As an entrepreneur, wife and mom, Lila Stewart doesn’t have a lot of extra time for binge watching. But when she came across the documentary series “Outcry” on Showtime earlier this year, she became engrossed in the story.
“I actually left work early one day to go home and finish watching it,” said Stewart, who founded the Austin, Texas-based footwear brand Hari Mari in 2012 with her husband, Jeremy.
“Outcry” details the story of Greg Kelley, a high school football star in Leander, Texas, who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and faced a 25-year prison sentence, before he was finally exonerated and pardoned in November 2019.
Stewart shared with FN that she was so moved by Kelley’s story that she asked her team to reach out, perhaps to send Kelley and his wife, Gaebri, a few pairs of shoes.
But it just so happened that Hari Mari was in the midst of planning a photo shoot for its latest collection of closed-toe men’s shoes. “Greg was available, so we hired him to come be the face of the campaign,” said Stewart. “I couldn’t be more proud of this campaign — and of Greg — after everything that’s happened to him and the injustices that happened here in our state. If this is Hari Mari’s small way to pay it forward, then I’m all in.”
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In a statement today, Kelley said, “Over the years, freedom was something that hung in the balance for me. I’ve come to learn that when you are dealt a bad hand in a specific season of your life … freedom [is] the most important thing. It’s all I cared about when all else was stripped away.”
The campaign marks a significant departure for Hari Mari. The brand hasn’t dabbled much in celebrity marketing, with the exception of working with All Star pitcher Cole Hamels to help promote the Hari Mari x Nokono sandal and shoe collection. But 2020 has changed the marketing game for many in the consumer product space. The widespread conversations about social justice and equality have not only given executives permission to take riskier moves with their brand alliances — young consumers are flat-out demanding to know where their favorite labels stand on the big issues of today.
Stewart acknowledges that Hari Mari’s decision to work with Kelley could ruffle some feathers, but she’s unfazed by it. “Am I worried about backlash? Absolutely not. My desire to use Hari Mari as a catalyst for good far outweighs the backlash from anyone who has seen the documentary,” she said.
Since its inception, Hari Mari has been committed to philanthropy through its Flops Fighting Cancer initiative, where 1% of sales help pay for treatments for kids battling cancer. It also organizes flip-flop giveaways at local children’s hospitals three or four times a year.
Going forward, Stewart said she wants to continue to use the brand’s platform to spread hope. “This is part of a new desire, to hire models with a story and purpose, and to make a difference in the world,” she said.