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How K-Swiss President Barney Waters Is Using the Brand’s L.A. Roots and Tennis Heritage to Shape Its Future

K-Swiss’ connection with consumers has ebbed and flowed throughout its 55 years. But under the leadership of president Barney Waters — and the direction of parent Xtep International Holdings Ltd. — the label is finding its footing again.

Moving forward, Waters aims to elevate the K-Swiss stature by owning its Los Angeles roots, earning more shelf space with influential retailers and narrowing its focus on what the brand knows best: tennis.

The new plan is taking shape under Xtep, the brand’s Chinese parent company. (Xtep acquired K-Swiss in 2019 from E-Land.)

“The evolution is being driven by the ownership. We’ve been given a very different set of objectives,” Waters told FN. “Xtep feels strongly that having a legitimate heritage American brand is a major asset because there are not many left. The China consumer loves American brands and is heavily driven by what’s happening here.”

Waters said Xtep will open K-Swiss’ first China store in Q3, with plans in place for rapid brick- and-mortar acceleration over the next few years.

“Xtep has 6,800 monobrand stores, and they are very hot on K-Swiss and see big opportunity. It’s very feasible that we’ll have 1,000 stores in China over the next few years. We have a capable organization that is very motivated to make this work,” Waters said.

The U.S. Landscape

As Xtep opens K-Swiss stores in China, the heritage athletic company is working on boosting its share of the U.S. market. A major part of the plan is improving its position at retail.

“It going to be a pretty significant year for us in terms of reengaging with big accounts and also reestablishing business with the independents,” Waters said. “K-Swiss didn’t have the capacity to service that customer, but our new commercial team is engaging and bringing a lot of those back. We’re rapidly reestablishing our independent base.”

Last month, K-Swiss delivered its Classic LX sneaker through Foot Locker (as well as its Footaction and Champs Sports banners). The brand also now has a presence in other noteworthy retailers, including DTLR, Dillard’s and Nordstrom.

K-Swiss Concepts Dave Grange Scott Boulton
(L to R): Dave Grange and Scott Boulton, photographed at the Concepts store in New York.
CREDIT: GEORGE CHINSEE

The overhauled sales team, all in-house, includes five new business managers in key regions with experience at brands such as Lacoste, Keds, Ralph Lauren and Sperry. In particular, Waters said that adding Dave Grange as VP of sales for the Americas was a pivotal hire.

“Along with the full restructure of the commercial team, we have worked diligently on our distribution strategy. This has included closing down some partners that no longer fit,” Grange told FN. “I’m very happy to report the rewards were immediate. The order book in 2021 is showing triple-digit growth, and this year will exceed our pre-COVID 2019 numbers.”

Aside from big chains, K-Swiss has aligned itself with several influential boutiques, including Extra Butter and Leaders, among others. These new partners are slated to deliver their own collaborative collections.

“We’re working with some of the most recognizable stores in the world. They’re iconic globally and very influential in their surrounding cities,” said Scott Boulton, a longtime colleague of Grange’s who joined K-Swiss in November as director of product and energy for the Americas. “We’re not just doing one-and-done collaborations. We’ve also created a full Tier 1 collection that can sit in these key stores 365 days a year.”

Ankur Amin, CEO of TGS — the parent company of Extra Butter — is confident that the store’s core customers will welcome the addition of K-Swiss.

“K-Swiss is a brand that we grew up with. It was predominantly known as a tennis brand and a few models crossed over in the ’90s and had a moment in street culture,” Amin said. “We aim to celebrate all things past, present and future in sneaker culture. A large part of our audience is not familiar with K-Swiss, and we feel that we can help the brand tell their story through our lens.”

Of the retailer’s upcoming collaboration, creative director Bernie Gross said it will explore tennis in its relation to the Big Apple.

K-Swiss has also aligned itself with Concepts, a move that Boulton said would enhance its relevancy. “When the consumer goes into the store, they feel Concepts validates any brand,” he said.

To introduce the partnership, Concepts will debut a K-Swiss collection in June that’s exclusive to the retailer. The lineup — which will feature heritage footwear styles, a letterman jacket, hoodies and accessories — draws inspiration from Boston’s historic Tennis & Racquet Club, which was founded in 1902 and is located near Concepts’ former home on Boylston Street.

“K-Swiss is a strong brand with its own personality, heritage, so we knew making a collection with them would work for us as well,” Concepts CEO Tarek Hassan said. “Concepts loves storytelling, loves heritage, and when we see an opportunity like this, it makes sense for both brands to connect and create something special.”

