In late November, Craft Sportswear announced plans for a phased relocation of its North American headquarters to Seattle, WA, in 2024 to bolster the brand’s expansion into outdoor and specialty retail and its recent entry into running footwear in the U.S. 

Craft North America CEO Eric Schenker talked with SGB Executive about Craft Sportswear’s heritage, the run footwear opportunity, and why the CEO has chosen not to move to Seattle.

The company’s move from Beverly, MA, to Seattle will support closer collaboration with other brands headquartered in the area, including Cutter & Buck, owned by Craft’s parent, New Wave Group. Jake Rawson, concept director at Cutter & Buck, will replace Schenker as Craft North America CEO at the close of 2023.

Schenker has been CEO of Craft’s North America business since 2015 and has worked for the brand since it came to the U.S. in 2004.

SGB: Can you tell us about Craft’s history and heritage?
In 1973, inventor Anders Bengtsson went out for a run outside his home in Borås, Sweden, with a set of new base layers he had designed. After years of designing, testing and creating, he had found the perfect baselayer for optimal body temperature management. Craft’s baselayer collection has been worn by some of the world’s best athletes, and that’s often the product people first stumble upon when they learn about Craft. Since then, the company has expanded its offering to cover endurance and fitness categories, honing in on the run market.

SGB: When did Craft enter the run footwear category?
Craft officially launched footwear in 2021 with the release of a Tommy Rivs collaboration on the CTM (Craft Tailored Motion) platform that has come to be known as “the gravel bike of footwear.”

SGB: What’s been the biggest challenge in breaking into the category?
Expanding into the run category, footwear in particular, is never an easy task, but Craft has been dedicated from the start to create the absolute best tools for endurance athletes, and run was an obvious next step for us. Pursuing footwear requires a commitment to an exceptional development process, feedback from our elite team, and then product engineers receiving those notes and executing them—it makes all the difference. Finding your place on the wall at run specialty is a challenge, and it’s something we don’t take for granted. Our specialty partners are critical to the business’s success, and we’re committed to supporting those partnerships every step of the way, from delivery to sell-through.

SGB: How do you differentiate Craft in run footwear?
We lean into bold, timeless, Scandinavian design and functionality above all else. With a genuine heritage in the Swedish elements and endurance-specific sports, we develop high-quality performance sportswear. Our products are developed together with athletes worldwide, utilizing the finest materials and cutting-edge technology.

SGB: What steps are you taking to establish Craft in run footwear further?
In 2024, we will be doubling down on supporting our specialty retail partners and driving sell-through via ongoing retail and consumer initiatives throughout the year. Bringing on Waypoint Outdoor to support footwear was one of several big steps to further our commitment to growth in the outdoor and specialty channels. We recently held an in-person retail activation at Paragon Sports to support athlete Tommy Rivs’ return to the New York City Marathon. Craft athletes Tommy Rivs and David Laney were on site for a shake-out run, which drew a crowd of over 350 customers. In addition to the run, Craft announced the first retail drop of their coveted Team Rivs Collection, offering exclusive apparel and footwear for purchase. In addition, we invest in getting shoes on the feet of trusted industry leaders and journalists—we’re always looking for insights, feedback and honest reviews. Testing via trusted athletes and editors in the run and outdoor space has provided guidance and has influenced the evolution of our footwear.

SGB: Where are you gaining the most traction in run footwear?
Our road-to-trail or ‘gravel’ story is resonating with our customers. Today’s runners are looking for a shoe they can wear out the door, down the road and onto their favorite trail without feeling like it’s “too much” or “not enough” on a variety of surfaces. Craft is the only brand right now really honing in on this hybrid category and doing it well.

SGB: What’s your biggest challenge in gaining further shelf penetration?
There is a lot of great footwear out there right now. That said, today’s runners are looking for something new and unique that they identify with beyond the product itself. Our customers seem to be finding alignment with our Scandinavian design DNA, brand responsibility and functionality of the door-to-trail option our shoes offer.

SGB: How is the activewear part of the Craft business doing in the U.S.?
Great! We recently expanded the trail collection as well and that is doing great.

SGB: Is the primary focus also on run specialty on the sportswear side?
Yes, but also premium outdoor.

SGB: Any major initiatives on the activewear side you’d like to share?
In addition to trail, our Smart Margin program has been a huge success. This is a never-out-of-stock program with long-lasting, sustainable styles that are 20 percent off wholesale 24/7, 365 days a year. Frankly, you could run your entire store with the range in the collection, but it’s designed to allow retailers to focus their pre-books on seasonal styles and leverage this program for the core tops and bottoms. Make no mistake, these are not low-level basic; these are some of our top-selling styles from the Essence collection.

SGB: Can you elaborate on the reasons behind the move to Seattle?
The move to Seattle was a strategic decision based on opportunities to optimize our operations and proximity to key partners.

SGB: Why did you decide not to relocate?
It was a tough decision, but my family is a priority, and I know the brand will continue to thrive under Jake’s leadership in Seattle.

SGB: What’s next for Eric Schenker?
Introducing Craft to the U.S. market and building the brand here has been an absolute privilege. I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

Photo courtesy Craft Sportswear