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Why Keen’s Committing to More ‘Made in the USA’

Footwear brand Keen will take two major steps this year to expand its U.S. manufacturing commitment.

First, Keen, itself based in Portland, Ore., plans to increase production in its home city by 26 percent in response to strong demand for its utility boots and premium hikers. According to Erik Burbank, vice president of the company’s social and environmental justice platform Keen Effect, the brand currently manufactures more than 30 percent of its products in a Keen-operated factory.

“We wanted to balance our manufacturing by building product in our home market,” Burbank told Sourcing Journal. “American-built for American workers made sense to us, and it is clearly resonating with our U.S. fans.”

Additionally, as people hiked “in ever increasing numbers” and multiple segments of the trades saw consistently high demand, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated growth Keen had already been experiencing in its outdoor and utility businesses, Burbank said.

On the other side of the country, the boot maker plans to expand its relationship with Nester Hosiery. An established partner of Keen’s, the Mt. Airy, N.C.-based sock manufacturer has worked with the footwear brand as a contract manufacturer for a variety of markets, including outdoor, workwear and performance socks, CEO Kelly Nester said.

After 14 years together, Nester said the leadership at Keen reached out and asked if he’d be interested in a license agreement where Nester Hosiery would take over wholesale distribution in North America. Under the new agreement, Nester Hosiery will develop, manufacture and distribute new designs for men’s, women’s and youth socks for Keen’s casual and utility brands.

“These are very technical little garments,” Nester said. “They are made on high-needle-count machinery with lots of the best performance features, like shaped design, seamless toe closure. We use Merino wool as the primary body yarn against the skin, so you get all the performance benefits of Merino.”

Nester said the new arrangement will kick off this fall with a “modest” offering as it works on “exciting developments for 2022.” Though he admitted it’s still early, he said he believes the synergies resulting from the new arrangement will produce more sales.

The CEO noted that, overall, the performance sock market is a growth market.

“It’s an individual experience you have when you first put on that really nice pair of socks and you’ve never worn them before,” Nester said. “All of a sudden that’s kind of a bit of a life changer, you’re like ‘Wow, what have I been missing,’ and you’re going to buy that for life. And so, you’re a customer toward that type of gear from then forward. So that whole process, multiplied across all the people doing that, it seems to just keep growing.”

Though outdoor categories have performed well during the pandemic, Nester said the lack of foot traffic in retail stores offset that “in a big way.”

“The spring and the summer of last year were difficult for apparel, for socks, for footwear, for things sold in store, especially things that sometimes can be like an impulse buy, like socks,” Nester continued. “But there was a significant rebound in the third, fourth quarter, and we’re started off positively here in ‘21, excited about where we’re headed in general.”

Though he described Nester Hosiery’s Made in America credentials as “a real positive,” the CEO admitted he wasn’t sure if they drove purchase decisions as much as general transparency. “Just knowing where your products are made, what factory, what standards they’re held to, if it’s a natural fiber, how that’s grown, how that’s processed—and those sort of things are really important to consumers, for sure,” he said.

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