The History of Cole Haan: How the American Shoe Brand Changed the Office Dress Code

The American footwear brand Cole Haan originated in the 1920s as a brown shoe company, producing classic dress shoes like brogues, loafers and moccasins. And for many men and women, Cole Haan’s comfort-infused, office-ready footwear remains a core element in their wardrobes.

But what has set Cole Haan apart from others in the dress shoe world through the years is its willingness to innovate and challenge convention, to blend sports and work-life fashion, and to embrace new technologies. Today, its “hybrid” dress shoes and sneakers are among its most popular items.

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Part of that evolution can be traced back to a certain era in its history, when the traditional East Coast shoemaker became part of the biggest athletic brand in the world.

Follow along to find out more about the founding of Cole Haan and how it grew beyond office wear.

How Cole Haan Started

In 1928, a group of executives led by C. Trafton Cole and Edward Haan took over the Chicago-based footwear wholesaler M. Selz & Co., founded by Morris Selz. After running the company for nearly 30 years, they sold it in 1957 to E.E. Taylor, who moved the manufacturing operations to Maine (then a major hub for shoemaking). And in 1979, the brand was renamed Cole Haan, in recognition of two of its founders.

By 1988, the brand had around $62 million in annual sales. And that’s when Nike came knocking.

Cole Haan fall '15 campaign
A shot of Cole Haan’s fall ’15 ‘Take Flight’ campaign featuring dancers from the NYC Ballet and Parkour athletes.Courtesy of brand

Cole Haan’s Nike Days

In April 1988, Nike Inc. announced it would acquire Cole Haan and related companies from the privately owned Cole Haan LP, based in Yarmouth, Maine, for $80 million plus $15 million in debt. “It is a marriage of the best in the athletic footwear industry with the premier brand in the dress and casual shoe business,” Nike co-founder Phil Knight said at the time. “The combination of Nike’s technology and Cole Haan’s design and styling expertise should allow both companies to reach into new areas of the market.”

For Nike, it was an opportunity to diversify its business and gain access to non-athletic retail channels. And Cole Haan got access to Nike’s innovation lab.

Over the next two decades, the companies would explore different ways to fuse their two capabilities, including adding Nike Air performance technology to Cole Haan’s dress shoe collections.

Nike also invested heavily into modernizing the brand. In the late-1990s, Cole Haan’s sales had started to lag and its image was getting dated, according to Matt Rubel, the legendary footwear executive Nike brought in to revamp the label in 1999. Rubel hired Nike creative director Gordon Thompson as his chief designer, and together they introduced a more modern aesthetic, with more color and fashion materials and prints.

Cole Haan EVP and creative director Gordon Thompson in the brand’s New York headquarters.
Cole Haan EVP and creative director Gordon Thompson in the brand’s New York headquarters.

Cole Haan Gets a New Owner

After more than three decades together, Nike and Cole Haan parted ways.

In early 2012, the Swoosh announced a plan to sell off two of its non-core brands — Cole Haan and Umbro — so that it could focus on its remaining Nike, Jordan, Converse and Hurley labels. In November of that year, Nike inked a deal with private equity firm Apax Partners, which acquired Cole Haan for $570 million. (Umbro went to Iconix Brand Group for $225 million.)

At the time of the deal, Cole Haan had around 80 standalone stores and $535 million in annual sales, so it was a hot commodity in the M&A market. Among other interested bidders was private equity firm TPG Capital, whose senior advisor was none other than former brand CEO Rubel.

To lead Cole Haan, Apax brought in Jack Boys, the former head of Converse. Boys remains CEO of the brand, and under his leadership, it has continued to successfully build on its fashion-sport aesthetic.

In February 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Apax Partners filed for an IPO to take Cole Haan public. The firm painted a rosy picture of the heritage brand, which had revenues of $687 million in fiscal 2019. But ultimately, Apax abandoned the endeavor in early 2021 after Wall Street prices went stratospheric amid an economy fueled by government stimulus.

The brand has continued to grow, though. In November 2023, Cole Haan opened its 500th branded store at the Livat Centre in Beijing. It now caters to customers in more than 100 countries.

Cole Haan's store in Valley Fair, Calif.
Cole Haan’s store in Valley Fair, Calif. Cole Haan

Cole Haan’s Most Popular Shoes

Cole Haan isn’t known for its celebrity connections, but in 2008 (while still part of Nike), the brand signed Nike-sponsored tennis star Maria Sharapova as the lead collaborator and face of Cole Haan Sporting, a collection of men’s and women’s sport-inspired fashion footwear.

The match proved to be a hit. For the next few years, Cole Haan’s Maria Sharapova line of pumps, sandals and ballet flats were some of its most popular looks. But following the sale to Apax, the partnership with Sharapova came to an end.

Maria Sharapova Cole Haan collaboration 2011
Maria Sharapova shows off a ballet flat from her collection with Cole Haan at an event in New York in 2011.Steve Eichner

Meanwhile, Cole Haan’s ØriginalGrand “hybrid” dress shoes — which put a classic leather upper on an athletic bottom — helped to usher in a modern era of more-comfortable office attire, and it remains one of its most popular lines. The brand has capitalized on the success with the GrandPrø series, featuring court sneakers and other athletic silhouettes done in quality leathers and materials; as well as the ZerøGrand collection, with lifestyle shoes infused with high-tech performance features.

And amid the pandemic fitness boom, Cole Haan also launched performance running sneakers in 2020, followed by golf shoes in 2021.

Cole Haan running shoes
Cole Haan launched performance running shoes for men and women in 2020. Courtesy of Cole Haan

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