Has fashion eclipsed function in skateboarding footwear?

I’d stuck on a tailslide and screamed a few choice cuss words as I leaped over the rail. My feet landed and dug into the soft bedding soil of the garden on the other side while I stumbled to catch myself. I was well aware of the damage moist dirt would inflict upon my new Axion GuyMariano shoes. My foot caught a rose bush by the root; I tore it out and fell to the side, smacking my head on the rail. A low “thrwroong!” resonated through the air as the bar vibrated, and I tumbled into an ill-formed somersault.

Because my nose hit my knee, it began to bleed slightly as I stood up. “Watch the sneaks! Watch the sneaks!” Ray squealed, and that feeling of dread – when you realize irreversible damage is about to be wrought – cinched my gut. A droplet of blood fell, in horror-movie slow motion, onto the toe of my right shoe.

They were ruined.

Everyone knew it. White sneaks soiled with dirt and blood … I might as well have been wearing Birkenstocks.

I sat off to the side and, using spit and my T-shirt, attempted to clean them, but it was an exercise in futility. I couldn’t even skate, I was so depressed. Staring at them made me think of how Kareem Campbell, the co-owner of Axion, would have nailed that tailslide.

Campbell, the only marquee name to head a major skate-shoe company (he designs too), is one of the most popular street skaters around. That’s what I loved about the shoes – they had the right style and managed to look unique among skate shoes without being absurd. You can tell by their design that Campbell has an acute sense of urban style perfect for skaters.

Campbell himself epitomizes what a lot of skaters want to look like. He told me that he has over 1,000 pairs of sneakers stacked high in his basement and office, so he’s well aware of what works on skaters’ feet. His designs are so intuitive that he sometimes waits until he’s flying on the plane to the sneaker manufacturing plant in Korea to begin his sketches. But don’t take that to mean his designs are haphazard. “I look at every piece of material, or anything that I think would be good for skateboarding for my shoes. I also look for what everyone isn’t doing. You have to go against the grain to be original.”

In today’s market, the art of any skate-shoe company is finding the balance between the look of the shoe and technology to protect the foot. “I want my shoes to be skateable and shoes that you can kick around in,” Campbell said. And he seems to be achieving that marriage because Axion is becoming a top seller in shops, and people like his grandma and sisters wear the shoes casually. Can you go wrong if your grandma and skaters like Mariano are wearing your shoes?

Thinking about Campbell’s designs, and how I had just disgraced one, depressed me as I cradled my shoe. I put the soiled shoe back on my foot, waved bye to my friends, and skated home, where I dug around in my closet for a decent pair of sneaks. “Yesss!” I exclaimed and punched the air when I spotted the DC box under a pile of unfolded laundry. I’d almost forgotten that I’d seen my friend Ken Block a while ago when I played nine holes of golf at my local links.

Block recently bought a house located on the golf course and had strolled out to see what the noise was after I sliced the ball wickedly off the ninth hole, richochetting a dent in his new Mercedes. I immediately ran up to Block, fibbing about how I’d seen the culprit and tried to give chase, but because I was wearing skateboard sneakers I’d slipped on the dewy grass.

He didn’t seem too worried about his car, with DC and éS constantly neck-and-neck in the skate-shoe race, he could probably buy a dealership with his monthly checks. He invited me in and joked that if I’d had DCs on, I would have been able to catch the golfer. He returned from a back room and gave me a pair of the new Legacy sneakers. They resemble a rning shoe more than any other skateboard sneaker available. DC has always had a reputation for experimentation, and few would contest the claim that they’re responsible for pushing the skate-shoe look into the technical style it has today.

A distributor once sent back DC samples and chastised Block, saying they weren’t skate shoes. But that didn’t discourage him from developing the Legacy, one of DC’s latest forays into the nontraditional. Block says, “I wanted to make a shoe that was as detailed and aesthetically different looking as anything we’ve done in the past, but still functions as a skateboard shoe.” Settling into a chair in his sparsely furnished house, he continues: “We’ve got laminated suede rubber, rubber lace loops, and crystal rubber – it’s a more durable rubber that you can tint different colors.”

“Was the car expensive?” I blurted out.

“Yeah … ” He gave me a puzzled look. “Why did you ask that?”

