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Inside Cole Haan's innovation lab: Inventing dress shoes that feel like sneakers

Cole Haan Innovation Center
Source: Cole Haan

Eighty-nine-year-old shoe brand Cole Haan thinks its best bet to stay ahead of the competition is to make dress shoes that feel like you're wearing sneakers.

For anyone who's suffered through the pain, blisters and raw heels that often come with running around in typical high heels and men's dress shoes, it sounds like a dream.

So how did Cole Haan go about inventing a comfortable dress shoe?

To begin with, there was a lot of cutting shoes up to re-think their insides.

Scott Patt, Cole Haan’s vice president of innovation and design.
Source: Cole Haan
Scott Patt, Cole Haan’s vice president of innovation and design.

"When we started this concept, we took some of our shoes and some of our competitors' shoes and we put them on a bandsaw and cut them in half just to see all of the layers of material," Scott Patt, a visual artist and VP of design and innovation at Cole Haan, tells CNBC.

Patt runs the Cole Haan Innovation & Sports Lifestyle Design Center in Greenland, New Hampshire, where the brand is headquartered. Before joining the team full-time a year and a half ago, he worked as a designer and creative leader for brands such as Nike, Converse and Giorgio Armani.

The innovation center is staffed by 20 employees, ranging from visual designers to mechanical engineers, who take a lot of shoes apart and put new ones back together.

Last week, Cole Haan rolled out its latest innovation: the Grand Revolution line, which includes new takes on men's oxford dress shoes and women's pumps. Both are meant to combine classic style with sneaker-like comfort and retail for $400 a pair.

The Washington Grand
Source: Cole Haan
The Washington Grand

"We basically took the bottom of a leather men's dress shoe and we cored out the leather," explains Patt, who splits his time between New York City and New Hampshire. "The areas that we took out, we filled with our Grand.OS energy foam."

Cole Haan's goals for its comfortable dress shoes are fourfold: to be flexible, breathable, lightweight and well-cushioned. That means the rigid, heavy material that is typically found inside the shoe had to go.

Patt describes the innovation process as "a little bit of a geology experiment. You start scratching your head and wondering, 'Why is that in there?'"

The team asked questions like, "What were the things in there that we didn't need anymore that were antiquated?" says Patt.

Cole Haan's innovation lab is designed for rapid prototyping. There are 3-D printers and laser cutters on site.

It's not all scientific, though. Team members also get out an old-school needle and thread when necessary, and spend time walking around in the prototypes, which they call the "pinky toe test."

Cole Haan Innovation Center
Source: Cole Haan

Despite the increased speed of prototyping, it still takes time to reinvent a shoe. All told, it takes Cole Haan between six months and two years to problem solve, iterate, tinker with and finalize a new product line. And that's before the final product even heads to the manufacturer.

In another example of the sort of design developments that Cole Haan's newest shoes have, the decorative perforation on the men's line that characterizes a traditional wing-tip shoe, called broguing, has been replaced by sleek laser cut outs. Patt says these provide breathability and flexibility and serve as a nod to the design of a traditional wing tip.

"We have taken that traditional broguing that you have on a men's dress shoe, and we have turned that into a functional perforation," says Patt.

The laser cutting "alludes to the clash between the traditional detail" and modern technology, which perfectly describes the innovation team's approach.