Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix
K-Swiss is a brand that for many of us has laid dormant in the memories of our childhoods, but recently a team have been putting in the ground work to breath life into the classic brand and put it on a new path to greatness. We headed to California to speak with Eric Sarin, Global Vice President of Product at K-Swiss, about how they plan to reposition the brand and why he’s brought back the Si-18 International.
I always love a good HQ visit. It’s an opportunity to see underneath the hood of a brand that for most of my life I’ve only ever had a connection with in stores. It’s one of the real privileges that this job has afforded me and I take full enjoyment in each opportunity to unmask another brand. I guess it’s starting to become a hobby. Recently, I couldn’t help but notice that K-Swiss were starting to rustle around again in the shadows, quietly making moves to get into position, like actors silently shuffling around on stage in final preparation before the curtain is lifted for all the audience to see them. Essentially, this is what has been happening at K-Swiss – big changes and big moves behind the curtains, mostly internal, some of them less tangible and more idealistic, but important none-the-less. But now, the preparation has been done, the curtain has lifted, and they are re-announcing themselves to the world, born again in a new light (and a new logo).
Excuse me for getting a bit dramatic, but it’s rare that you get the chance to talk about a brand that has essentially vanished from the map, to come back with a sturdy game plan and a serious team behind it. Later on in the interview you’ll learn more about who’s involved, but for now we’re focusing on one man, Eric Sarin.
With nearly 20 years of experience under his belt, including long stints at adidas, PUMA and Le Coq Sportif, he’s got an enviable knowledge in the sneaker industry. He’s also been involved in some of the best re-issues and product development in the sneaker scene, from the creation of adidas Originals, to completely repositioning Le Coq Sportif by cracking open their archives. With all this behind him, I’m excited to see what he’ll do with K-Swiss. In all honesty, K-Swiss was never my favourite brand by any means when I was growing up, but neither was Le Coq Sportif, and that has changed dramatically in recent years, mainly thanks to the work that Eric did. So, to say I’m interested is an understatement.
K-Swiss is at an exciting stage in their life and I’m going to enjoy watching the story unfold as the team in California get their teeth stuck in to the challenge. With the recent addition of the talented designer Jon Tang coming over from PUMA, things are getting interesting, fast. The prototypes I’ve seen him working on will alter your opinion of the brand on first site. I wish I could show you now, but we’ll have to be patient for those.
Anyway, I’m at risk of rambling, if I haven’t already. Over the next few pages you’ll find what was an enjoyably open and frank discussion with Eric about bringing back the Si-18 International, why he selected this re-issue to signify the change at K-Swiss, and how else he and his team plan to reposition the brand by leveraging it’s original values. It also serves as a strong guide for anyone interested in brands and how they manage their public perception through product and visual representation. I hope it’s as enjoyable and insightful for you as it was for me.
First things first, could you introduce yourself and what you do at K-Swiss …
Sure. So I’m Eric Sarin. I’m the Global VP of Product here at K-Swiss. I’ve been inside the building for about a year and a half. I’ve been in this sneaker business for almost 20 years now, with stints at PUMA, adidas, and more recently at Le Coq Sportif in Paris. So, I’m part of the team that has the task of bringing the brand (K-Swiss) back to prominence.
Your background is in product design. Where did that interest come from? When did you decide that was what you wanted to do?
Well, when I was younger, in high school, I was an athlete, so a really avid sneaker fan, specifically in terms of basketball, and that sort of manifested itself quickly after college. I was running a small business on the music side of things and I got an opportunity to work inside of adidas, with really no design skills at the time, as it pertains to footwear, but I just got an opportunity to get my foot in the door and fell in love with it. Kind of learned along the way. Spent 3 years at adidas in the US, Portland, and 3 years in Germany, and then 7 or 8 years in Boston for PUMA, and along the way my interest continued to grow. All the fantastic things about the sneaker industry just attracted me right away.
Starting in the late ‘90s, the idea of re-issuing sneakers and the sort of tribe that’s grown around it was small and it was really accessible. That was a fantastic time to cut my teeth on design and what it means to re-issue sneakers.
The whole sneaker consumer market has changed hugely since then. Have you had to shift everything you’ve been doing within work in order to change along with that?
Umm, yes and no. I think that probably in the early days when we were doing re-issues with adidas and there wasn’t a whole lot of that going on, we were like kids in a candy store. Thumbing through these books and just pointing at shoes and making them because they were cool. Working with the likes of Gary Aspden, he had a very purist approach and some things rubbed off during that time about having meaning behind the things that you do. That’s really built itself over the years for me, and I think even more so than back then because there’s so much out there, there’s so many sneakers being re-issued.