“Because it looks it.” I said, my voice cracking. I had to pull myself together. “I get heel bruises all the time, and a lot of the shoes look teched-out, but do they really do anything?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“A lot of the technology works. As far as going too technical, I think we’ve hit everything that could be hit, what you can do with the shoe itself to protect it from skating.” Speaking on a subject he spends a vast amount of time musing over seemed to distract his suspicion. “There is always stuff you could add for more arch support and more cushioning,” he continued. “The key is putting as many ideas as you can into something and testing it to make sure it works. Some of the stuff we’ve done, companies like Nike haven’t even done – like camouflage rubber. The Cypher is definitely a different-looking shoe and it was a risk, but it’s an extremely durable skate shoe that looks totally different.”

I asked if it was difficult, with all the crazy shoe designs out there, to gauge if something is cutting edge or merely ridiculous.

He chuckled and shook his head: “We have that problem every day. We have plenty of ideas, and we’ve definitely made some strange, unreleased stuff in the past, but we’ve taken the risks. Everything has sold really well.”

I knew DC constantly worked on progressive ideas and has facilities in Korea, where they test everything from gum rubber to the abrasion threshold of various materials. The abrasion point for the TPR coated leather on the “Legacy” is 2,000 (a flimsy material like paper would score in the low single digits).

Trying to avoid Block’s suspicious eyes, I asked him where he finds all these funky materials. “Anywhere,” he said. “We travel to Europe to go to material stores, and invest a lot of time in research. We buy a lot of material overseas and send it to our testing facility.”

I slipped on the pair of Legacies and walked around Block’s house a bit. A problem with skaters today is that they demand two types of shoes. “There are customers out there who want the extended technical shoe, and we have the customer who wants the clean shoe,” said Block. “That’s why we make both with the DC style. Either way we’ll always try to push the envelope with shoes.”

The shoes were a size too small, but they looked so good that I told myself they fit. I could take the insoles out and wear them casually. As Block walked me back to the golf course, I turned and said to him, “I never knew you played golf.”

“I don’t play at all. But it’s a nice house isn’t it?”

I nodded. Skate shoes are definitely where the money is.

That was last week. I pulled the DCs out of the box and slipped them on. My toes were crushed. I was so upset I couldn’t skate in my DCs that I ate a gallon of ice cream to feel better. I flipped through a mag and saw Sean Sheffey 50-50ing a rail. I remembered my old pair of DVS Sean Sheffey’s with affection. That particular model is the most teched-out (airsoles) of the eight shoe designs that DVS offers. Marty Shadoan and Tim Gavin (who manages the team and helps design) flowed me a pair a few months back. DVS has a sick team that consists primarily of Girl and Chocolate riders (plus Daewon Song). Shadoan had explained to me why, until recently, it could be difficult to find DVS in stores: “At first it was hard to get into shops because everyone was skeptical of a new line. Now we’ve proven ourselves, and it’s definitely easier.”

Gavin and Shadoan realized that skaters like technical-looking shoes, but also reasoned (like almost every other individual involved with the skate-shoe industry) that today’s sneaks are decorated with too many bells and whistles. “Some shoes are so teched-out that you can’t even skate in them,” Shadoan said. Suggesting that “the more basic skate shoes are better for skating,” he predicted that “the industry is going to get more tech and then mellow out again.” Skateboarding has already experienced this boomerang trend with absurdly oversized clothes.

I’d worn the Sheffeys out months ago. I dug around in my closet but could only locate a hideous pair of woven plastic sandals that the previous tenants had left. The plastic was rotting and some strange bug had crawled onto the toe-strap to die. They were awful and didn’t fit anyway – they were at least three sizes too small. Damn … I would have to wear my dirty Axion sneaks – how embarrassing. Nothing is worse than a dirty pair of sneakers. For once I was angry that I resided in Southern California. It’s a fact that skaters on the West Coast are partial to white and lighter-colored sneakers year round. In the Midwest and on the East Coast, sales of pale sneaks plummet drastically after Labor Day because of colder, dirtier weather, and white shoes – as I can attest – get mucky quick.

I went to the grocery store and bought some shoe whitener, sat on the curb, and painted my Axions back to life. When I finished, I laid them on the curb to dry and admired them. They were beautiful once again.

