10 Years Old: KEEN 'Franken-Shoe' an unlikely footwear success

Ten years ago this month, a startup footwear brand launched in California. KEEN Inc. offered a hard-to-categorize shoe with a beefy outsole, a cutout webbing pattern body, and an oversize bumper at the toe.

They looked different. Less gently, according to an infographic on KEEN’s blog, one person thought the original KEENs were “the ugliest thing [he] had ever seen.”

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Original KEEN Newport sandal from 2003 (on left) and the new Cascade CNX sandal, launched this month

The aesthetic drew polarized opinions. But love or hate, the Franken-shoe was a surprise success. Called the Newport, the water-oriented kicks soon became a common site in the outdoors world.

I had an original pair of the Newports. They were a kind of do-anything shoe, an alternative to hiking boots for easy trails, though not so serious like a trail-running shoe.

You could tromp through a stream or canoe in them. But with big soles, the closed toe bumper, and laces, they did not fit exactly in a sandal mold.

The company moved to Oregon in 2006. Today, KEEN has hundreds of shoe and boot offerings. It is a major brand, and its line includes everything from flip-flop sandals to hikers to trail-running shoes.

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‘Top 10’ KEEN shoe models from 10-year company history

A major launch this spring, KEEN will ship new shoe models to stores that keep the original KEEN aesthetic but with slimmer, lighter builds. Called CNX, there are 20 models in the line. (We preview the entire CNX line in an article here.)

With all the colors and variations, there are more than 100 different CNX shoes, including for men, women, and kids.

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Sandal from new KEEN CNX line (Cascade model)

“It’s the biggest line launch KEEN has ever done,” said Jeff Dill, the business unit director for footwear at the company.

I got a test pair last week. On the foot, the CNX shoe reminded me of my original Newports from years ago, including the company’s signature toe bumper. But they were noticeably lighter and more flexible.

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Diagram shows changes made to CNX shoe line

Like many footwear companies, KEEN has made a push to reduce shoe weight and make for a “more natural” fit. This means the CNX shoes are more flexible and have a lower profile, allowing your foot to move more like it does without a shoe on.

All CNX shoes are under 10 ounces, which is lightweight. They come in a huge variety of styles, from water shoes with anti-slip outsoles to casual leather shoes wearable at a business meeting. Dill noted that “people want to approach ‘natural’ or minimal from many angles” in footwear.

They start at around $90 in adult models. Look for the new CNX footwear this spring if you want a lightweight sandal, hiker, or a KEEN “Franken-shoe” of your own.

—Stephen Regenold is the founder of GearJunkie.

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