If you do a re-issue, it has to have meaning, and when you reflect on history it has to guide what you do in the modern world. So when we select a shoe and re-issue, it has to be something that’s gonna help guide us in the way we behave today. It’s not just a chunk of rubber and leather that you say “It looks cool, so let’s bring it back”, it has to be relevant in terms of what it stood for at the time and why that can be relevant for what we want to do today.
It hasn’t changed so much as it’s really strengthened itself in the way that I approach each one of these things. I think it’s even more important that you’re pure today.
While we’re talking about relevance and meaning behind everything you do, K-Swiss has recently had quite a big re-brand that has included a touch-up on the logo. What’s the importance and the meaning behind that change?
Well, what I think is the most important thing is that K-Swiss has an untold story, especially for your viewers in the UK, and pretty much around the world if the kids are under 25. They have no idea what the brand actually is and the depth of the history. The brand had a lot of success in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that was built without a foundation. A lot of chasing the trends and gimmicks. It made it easy for the brand to collapse because that foundation wasn’t set.
So, in re-directing the brand, the first thing is to go back to the roots and attach yourself to the values of what was important and why the brand was successful in the first place. When you work on a brand turnaround, it’s really easy to walk in and go “All these things are wrong. This doesn’t look right, that doesn’t look right. We’ve got to fix these things”. It’s more difficult to look at what was done right. And so in the re-brand, first of all you’ve got to find a positioning that’s ownable and differentiated. One that’s simple to understand and one that’s real. Working with Barney Waters, who’s the CMO here, he’s got a particular knack with finding these positionings.
Rediscovering the heritage American tennis positioning has been key as a first step to rebuilding the brand. Some of the re-issues that we’ve been working on, specifically the Si-18, it really represents all the values that we want to carry forward. The values of quality, honest innovation, and a particular style that brings a cleanliness or almost a modernisation of what used to be called ‘Preppy’. Those things are all embodied in the shoe and are all embodied in the positioning that we have. So the first step is more about what you don’t do – cutting off things that were wrong and not particularly in line with the brand. Once you’re able to lay the foundation based on truth and based on something that’s ownable in it’s positioning, then you can start advancing yourself in terms of creativity on the brand side and on the product side. So that’s the importance of the repositioning. It’s absolutely critical. You can’t take any steps without doing that.
Where are you aiming to position the brand once those changes have had their desired effects?
That’s a really good question because to say ‘heritage American tennis’ is truthful, but not particularly inspiring. It helps to guide us in the types of shoes that we’ll do, the premium nature that goes along with tennis and the country club vibe. These are all things that made the brand successful. As we move forward, we’re actively seeking a more aspirational position and it’s based on that foundation. There’s going to be a lot to come. I won’t let too much out of the bag, but there’s a lot of thinking going on behind that. Some really, dare I say, game-changing ideas that we think we can use to propel ourselves into what’s modern. But we can’t lose sight of the couple of things that were the reason behind the re-issue of the Si-18 – to be sure that the values that we want to bring forward are in the here and now.
We talk about quality. Quality is a big word and I think in this day and age it’s not a game-changer anymore. It’s almost a must-have. Probably when the brand started, having the quality that it had was a point of difference, whereas it isn’t now. Even in fast fashion, H&M is partnering with high-end fashion designers, UNIQLO has completely changed that industry by focusing on quality as well as speed. It’s something that we have to bring to the table, but I also think that if you look at any post-economic crisis time, you’re going to see consumers focusing more and more on quality. You see people attaching themselves to things that are more crafted. We’ve actually got that history. If you look at each one of the shoes and the way that it was made, there was a special attention to detail. In fact, all the other brands around the late ‘80s and ‘90s when the Si-18 was issued were focusing on the most expensive athlete they could find, focusing on innovations like sticking air bubbles on the back of a shoe when it doesn’t actually perform better and then claiming you’re gonna run faster or jump higher. That was all the rage during that time and it worked.
I think where we are today is a little bit different and the Si-18 and the K-Swiss brand stood for something different. The innovation was honest, it really worked for what it was supposed to, the quality was genuine, and there was no sponsorship whatsoever. So some of the things that you find, like “crafted with passion” or this idea that “wearing is believing”, they invested all the cash that they had in making better products and if you knew anything at all about sneakers, about tennis, about sport, you just knew that it was a better sneaker. They built everything based on word of mouth, so while the industry was going one way they were able to be successful by being a little bit divergent and saying “We’re not gonna sign Michael Jordan. We’re not gonna go after that game. We’re gonna try to find our own way and we’re really gonna root that in quality and honest innovation”. We believe that’s so important to us being successful going forward and it’s really embodied in the Si-18 as a shoe that has all of those characteristics.
