Since the beginning of 2017, Ecco has a new creative head on board: Liam Maher is the new vice president global creative director of the Danish footwear and leather goods company. Here, he talks about his enthusiasm and passion for leather products and the brand Ecco itself that reinvents itself continuously through hard work, ongoing innovation and unexpected collaboration. Learn more about his creative visions and plans for the brand and why he has no hobbies...
Prior to your job at Ecco you have worked for Denham. What fascinates you about working with a leather brand?
Perhaps like anybody interested in products that can simultaneously reflect simple and honest quality while also carrying both a sense of personal history and excitement about things-to-come, I’m passionate about materials that encompass elements of both the past and the future. Like denim, leather is uniquely capable of absorbing some of the shape, aspect and character of the individual journeys it takes and recording the unique experiences of the person who wears it. A lifetime ago in the mid-nineties, I directed global creative services for Timberland. Over the years I’ve consulted for a range of footwear brands from Doc Martens to Visvim and my own collections for Denham featured leather outerwear as well as footwear capsule-collections. I’ve also consulted for ECCO Leather on and off for 7 years – so I have never been that far away from leather and leather-based product design.
And how difficult was it to switch from a denim brand to a leather brand?
My role at Denham was to oversee the brand itself and direct the creation of the label’s seasonal collections in categories outside the jeans and 5-pocket segment. The brand’s very talented founder, Jason Denham oversaw the overall business and personally designed all the denim-based product. So in some ways, the switch isn’t as cut-and-dried as moving from denim to leather. At Denham, I had developed and specified a modest series of innovative ECCO Leather qualities used in our leather jacket designs and footwear capsules, so that isn’t such a drastic change.
I have long been impressed by ECCO’s ability to deliver extremely high essential quality and exciting levels of innovation and I have admired the brand’s remarkable price-value proposition. For someone in my position, it usually comes down to a mix of creative integrity and tangible design-progression. On those terms, I have never been prouder of the products made by any brand within which I have been active. I hope we can work as a team at ECCO to reveal and celebrate the truth behind this sentiment. While one can pay both much less and much more for a pair of shoes, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more essentially “premium”.
You started with the brand few month ago. Which steps did you already take so far?
Ecco is truly international and my introductory-program included world tours and very crucial sessions in each market, getting to know the teams and hearing their ideas about the brand and its potential. I also spent a week learning to make an ECCO shoe in one of our factories which was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Besides being on a frantic and extended orientation program, I have been working with the very energetic and professional teams in global marketing, product-concept design to sharpen and simplify our common understanding of the brand and what makes it unique. This effort is beginning to be felt across new product launches and the development and refinement of marketing campaigns launching for the Fall season. The premise both on the product side and the communications side is achingly simple. From the very beginning, ECCO has fused together premium raw materials with dynamic comfort platforms to produce a wearing-experience our consumers might describe as “perpetual natural motion”. This consistent approach is manifested in some very bold ways - notably the brand’s investment in a network of advanced leather tanneries and its commitment to pushing the boundaries of direct-injected sole technology. It is further evident in a tradition of widely respected concept introductions like that of Biom or Golf Hybrid to more recent developments like Cool 2.0 Gore-Tex Surround or the Kinhin’s self-customizing Corksphere suspended footbed as well as leather innovations like Racer Yak, Alu-Silica Hybrid Tanning, Vesper stone-burnished leather and real Indigo finishing. I could go on forever. The list is both thrilling and a little humbling if you’re "the new guy"…
Over the last few seasons, a lot has happened at Ecco. What’s your creative vision for the brand?
My dream headline for ECCO over the next few cycles would be: “The People at ECCO Appear to have Fallen Head-over-Heels Back in Love with Their Own Brand”. I have been involved in the industry in one way or another for over 30 years. I have worked in the trenches of the brown-shoe segment and I have presented very niche and aspirational concepts at the world’s best stores. I’ve worked in footwear and fashion. I’ve worked in men’s casual, women’s artisan and prints and in childrenswear. I’ve contributed to studios in the US, Japan and Europe. I have no hobbies. My free time is also spent engaging on some level in the world of products, design, quality and its relationship to people, their experiences and their identity. Throughout all those experiences I have never encountered a proposition quite like ECCO. We are a house-of-innovation, we are a brand, we are designers, we are tanners, we run R&D facilities and design studios, we operate stores and we manufacture product, we are an employer and a training resource. Like the team here said back during ECCO’s 50th anniversary, “We Are Shoemakers”. –And I am starting to understand that the ONLY PLACE these shoemakers are NOT comfortable at…. is standing still.
As the expectation of comfort, dynamism, freshness and even a bit of bounce continues to increase – from Casual Fridays to the Paperless Office and from the Creative Class Consumer to Athleisure and Hybrid design – we should all be demanding more and more natural comfort and energy in our shoes. This comfort expectation has been on the rise from the 60’s through today and it is only going in one direction. But as we seek products that meet these new comfort standards, we should not be required to compromise on the authentic leather craftsmanship and genuine shoemaking integrity that distinguishes true quality in a shoe. In other words, we should all be invited to step up into our future without letting go of the past.