Just then a truck pulled up with motocross bikes in the back. As the bikers walked past, they paused and looked at my shoes. I noticed one had on Chad Muskas, and the other sported the Eric Kostons (two of éS’ most popular designs). They asked me some questions about my Axions and mentioned how much they liked their Etnies. “But you’re wearing éS shoes,” I pointed out. They answered that it was the same thing. “What are you talking about?” I snapped back. “They’re totally different. Etnies can be bought at beach shops, Emerica and éS are strictly sold in skate shops, and even then they differ.

“Emericas are designed for the more hardcore skater, like Chris Senn – a skater who charges and doesn’t care so much what he’s wearing, as long as it’s a shoe that functions well. You understand? Duh? They’ll wear them until they fall off their feet.

“Now, the éS sneakers are designed with a little more fashion consciousness, almost headed into the hip-hop direction – but only slightly. There is more image involved with éS, and they have a little more technology injected into them.”

“Look buddy, you want a smack on the side of the head?” the fatter one growled. I was amazed that these two would be wearing skate shoes, but it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. There are a lot of crossover customers – people who don’t skate but will seek out a skate shop to get themselves a pair of skateboard shoes.

“I wear these, they look cool, and they’re damn comfortable,” he said. “I don’t give a crap about skateboarding. I just saw some kids wearing them and followed them to the skate shop.”

He looked at my Axion sneaks shining in the sun: “Those look pretty cool.”

“They’re mine!” I hissed and snatched them up.

They called me a few names and walked into the store. “Why don’t you buy some Birkenstocks if you don’t give a crap about skating!” I yelled after them. They turned around, but by then I had my sneaks on and was running across the parking lot. The running calmed meanages the team and helps design) flowed me a pair a few months back. DVS has a sick team that consists primarily of Girl and Chocolate riders (plus Daewon Song). Shadoan had explained to me why, until recently, it could be difficult to find DVS in stores: “At first it was hard to get into shops because everyone was skeptical of a new line. Now we’ve proven ourselves, and it’s definitely easier.”

Gavin and Shadoan realized that skaters like technical-looking shoes, but also reasoned (like almost every other individual involved with the skate-shoe industry) that today’s sneaks are decorated with too many bells and whistles. “Some shoes are so teched-out that you can’t even skate in them,” Shadoan said. Suggesting that “the more basic skate shoes are better for skating,” he predicted that “the industry is going to get more tech and then mellow out again.” Skateboarding has already experienced this boomerang trend with absurdly oversized clothes.

I’d worn the Sheffeys out months ago. I dug around in my closet but could only locate a hideous pair of woven plastic sandals that the previous tenants had left. The plastic was rotting and some strange bug had crawled onto the toe-strap to die. They were awful and didn’t fit anyway – they were at least three sizes too small. Damn … I would have to wear my dirty Axion sneaks – how embarrassing. Nothing is worse than a dirty pair of sneakers. For once I was angry that I resided in Southern California. It’s a fact that skaters on the West Coast are partial to white and lighter-colored sneakers year round. In the Midwest and on the East Coast, sales of pale sneaks plummet drastically after Labor Day because of colder, dirtier weather, and white shoes – as I can attest – get mucky quick.

I went to the grocery store and bought some shoe whitener, sat on the curb, and painted my Axions back to life. When I finished, I laid them on the curb to dry and admired them. They were beautiful once again.

Just then a truck pulled up with motocross bikes in the back. As the bikers walked past, they paused and looked at my shoes. I noticed one had on Chad Muskas, and the other sported the Eric Kostons (two of éS’ most popular designs). They asked me some questions about my Axions and mentioned how much they liked their Etnies. “But you’re wearing éS shoes,” I pointed out. They answered that it was the same thing. “What are you talking about?” I snapped back. “They’re totally different. Etnies can be bought at beach shops, Emerica and éS are strictly sold in skate shops, and even then they differ.

“Emericas are designed for the more hardcore skater, like Chris Senn – a skater who charges and doesn’t care so much what he’s wearing, as long as it’s a shoe that functions well. You understand? Duh? They’ll wear them until they fall off their feet.

“Now, the éS sneakers are designed with a little more fashion consciousness, almost headed into the hip-hop direction – but only slightly. There is more image involved with éS, and they have a little more technology injected into them.”

