updated 2 Sep 2014, 04:56
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The brand of shoes Barack Obama wears: Cole Haan
by Audrey Phoon

IF you've ever wondered what it's like to be in Barack Obama's shoes, the answer is: not too hard-going, really. In fact, you'd be so well protected on all fronts that it would be easy to go about any duty with a light step.

But it's not the United States president's job we're referring to; it's his footwear. According to last month's style-focused issue of Vanity Fair, Mr Obama - who's listed as one of the world's Best Dressed Men - wears shoes by Cole Haan.

Despite the pedigree connection, the 81-year-old label has hardly been the shoe of the moment for those not old enough to remember it. After all, Cole Haan's heyday was in the late 1920s when it was set up by Americans Trafton Cole and Eddie Haan.

It later changed hands and expanded into other product ranges and countries, but by the 1990s, had pretty much disappeared from the scene.

It's now owned by Nike, hence Cole Haan's selling factor is the use of Nike Air technology to make shoes that are both comfy and chic.

Its shoes are also crafted by artisans at its factories in the US, England, Italy, Brazil and India. Footwear aside, the company also produces a range of bags, apparel and, most recently, sunglasses.

With Nike behind it, the brand picked up momentum again, primarily in the US, but it was not until its current chief executive officer James Seuss took the helm in 2006 that Cole Haan began making significant headway in Asia and the Middle East.

Over the past year, the brand made its debut in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and it just opened a new store at Hong Kong's IFC mall.

Singapore hasn't been forgotten either: on Tuesday, Cole Haan will set up its first flagship store here at Ion Orchard (it previously had a small shop in Paragon which has since closed, and has a store-in-store in Takashimaya which has been 'performing really well' in recent months), plus it will soon be launching in mainland China as well.

'We've been a bit conservative in expanding internationally,' Mr Seuss told BT Weekend in an exclusive interview when he was in town last week.

'But we'll soon have a lot more points of sale. I come from companies with strong international presence (Tiffany & Co, Gucci Group, Harry Winston) and I feel it's a great way to diversify in different economic times.

You need new consumers because you can't prospect the same consumers each time.'

In his experience, he notes, expansion is an effective way to build awareness, 'tell our story and let people know about us; let them feel and understand the personality of the brand'. 'A great store is a first-hand experience, you can communicate through words and images,' he explains.

And Cole Haan has a lot to communicate, now that the brand is back on track. 'We've evolved our product to make it relevant and exciting to consumers.

It's about enduring style, not throwaway fashion. Our history has given us a great sense of authenticity, but we're bringing that forward in a modern way, with modern conveniences,' says Mr Seuss.

To lend the company's designs currency, Cole Haan is in the process of hiring an up-and-coming designer (whom the CEO would only say is in the running for a Council of Fashion Designers of America award and 'definitely understands footwear').

It also recently worked with tennis star Maria Sharapova on a range of bags and shoes in its first big-name collaboration.

Technology-wise, while Cole Haan has its pick from the 'Nike kitchen' - it's presently working on a range of dress shoes that will feature the sportwear company's DiamondFLX technology - it also has tricks of its own.

'We have leather at our core, but then it's based on other materials, how you can showcase artisanal touches; we try to come up with new concepts all the time,' says Mr Seuss.

To that end, Cole Haan has developed a kind of leather that looks and feels like corduroy, for instance, and it's working on shoes with the hides left untreated so that 'each shoemaker can finish them himself - every shoe will be different'.

The company is looking at producing lasts specially tailored for its developed Japanese market as well.

Though those lasts won't be available for Singapore audiences, at least until there is a substantial market, Cole Haan is demonstrating its commitment here in other ways.

It has produced a special hand-woven snake-print leather tote bag in the brand's classic weave to be sold solely in the Ion Orchard store, for example, of which just five pieces will be available at $695 each.

And that's just for starters. 'Singapore is a great opportunity and an amazing centre. It's a market that is important and we hope to do two or three (stores) here,' finishes Mr Seuss.

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