Behind Bridge City: Johanna Koeberle

We recently had the chance to sit down with one of the raddest ladies here at KEEN HQ: Global Senior Product Manager Johanna Koeberle (it rhymes with neighborly)! In layman’s terms, she is in charge of making our shoes come to life after the design process. We chatted about our new Bridge City collection, a female-focused casual line of boots, and learned about the inspiration behind them. We also got some insight into how she first got her start in the industry and what it’s like to be a working mom. Read on to get to know more about Johanna!

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KEEN: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Johanna: Well, I’ve been here at KEEN for almost five years, and in the footwear industry for 15 years. Footwear is my passion and I love working in product. Over time, I taught myself how to use Illustrator and did all of the materials and colors for many of the brands I worked for. Kind of a dual background—not just line planning—but I work on the creation side as well.

Can you tell us what it’s like to work for an outdoor brand?
I’ve worked in athletics, I’ve worked in fashion and I’ve worked in outdoor, but outdoor is by far my favorite. I love that there are no egos—it’s not as pretentious. Some environments can be so competitive; it just makes me appreciate our industry that much more.

How would you describe your role here at KEEN?
To put it simply, I have the privilege of giving the consumer the right product so they can enjoy the outdoors. For our casual shoes, we ask ourselves every day, how can we design a line that allows the consumer to have the functionality of outdoor, but is still appropriate and trend-relevant? How do we take that outdoor-inspired design technology and translate it for everyday wear? We are really seen as a trail brand, and a lot of our fans don’t even know we have casual styles. My goal is to make a difference and help new people become fans, as well as offer our existing fans more choices.

How did our outdoor roots translate to Bridge City?
For the East Side, it’s really unique. Essentially the shoe is constructed inside out, so there are no glues or adhesive. The outsole is stitched to the upper, allowing for extra flexibility and comfort. The molded footbed really allows the shoe to feel like a slipper. The Morrison and Fremont styles have a PU midsole that offers shock absorption, and a traction-rubber outsole—not unlike our beloved Newports! It has a lot of the functionality that you’d find in outdoor, but brought inside with a city-sophisticated view. In addition, the Fremont boots have waterproof-leather uppers and provide 200g of insulation. In all three of the styles, we used similar design language, with debossing, textures and high-quality leather featured throughout.

What was some of the design inspiration behind the collection? What kind of girl do you see wearing the shoes?
The East Side shoes were made with a bohemian, relaxed, confident consumer in mind. Both the lower and the bootie are progressive in details, with the materials and textiles, but we wanted the shoes to be comfortable and to have a carefree vibe. The Morrison offers more of a city, sophisticated look, and it’s one of my favorites. The gal who wears these shoes might be a woman who lives in the city, takes public transportation to work, wants the signature comfort of KEEN, but also wants something trend-relevant to wear when going out for drinks with friends. The Fremont has a lot of the Morrison elements, but is taken into winter with the faux-fur and knit lining details. We wanted to make a boot that you’d always reach for—that key wardrobe piece for the colder months.

Can you provide some insight into why we named the collection Bridge City?
Bridge City was inspired by my home of Portland. We have everything here, from a bustling city life on the west side of the river, to the quiet of the outdoors of Mt. Hood on the east side. From the fancy restaurants in one part of town to your favorite little cafe in your own neighborhood. I think our environment translates into our style that you see here in town. Bridge City is about connecting aesthetics, being versatile and bridging divides wherever you are.

Every day, we dress accordingly to our mood, whether that be tomboy, city girl, glammed up or dressed down. For women—and for me personally—we may have each of these styles in our closet, with our choices changing with the weather, our mood, activity or who we’re hanging out with. That’s what was so exciting about working on a women’s-specific collection: we’re so many different people depending on the day. Women these days are asked to wear so many hats and spin so many plates and we wanted to make some great options for them.

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Do you have any advice for other folks who want to break into the footwear industry?
What’s interesting now is that you can get a degree in what I do, and that’s amazing. I got a degree in communications and journalism with a women’s studies minor, so I pretty much worked my way up from the bottom. My first job was as a sweeper for categories. We did SMUs for different accounts and I supported all the Product Line Managers (PLMs). I did things like database analytics and gave the PLMs all the support they needed. I then worked as an assistant PLM, learning how to do new materials and colors, before eventually working my way up to becoming a Product Line Manager. I think for what I do, you definitely have to be a good public speaker. You need to be able to confidently relay what your point of view is, what direction you want to take the company in, and how you plan on building the line. It’s really important to be able to confidently present that to your peers. They need to see that you know what you’re doing.

How do you keep your creative mojo flowing?
Every day I eat, sleep, and breath fashion, trends, and other sources of inspiration. You’re always aware of what’s going on and it becomes a thing you know as second nature. Part of me feels like you either have the creative sensibility or you don’t—not everyone has that kind of innate skill. When you’re building a line, its not like you know what the trends are going to be, but eventually all your observations, your creativity and knowledge of fashion trends all come into your decision making. It just becomes a part of you.

Johanna and her dog Bowie. No shortage of chew toys here.

Can you think of a defining moment in your career?
I remember at a past company I worked at, we had this one boot that everyone hated…they hated it! But it was one of those things I stood by because it was so unique and I’d never seen anything like it. It turned out to be a top seller and the Oprah show ended up giving it out. I got to go and bring my mom! When people are so passionate—whether for it or against it—that’s a good thing because you know there’s something special there.

A big part of Bridge City is about friendships and the power of connections. Do you think that has any meaning with you and your career?
Definitely. Relationships and connections are huge. The footwear industry is such a small community, and Portland is even smaller, and that’s a really special thing. Connections, friendships and mutual respect of your peers is so important and will follow you through your whole career, and it certainly has for me. It’s really important, wherever you go, to always leave on a good note. It’s extra important to always maintain a level of respect for your coworkers because you never know where you’re going to end up next. You don’t ever want to burn bridges (pun not intended).

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Can you speak on what it’s like to be a working mom?
Being a mom, having a career and traveling a lot isn’t easy, but it’s very possible, and I’m really proud of that. I want to set an example for other women that may find themselves in the same position in the future. Just know you can do it. I’m also so fortunate to have a supportive family!

Any last words?
Hands down, the most important thing is to be passionate about what you do, because that alone will take you so far. Be confident in your decisions, be patient, stick with it and work your way up. I think sometimes people just want to jump right in and be at the top, but it’s so important to listen and learn from your peers and your mentors.