Producing fantastic footwear without leaving a big environmental footprint
Among the vintage industrial buildings lining NW 13th Avenue, a slew of bright-blue bike racks catches the eyes of passersby. Welcome to the KEEN Garage (505 NW 13th Ave, 971-200-4040) the world headquarters and one of two brick-and-mortar retail stores of this distinctive footwear maker. Arriving by bike is encouraged. The company—famous for its outdoor adventure sandals that protect toes from being smooshed and scraped—reduces environmental impact wherever they can.
In 2012 KEEN decided to base its operations in the Pearl. The company bought the Simon Building, built in 1907 for steamship manufacturing. In the renovation process, KEEN set a lofty goal: send only one dumpster to the landfill. And they did it. The office’s kitchen island and mailboxes are made from repurposed support beams, a big sliding door from 100-year-old flooring, the boardroom table from a bowling alley. You get the drift.
“We decided to headquarter in the Pearl because it’s an ideal place for our employees to pursue their outdoor passions.”
“We decided to headquarter in the Pearl because it’s an ideal place for our employees to pursue their outdoor passions,” says Ashley Williams, global marketing director. “Also, Portland has a deep talent pool in the footwear industry, enabling us to build a strong team.”
Wood-and-glass garage doors separate the store from the company offices. The aesthetic for both is defined by high ceilings, hardwood floors, and fun pops of color, like old rainbow-painted metal barrels repurposed into customer seating. In the headquarters, two hand-painted surfboards depict vibrant scenes of Pacific Northwest environs. And just for kicks, in the store, there’s a functional phone booth and a shoe vending machine.
Recently, KEEN’s irreverent and convivial sensibility received prominent attention in The New York Times. Gucci had launched their spring line with a social media campaign. One photo “debuted” a familiar-looking sturdy sandal with a toe guard. “We were very flattered Gucci was inspired by KEEN, and we responded in the only way we know how – with fun,” says Williams.
“We were very flattered Gucci was inspired by KEEN, and we responded in the only way we know how—with Fun.”
KEEN posted its duplicate version of the Gucci shot (see upper-left photo), but instead of models, KEEN employees (and one dog named Ridley) proudly wore their Newport Retro sandals. The post read: “Dear @Gucci. We’re inspired by your inspiration from our inspiration. XOXO KEEN Team.”
One thing KEEN does take seriously is its commitment to making a better world. Since the company’s inception in 2002, they’ve donated over $15 million to grassroots nonprofits around the world. In the headquarters, flyers announce monthly employee volunteering opportunities and information about the KEEN Bike Club. Sure, you can avoid stubbing your toe by wearing their sandals, but there are even greater benefits to supporting this innovative brand of outdoor footwear.
–Ellie Thalheimer | Featured image courtesy of KEEN, Inset photo by Jennifer Gillette