At what point for you was it clear that bringing back the Si-18 International was the right shoe and that this was the right time? Was it an obvious choice or did it require a lot of digging through the archives?
Well, the funnest part of starting with a new brand is having your feet sticking out of bins looking for old catalogues and whatever you can find. And there’s a lot of great things inside the history. Keep in mind that there’s a 50 year anniversary coming up in 2016 and so that will really be the time where we go back and celebrate the original shoe – the Classic that was first issued in 1966. To take a little bit of a detour, I think that part of the untold story is where that shoe actually comes from and how the brand was built. It was two Swiss brothers that came from a ski-ing background that took all the technology in Switzerland that they could find and applied it to a tennis shoe.
In short, they made sort of a technological giant of a tennis shoe that was absolutely better than anything you could find in terms of it’s lateral stability, the way that they used a three-piece toe to cinch down as leather stretches. The same used to be true in the ‘60s with ski boots. Leather stretches when it gets wet and then dries, but by having this three-piece system down the middle, you’re able to cinch this down and control the fit of the shoes. Just superior by a long shot. They made this shoe and only this shoe [points to the Classic] for 20 years. 1966-1986, only doing minor improvements to make sure it was simply the best shoe that you could find on the court. That’s an important foundation also. I think it’s quite obvious that the celebration of this should be something that’s very important for us, but as the 50 year anniversary comes we’ll have a lot more to that story.
I think the reason that the Si-18 stands out is because of how far ahead of everything else it was from a technical stand point. Because it entered the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when bold shapes were really important but still managed to be really clean. It makes it really unique in many ways. The idea of bringing a super-bold American sneaker, if you will, and keeping it white and clean and having a way to dress it up made it really unique. And because of it’s commercial success. This was a really big shoe in pop culture in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, mostly here in the US, but because there was all those elements together, it seemed to us like a great first step.
Before any of these shoes were made, I had a bag with several of the original deadstock shoes that I carried around wherever I went, meeting the friends at Sneakersnstuff in Stockholm, and Mike Packer at Packer Shoes in New Jersey etc. As we toured around, you could see the people that know something about sneakers and what the attraction was and it was just the one that came up as being natural through those conversations.
It sounds like a large part of re-issuing the Si-18 is to talk to those people who have a knowledge of sneakers and the history of sneakers. Why is it so important for K-Swiss to reach out to that market now?
That’s a great question. Again, there’s so much going on at that level, it’s a completely different world than it was in the late ‘90s. I just got back from Stockholm and spent time with Eric and Peter from Sneakersnstuff and they were reminding me that they started in 1999 and that’s about when we started adidas Originals, and what it was like then for then, there was no ability to find all this great stuff. They had to get on a plane with a cheap suitcase, fly to New York and find stuff, dig for it, put it in a suitcase and hall it back. That’s how they started their business. Now things are completely different – there’s so much out there. That level has become more commercially viable, but it hasn’t lost its passion.
I keep talking about Sneakersnstuff, but there’s a lot of great references in the UK also. Wether it be Footpatrol or Oi Polloi, the passion is still there, and they’ve also got more of a voice. In the modern world they can reach out via the internet to consumers all over the world. There’s a genuine love and joy of discovering a brand and a sneaker that has credibility and they broadcast that. That’s why it’s important.
I don’t see that going in the other direction at the moment. It’s only building in terms of it’s commercial viability and the passion doesn’t seem to be waining. You see some of the greatest creativity going into sneakers that are re-issued at that level or done as collaborations. That influences the rest of the market. For this first step for us, there’s two or three partners that we’re really focusing on, who I have a long standing relationship with, who we also think are incredibly relevant to cover the globe with helping us to re-establish this untold story of the brand.
Other than the Si-18, how else are you planning to tell this untold story and educate that new consumer group that’s come through and recently discovered sneakers, which is a huge market?
Anything and everything that we can do. We’re still, in terms of share of mind, when you talk about little bit older consumers, K-Swiss seems like a big brand because it was at once. But we’re small, and that means that we don’t have endless amounts of cash to do marketing with, so we’re not gonna be broadcasting big TV ads, nor do I think that’s very relevant. But anything and everything we do, if we can tell a little bit of a story behind each one of the shoes, even the way that we create product…
The first step in 2015 in terms of our creative direction was to first of all make a singular collection. There’s touch points, whether it’s performance tennis or off-court tennis, so that it looks like it comes from the same creative direction. Each one of the shoes has some sort of story to tell, so if we start from that base and we do use every touch point, whether it’s online or at retail or talking to the likes of yourself, anywhere we go we’ve got on the tip of our tongues to remind people where the company comes from. Hopefully, with repetition, that will start to take hold. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. That’s for sure.
