Keep Sneakers (Una Kim)
Packed full of positivity and punch, there’s a new kid taking pole position in the female sneaker market. Introducing Keep – simple, straight to the point and a breezy breath of fresh Californian air! A testament to self-belief, Keep’s head honcho Una Kim ain’t afraid of anything. Doing things her own way is the key to keeping it real, and Kim has become the figurehead for a new style of lady sneakerhead. As she says, ‘We make Keep for those women who are tired of clown shoes, too many bells and whistles and the misappropriation of the color pink.’ Nuff said. And did we mention that all Keep products are cruelty free?
A lot of kids would know the name Keep and have seen it around but not know much about you guys, what’s your story? What led up to starting the brand?
Well I worked in marketing and trend forecasting in New York for several years and learned a lot from interacting with a broad spectrum of Fortune 500 companies. That showed me exactly what I didn’t want in a brand! I made great money, had a boss who loved me, and a flexible work schedule; but the bottom line is that I felt completely unsatisfied.
How did you make the change then?
I left to go to Stanford for my MBA and spent the first six months recuperating and the next six thinking about it. I ended up going with footwear because I thought I could really fill a niche. Every other girl I knew would always buy little boy’s sizes of the kicks we liked. We couldn’t relate to the women’s brands that were out there and what they projected. While I was in business school I saved a chunk of money while I lived off student loans, which is what Keep was founded on.
Where was the hole you thought you could fill?
Kicks for women that weren’t pink or some other gender-polarizing version of what a corporation thinks women want. Shoes that were streamlined, clean but not chunky or flashy in a gauche way, or overly technical. Also, shoes that weren’t so insanely branded that the logo basically ate the side of your foot. I wanted something that was personal and actually came from real people at a small company.
This personal touch hasn’t been lost as the company has grown as we recently went ‘bro-friendly’ by increasing our size run to a men’s 13.5. We still list the sizing in women’s but we’d had so many requests from guys to make the shoes in their sizes that we decided we’d open things up for them too.
So you had no background at all in footwear? It’s quite ballsy to jump into something so deep!
I don’t have any background in sneaker or apparel design. I had friends who were designers and they were really helpful, but when it comes down to it, you can do anything you put your mind to. The most important thing is knowing who you are, what moves you, what your values are, what your aesthetic is. You have to know what you like and don’t like. If you don’t have something to say, no matter how articulate you are, it won’t matter. I grew up in Baltimore and the punk and independent music and arts community was a huge influence. That community really demystified the process of creating things. Also, being the daughter of Korean immigrants, I was raised to believe in some version of the American dream. Did you know Korean-Americans are one of the most entrepreneurial demographics in the country?
I partially wrote my thesis on that in college. In many ways, my whole life has been geared towards independence, self-sufficiency and the belief in one’s ability to make things happen. The bottom line though, is if you haven’t lived and had great experiences, seen things that amaze you and inspire you, it’s hard to figure out what you want to communicate. I think my upbringing made me a naturally hard worker, but I think my involvement with music, playing in bands, booking shows etc, brought together that drive with a broader interest in the world around me.
Sounds logical, but it’s still a huge move into business...
People say that it’s risky, and it is, but for me there was never any other option. My family is my number one supporter and advisor. Beyond that, a lot of people in the industry were great helping us out. People like Jeremy Davis our first sales rep, and Garry Bone who owns Livestock in Canada. Our sales agency, The Foundation, is great too; they have floated us during tough times. Other entrepreneurs from my business school are the most helpful. The funny thing is, they always say that it’s the friend-of-friends who help you the most – so talk to everyone and be gracious. Having good relationships with people and keeping things real are so important and so rare; you have to really value it when you have it.
How long did it take to get going?
Two years - one of which was my last year in grad school where I worked on the company in my spare time. The second was after graduating and was spent full time on the business.
And the name Keep? Simple, but memorable...
I wanted a name that was simple, powerful and had emotion without being overly sentimental. Keep is a word that has so many different meanings, a lot of which apply to our brand. When you keep something, it’s implied that you value it and that you hold on to it – a keepsake. ‘Earning your keep’ suggests independence and self-sufficiency. To keep doing something is to be persistent and determined. All of these facets of the word reflect our values.
Having a brand geared solely towards the ladies, did you see that strategy as a positive or a challenge?
I think there are challenges when you are looking to carve any niche, period. There were ladies’ brands already, obviously, but none quite the same as Keep. It took time for our consumers to find us and we had to convince the shops to carry us and take on the risk. I’ve always wanted Keep to be the shoe that you always wanted but never knew you did. To me, that’s a great thing. But you’d be surprised how long it takes some people to realize what they really want.
