5 Questions for Dr. Scholl’s James Sowins

While Dr. Scholl’s may be best known for its classic wood-bottom Original Exercise Sandal, launched in 1959 and later brought back on “Sex & the City,” the brand’s offerings now cover a range of options, from boots and sneakers for men to wedges and booties for women.

In fact, this spring, the brand, a division of St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Co., is spotlighting its now-signature wood-bottom styles by introducing the Original Collection, a higher-end series with a playful, youthful spirit. The line, retailing from $90 to $150, has been picked up by trend-driven boutiques such as Madison in Los Angeles and vintage-inspired e-tailer Modcloth.com.

“The emotional connection to the Original Exercise Sandal is something we never want to lose,” said creative director James Sowins. “We’re lucky to have an iconic shoe in our line because it validates the rest of our [collection]. People who wear our Original sandal are the ones exploring other styles.”

Over the past year, Dr. Scholl’s also has been building up its offering of modern casuals and sport-inspired looks that emphasize the brand’s comfort roots. And Sowins has put his own spin on a series of men’s and women’s styles featuring signature comfort technologies such as Massaging Gel from licensing partner Merck Consumer Care.

Here, Sowins talks about modernizing the heritage brand while keeping its core comfort and style values.

How does Dr. Scholl’s try to bridge the generations that purchase its shoes?
We’ve done research and have enough consumer feedback to understand what [customers] know and expect from Dr. Scholl’s — a comfortable shoe that’s fun and playful. The shoes are not about age, but attitude and lifestyle. Throughout its history, the brand has connected with pop culture and fashion icons such as Jean Shrimpton and Sarah Jessica Parker. And each style we create reflects our heritage as an American brand, something [founder] William Scholl envisioned more than 100 years ago.

Could there eventually be a style to rival the Original Exercise Sandal?
It’s almost like trying to do a hit single. If you focus on the end, you’re not going to achieve it. If you do your best to make each shoe have its own unique [features], it’s going to develop a following. Sometimes it’s unexpected, sometimes expected. Sometimes you do something, thinking it’s a home run, [but] it’s too early. Our whole Free Step barefoot program is doing incredibly well. We’ve developed a lot of interesting uppers for that collection, and it’s gotten better and better. It’s kind of a modern version of the Exercise Sandal.

How have you tried to connect to men?
Male consumers are very discerning. They want great style with high quality and value. [However], guys are becoming more interested in styles beyond just sneakers. Based on that premise, we created a collection of classic styles from the past, with hikers, workboots and vulcanized sneakers. We then elevate these looks with modern innovation and detail. We’ve even designed sole plates specifically for each construction with comfort and ruggedness in mind. For men’s, I [also] look at a lot of Japanese [lifestyle] magazines. The Japanese are so enamored with pure American style. They’re trying to replicate what [we] used to be, and they do it in an amazing way. I sent our whole design team to Tokyo last September to visit shops because they have [been inspired by America of] the 1950s and ’60s.

What are the challenges of designing for both men and women?
I’m kind of old school. If you’re a good designer, you should be able to design anything. I have to have a taste level for the [particular] brand I’m working on. I look at [the collection] through a Dr. Scholl’s filter. [With the shoes], you have to stop and put on your men’s hat, and then your women’s. Fortunately, I have a beautiful wife and daughter I’m making product for when I’m doing women’s. When I do men’s, I make things I like.

As Dr. Scholl’s raises the style bar, can it continue to stay true to its comfort past?
[Yes.] Many times a brand does not have a defined DNA and has to work to establish a name and reputation. Dr. Scholl’s has an authentic and iconic product known for helping people take healthier steps. We design our shoes from the inside out to be sure we’re always true to the brand’s promise of delivering comfort. We try to adhere to a pure American style aesthetic rather than chase something that might be a fashion trend.

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