Have you got plans to modernise some of those classic silhouettes and get a bit creative? What are the plans there for the brand?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s Jon Tang, who’s the newest addition to our design team, a really really talented young designer and he’s really tasked with chapter number 2, which is using and adding to foundation of styles that we have, but figuring out a way that we can turn those and twist them into things that are modern. I think the brand, apart from the “wearing is believing” and the technical, high quality, innovative shoes, the company and the brand represented something in popular culture in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and there was this second wave of Preppy happening in a completely different way and we see that starting to happen again. We think we have something to say in the development of what modern Preppy means again. From a heritage American tennis brand, I think we’ve got plenty to offer. It’s not gonna happen just like it did last time or the time before, so I think the creativity and the way we spin and twist the designs that we have can help shape what that means. So we’re investing a lot in it.
Every season and every quarter that comes out, we’re not only looking at how we can improve simple iconic classics, but how we can mix them with other elements creatively to come up with something that’s unique.
Other than re-issues and modernisations of archive styles, are we going to be seeing more brand new silhouettes from the K-Swiss Classics range?
Yeah, on the lifestyle side for sure. So the foundation that we have, based on these iconic shoes that have stories, will serve as just that – a foundation for us, or a springboard for creativity, to make modern lifestyle designs. At the same time, we’ve done something really significant with our performance range, trying to tie to the lifestyle and on-court together. We’re releasing a brand new tennis shoe called the Hypercourt, which really if you take a look at it is much more elegant that a lot of what’s been done in the past.
We’re really one of the only brands in tennis that can hold a 50 year old shoe up to a brand new shoe, find a mirroring in some of the details and find some of the elegance and sophistication from a simplicity standpoint, from a technical standpoint. We’re also using the 50 years of expertise that we have in building tennis shoes to go into things like court fitness, where we’re looking at stability in lateral movement and lightweight at the same time. So it’s something that you use to train for the sport of tennis, and also really mirrors the modern movements of people as they work out.
So again, by focusing on the positioning of who we are as a heritage American tennis brand, it serves us in a historic lifestyle way, in a modern lifestyle way, and in the sport performance categories that keep us relevant. Building the shoes that could be re-issued in the future. I think that part is of paramount importance, that we don’t just focus on re-issues, we also apply ourselves in a modern way in everything we do, wether it be in tennis or fitness or the lifestyle and vintage world.
You’re still relatively new to the brand yourself. What was it that excited you most about the opportunity of moving to the brand and working with K-Swiss?
Two things. One is that there’s an untold story. So in one sense, as we were talking about earlier, there’s a younger generation of consumers that don’t know the brand at all and that untold story represents a blank sheet of paper. It means that we can go out and reestablish the brand the way that we see fit, and do things right as it were. So that’s the first and foremost. I love a little bit of history and a good story. My father is a retired history teacher. He restores old wooden boats and ever since I was young I had an affinity for looking at cool old things and what will be relevant. It’s sort of an untouched gem of a sneaker brand. Most, if not all of the other ones that could be relevant, people had a go at it. This is one that hasn’t been done so it’s kinda like uncharted territory and that’s really exciting.
The fact that quality is in that, as a product guy, you love to hear that. If we can make that one of our values and talk about honest innovation and quality and really think about how we can better craft sneakers, then I wake up early every day because I’m excited to come here and that hasn’t changed.
The other thing is location. We’re in Southern California. There’s no other sport brand that you find on the courts of Wimbledon or Roland Garros that’s here. There’s a lot of skate brands and there’s a lot of activity and energy, but it’s kind of unique to find what could be a major sports brand in Southern California. The weather, the beaches, the level of inspiration, the things that are happening in Downtown L.A., there’s really a renaissance happening and it’s a great place to be right now.
Those two things together; the value of the brand, the location, and probably the third one is the team. Larry Remington who’s the President and CEO, he’s the former President of Foot Locker. He’s been in this business for a long time. A really really strong leader in Barney Waters, who I’ve known for a long time as a CMO and as the foundation of a team. To come join what is a blank sheet of paper at the beginnings of what is a great team that’s located in such a fantastic place, it’s a no brainer really.