Back Issue__ Earn Your Keep: Una Kim of Keep Shoes
Interview: Hana May Photos: Kenza Chaouai
Una Kim, one of the founders of Keep Shoes, has been DIYing it since she was in high school. She staged one of her most memorable projects when her parents were out of town. She threw a concert at her house. “Not only did I organize the show, I cooked a huge meal for every one who came over, and I even made the paper that the invitations were made out of, using a blender and old newspaper.”
Members of the bands that performed that night now play in little-known bands like Animal Collective, who Keep also happens to have a collaboration coming up with.
Her early efforts may not have thrilled her parents, but it would be hard for anyone not to be proud of Una’s ability to make something out of, well, anything. “I think both the DIY ethic and the sense of community and family really empowered people to feel that you could make anything, that you were capable of anything,” Una says. “That realization was one of the most fundamentally influential things in my life.”
With this experience and confidence, Una launched Keep with Margot Jacobs in 2005.
Originally from the East Coast, Una relocated to the West Coast (she completed her MBA at Stanford), where Keep is based. The West Coast lifestyle has had a strong impact on Una, affecting the style and beliefs with which she infuses her line. All Keep shoes are all cruelty-free. No animals were killed in making them. And, as Una puts it, “No kids, no whips, no factories where you can’t take bathroom breaks.” Una still misses the East Coast every day, but has no plans to take Keep away from sunny L.A.
Sticking to the do-it-yourself ethic, Una has kept Keep independent. But as such, Una sometimes has problems with the big kids. Large companies have so many resources, so Una believes they should be the ones driving culture. “Too often, they’re too scared, too paralyzed, too lazy or too encumbered to be able to produce their own creative, and therefore pay scraps to real artists and end up co-opting culture with watered down designs.” She believes companies are incapable of connecting with intellectual human beings, which is why big companies have so much trouble designing sneakers woman actually want to wear—which, shockingly, aren’t always pink. “I am sure there are lots of women who want to wear pink and sneakers; I just don’t know any of them.”
As a philosophy, Keep values its friends and family and keeps them near. This helps Keep stay grounded. The Keep extended family reaches from Ray Potes of Hamburger Eyes to Wendy Yao of Ooga Booga (who both happen to be hearty past features). Shoes are named after their friends and family, and their most recent lookbook paid homage to the people that had helped them build to where they are today.
With their fifth anniversary on the horizon, we caught up with Una to talk about shoes, life and success. From punk music to taking shots at Nike to the shoes she likes to wear (which aren’t always her own), learn all about Una Kim and Keep.
Punk and independent music and arts scenes were a huge influence on you. What would you say was the biggest influence?
I think music and art was the framework through which I discovered things—it was how I met people, how I got into different interests. It was something of a filter through which I processed the rest of the world. Most of my closest friends to this day are people I met through music – whether it was playing with them, booking their bands, or just listening to their records. I think when you grow up with people who are naturally creative and curious, you in turn are inspired to be creative and curious.
This helped in demystifying the process of creating things. Can you explain what you meant by this?
When you realize that the things or people you idolized, like musicians, are humans just like you, then you approach the world as a player and not just as a spectator. So often when you’re young you don’t value your own creative energy. You think it’s not as valid as people who are established. Punk and indie rock fundamentally changed that. Labels like Dischord and Simple Machines, which were based so close to me, not only produced amazing records but also encouraged and educated their listeners to participate and also produce. They were saying, ‘We make music and you can too.’ A simple philosophy like that can change your entire relationship to culture.
You played in bands. What instrument did you play, did you sing and what kinds of bands?
I sang in middle school chorus. I grew up playing piano and cello, and played those instruments in bands, but mostly I played the drums. It’s hard to describe what kind of bands I was in. I guess whatever music I was into at the time. Some were more experimental than others, some more pop-y like a Talking Heads meets Minute Men.
You have your MBA and run a creative company. How do you balance your right brain and left brain?
It just happens naturally. I’m not sure, but I think that’s my secret weapon.
The Keep name was partially based on the idea of a keepsake.
We weren’t named Keep just for the idea of a keepsake, though that was part of it. I like the concept of a keepsake, that an object could hold a memory and be valuable enough on a personal level to want to treasure it. But I also like all the other connotations of “keep” such as “earning your keep” which signifies independence or to “keep at it” which suggests perseverance.
What are your favorite personal keepsakes?
