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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Are Uneeks the new Crocs? Hipsters in Asia love this take on ugly shoes

Quirky, original, and available in a range of colours, the simple shoes woven using a pair of cords are a hit with consumers in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. What will maker Keen do next?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 8:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 6:43pm

You’ve probably seen them – footwear made of woven cords, in either solid or multiple colours.

They look ugly, like another version of the ugly trainers that have been very in fashion recently, but they are functional and comfortable shoes and popular with people of all ages, and with the hipster crowd.

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They’re called Uneek (pronounced unique) and are from Keen, a footwear company in Portland, in the American state of Oregon. They are so popular in Hong Kong that almost 90,000 pairs have been sold since the first pair was produced three years ago.

One lunchtime in Causeway Bay, a busy Hong Kong shopping and office district, we spotted at least seven people wearing Uneeks – people aged from their late teens to their thirties, and even seniors, who said it was their adult children who had bought the shoes for them.

Thirty-something Agnes Lam said she bought her pair of white Uneeks after friends introduced her to the brand. She and her husband bought them during a trip to Seoul, South Korea (his are blue).

Hipster Noel Li, a 30-year-old musician, said he saw other people wearing the shoes and then bought a pair in Mong Kok, a shopping district on the Kowloon Peninsula.

“You need to take some time to get used to it. The shoe is not for everyone,” Li says. “It’s a bit difficult to settle at first but maybe after a week it’s fine.”

Keen, the company behind the Uneek shoe, is surprised at how well the “open-air sneaker” is being received in Asia. Joe Colistro, head of business development, Asia-Pacific, for Keen, says people in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong like the shoe because they are willing to wear quirky items and care about putting their outfit together.

“They care about how they put their outfit together and Keen has several colours, so they can match well with what they are wearing. Uneek are ‘sneakery’ enough not to look cheap,” he says.

Colistro says 35 per cent to 40 per cent of Uneek sales in the past three years have been in Asia. “It shocked us at Keen headquarters. We were worried we wouldn’t have enough production capacity,” he says.

The bestselling Uneek shoes are those in black, “star white”, and black with gold highlights, Colistro reports. Keen’s Japan office has partnered with specialist labels such as X-Girl and Mita trainers to create limited-edition styles. He says hipsters became interested in the shoe after it was featured in articles on Hypebeast and in Sneaker Freaker.

“Hipsters are always looking for a way to stand out a little bit,” Colistro says.

Keen was founded in 2005 by Martin Keen and is now owned by the Fuerst family, and Colistro says the Uneek design was initiated by the family’s oldest son, Rory Fuerst Jnr, in 2016.

“He had an idea to create a shoe that has not been made before that focuses on minimising [the use of ] resources [and effort and the generation of] waste,” Colistro says. “The original genesis was to get closer to the consumer.”

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The result is ultra-minimalist: the Uneek shoe is made of two cords knitted together and attached to a sole.

“It’s basically a weave variation where we took a mould of the foot and wanted it to be sock-like because the sock grips the foot. Everyone has knit footwear so we thought about making something more minimal … be a shoe,” he says.

“We came up with using cords to have elasticity and different colour possibilities, and then, when we figured out how to make the shoe, we worked with a robotics company to automate [its production]. The goal is to do it in front of the consumer as fast as possible.”

At first it took the robot 13 minutes to knit the upper part, and still required a person to connect it to the sole of the shoe, which took another 15 minutes. “But now it takes about five minutes to knit and 10 to sew them to the sole,” he says. Keen had a robot demonstration in downtown Tokyo last summer; it may come to Hong Kong next year.

Production of Uneek shoes was deliberately kept small in the beginning, says Colistro.

“At first we thought they were goofy-looking shoes and not sure if they would take off. But they did in Japan. And we’re Keen – we’re business unusual. We want to be quirky.”

With their growing popularity, are Uneek shoes the next Crocs? Colistro replies humbly that they probably will not take over from such a famous brand. Uneek has the potential to fill a niche, however, especially in fashion circles, and reports young fashion designers in Asia have asked Uneek to complement their outfits, which Keen sees as a big compliment.

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“The big challenge for us now is how do we innovate on the Uneek shoe [yet not] destroy the success of the previous one,” he says.