While bolstering ties with the right partners is a major priority, Waters is also nurturing a growing digital business.

“The pandemic boosted everyone’s e-comm business. The question is: Can that be sustained as the country opens back up again? We believe that it will. We will be able to sustain the advances we’ve made,” Waters said.

During the last year, K-Swiss added employees, specifically to its e-commerce team — and Waters confirmed the company isn’t done with hiring in key areas such as digital advertising and website merchandising. A redesign of the brand’s online store is also expected for 2021.

Bouncing Back

As it finds the right balance between DTC and retail, K-Swiss is sharpening its focus on the categories it understands best.

Before Waters took the brand’s helm in 2016, K-Swiss had veered off course to expand into categories such as running and triathlon, segments not associated with its heritage.

“If we do running shoes, you have to spend so much energy trying to get the idea into the consumer’s head that we are running brand, and you’re competing against 12 other [companies] that already do running,” Waters said. “The world doesn’t necessarily need another running brand, so we’d like to stay in our lane.”

Marketing also deviated greatly from the K-Swiss ethos — with a controversial spot featuring Danny McBride as his Kenny Powers character from the HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” perplexing longtime fans.

“K-Swiss is at its best when it gets back to what it always did. This is not reinvention. It’s more like stripping it back to the original,” Waters explained.

Venus Williams K-Swiss
Venus Williams is now a K-Swiss ambassador.
CREDIT: Courtesy of K-Swiss

The exec said it will continue to strengthen its tennis roots, which he referred to as the brand’s north star. “We’re resetting the DNA. We’re still a tennis brand, we’re still about court style, we’re still about heritage, but we’re setting our sights higher,” Waters said.

In the past year-plus, K-Swiss has made several moves to improve its position in tennis. For instance, the company delivered a pair of performance shoes — the Hypercourt Supreme and the Hypercourt Express 2 — in August 2020. It also added rising stars Ajla Tomljanovic and Cameron Norrie to its athlete ambassador roster.

The renewed focus on the court has already started to pay off. According to the Tennis Industry Association, K-Swiss was the top-selling footwear brand in the pro/specialty channel in 2020.

“The brand has tennis heritage. I don’t think it’s readily apparent to the consumer, but I absolutely think they could win it back,” explained Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser with The NPD Group Inc. “Like everything in this space, it needs to be fresh and new and address the beginning consumer in particular.”

In November 2020, tennis icon Venus Williams joined the brand, resulting in a limited-edition footwear and apparel collection in collaboration with the athlete’s EleVen label, as well as a spot in its “Club K-Swiss” campaign.

The partnership with Williams also fits into another important lane K-Swiss is emphasizing now and in the future: its connection with California.

“K-Swiss being in L.A. is such an advantage. It’s a powerful brand attribute that we haven’t laid into until now,” Waters said. “We’re honing it to say, ‘Let’s establish our roots in L.A. and then build from there.’”

Compton Country Club K-Swiss
A look from the K-Swiss “Compton Country Club” campaign with rapper YG at the center.
CREDIT: Courtesy of K-Swiss

The label tapped rap megastar YG last month to lead its “Compton Country Club” marketing campaign, which was created as an homage to its history as a heritage tennis brand and a way to connect that to modern cultural leaders. The effort was produced by SLiC Studios, the production company of retired NBA star Baron Davis.

The former basketball pro was also featured in the brand’s “Dreamers & Doers” documentary, which went live on YouTube in late March. “I was talking with Baron and he told me he used to play on an AAU basketball team that was sponsored by K-Swiss [when he was 10 years old]. It was called the K-Swiss Pacers. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were on the team, and the guy who ran the program, Thaddeus McGrew, also worked in K-Swiss sports marketing,” Waters recalled. “I was like, ‘We have to tell the story.’”

The result of the conversation is the short film that Davis’ production company produced, which not only tells the story of his K-Swiss basketball team, but also includes other notable voices from L.A. with affiliation to the brand.

Looking ahead, K-Swiss will further deepen its L.A. roots through collaborations with staples of the region, including iconic eateries Randy’s Donuts and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, as well as South Central-based clothing company Bricks & Wood and apparel-maker OCD Cleaners of Inglewood.

With a solid plan in place, and with the world opening up after the challenging COVID-19 period, Waters believes K-Swiss has what it takes to once again become a force in footwear.

“I love this idea that we could be looking at the Roaring ’20s. There certainly is pent-up demand,” Waters said. “And I like to think that some of the resurgence of our classics business is because of this idea that when times are tough, people go back to tried-and-tested things. K-Swiss can take advantage of this now.”

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