COVID Pivot: From Making Boots to Making Masks
By Ginny Figlar, KEEN Editorial Director
It was Monday, March 16, when all of us at KEEN HQ connected on Zoom video calls for the first time from our homes. It was on one of those calls in the first few days of quarantining when someone threw out the idea of making masks with upcycled shoe materials. Within a week, our design team had created a pattern and our factory in Thailand converted a Targhee boot production line to make it. Soon we had a prototype ready to test out. (One of the benefits of owning our own factories is that we can pivot fast!) And a few weeks later, on Earth Day, KEEN employees received packs of masks for themselves, and their families and friends.
Our very first masks were given to KEEN employees and their families, fans, and essential workers.
As I proudly wore my KEEN mask on essential outings like shopping for groceries and backyard chicken supplies, I received a lot of “KEEN makes masks?!” comments. I did wonder how we were able to convert a production line that normally makes rugged hiking boots — the Targhee — into making soft, cloth face masks. And to do it so quickly. Can machinery just take on a new task like that? How does that work? (Clearly, I haven’t spent a lot of time in factories.)
There was a lot to learn, and we needed to become mask experts in a short period of time.
It turns out, it was really my fellow coworkers — both here in Portland and in Thailand — that did most of the pivoting. First, our product development team spent a week learning everything they could about making masks, including checking online daily for the latest resources on masks, materials, and patterns people were using to make them at home.
“There was a lot to learn, and we needed to become mask experts in a short period of time,” says Rachel Treinen, KEEN product line manager. “What mask shape is best? What materials are effective and Consciously Created to align with our values? How do we most comfortably fit these to many different face shapes? How many layers should we use? These were all considerations that we had to evaluate to build masks for our fans.”
Next, our employees working at our factory in Thailand had to adapt. But we discovered that a lot of the same techniques used to hand-finish our shoes were applicable to making masks. Instead of sewing the lining or label onto the inside of a Targhee boot, for example, our factory team was now sewing the elastic trim onto a mask.
Our next-generation masks, the KEEN Together Mask, being made at our factory in Thailand, and worn by KEEN Product Line Manager Rachel Treinen in Portland.
“If you look very carefully at a Newport sandal and a KEEN mask, you will see the binding is the same. So we built the masks around what was currently being made within KEEN. That’s how we were able to produce masks so quickly, and with the same KEEN standard for quality,” says Nick Ginns, who manages the KEEN Thailand factory.
It was the sheer volume of masks that we were producing, while working across time zones via Zoom video calls during a global pandemic, that presented the biggest challenges. For our first production run of masks, the KEEN Harvest masks, we made well over 100,000 masks that we donated to essential workers on the front lines, such as grocery clerks and retail partner staff, and gave to KEEN employees and their families around the globe. They went fast and demand for non-medical, cloth masks continued to grow.
So we continued to make them. But better. We took the feedback we received on our first mask and improved the design, including turning the earloops into adjustable slides and sourcing Better Cotton Initiative-certified cotton canvas (the same material used in our upcoming line of Elsa canvas sneakers.) This next generation of KEEN masks, called KEEN Together Masks, are available in 7 colors to match select KEEN sandals and shoes. We hope that they give KEEN fans the ability to express their own style while helping to keep everyone safe.
Here's a quick peek at the masks being made in our factory:
We say, “Wear masks. Love others.” And these reusable cloth masks have definitely been made with a lot of heart from everyone here who has helped create them.
“In times of crisis, it’s a nice feeling to get up in the morning and given some benefit to those who need it,” Nick says. “It brought us closer together. Although we have all been feeling quite vulnerable as individuals, all this teamwork with community spirit gives us strength.”
Where to Buy KEEN Masks
- Online at keenfootwear.com/masks
- The KEEN Mask Mobile in the parking lot outside the Portland KEEN Garage. Open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Contact-free, 24/7 access from KEEN vending machines outside the Portland and Palo Alto KEEN Garage retail stores