On the exterior, Cole Haan is mostly a dress shoe brand.
But in its Innovation & Sports Lifestyle Design Center at its global headquarters in Greenland, New Hampshire, the company’s second identity as a performance footwear brand comes to life. There, a team of designers and product engineers work on improving and pushing forward shoes for Cole Haan’s Grand.Os operating system, the name for its line of products that the company proclaims “look like a dress shoe, feel like a sneaker.”
That duality is apparent at its New York offices. Tucked behind a rustic lounge displaying lifestyle products like outerwear, luggage and boots that would look at home at L.L. Bean or Ralph Lauren is a room that’s almost sterile in comparison. Under bright lights are white tables upholding Cole Haan’s newest addition to Grand.Os: the GrandRevolution line of wingtips, oxfords and pumps. In a glass case, deconstructed versions of the shoes are on display, to show, in pieces, what they’re made of: several layers of foam, leather and not much else.
“We took the opportunity to completely reinvent the dress shoe from the inside out,” said Scott Patt, Cole Haan’s vp of design and innovation who has worked at Converse and Nike in the past. “We approached it like any great design problem, where you have this beautiful shoe, but then you put it on and it’s a disappointment. It’s hard, heavy and it doesn’t flex.”
The inner makeup of a GrandRevolution wingtip.
The GrandRevolution falls in line with other shoes under the Grand.Os makeup, the ZeroGrand and the GrandPro. All the shoes have the same core properties: They’re lightweight, flexible, and designed with the cushioning and support of a performance shoe, with the appearance of an oxford, wingtip, or heel. The first model, the ZeroGrand, premiered in 2014.
Cole Haan, according to Patt, strives to be synonymous with innovation. The company’s Grand.Os platform helps differentiate Cole Haan from it competitors, such as Allen Edmonds and Johnston Murphy, and puts it in the same category as young, tech-native direct-to-consumer shoe brand Wolf & Shepard, which specializes in what it calls an athletic dress shoe. But it also speaks to a larger shift in retail that has pushed fashion brands to do more from a technological standpoint, to infuse a lifestyle product with performance properties. The simple reason for the change being that people want, and are beginning to expect, comfort.
“It’s an exciting time where you can still look dressed up, but feel innovation and evolution in fit,” said Tom Patterson, a menswear designer for the brand Tommy John. “We’ve all worn uncomfortable outfits, and people don’t want to go back to that. Other companies are being forced to evolve and enter this category.”
Before Grand.Os, Cole Haan’s most tech-forward shoe was released when the brand was still owned by Nike. Called the LunarGrand, the shoe had a classic wingtip upper but a bottom sole made using Nike’s Lunarlon cushioning technology. It came out in 2012. That same year, Nike sold the brand to Apax Partners in a $570 million deal.
Without Nike’s resources and technology behind it, Cole Haan’s future as an innovative company was uncertain.
“It’s unclear how valuable the inclusion of Lunarlon and Nike Air is to the Cole Haan brand,” wrote Erik Siemers, the editor of Portland Business Journal, at the time in an article called “Taking the Nike Air out of Cole Haan shoes.” “If it’s a major driver of revenue, giving it up could be difficult.”
Apax Partners does not disclose Cole Haan’s earnings, but from an external standpoint, it’s hard to see how the company has struggled apart from Nike. Apax Partners and Cole Haan went through what the company called a transitional period, during which the brand could still use Nike technology in its product. Cole Haan declined to disclose when that period ended, but in 2014, it released the ZeroGrand shoe, the first shoe in the Grand.Os line of products that took what the LunarGrand had started a step further. Where Nike’s cushioned sole was once a visible trait of the Cole Haan’s wingtip-sneaker hybrid, the performance properties disappeared inside.
According to Patt, Cole Haan’s ability to push its product forward without Nike was formed from a purposeful team building mindset. At its New Hampshire Innovation Center, its 100-plus employees are experts in equal parts form, equal parts function
“For us, it’s more about what you don’t see, than what you do see,” said Patt. “Some people in the Innovation Center have a performance background, other people have designed classic products all their lives. When those two worlds come together, it forms the piece of exclusivity — it’s all various degrees of inner workings combined with aesthetics, and we’re focused on that marriage.”
The company considers the GrandRevolution line to be its most innovative product yet, with notable properties of the wingtip including a cushion-padded tongue and sock, a one-piece flexible, perforated upper and an “energy return,” the term for the absorbency and support when jumping or stepping, on par with a sports shoe.
“There are a lot of brands out there who find performance products very hot,” said Patt. “And some brands are faking it to make it. When you get down to the actual function of product, we’ve had that piece and we’ve built a company and a team and a center that does nothing but. Innovation has to be a root, not a product.”