Our product people here at KEEN are the best. These are folks with the right combination of experience, education, and style to design our shoes, but they live the KEEN values and know the importance of muddy hikes and outdoor conservation. We sat down with Daniel Raes, all the way from Slater, Iowa, to talk design, inspiration, his Midwest roots, and what it’s like to work as a footwear designer in the outdoor industry.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Well, I grew up in a small town in Iowa, called Slater (more on that later), and I had always wanted to be a footwear designer. I knew I wanted to design shoes since about the age of 11, and it was pretty obvious from a young age, because my favorite part about the new school year was always getting new shoes. My mom would give me a set amount for my clothes and supplies for the rest of the year, and I would always blow the budget on shoes, and spend the rest of whatever I had left on clothes. That passion just kept itself up and about a decade later, I found myself at Iowa State to study industrial design with the goal of becoming a footwear designer.
What brought you to Portland?
I knew that Portland was the best place for footwear, because there were so many different companies here. I came out here and lived in town for three months during the summer, and I really fell in love with the city and the surrounding areas. I was in a class at Pensole and the World Sneaker Championship, continuing my education and gaining some more experience. After that, I got a contract position at KEEN, thanks to some folks at Pensole who knew people here at KEEN, and I got my current the position through that.
How would you describe your role here at KEEN Footwear?
Well first and foremost, I’m a footwear designer, but that entails a lot here at KEEN, because we have a really small, tight-knit team here. It starts out with getting the design brief, searching for inspiration and trend images, and then I start sketching and drawing. Once the design is decided on, I do what’s called a technical package. I’ll do line art on the computer and create a CAD that we’ll send out to developers, and then we’ll get samples back and make revisions on those. In addition to design-focused responsibilities, I also choose materials, and do tech packs for outside contract designers as well.
Wow, that’s a lot of areas to cover. At other companies, just choosing colors for materials is an entire job for some people.
Right, yeah. It’s a little more spread out at other places, and especially at the bigger companies, those folks usually just have one category that they work on, day in and day out. But I design for any category, Women’s, Kids, Utility—whatever project I get to work on that season. The design language I get to use on a daily basis is so expansive. It’s a lot of variety and it keeps me on my toes.
What’s your favorite thing to work on?
I do like the projects that are a little more technically challenging—the shoes that have more performance elements to them. But even with our lifestyle products, we also need to have performance. Our Citizen KEEN boots were a little more technically challenging. We wanted to design a shoe that was very rugged, but also could be worn for every day. Our KEEN consumer is different because they’re sort of a hybrid consumer. They still need to go to in city to get coffee, to get beer, but they also love going out in the wilderness and they don’t want to pick a shoe for each one. I wanted the shoe to serve either purpose. The shoes need to be durable, comfortable, waterproof, insulated, have solid traction, be able to keep up with whatever someone throws at them, and look good along the way. Any project I work on will have those elements.
Best thing about working for an outdoor brand?
Everyone here just loves being outdoors. During the warmer days of the summer, people see that sunshine, and you know they’re getting their work done as fast as they can so they can get out the door and get out and enjoy all the beautiful landscape we have here in Oregon. And the company supports that and encourages us to get outside with Hybrid Fridays and the office closing early. I think that’s one of the best things—it’s not all about the work. People want to get out and enjoy the world that we design shoes for.
Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite shoe you’ve designed?
The first shoe I ever designed was called the Slater. I was originally hired just to do tech packs for other designers, and just take their finished designs further, but shortly after, about 2 months after I got hired to do that, they asked me to start doing designs. This was my first project, and it didn’t have a brief, didn’t have a name. They just said, “Design the shoe that you would want to wear.” So I designed the Slater to be a good-looking leather boot that would make it through the winters of Iowa. It’s a boot that gets better as you wear it with time—the materials and the leather break in and look better. It’s insulated and seam sealed, so that you can take it out in the Iowa winters when it’s snowing, and you can still look good. I named it after my hometown, because Slater is where I started out and everyone in Slater was so supportive of me wanting to be a footwear designer. Going home for Thanksgiving, my brothers and sisters, mom, dad, and even my aunt were wearing Slaters. It was really cool to see that. The Slater is one that I’m very proud of, because this was my first design that got a seat on the market, and I was able to name it after my hometown.
Do you have any advice for other young folks wanting to break into the footwear industry?
I think it’s good to explore every different avenue of what you’d like to do, or what you’re interested in. Don’t limit yourself to one thing when you’re younger. With the Internet, there are so many things that you can be exposed to. You can look on YouTube and see tutorials on how to do different things…there’s not really an excuse to not know how to do something, because you can look it up and find that information pretty easily. Just expose yourself to as many things as possible—take an art class, do different sports, try different hobbies. Because you’ll never know which one you’ll like and which one you’ll continue with.
And once you decide what you wanna do, take every step you can toward that goal. I decided I wanted to be a footwear designer because I liked shoes and I liked to draw, and so I took those two things and I made the decision to pursue that. I just went to a footwear company’s site and looked at design jobs. It said that you needed to be in product design in order to have that job, so I decided that’s what my major was going to be. I found a college nearby that had that an Industrial Design program, and I went out and did that, and I also worked at a FootLocker store, so I exposed myself to both sides—the design, as well as retail and getting to know what the consumers wanted. I sort of just immersed myself in that. And then I took the move to come out to Portland and got a job. You just need to expose yourself to all these things, find something that you just love to do, and then keep doing it and take the necessary steps to get to the next level.
But there’s a certain amount of balance between preparation and risk right? You did everything you could to set yourself up, but eventually you just had to make the jump.
Totally, I mean I was in Iowa for a year after I graduated. I was an assistant manager at FootLocker, and I just wasn’t finding any jobs, because I was in Iowa, and the jobs were here in Portland. So I took the risk and moved out here, and actually didn’t have a confirmed job when I moved out here. I came to Portland and about two weeks later, KEEN confirmed that I had the job. I had already spent all this money I saved up and moved out here, so it was definitely a risk for me.
How do you keep your creative mojo flowing?
Well I think that ties back to the internet and being exposed to different things. In my spare time, I look at things on Instagram, go to different inspiration websites, and watch a ton of documentaries. I watch a lot of outdoor and National Geographic documentaries, because we design for the outdoors, so that’s a great source of inspiration. But I also watch a lot of social and cultural documentaries, just anything that can serve as a source of creativity or insight. I just take everything in and sort of put it in my inspiration basket. I have a folder on my computer that has over 5,000 images and whether or not I’m in the inspiration phase during the design process, I’ll just pull images whenever I see them. So I think the process never stops. I’m always thinking, and I bring a sketchbook and a notebook to the gym, I’ll have it just sitting there, because that’s where I get some of my best ideas. Sometimes a random thought or idea will pop up in my head, and I’ll just jot it down or sketch it really quickly. I always have a sketchbook or notebook on me to catch those ideas whenever they happen.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I see myself still designing shoes! This is the career path that I’ve chosen, and I truly love designing shoes. It’s something that never gets old because there’s always something new, there’s new technology, there’s always something new you can do with footwear. I think my progression will be designing more and more difficult shoes, and taking more ownership of bigger projects. Also, I do all sorts of things like illustrations and sketches, so I’d like to be able to illustrate a children’s book at some point. Maybe in the future, I’d like to be able to work on my other passions like writing and illustration, and I’ll do footwear design as well. It’s up in the air. I just want to continue following my passions.