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Chip Off the Old Rock: Bruce Katz Reintroduces Casual Footwear with Samuel Hubbard

Even Rockport Co-Founder Bruce Katz understands what it means to have shoe separation anxiety.

“When I left Rockport, I had a favorite shoe, and it was such a favorite that I figured one day they wouldn’t make the shoe anymore so I took 24 pairs with me and kept them carefully guarded in the attic,” he said. “About once a year I would take out a new pair and was very happy that I could continue to wear a shoe that I designed and loved. I began to run out of these shoes and wondered what I would do.”

Rekindling his grandfather’s footwear business, Hubbard Shoe Company, to produce more of his favorite shoes was the obvious solution to this true shoe dog. He floated the idea past his father and business partner, Saul, before he passed away in 2012 at the age of 95. Two years later, Katz launched Samuel Hubbard, a line of men’s comfort footwear made using top of the line leathers in both traditional and fashion colors. The brand plans to do a soft launch in the summer with women’s styles.

Samuel honors Katz’ grandfather Samuel J. Katz; Hubbard speaks to the family’s footwear origins.

Hubbard Shoe Company was a place where, as a child, Katz grew up and as a teenager he worked in the summer. It was also a place where his father worked for nearly 40 years. A family-owned business founded in 1930, the factory produced children’s footwear in the heart of New England’s shoe country until it closed its doors in 1973 when the industry moved offshore. However Samuel Katz’ passion for shoes had already inspired his son Saul and grandson Bruce to pursue careers in footwear.

Their experiences at the factory, coupled with insight gleaned from travels to factories around the world, served as the launching pad for The Rockport Company, the global comfort footwear company that has since passed through the hands of footwear’s most influential companies, including Reebok, Adidas and most recently to New Balance and Berkshire Partners.

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After Rockport, Katz had no intention of returning to the shoe business, but the shoe gene was already passed onto his only child. “At the age of six she came to the breakfast table saying, ‘Dad, you and I should design shoes together.’ I had no idea she knew that I had ever even been in the shoe business. I guess she must have heard it from her grandfather,” he said.

“After that I decided I would go back and start in some modest way a small group of shoes. I worked for about a year and a half to make the first shoe. That one shoe became four models—a plain toe, chukka boot, an oxford and a slip-on. Those four shoes became Samuel Hubbard.”

VAMP: In what ways has the comfort footwear category changed for the better or worse since selling Rockport in 1986?
Katz: I think for the better, we have a lot better material and constructions, but, for the worst, I think the consumer has less choices. Also, I’ve seen a movement since I’ve been away that as businesses have become more global, a number of companies have gone to European sizing, which is not the norm in the U.S.

When we started the Rockport Shoe Company in 1972, there were really only a handful of shoes that people called ‘casual’ and casual shoes for many were just an old pair of shoes. What really caused a revolution was how Rockport was making very comfortable shoes using heavy crepe sole bottoms. We quickly realized that everything was going towards lighter weights for running shoes, and we also saw the beginning of heel-cups and various kinds of linings and arch supports, and Rockport was the first to bring these components into traditional shoemaking.

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What is starting to be lost is that many shoes made today are made with unit bottoms, which are made in expensive molds, and because of the high cost of molds, people don’t make many shoes in wide and narrow fit anymore. They tend to fake it by making the uppers a little bit bigger, but it really means that the foot is hanging over the edge of the sole or squeezed in some strange way into a shape that the foot wasn’t meant to be positioned.

What we’ve been able to do with Samuel Hubbard constructions is use a trimmed sole cut from a blocker that we can adjust, meaning the foot is standing inside the shoe and that the bottom of the foot actually fits inside and is not being squeezed.

VAMP: What are some of the brand’s defining comfort features?
Katz: Our shoes are made using very soft, top of the line leathers, cow hide lining that we hang in the shoe, and we don’t glue it together so the shoe can breathe. The shoe’s lining can adjust to your foot, and triple density insoles use vegetable tan leather at the top. And we use Poron to build the insole and Vibram bottoms.

