Weird hippie shoes created by a gang of dreadlocked dudes who spark up incense and eat rabbit food. That was about the extent of my thoughts about I Path over the past few years. I knew of Matt Field, liked his skating, even shared a few of his outlooks on life, but never looked too hard at the company’s footwear until I saw them up close when a skate photographer walked past me two years ago wearing the product.

They were a pair of Cats, the wallaby-like skate shoes, and after seeing nothing but teched-out skate shoes for years, they forced a second look. Making a hybrid of classic casual designs and a skate outsole, I Path created footwear that looked like nothing else on the market.

I’m pretty much a fashion dumbass, but even I realized that it’d be a nice change-up to have something to chill in that wasn’t as big as a Moon Boot. They didn’t look like they could take as much harsh abuse as a multi-paneled armored skate shoe, but I Path shoes appeared comfy and durable. Apparently, a lot of skaters thought the same, and more are catching on–I Path’s sales are on the rise, and four years after they came out with the Cat, some of the major brands are starting offshoot chill brands dedicated to making non-skate casual footwear.

Origin

At the end of 1997, pro skater Matt Field thought up the idea of a skate-shoe company that reflected what he and his friends wanted but couldn’t find in the market. He hooked up with Brian Krauss, an attorney with both an entertainment and fashion-industry background, who was heavily researching youth-culture markets (a.k.a., the MTV viewership) for ideas. “We wanted to make shoes that our team wanted to skate in with totally simple and fashionable designs that reflected the spirit and style of the riders,” says I Path CEO Krauss, who oversees operations, some design, and marketing for the company.

Field, I Path’s cofounder, designer, team manager, print advertiser, who from our interview seems like a pretty mellow guy, sums up the partnership in less detail: “I guess it was all about timing.”

Both appeared happy with each other, and Matt showed that he had talents off the board when he began designing footwear. “Basically, we never had a designer or anything,” says Field. “I create most of the ideas and pitch them to the riders. I work with the riders to come up with ideas reflecting their spirit and style in the shoe designs. I want the energy they give off to reflect on how you feel in the shoe. I make those ideas come to life working with the manufacturers.”

Even though the Cat borrows heavily from the classic wallaby (and, to be fair, it would be difficult to find a skate-shoe company that hasn’t borrowed heavily from another footwear design), nobody in skating had taken such a basic design approach. “Right now we’re focusing on skate with a minor in fashion,” Krauss says. “This is how we’re marketing our product and who the sales force goes after. There are some cool fashion boutiques that carry the brand, especially in Japan, where skaters bridge the fashion/skate thing in a big way. In the future we may look more to the U.S.-fashion markets, but right now we want to build our name within the ‘core skate market.”

Finding acceptance for a new look is one of the biggest hurdles in breaking into the skate-fashion market. If you’re too new-looking, shops may back off, even if they like it. Skating has an insane amount of peer pressure involved in sales, and the biggest fear of many customers is being different. If you thought high school “rules” were bad, try wearing the wrong sized T-shirt to a skate spot. Imagine the response non-tech, different-looking skate shoes received. “At first it was tough, as shops were scared of it (I Path),” says Krauss. “But as the industry became more gentrified, people began looking to us as a new choice and a breath of fresh air. Shops began testing I Path products, and the sell-throughs began putting us on the map.”

“Yeah, it was finitely hard,” Field answers when I ask him what the reception was when shops were introduced to I Path. “We did no business the first year and a half. Now 70 percent of our business is ‘core shops, with the other 30 percent in fashion boutiques.”

Selling Something Different

“Some of the I Path designs are a little freaky,” says Scott Cartwright, store manager at Out Of Bounds in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. “And they only appeal to certain customers. They don’t appeal to the masses.” But this isn’t meant as a negative comment. Cartwright recently dropped a major shoe company that caters to the masses with no regrets. “With I Path there’s not a bum model,” he says, adding that he doesn’t buy as many I Paths as other brands, but claims he never gets stuck with overflow–no doubt something shops like to hear. And quality is not a concern. “As far as returns go, we don’t have any with those guys,” he says. “We did have serious problems with another major shoe company, though.”