The other source of inspiration is the place where we work. For the team at ECCO, “Danish Design” isn’t just a bit of clever sloganeering, it is running through the design ethos of the brand as naturally as the massive swarms of starlings run in unison across the sun during the Sort Sol or the wind sweeps invisibly across the grass outside our studio. You can feel it in the legacy of luminaries like the celebrated mid-century furniture designer (and son of a cobbler!) Hans Wegner, designer of the world-famous Pappa Bear Chair and the Peacock Chairs, who was born here in Toender, also the home to our international design studio. For us, this points to a tradition of modern utility inspired by nature expressing truth to materials. At our best, we hope to meet the standard the rest of the world associates with Danish design.
Which consumer do you have in mind for Ecco?
I am fighting the impulse to answer this question like a conventional marketer. And while I have worked in marketing and oversee it now here at ECCO, I am a Creative Director and I can’t imagine selecting one consumer over another. The universal feature of an ECCO consumer should be somebody who appreciates what we do here. Someone to whom premium raw materials mean something and somebody who expects extremely high levels of out-of-the-box comfort when they invest in contemporary shoes. I also like to think it is someone who demonstrates their own “perpetual natural motion” through life and someone who is constantly stepping up into their future without letting go of their past. I think this describes both young and old, men and women and folks from all corners of the globe. I also think we each have a wide range of wearing-moments and any of these that can be lifted by dynamic comfort represents a possible connection between ECCO and these consumers.
Ecco released some exciting collabs and products in the last seasons that seem to address much younger customers. How will you continue with the rejuvenation process of the brand?
Recent collaborations have included the capsule developed with The Last Conspiracy as well as a perennial program of “Tannery Hacks” created exclusively for W-21, the experimental shoe store from ECCO in Amsterdam. I was lucky to be involved in these initiatives to varying degrees. I introduced The Last Conspiracy to the team at ECCO Leather and I oversaw the first range of “Tannery Hacks” for W-21. The current program at W-21 includes work by Rachel Freire, a progressive designer whose work has been seen on people like Lady Gaga and all this work is based on existing iconic ECCO shoe styles from the international collection. ECCO Leather recently supported Dominic Chambrone (The Shoe Surgeon) at his sneaker-customizing event in Los Angeles and the upcoming Summer delivery at W-21 will feature the input of New York designer Emily Kroll. But in the past, ECCO has worked with people like Fred Couples and Ernie Els as well as the triathlete Torbjoern Sindballe and folks from Denmark’s legendary Serius Patrol.
We’re all very excited to be continuing this tradition of collaboration. We would also be quick to assert that these projects haven’t necessarily been developed in the conventional collaboration-as-marketing-stunt style. We have immense resources in both product innovation and leather development and it is inspiring to invite our friends from the outside in from time to time for a dialog, or a creative jam session or a more formal cooperation because both sides learn more about the things they love and both the product and the team benefit.
The boundary lines between consumers and brands are more permeable than ever. Bloggers take the front row at high-profile shows during fashion weeks and high-street retailers work with high-fashion couturiers. Not to mention crowd-sourcing and the Maker movement. This more open and fluid attitude can lead to some regrettable lapses of taste but it can also lead to fantastic new ideas and directions. I don’t think this inspires only young people. Certainly, its appeal can be universal. Generations before the Baby Boomers and after the Millennials share a simple interest in both creativity and in real people.
Which new product categories or styles do you have in the pipeline?
Well. Personal favourites must be the new Kinhin. It is produced in Hestia Leather which is an alternative to veg or chrome and combines some of the earth’s oldest elements within an aluminum-silica mix to produce a very fresh pre-tan and bright final hues in the product. The new Kinhin also features a fully suspended footbed we’re calling Corksphere. The footbed is 95% natural cork and so it is light and self-customizing. Floating within an injected PU chassis on top of a tough but flexible TPU tread, the Kinhin is inspired by iconic cork-sole products that have been in the market for a long time, but we think we’ve done something very new. The sole platform, Corksphere footbed and the leather were all developed by our R&D teams in Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal. I am not ashamed to say I own 5 pairs.
I also love the Soft 8 which features a direct-attached sole platform we’re calling the TorsionTray. It is offered in a range of leathers from tumbled full-grain to real indigo. Its silhouette and profile are reminiscent of the coolest tennis shoes from the 70’s but minor tweaks of the proportion give it an utterly modern vibe. The directly attached TorsionTray platform eliminates the need for glue or stitching and delivers ECCO’s signature comfort from day one.
The BIOM C represents a fantastic chapter in the Biom legacy and a handwriting and wearing-experience that could only be ECCO. The Cool V.2 has been made in collaboration with Gore-Tex featuring a full internal exhaust/ventilation system that’s suspended within the sole unit to produce extreme breathability while adding a bit of bounce at the same time. The Gore-Tex keeps the whole system watertight.
What are the next steps? What can customers expect from the brand?
Steps are already underway. A great many had been initiated prior to my arrival which is how concepts like the Soft 7, the Cool V.2 and many others made their way into the market. The team and I are committed to renewing and deepening our commitment to ECCO’s well known essential brand values. There is a poster outside my office with a quote from founder Karl Toosbuy, in it he states; “Our strength is in knowing, complying with and fighting for the things we believe in, the things that make us special, our strength and identity.” Maybe this best describes our intended next steps. Knowing, complying and fighting for what we believe in.
Customers can continue to expect progressive innovation, quality and comfort. And they can expect these things to reflect a genuine sense of excitement, enthusiasm and contemporary vigour from a group of tremendously passionate folks up here in Denmark.