“Look buddy, you want a smack on the side of the head?” the fatter one growled. I was amazed that these two would be wearing skate shoes, but it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. There are a lot of crossover customers – people who don’t skate but will seek out a skate shop to get themselves a pair of skateboard shoes.

“I wear these, they look cool, and they’re damn comfortable,” he said. “I don’t give a crap about skateboarding. I just saw some kids wearing them and followed them to the skate shop.”

He looked at my Axion sneaks shining in the sun: “Those look pretty cool.”

“They’re mine!” I hissed and snatched them up.

They called me a few names and walked into the store. “Why don’t you buy some Birkenstocks if you don’t give a crap about skating!” I yelled after them. They turned around, but by then I had my sneaks on and was running across the parking lot. The running calmed me down a bit and I mused over something Don Brown, one of the main men behind Sole Technology (Etnies, éS and Emerica) had said. He has no problem with crossover customers who wear éS and Emerica because they purchase the shoes in skate shops and support the industry.

I found a big tree to sit under and considered the effort Brown puts into Sole. He’s usually busy conducting focus meetings with riders and is constantly experimenting with new materials. When Sole thinks of an innovation, they quickly whip up a sample for their riders to test. According to Brown, the 1994 éS Aura was the first skate shoe to employ an air pad in the heel. They’ll use any and all affordable technology without hesitation, and their clean designs often sell themselves.

Brown noted that, technically speaking, skate shoes have always been behind other athletic shoes. But, he takes that as inspiration for design. He credits the running/basketball look of skate shoes to the fact that many skaters are interested in different sports. For example, Rick Howard and Eric Koston are huge basketball fans. The new éS Koston appears more form-fitting and has a definite basketball feel to it.

As the new Koston occupied my thoughts, a group of construction workers walked past. One of them, a large brute with a hammer hanging from his tool belt stopped and glared at me.

“What are you looking at?” he scowled.

“What?”

“Hey, I like your sneaks, bro – they’re butter.”

He talked like a wannabe gang banger from the Bronx.

“Gimme dem sneaks.”

“Why are you talking like that?” I said. “You’re an overweight, balding carpenter. You must be 40 years old.”

“Want me to jack you? I’ll put a cap in your ass and go home and swig my 40,” he said, unholstering his hammer and gripping it menacingly. I was about to jump up and run when the construction gang pounced on me and pulled my shoes off. I called them various names and struggled, but in less than a minute they had my shoes. Hammer guy inspected them closely: “Sweet! He has Osiris insoles! Just one of the fine accessories coming out of the burgeoning skate-shoe market.”

At that point he caught a glimpse of my DC socks, latched onto my leg like a lovesick dog, and clawed at my ankles.

“Noooooo! Not my socks, you evil bastard!” I screamed. “They’re made of a special DuPont Cool Max fabric that wicks the sweat away from your foot. And they’re the perfect length – just above the ankle.” I kicked frantically. These socks are a hot item in shops.

They held me down and peeled my socks off, then walked away leaving me looking like a Bedrock resident. Tears burned in my eyes and cascaded down my swollen cheeks. Shoe-jacking seems so East Coast, I thought of the shoe company that epitomizes that region – NSS. They started three years ago, and today have ten different styles out. They’re The Little Engine That Could, launching their debut line with little money but a ton of integrity and energy. “Our brand is so much better than the money behind it,” Scotty Donohue, NSS sales manager, told me. They did grassroots advertising for the first year, handing out pamphlets at contests and sponsoring local skaters.

“We were all broke for a long time,” said Team Manager and contributing designer John Connor. But it paid off: NSS’ popularity is steadily growing.

Right now they favor the more basic style. “We’re not trying to put out a fashion statement,” J.C. said – a sentiment that seems more popular the farther you retreat from the West Coast. But Vinny Ponte, one of their most popular riders, is currently working on a more technical shoe.

But where was the NSS crew when you needed them? Think the carpenters would have jacked them up? I think not.

I sat down, rubbing my feet. The Huck Finn look definitely wasn’t in, so I was somewhat embarrassed as people walked by. I overheard one parent tell her wide-eyed kid to stay away from drugs or he’d end up like me.

Campbell had once commented: “I’m a shoe man. They have to look better than anything else I’m wearing.” It was a