I mentioned to a sneaker-pimp friend who works at one of the most popular skate-shoe companies that I was doing a story on I Path, and he surprised me by gushing, “I had a pair of I Paths and they were good!” The quality and fit clearly came as a surprise to him. “I have to find a way to get another pair,” he mumbled, almost to himself.

Another unique aspect about the Cat is that it’s been around for four years. There are few models in the skate-shoe industry that enjoy that longevity. “The Cats appeal to everybody,” Cartwright says, adding that parents will come in with their kids and end up buying a pair, and the design also appeals to kids with its retro look.

A few thousands miles away from Cartwright?s shop in New Jersey, and even farther away in cultural influences, lies San Francisco, where I Path is based. “I Path has probably been one of our top sellers since day one,” says Kent Uyehara, manager of FTC in San Francisco. I Path’s determination to stick to its game plan when the company had only meager sales and skate shoes were turning into robot boots is impressive. I Path weathered the tech storm and is now reaping the rewards–consumers are returning to the more basic, cheaper models. “There were too many panels on shoes,” Uyehara says of the overloaded tech footwear that populated his store displays for the past few years. “It was destroying the aesthetics of the shoes.”

Meeting Paths

After four years of defining itself, I Path has a more solid base of consumers than ever before. “It surprises me, all the different people into I Path,” Uyehara says. “I get the urban kids, and then the Marin County vegetarian dudes come in to buy them. I Path is able to cross the typical boundaries.” He’s also noticed a surprising new type of customer. “It’s finally trickled down to the younger kids who buy World Industries boards based on graphics.”

One of I Path’s most dedicated consumers is the strict vegan. The company uses a variety of uncommon materials, like hemp and denim, as well as pebbled leather and suede. It’s hard enough to find a vegan shoe, and every little aspect matters. Uyehara recalls how a run of vegan shoes were mislabeled as using leather. Customers would come in, read the label, and immediately put the shoe back down. “I Path definitely brings in vegan customers,” he says.

“We are so grateful to our ‘core skate-shop retailers for having been supportive,” Krauss says. “I Path brings the retailers a lot of customers they wouldn’t normally see. We feel that we successfully set ourselves apart from the competition by giving the retailer a reason to step up.”

While the Cat initially set I Path apart and boldly announced the company was taking a different route than the rest of the industry, I Path is more than a one-design company. The rest of the line mixes fashion and function with surprising results. Skate shoes like the Yogi, the clear best seller at the shops I spoke with, are more durable than the Cat and have a simple, uncluttered design using interesting color combinations. “We just wanted some shoes with flavor that we could skate in and feel our boards,” Field explains. “Shoes that were not all tech–just simple, classic, and flowing.”

Like Cartwright said, I Path might not be for the masses, but that doesn’t seem to bother Field and company. The I Path logo, designed by the artist Bigfoot, that looks like–um, I’m not sure what it looks like–signifies “follow your path.” And when asked about the hippie misconceptions that float above the company, Field replies, “Yeah, we’re hippies, Rastas, artists, musicians, fathers. Yeah, we’re here now. We’re hip.”ave a simple, uncluttered design using interesting color combinations. “We just wanted some shoes with flavor that we could skate in and feel our boards,” Field explains. “Shoes that were not all tech–just simple, classic, and flowing.”

Like Cartwright said, I Path might not be for the masses, but that doesn’t seem to bother Field and company. The I Path logo, designed by the artist Bigfoot, that looks like–um, I’m not sure what it looks like–signifies “follow your path.” And when asked about the hippie misconceptions that float above the company, Field replies, “Yeah, we’re hippies, Rastas, artists, musicians, fathers. Yeah, we’re here now. We’re hip.”