Corporate Insurgency?

Big-name shoe companies haven’t yet lived up to expectations. Corporations-they’re dark monsters straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; the mere word conjures up visions of dreary cement buildings with smoke stacks billowing toxic fumes. Corporations control the government, have an inhumane appetite for capital, force infants to sew soccer balls in Indonesia, and punch holes in the ozone. When we die, it will be their fault.

Well, maybe not, but that’s the stigma large corporations often have to contend with. And as they attempted to elbow their way into the skate-shoe market a few years ago, it’s these dark Dickensian images that seemed to form whenever skateboarders spoke about Them (Adidas, Nike, Converse, Puma). People were afraid they’d kick down the door and deliver a few brutal (and indifferent) blows that would stagger the entire skate industry.

That was then. Now, after several failed attempts, the aforementioned corporations seem to barely register as a blip on skateboarding’s radar screen; Reebok was shot out of the sky like a clay pigeon, and Nike just left on a year-long sabbatical-perhaps even longer. For a while, mainstream athletic-shoe companies offered skateboarders and the skateboard-shoe industry nothing new or revolutionary. They possess the world’s most cutting-edge shoe technology, but failed to implement it in their skate designs. And the shoes-damn, did you see those things? Some should have been shipped in paper bags they were so obscene.

Their mistakes were embarrassingly obvious. Looking at popular skateboard shoes, they took several months to develop their “own” versions, and came out with shoes that were at least a year behind in style. Then the dog started chasing its tail-skateboard-shoe companies began “borrowing” the styles of other athletic shoes, while the companies being bit tried to figure out what was cool in skateboarding.

People have always skated in mainstream athletic shoes: In the 70s, it was Nike Bruins; the 80s saw Air Jordans and Converse Chuck Taylors. Adidas Shell Toes, Converse Dr. Js, and Puma Clydes were dope in the early 90s. Today it’s still common to see signature-shoe pros chillin’ in a major-brand’s running sneakers. But skaters decide what’s cool in skateboarding, and major shoe companies pretending to be hip to what was happening inside skateboarding produced some uninspired knock-offs. When these companies originally tried to target the skate market, they lost their jock swagger and acted like geeks asking the head cheerleader for a date.

But things are changing-the geek’s got contacts and pumped some iron-and the first season of 1999 reflects this. Big brands like Converse, Adidas, and Puma are locking in on the market. And the years of being slapped around by scrawny skateboarders seem to have helped; they’re finally contributing something to the industry.

With the Mark Gonzales shoe, Adidas may revolutionize the entire market. It has always seemed insulting that the big brands invest so much time, money, and effort in their other shoes, but when it came to skateboarding, they appeared to haphazardly slap together uninspired designs: no innovations, no serious technology-they followed the industry like three-legged dogs.

The Gonzales shoe indicates that Adidas is serious about the skate market. The fear that the athletic-shoe companies used to invoke in the skate industry may be warranted with this model-Adidas used their vast R&D resources and have put the same amount of effort into this shoe as they did with NBA-superstar Kobe Bryant’s.

The Gonzales shoe is amazingly light and utilizes some of Adidas’ athletic-shoe innovations. It offers all the features of a regular skate shoe, but with an incredibly flexible sole designed with Adidas’ Feet You Wear technology. The pressure points of the forefoot are injected with Adiprene for cushioning, flexibility, and durability. The shoe also features a new armored lacing system, and it’s available black-the most popular skate-shoe color right now. Adidas seems to have paid sufficient attention to all the necessary details, right down to the insole, which features artwork by Mark Gonzales.

Adidas only uses Feet You Wear with the premier shoes in each of their lines (basketball, running, etc.), and it’s reassuring to see their skateboarders getting the same treatment as their team-sport jocks. Hopefully, all the fake technology that runs rampant in skate-shoe designs will be recognized once skaters try the Gonzales, and, in turn, push the envelope of innovation.

Adidas also made a smart move when they hired Kyle Reynolds of Cal’s Pharmacy skate shop in Portland, Oregon as team manager and consultant. Now, along with a legendary pro name, they have a contributor who’s surrounded by consumers. Besides the Gonzales model, Adidas offers two other clean and simple designs.

Converse also seems to be putting more effort into their skate-shoe program, and last year their skate shoes were attractive, laden with technical features, and still recognizably their own. Converse has designed a new protective lacing system never before seen in skate shoes, and has also included air-mesh booties on the Chany Jeanguenin model for a lighter, more ventilated shoe. The new Converse skate line is also their most promising to date and is sure to stand out among others.

Nike, if you haven’t heard, is going through some changes. Globally, the Swoosh is in slight decline. They’ve still got Jordan, but the company’s been tightening up internally, starting with a 325-million-dollar budget cut in March. As of now, Nike has ceased pumping any more cash into their skate program. It’s too bad, since they did so much for the sport with their “imagine if every athlete was treated like a skateboarder” campaign, not to mention the 100,000 dollars they donated to the Encinitas YMCA skatepark. The non-skateboarding population took notice in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if a skate company had done the TV commercials, and skaters appreciated the support, too. If Nike had followed with a good product that utilized their amazing innovations, they could have bitten a chunk off of the skate-shoe market.

