After securing its corner of the men’s footwear market over the last 16 years, CLAE Footwear has finally decided to venture into a category it hasn’t really explored before: intentionally unisex shoes. Rather than focusing its collections on more classically masculine colors (along with basic blacks, whites, browns and tans) CLAE is adding in options like pink and baby blue and expanding the size range on the shoes from a 4 (6 in women’s) to a 14.
“We’re trying to deliver a color palette that’s good for men and women,” says Jamie Fowler, CLAE’s U.S. sales manager. “Some of the more feminine colors like pink have been just as well-received by men. We’ve had a really good response from both our retail partners and our customers so far for the unisex collection.”
As a launching point, the CLAE for Everyone Collection is using its most popular styles — the Bradley and its taller cousin, the Bradley Mid — to test the move into women’s sizes and colorways. And even as CLAE looks to expand the brand, it's now fighting for market share both in L.A. and all over the world. The simple and sleek style CLAE has delivered for more than a decade has caught on within the last handful of years, but new brands are popping up every day to challenge the long-standing industry standards. Considering that CLAE isn’t quite as established as internationally renowned names like Common Projects, the company is thankful to have some major retailers backing it while most of the upstarts are online only.
“Because of our history and how long we’ve been around, even though a lot of these direct-to-consumer brands have been popping up, we can still say, ‘Hey, well, we’re also in all of these stores with really strong reputations,’” Fowler says. “I think we deliver a superior product compared to a lot of those brands. The barrier for entry as a footwear company is not what it was when we started. The game has changed. If you have enough money to go to Portugal or Italy or Asia, and you want to start a brand, you can.”
Aside from its history and availability in stores, one thing that’s always set CLAE apart from the competition is attention to detail. Rather than trying to copy other silhouettes or stealing ideas and designs from other brands, the local shoemakers are constantly designing and improving each of their models on their own. From durability to style, Fowler says CLAE isn’t willing to settle for a lesser product just because it would be easier.
“We’re not just going into a factory and saying, ‘We want a shoe that looks like this,’” Fowler says. “We’re taking an aesthetic that we know is popular and designing it all the way down to the floor. Like we’ll put a recessed tread on a shoe so you only wear down the part of the shoe that you don’t see and the midsole never gets touched by the ground. It’s little details like that, I think, that set us apart.”
On the other end of the spectrum, many of the brands able to match CLAE’s quality are charging $300 to $500 for a single pair of shoes. Sure, certain people will pay that amount for their name-brand kicks and the luxurious materials that go with them, but CLAE isn’t trying to make its customers invest half of a paycheck for one pair. As long as they can keep pushing out a similar quality product, the guys behind CLAE are more than willing to stay away from designer tags and artisan factories in Europe if it means keeping the prices around and under the $150 mark.
“We don’t want to price ourselves out of the market,” Fowler says. “The shoes we’re making are made in Asia, and a lot of the brands we’re going up against are using the ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘Made in Portugal’ as their marketing tactic. For us, it’s about getting an equal product, but you can buy three of them instead of one for the same price. We want to still deliver a luxury product but without charging a luxury price point.”
Ultimately, CLAE knows that comfort is the most important aspect of its shoes. It’s one thing it will always strive to master, and really what separates its shoes from some of the other $100-to-$150 minimalist fashion footwear brands. Whether they’re pink, white, black or blue, sneakers are meant to be worn, and there’s nothing worse than an ill-fitting and uncomfortable pair on your feet.
“I’ve worn a few of our competitive brands, and they’re just not as comfortable as ours,” Fowler says. “From the heel to the insole, we put a lot of focus in keeping true to our designs but making them as comfortable and as smartly designed as possible.”
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