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SeaVees: “The coolest brand story that you’ve never heard of!”

By Danielle Wightman-Stone

May 2, 2018

Fashion |INTERVIEW

The original casual sneaker brand, SeaVees is introducing its Californian lifestyle to the UK market, to coincide with its 10th anniversary following its relaunch by chief executive and designer Steven Tiller, with a little help from its UK-based partner, Pentland Brands, which was announced as a shareholder of the brand last year.

At the SeaVees UK press launch in London, FashionUnited sat down with Tiller and learnt about the amazing backstory of the brand, his motivation for bringing back to life this heritage brand, as well as his plans for the future and the brand’s launch in the UK.

SeaVees is a sneaker brand that was originally founded in 1964 by tire company, B.F. Goodrich, and for seven years it was one of America’s most popular casual-sneaker brands, until following its purchase by Converse it attracted the attention of the US Justice Department, who declared it a monopoly and forced Converse to shut down the brand.

The trainers and the brand then went on a hiatus for nearly 40 years, before Tiller discovered an old, unworn, salt-washed pair of SeaVees in a second-hand shop in Japan for 500 dollars, where he fell in love with something a “little special with an incredible story” and he’s made it his mission to revive the label that he states is “the coolest brand, and the coolest brand story that you’ve never heard of”.

Tiller, who has a footwear background, including holding prominent titles including president, creative director and senior vice president of global design at established companies such as Steve Madden, Stride Rite Corporation (Sperry Top-Sider, Keds), Cole Haan, Lands’ End and the Nine West Group, was looking to leave the corporate world when he came across this heritage brand that time had forgotten.

Tiller explains: “I was always intrigued by heritage and I was motivated to find a brand that not everyone knew about, so when I found the old SeaVees sneaker in Japan, a brand that I had never heard of, and I think most people had never heard of, I knew I had found something special, to allow me to follow my heart and start my own company.

“I instantly loved the name, I loved the large V in the middle of the logo and I assumed that it was too good to be true and that someone owned this brand. It was only when I started doing research that I found that the brand had gone dominant for over 40 years and that it was truly up for grabs.”

It was the SeaVees original tagline, “The original way to go casual” that caught Tiller’s attention when researching the brand, it was the first trainer brand that encouraged people to wear sneakers outside of the gym, and in everyday life as a casual shoe, and it was this “strong heritage and unrealised potential” that Tiller knew was his ticket out of the corporate world.

He added: “It’s just a great story that no one knew about, that wasn’t owned by anybody. Any trademark, copyright and patents, had been expired for decades, so, it was truly about filing papers and waiting for the ownership to be given to me. It cost nothing, except attorney fees.

“I knew I had this chance to retell the story and to revive the brand. In a weird way, that’s when I truly found myself, when I found that old sneaker, I was finally allowing myself to pursue that path that I’d always want to go down and start my own Californian-inspired sneaker brand.”

Californian sneaker brand SeaVees launches in the UK

In 2010, Tiller relaunched SeaVees and moved his wife and two children to Santa Barbara, California, with one goal, retelling the story of the heritage sneaker brand, starting with the original shoe, the Legend, which featured in the original ad seen in Playboy and Sports Illustrated when the brand launched in June 1964.

“The Legend is the shoe I wear everyday, it’s the one that really captures the heritage of the brand and honours the original shoe,” states Tiller. “It was the first style, it is important to me and when I wear them, it is a way that I can symbolically touch base with the old brand every single day.”

Every SeaVee shoe is derived from an inspirational occurrence in 1960's California culture, as well as being inspired by Steve McQueen’s hot-rod culture, Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco Beat scene and Richard Neutra’s Desert Modernism.

Tiller added: “The styling guide is, if it didn’t happen in the 60s, we don’t do it. Every shoe that I design is derived from an old shoe and the inspiration comes from the 1960s, I call it modern nostalgia, where retro inspired stylings are done with modern amendments, improvements and innovations that didn’t exist back in the 60s.”

Such modern improvements include enhanced comfort with its exclusive perforated memory foam footbed, which moulds around the foot and over time becomes a personalised pair of shoes, offering maximum grip, comfort and long-lasting wearability.

“Our shoes are much more comfortable than they were back in the day and we do a lot of things with regards to materials to make the shoes, super, super comfortable,” notes Tiller. “We are staying true to the old brand, how they encourage people to show up at a social affair with the comfort of the sneaker, but with the sophistication and class of a more refined shoe.”

Tiller said: “We are pretending that the brand didn’t take a forty-something nap and just continued to do what it did best, and I’m so inspired by returning the brand back to what I feel is its rightful place on that top shelf of sneaker brands, as there are truly only a handful in the sneaker world of brands that everyone knows, and that’s what really drives me to will this brand to that place.