In regards to keepsakes, I am a bit of a pack rat so I have a lot of little things that are favorite keepsakes of mine. I’ve got a little coin purse that my grandmother used to carry around with her until the day she died. I have a pretty big coffee mug collection--probably one of the reasons why we have a Keep mug.
Keep was initially created as a brand for women, when did men start adopting your silhouettes and wearing the shoes?
Since day one I’ve received emails from guys who wanted to wear the shoes. We expanded our size range pretty quickly, starting with the second season. I didn’t expect to get that much love from the dudes, but it was pretty heavy from the beginning.
I think it really says something when you have a women’s company appeal to men, because the inverse is usually the norm.
I suppose I felt vindicated in a certain sense, because so many things I was into growing up were denied to me, simply because it didn’t come in my size. But beyond the initial smugness, I’m just happy we appeal to a broad range of people. I’m psyched that guys like Keep and I hope they continue to buy Keep and support it. Gender, especially in fashion, is such a construct. Just like what you like and support the things that resonate with you. That’s all I could hope from my customers.
You’ve said having bigger companies copy your styles at times helps you by making the mainstream public more aware of your aesthetic. With your aesthetic pretty well known now, do you still feel the same way?
Of course it annoys me when companies steal our designs, but it’s more out of principle than anything. A large company has so many resources, I feel like they should be the ones who drive culture. But too often they’re too scared, too paralyzed, too lazy or too encumbered to be able to produce their own creative and therefore pay scraps to real artists and end up co-opting culture with watered down designs. They buy their way into understanding the consumer, and that just annoys me. I wish they just stuck with what they knew best. That’s why companies like Patagonia or Nike in the early days were so rad, because they created their own culture around what their core values were--they were originals. Now Nike just chases cultural tail like they’re a horny teenager with no game. It’s disappointing.
I supposed I am too tired to care when people copy our styles. I think the beauty of Keep isn’t just in the colors or the materials, but what the brand represents. I also think that consumers, the ones who really care, can tell when there is an implicit understanding of the aesthetic in the product. I think it’s funny when brands rip us off and make their version of Keeps and they get it all wrong--they just make us look better. Though sometimes they do an exact replica and that’s hard to swallow. Some people will always care about who the original is. At the same time, if you don’t care then that’s cool. Buy Keep if you like it, leave it if you don’t. We’re just a shoe company, so there’s no point in taking it too seriously.
Do you wear other shoe brands?
Sure. People say I don’t wear my Keeps enough. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a band wearing my own band’s t-shirt. It’s not in my nature to be a 24/7 promoter. Maybe that’s why we aren’t bigger or more successful. If I don’t rock Keeps, I wear Clarks or a particular kind of Birkenstock. Sort of crunchy hippie if you know what I mean. I wear New Balance running shoes. Flip flops. I do live in Cali after all.
I wear heels on special occasions. Typically when I’m in New York or on the East Coast which is funny since you walk more then. I like Marc Jacobs heels from the early 2000s--that was a good era for Aerosoles as well. My most recent heels purchase was from Slow and Steady Wins the Race. In general though, I look pretty soccer mom-ish on the day to day in Cali. I’m one step away from wearing my mom’s SAS orthopedic shoes.
What Keep styles are the most popular right now?
The Ramos is our number one, all time classic. The Nuss and the Benten always do well and we just launched the Solis and that’s been getting a lot of love.
Will you ever move back East or relocate the company back East?
I don’t think we’ll ever re-locate the company. Will I ever move back East? I’m not sure. I guess being bi-coastal could be cool but I’m a long way away from having the dough to do that. My family is all on the East Coast though, so never say never. I love my life on the West Coast, but I do miss the East Coast almost every day.
What advice would you give young female entrepreneurs?
There is no crying in business. Suck it up, don’t let your emotions overrun you. Always be cool, calm and collected. Work hard, work smart, and don’t bitch. Don’t take things too seriously. Believe.
What’s coming up from you and Keep?
Personally, I’ve got about three other companies coming up that are in the works. Hopefully getting married soon if the economy stabilizes enough. As for Keep--Keep will keep being Keep. There is a men’s clothing line coming in the future. Also our fifth year anniversary is coming. Plus a collaboration with Animal Collective that will benefit charity as well as a project with British based artists Atherton Lin.
Where’s your heart at?
With my family, always. You know who you are.