Marketing to Women From Its Earliest Days Has Kept Keds Running for 100 Years

And the original Champion shoe never looked younger


        Keds' new Made in America line takes its inspiration from the brand's classic designs of yesteryear. Keds

In 1916, women in America couldn't vote, serve in the military or, in most states, serve on juries. A woman of 1916 would have had an extremely difficult time obtaining a divorce, getting into to an Ivy League college or starting a career. Another thing an American woman had little hope of doing in 1916, at least during the first half of the year, was finding a brand of shoe that actually let her move around.

That problem would be solved in July, when Keds first hit the market.

And you thought they were from the 1970s, didn't you? Well, believe it or not, Keds turns 100 years old this month. That makes Keds 32 years older than Puma, 33 years older than Adidas, 48 years older than Nike and half a century older than Vans.

And as you might expect, Keds is marking the occasion by cranking up its marketing. There was the partnership with Taylor Swift, which started last year and included its own line of shoes. There's the Keds Collective, a group of high-achieving tastemakers like actress Allison Williams and Grammy-nominated vocalist Tori Kelly who will serve as Keds brand ambassadors.

On July 14, its actual birthday, Keds will be active on Twitter and every other social-media platform, pumping out "a beautiful feed of every single type of white shoe that we make," Keds CMO Emily Culp told Adweek. Keds also plans to debut its Made in America collection, a reprise of its classic silhouette. The shoes—which come in red, white or blue—will retail for $120 and be available exclusively at Barneys stores.

At the center of it all, however, is an unlikely story of niche marketing: Decades before most athletic shoes even existed, Keds found success by marketing itself primarily to women. (Scroll down for a gallery of vintage ads.)

"When you think about it, in 1916, the only option women had was to run around in heels," Culp said. That changed when Keds—chosen because the original name, Peds, was already taken—first appeared in stores. Its "outing shoes" were lace-up canvas with flat rubber soles—"the footwear that American women have wished for," read an ad at the time. When tennis players like Helen Wills Moody started wearing Keds on the court, the company began calling its signature shoe the Champion.


        Yoko Ono in her Keds in 1969 Getty Images

In the ensuing years, Keds' female fans became a who's who of the culture. Katherine Hepburn wore Keds, as did Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Yoko Ono wore a pair when she married John Lennon. Donna Karan put Keds in her runway collections, and Jennifer Grey wore them in the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing.

"Keds has been relevant to an amazing group of women," Culp said, "but my job is honoring the heritage and making it relevant."

With its Made in America collection, Keds will attempt to do just that. The company has spent two years creating a version of the Champion that's both a contemporary performance shoe and a nod to the past.

"When the Champion was first created, it had more of a feminine silhouette, and we're actually going back to the original proportions," Culp said. "It has different eyelets, the laces are a little thinner, and it has a beautiful fit."

And since the Made in America line is inspired, designed and made by women, Culp calls it "the embodiment of female empowerment." "Marilyn Monroe said if you give a woman the right pair of shoes, she can conquer the world." (Some believe it was actually Bette Midler who said this, but you get the idea.)

"We provide footwear that empowers women," Culp said, "so they can do what they want to do."

None of this means Keds never went after the fellas. Pro-Keds were a must-have for boys from the 1950s through the 1980s. And more than a few noted male athletes laced up Keds before hitting the field, court or canvas—among them, Sugar Ray Leonard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and some guy named Earvin "Magic" Johnson.




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