“To take a brand that truly no-one remembers and to bring it to the forefront to today’s fashion movement, you have to be stubborn and steadfast, and when I have a dilemma, like whether to do expand to this country or that country, whether we should do children’s, I look within the confines of the old advertisements, as I truly feel that all the answers lie there. Just being true to that keeps me focused.”

“I truly feel that SeaVees is the coolest brand and the coolest brand story that you’ve never heard of, we are still so unknown, and that’s what really inspires me as I can see the progress that we are making.”

Steven Tiller, chief executive and designer of SeaVees

Today, SeaVees casual styles are sold at over 300 retail stores in the US, as well as in Korea, Japan and now in the UK, with the launch of its dedicated UK e-commerce site, where select styles for men and women are on sale.

“My partner is Pentland Brand and they are UK based, so this is really important, it formalises in a public way our relationship with them, so for me it is a big deal in our revival and a great way to celebrate our 10th anniversary,” explains Tiller. “It’s truly starting out like we did in the US, very image focused, to raise brand awareness to introduce to the UK consumer in a way that is flattering to the brand.”

Which means lots of Californian references, as Tiller notes: “It is important that we don’t change who the brand is just because the consumer base changes, we are a brand that is from California and there is that Californian DNA in everything we do and there is a global consumer that has a reverence for the warmth and the sun, so why change, we offer just a little bit of Californian sunshine in everything we do.”

What originally started for Tiller and his team as a menswear brand, SeaVees has now become a truly 50/50 male/female split, with the women’s business being a huge growth area for the footwear company, as two years ago women’s only represented around 15 percent of its business and now it accounts for 50 percent.

“I started the brand focused on men, just because, in studying the market place and the sneaker category, it seems that the best lifestyle brands, the brands that are sustainable, the brands that stand the test of time, have their foundation on the men’s side, as women consumers are much more likely to adopt a men’s brand, rather than men adopting a women’s brand,” commented Tiller.

“A lot of this has to do with the male psyche, so strategically and purposely I wanted the foundation to start as a men’s business and then bring women’s on afterwards. It’s the women’s side that has grown a lot, as 80 percent of all footwear buyers are women, yeah, women love their shoes, so there are a lot more women consumers.”

The brand also recently introduced children’s shoes with a collaboration with Sony Pictures, featuring exclusive designs by Liberty London, based on the film 'Peter Rabbit'. Tiller expresses that children’s footwear really offers a “growth opportunity” for the brand, with the US e-commerce now offering mini versions of SeaVees bestselling silhouettes including the Legend sneaker, Baja slip on and Monterey sneaker.

Tiller added: “We have been asked a lot to do children’s shoes and I’ve always been hesitant and then J. Crew approached us about doing them children’s footwear and so I decided to do it, and then shortly after the Liberty London collaboration came up, so, now we are doing children’s footwear, we have a whole range it isn’t as large as the men’s or women’s, but it is a growth opportunity for the brand.”

At the heart of the brand is this idea of preserving the Californian dream and lifestyle, which comes from Tiller himself, who as a kid from the midwest, Oklahoma, he always wanted to be from California, and that life long yearning of the California sun is a driving force, not only in the brand’s design, but also in its charitable causes, which includes being a member of the 1% For The Planet, a charity that preserves the environment.

SeaVees not only pledges to give 1 percent of its net sales to The Gaviota Coast Conservancy to help protect the environmental integrity of the Californian coastline, but it also operates its own community outreach, ‘Out to Sea’, where Tiller speaks to young people, telling them his entrepreneurial story and encouraging them to follow their heart and dreams, in what he expresses as his way of “passing on the passion and encouragement to really do what’s in your heart and to chase your dreams".

“The 1% For The Planet is our way of giving something back and making sure that the California Dream is preserved for generations to come,” added Tiller. “Together with ‘Out to Sea,’ I consider to be our priorities, we aren’t just selling shoes, we are preserving the California dream for generations to come, by encouraging young people to have the courage to truly follow their dreams. Both are super important to me, it is the whole reason for doing this.”

Tiller concluded the interview stating: “I truly feel that SeaVees is the coolest brand and the coolest brand story that you’ve never heard of, we are still so unknown, and that’s what really inspires me as I can see the progress that we are making.

“Our customers love our brand and they return time and time again and they tell their friends about it. We are less focused on size and numbers, it is really just making people aware, as once they discover us, it is a brand that they adopt and continue to wear for the rest of their lives.”

SeaVees is currently available in the UK via its own e-commerce with prices starting from 55 pounds.

Images: courtesy of SeaVees