VAMP: So much has been said about the popularity of sneakers and athleisure footwear, has the casual footwear market forgotten the need for the reliable everyday shoe?
Katz: Absolutely, athletic shoe companies have completely taken over. I think men’s shoes have become traditional and boring, and Samuel Hubbard is making shoes that are light and comfortable so they can match athletic shoes on a parity in terms of comfort, but offer unique and fresh style. With the quality leather, and the vibrant colors, this really puts excitement back into the men’s shoe market. Consumers now have the possibility to wear new types of casual footwear that are shoes and not sneakers.

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VAMP: You go as far as calling Samuel Hubbard the “Un-Sneaker.” What does that mean to you?
Katz: Basically everybody’s been so focused on sneakers, and we wanted to highlight the fact that this is not a sneaker. This is actually a shoe and also looks a bit better when you go out. We want to provide a comfortable shoe that was exciting to wear. Feet deserve to look good and feel good.

VAMP: There’s some great flashes of color in the Hubbard Free Limited segment of the line.
Katz: We wanted to offer Hubbard Free Limited using high quality leathers from Lineapelle in great colors. We feel these shoes offer consumers the opportunity to showcase their great style and remain comfortable.

“When you’re wearing shoes that are delightfully comfortable, you can go about your day much easier, and that is what I want our customers to experience.”

VAMP: Who is your customer?
Katz: Our consumers are men—and women buying for men—who are 25-35 years old who feel the shoe is cool or retro looking. Our older customers believe that we’re making a comfortable classic shoe, and will buy them in more subdued colors. No one single demographic is stronger than the other, both are important.

VAMP: Which casual styles have had the most success?
Katz: One of our best selling shoes is the plain toe oxford, The Founder. We have seen great success with The Founder, and the slip-ons, The Frequent Traveler and The Get Away, along with the chukkas, The Boot Up.

VAMP: Is there traction in other categories?
Katz: The second collection we did we called Go-To-Work, a style to dress up for the office or an evening out. It’s made with a narrow toe. We extended the toe in order to achieve comfort you normally wouldn’t get in a dress shoe. We feel it has a similar finish of a $600 shoe in a more affordable price range.

Going into fall, we will start delivering our first winter shoes and “walk in the park” shoes with Vibram lug soles. These soles are a good, non-skid option for heavy winters. Also, we’ve started developing our first women’s shoe, and look to replicate the quality and fashion in the shoes we’ve made for men.

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VAMP: How is running a shoe business different from when you launched Rockport in the ’70s?
Katz: The big deal today is the effect that the worldwide web and sales on the Internet has had. What’s really shocking to me coming back was realizing how decimated the American shoe retail business had become. Rockport had about 5,500 doors and I don’t think you could ever repeat that again because shoe stores don’t exist like they used to.

Independent retailers have suffered from huge discounters. They also ran into trouble when business went from downtown areas to malls, and the mall operators required them to be open seven days a week until 9 p.m., and those costs made it difficult for the independent shoe retailer to survive.

Today at Samuel Hubbard we are both retailers and wholesalers, and have a strong presence on the Internet to explain our product, and directly reaching consumers is a key part of what we do. It’s a combination and the retail and the wholesale business seem to support each other nicely, and having a strong retail business enables us to be a major direct-to-consumer marketer and advertiser.

VAMP: You advertise in The New York Times—something you don’t see much of these days from footwear brands.
Katz: In order to build a brand from nothing, one has to create an impression. You need to create something memorable about the brand whether it’s with an ad campaign that’s clever or with lifestyle branding. We are operating on all fronts with marketing; partnering in different ways to get our message and our products to resonate.

VAMP: The brand also has some pretty great online reviews.
Katz: The online reviews on our site have been unbelievable. One of the things we’re doing to create more context for the brand is putting out mail order catalogs which gives us a chance to tell the story and add to the lifestyle. Just another way we can add another dimension to the game instead of being solely online.

VAMP: What do you love most about your job?
Katz: When you make a product that you really love, that’s the satisfying part. The calls, the letters, the reviews, people coming up to me to tell me how much they love our shoes, it’s very gratifying. When you’re wearing shoes that are delightfully comfortable, you can go about your day much easier, and that is what I want our customers to experience.