Following the UK launch of Californian casual sneaker brand SeaVees this year, we spoke to the man behind the brand, Steven Tiller, about why this was the right time, and his hopes for the future.
Why did you decide to launch SeaVees in the UK this year?
It felt like the timing was right. It’s been just over a year since we became part of the Pentland Brands family of brands (in March 2017). It was a nice little tie-in with our 10th anniversary too. We feel the emotional appeal of SeaVees will connect well with the UK consumer and there’s a sunny “wish you were here” disposition in everything we do that positions us nicely in the current Experience Economy.
What kind of guidance and insight were Pentland able to offer you on navigating the UK market?
Well, it’s as fundamental as the fact that we call them ‘sneakers’ but, in the UK, you call them ‘trainers’! It’s a funny but appropriate example of how the cultures are different.
The powerhouse that is Pentland was able to give us so much expertise and insight into the marketplace and consumers. We had access to all the resources, intelligence and support. It’s truly something we wouldn’t have done on our own. But the important thing is we also stay true to who we are as we reach a new audience.
Did you discover any surprises when researching the UK market?
I don’t know if there were surprises as such, but friendly reminders to some of the barriers I had when launching the brand in the States – such as the brand not having the awareness that it enjoys in the US today. It took me back to the original resistance you find when you’re starting out, people want to know how you’re different from Vans and Converse.
SeaVees is rooted in a Californian lifestyle. How does that translate to an international as opposed to homegrown audience?
The California dream is universal. It’s not just reserved for people in California – our strongest market is New York. So, you can bring that global aspiration to the UK as there’s an attraction from the outside.
But when you really start to look closely at our branding you’ll find that being from California is not the primary message, it’s the secondary backdrop. We never wave that flag first and foremost. The position of ‘Show up in SeaVees’, which is from the original campaign from the 1960s, translates to today as well. Confidence and comfort – that’s our universal message. The California casual elegant lifestyle is the backdrop.
What’s compelling and powerful about the brand is that we are the original way to go casual. As long as we’re true to that position we’ve got our place in the world.
You came over to the UK for the launch – how did it go?
It was exciting, we got lucky and had a nice sunny warm day – the sun followed me from California! We did a press event at a very cool vegan restaurant in London, which felt like the proper way to do it. It was great, and the brand was really embraced.
What are your plans for growing the brand in the UK?
We’re going to replicate how we do it in the US which is why it feels like a flashback! We start off on the wholesale side with a couple of strategic partners who can represent the brand in a proud way – so the high street consumer is introduced through that, and the online consumer sees it on the website, in our own voice.
I would love to see us go from there, to seeing SeaVees in 5-10 of those stores that are the right image. Those that embrace the brand and enhance the brand story. Learning from everything we’ve done in the US, we know that on the retail side there are buyers and merchants. Buyers only look at the numbers. Merchants are those that are passionate about the brand and will it to success. So, we want to find those retailers who will nurture our brand in the right way while we’re building the online piece.
You famously rediscovered SeaVees when you found an old pair of shoes in a Japan thrift store. How did you know this was the right brand for you to take on?
I had been a corporate guy for 20 years and not had the courage to step out on my own. When I found SeaVees, I felt l couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t pursue this. I had spent years looking for the right opportunity and through all my research I knew I wanted to find a brand that had history without having baggage.
In my career I had dealt with some heritage brands with enormous brand awareness, but you can get pigeonholed because you’re too known for only doing one thing. I wanted to find something that had a heritage, but that wasn’t so well-known I could turn it into the modern version of what I wanted it to be. It was like SeaVees was a proud old building, it was a mess, but had great bones so you could see its potential. I was passionate about how I could rehabilitate and rejuvenate this proud structure while still being true to the original. That’s how my mind was working.
How do you fuse the heritage of SeaVees with your own personal vision?
It’s very natural. The people that know me well know there’s no separation between Steven and SeaVees! They’re one and the same. I waited so long for the right opportunity – it was serendipitous, so it gives me an opportunity to behave authentically and naturally every single day.
‘Modern nostalgia’ drives the SeaVees style – but how do you make sure you stay relevant when you’re rooted in the 60s?
The positioning of SeaVees back in the 1960s was so spot-on. It was really the golden age of advertising, graphic art and copywriting. What I saw was a brand that was so consistent from ‘64-‘69 with ‘the new way to go casual’.
So, there’s a fine line – you can have nostalgia and heritage, but we never want to be perceived as being old-fashioned. So, our business model is very modern, and we want to constantly innovate.
What’s special about the SeaVees wearer?
Our consumers are a young or youthful person who probably doesn’t remember the 60s, but they’re so caught up in the fast pace of modern life, they’re looking for something that has a bit of depth to it, something that has a soul. Something that has meaning.
It’s crazy how the modern consumer enjoys discovery, they want to be the latest to experience something micro and not macro. We enjoy a foot in both worlds: our heritage helps us lay the foundation but on the other foot, we’re new and consumers are able to discover us and be the first of their friends to the brand.
With the ten-year anniversary of SeaVees offering a chance to reflect, what are you proudest of having achieved during this time?
When you realise we started in 2008, which was the start of a major economic downturn, I’m just proud of the fact that we survived!
When I found the old shoe and brought it home, everyone thought I was crazy to give up a career with some of the biggest brands in the US for a vision that no one else could see. My family were supportive, but they couldn’t see what I saw. Then today, to see the brand get to the point when people know us, they love us and to look around to see that people share the vision, that’s truly the best thing about the last ten years.