 80-year-old brand fresh and relevant?
PO: We continue to look to our heritage for inspiration and reinterpret the classics in a modern way. The brand was built on dress shoes, moccasins, boat shoes, drivers, bucks and saddles. We’ve taken these categories and reinvented them by adding Nike Air technology, updated shapes and proportions and a combination of fresh colors, textures and materials. They all connect back to our heritage, but bring it forward in a new and refreshing way.

5. Many young men have never owned dress shoes. What should be their first pair?
PO: A basic penny loafer is a great multipurpose shoe. You can dress it up for a meeting, or wear it with a pair of jeans for a casual weekend look. It’s perfectly on trend right now.

6. Cole Haan is expanding internationally. Does that mean designing collections for distinct markets?
PO: The breadth of product is meant to reflect a global market. Men abroad seem to be attracted to our classic American aesthetic with a modern twist, but the styles do tend to vary between regions.

7. How independent are men today when it comes to defining their personal style?
PO: It’s much easier for a guy, now that men’s fashion has become more exposed. The fusion of sport and fashion in menswear has changed the game. There are so many style icons for men today that you can’t help but notice what people are wearing.

8. In a difficult economy, how challenging is it to get men to buy footwear?
PO: In a tough climate, men will only react to something that’s truly compelling, innovative and has a great price-value equation. So for spring ’09, we introduced some new uses for technology, as well as some new textures and bold colors that will hopefully catch customers’ eyes and wallets. We also launched Cole Haan Sporting this spring. The collection features new technologies such as Flywire, which builds on the successful Nike Air franchise, [and it] draws inspiration from sport and recasts it into fashion-forward designs.

9. Is investment dressing considered passé these days?
PO: It seems that most people consider accessories an investment now more so than ever. Quality never goes out of style. You want to be confident that what you’re buying has longevity and durability.

10. What’s your favorite men’s shoe in the Cole Haan archives?
PO: The Trafton, one of our oldest shoes. Hand-burnished with precise brogue detailing, it was reimagined for fall. It looks as fresh as ever and exudes classic American style. It’s timeless.

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