But they didn’t, and now Nike is moving all its skate shoes “off court,” where they’ll sell as skate/casual shoes in broader-market shoe outlets. Regardless of whether or not Nike decides to pursue skateboarding, at least they gave us some unprecedented TV exposure and helped build one of the best skateparks to date. Puma is the little company with-unfortunately for them-a big-brand reputation. They’re smaller than a lot of skate companies because their European division-huge with soccer-is a separate company, and, in fact, Puma Skate is treated autonomously from Puma USA. “Skate gets what skate makes,” says Lisa Shandy, Puma USA team manager, meaning they receive no financial assistance from the rest of the company. But Puma has been ingenious in dealing with their circumstance-they’ve managed to produce an attractive name-brand shoe at a 60-dollar retail pricepoint.

Puma shoes may not have all the technology, but their simple designs by Alan Peterson and Kien Lieu stand out in the mid-price market. Shandy services the stores that carry their shoes by arranging demos-usually for free-as a way of thanking them for the support.

Most of these major brands are selling their skate lines exclusively to skate shops, and this is where they encounter difficulties. They’re often perceived as muscle-bound jocks trying to crash the party. Last year rumors circulated that Nike had offered Tony Hawk a six-million-dollar contract-ludicrous to say the least, but indicative of the paranoia surrounding Nike’s entrance to the skate-shoe market. One prominent skate-shoe manufacturer reflected the sentiment of many when he lamented how lame it would be if a big outside company could just swoop in and take one of the best riders in the sport.

But retailers are often the ones to benefit from the confusion of a crowded marketplace. Shops that carry the major brands say they’ve been offered unusually flexible terms (one shop only paid for the shoes that sold), and noted that these companies seemed to be doing whatever was necessary to get on their shelves. Puma, Adidas, and Converse all mentioned they had to hire younger, more skate-friendly sales reps, and were lowering their order minimums. They claim to be looking for the long-term commitment, rather than the quick buck many of them admitted to scrambling for when they entered this market.

Why bother? Converse’s Scott Struve makes the point that “the world of sports is changing. Kids are proving that individuality is king, and skating represents that best. Team sports are becoming almost outdated-it’s what their dads used to do.”

Perhaps this needs to be looked at with a broader perspective. These are large sports-related companies doing what comes naturally-they follow the evolution of sports.

With their teched-out pro models retailing at the same pricepoint as other high-end skate shoes, and other models filling the standard pricepoints, the major brands have followed the same model that ‘core skate-shoe companies have-a shoe for every spending level. But will skaters wear them? Will they ever be as “cool” as the ‘core skate brands?

Critical to all skate-shoe companies is the tendency for shops to now go deeper into fewer brands. So unless the major brands can claw and kick their way into some marketshare, they and many of the lesser ‘core brands may find it increasingly difficult to land a spot on the skate-shop shelf.

How can the major athletic brands generate demand for their skate products? Because of the mainstream stigma associated with them, they can’t successfully adopt any of the strategies used by the ‘core skate-shoe brands. And the market would do fine without them and a dozen or so other brands. But imagine if Nike suddenly stopped making running shoes-unfortunately for them, their skate shoes don’t have nearly the same presence. “Skaters don’t have the footwear technology available to them that we have,” says Beam at Adidas. “But on the other hand, they know the industry and what you need on a skate shoe, so we can work together.”To really contribute to and participate in the skate-shoe marketplace, the major brands may just have to bend their big frames down to the ground and listen to the skaters, their teams, and the shops that carry their shoes. It’s a completely different game with an entirely different set of rules-it just takes some getting used to. are often the ones to benefit from the confusion of a crowded marketplace. Shops that carry the major brands say they’ve been offered unusually flexible terms (one shop only paid for the shoes that sold), and noted that these companies seemed to be doing whatever was necessary to get on their shelves. Puma, Adidas, and Converse all mentioned they had to hire younger, more skate-friendly sales reps, and were lowering their order minimums. They claim to be looking for the long-term commitment, rather than the quick buck many of them admitted to scrambling for when they entered this market.

Why bother? Converse’s Scott Struve makes the point that “the world of sports is changing. Kids are proving that individuality is king, and skating represents that best. Team sports are becoming almost outdated-it’s what their dads used to do.”

Perhaps this needs to be looked at with a broader perspective. These are large sports-related companies doing what comes naturally-they follow the evolution of sports.

With their teched-out pro models retailing at the same pricepoint as other high-end skate shoes, and other models filling the standard pricepoints, the major brands have followed the same model that ‘core skate-shoe companies have-a shoe for every spending level. But will skaters wear them? Will they ever be as “cool” as the ‘core skate brands?

Critical to all skate-shoe companies is the tendency for shops to now go deeper into fewer brands. So unless the major brands can claw and kick their way into some marketshare, they and many of the lesser ‘core brands may find it increasingly difficult to land a spot on the skate-shop shelf.

How can the major athletic brands generate demand for their skate products? Because of the mainstream stigma associated with them, they can’t successfully adopt any of the strategies used by the ‘core skate-shoe brands. And the market would do fine without them and a dozen or so other brands. But imagine if Nike suddenly stopped making running shoes-unfortunately for them, their skate shoes don’t have nearly the same presence. “Skaters don’t have the footwear technology available to them that we have,” says Beam at Adidas. “But on the other hand, they know the industry and what you need on a skate shoe, so we can work together.”To really contribute to and participate in the skate-shoe marketplace, the major brands may just have to bend their big frames down to the ground and listen to the skaters, their teams, and the shops that carry their shoes. It’s a completely different game with an entirely different set of rules-it just takes some getting used to.

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