Has being based in LA infused a laid-back Californian lifestyle into the brand?
If you knew me, I doubt you’d think I was laid-back. I grew up on the East Coast and really identify with certain characteristics of that region. I don’t think there was any conscious effort to infuse an LA influence into the brand – I think it came naturally from soaking up the sun here. I love LA and I’m happy to live here and base Keep here. You have a different relationship to space and time in LA and I think that’s reflected in the brand.
You’ve been quoted as saying you ‘aim to keep things personal’ with Keep. How do you do that and grow?
I liken the attitude of Keep to that of being a good friend, someone solid who you can relate to on the things that count. To have a personality, values, to keep things real with your beliefs and your sense of style, that is a meaningful thing. As a brand, I think the most important thing is to be personal by actually having an identity or a way of life that you are consistent with, so people know what you’re all about. You put out what you love, whether or not anyone else will like it.
Every young brand goes through a cycle of being an innovator only to then see their steez imitated to within an inch of itself. How do you deal with that?
My initial reaction, of course, is anger and disgust! From a rational standpoint, I know that being a small brand with unique silhouettes can be a tough position because you have to break into the market and having all those ‘early adopters’ loving you can only go so far. Having bigger companies copy our styles at times helps us in some way by making the mainstream public more aware of our aesthetic.
It also helps when large companies rip our style, because they typically produce a way lamer version that misses the true aesthetic of Keep. When you’re that big, and you have that history, and you have all the money and resources in the world at your disposal, I think it’s a damn shame that you aren’t continuing to be a leader. You should be creating culture instead of lazily ripping off other companies and then regurgitating a crapper version of what you think people want. It’s embarrassing.
I agree but it doesn’t seem to worry a lot of people, I don’t think they have trouble sleeping. Having said that, how do you guys maintain inventive designs?
Just keep being inspired, keep interacting with the world around you and keep being a real person. That’s the difference between a small company and a large one. That’s the luxury that we have – the freedom to get out of the office and be a part of the world instead of a cog in the wheel trapped in the rat race. We’re not perfect; we’re certainly not the most efficient. But we’re human and I think that’s
a quality missing from a lot of companies these days.
The Ramos is perhaps your most well known style, named after Keep’s ‘friend and discerning genius Isaac Ramos’. First of all, for all those that don’t know, who is Isaac Ramos and how did he come to influence you?
Isaac Ramos is one of the funniest people on earth. I became good friends with him in Baltimore back in the late nineties. He’s had his hand in a lot of different things. He was the Punk Rock Comedian then went on to do Dogg and Pony with Brendan Fowler aka BARR, which lead to Dogg Pony Records. He also writes the toy blog Real Fan Shit Only. He’s probably done a million things you’ve seen
and liked but never knew was him. He is a vast encyclopedia of pop cultural and underground knowledge and a savant when it comes to directions. He can’t spell for shit but he can explain the most complex modern day miracles in depth. I’m not doing him justice in my description, but to know him is to love him. The first Ramos we ever designed with the red gingham moustache and dark brown laces
was based on a plaid shirt I had seen him rock so often. He also designed our logo.
What about the Photo Special series?
We’re friends with a lot of photographers and I always wanted to do a photo print on a shoe because I think black and white images lend themselves especially well to fabric. Our first shoe we’re doing is with Ray Potes, the mastermind behind San Francisco’s photo cooperative Hamburger Eyes.
Sneakerheads are switching up their style to reflect a more conscious and subtle approach. Do you feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that a lot of ladies (and gents) have been turning their coin to more independents, such as Keep?
Bottom line, I’m really happy when people support companies and buy things that better express what they love. If that happens to be Keep, awesome, if not, that’s still great. There was a time when brands were more than just product pushers. For me, companies like X Girl in the late ‘90s were deeply influential and educational – through that one company I learned about an entire network of artists, musicians, and designers. It made me excited to make and do things and I think that’s the best thing a brand can aspire to.
Yeah I agree, nice point to make. What’s your game plan for the ’09?
The Purple Rose Shaheen is one of my personal favourites. It’s a canvas desert boot with a graphic floral motif. I think florals have really been given a bad rap and next Spring we’ll be doing our best to rectify that. We’ve also got the Homers coming out, a generic silhouette with some unique combinations of classic spring materials. I love the gingham with cordlane combos - they pop hard with a real timeless preppiness. In Fall we’re using a lot of Japanese milled houndstooths and herringbones, and we’ve also introduced a sustainable bamboo cotton blend. I think the plan is just to keep doing what we do.
Check out Keep online for more information!