Life’s what you make it.

If you want a unique perspective on the how-tos of establishing a foothold in the highly competitive and ever-expanding skate-shoe market, look no further than Vita Manufacturing. In Italian, the word “vita” means “life.” For the makers of Vita skateboarding shoes, the word is a positive symbol and celebration of the athleticism, fashion, function, and business of the skateboarding lifestyle.

Back in 1998, Vita began with a vision shared by head honcho Mark Oblow, pro skateboarder Natas Kaupas, and private investor Lance Theis. They set their sights on creating shoes for ‘core skaters and retailing them exclusively in independently owned shops. Their short time in shoe sales has been an interesting and rewarding ride, but not without a few bumps and strategy changes along the way.

Vita began designing and marketing affordable, “non-tech” skateboard shoes two years ago. “When we entered the market it seemed like it was just flooded with technical shoe companies,” says Oblow. “DC and Sole Technology were obviously ruling the market; to try and compete with them with a tech shoe, we didn’t think would be the thing to do. So with the first couple of shoes we tried to fill the void and do a ‘non-tech’ skate shoe.”

While this simple strategy seemed to make sense in spirit, Vita quickly learned they had significant financial and strategic hurdles to overcome. True, Vitas were excellent quality, they gave sales terms comparable to the bigger brands, and their in-house customer service was top-notch. The shoes had also seen good sell-through at retail shops, and they weren’t experiencing any warranty returns out of the ordinary. But they still had problems. “The biggest hurdle was money,” says Oblow. “We didn’t and still don’t have the bottomless pit that we can throw out to do advertising, P.O.P., and all that stuff. That would definitely have made it easier to have launched the company.”

Furthermore, the feedback they received on their first three pricepoint shoe models, while positive, generated some useful criticism. They were advised that in order to compete for wall space with the larger, better-established companies like DC Shoe Co. and the Sole Technology brands (Etnies, éS, and Emerica), they’d have to alter their focus and marketing strategy. Even at the ‘core-skater level, it seemed customers wanted “high-tech” shoes and signature pro models. “The response from stores and the people was, ‘Yeah, these shoes are good, but you need a technical shoe,’” says Oblow. “So it was kind of like the double-edged sword¿none of our shoes were pro models, and none of them were tech skate shoes. A lot of stores wanted pro shoes, but at that point we were in the midst of growing. That was a big hurdle.”

While rethinking their game, Vita attracted another private investor, Jeff Lewis. According to Sales Manager Vince Krause, the additional capital allowed them to bring in a couple of heavy players to restructure the company’s management and day-to-day operations. Recently, they also hired shoe designer Amir Diaz. Oblow believes Diaz brings with him experience and skills that the company previously lacked. Vita hopes that Diaz’s work, coupled with the new management, will enable the company to create a better product and be more accurate in their efforts to win over skaters and independent shops.

With the task of designing pro models at hand, Vita needed to develop and market a talented team of pro riders. Oblow’s experience as a team manager reads like a grocery list of notable companies: he was part owner and team manager of Prime Skateboards and Color Skateboards, and managed teams as diverse as Think, Acme, and Vision. So he set out to gradually develop a team identity for Vita with riders he feels deserve signature shoes. Oblow didn’t want to be just another shoe company in a long line of brands that sign pro riders one day,nd put their “signature shoe” out the next. “We didn’t want to just throw our riders the shoes,” he says. “We wanted to slowly build it, so we started off with Natas having a shoe. We were even kinda iffy about doing that, but we had a lot of requests for it from shops. Given Natas’ background and involvement with Vita today, we figured we’d go with it, and it actually has turned out really well.”

Recognized as a street-skating innovator, Natas holds a revered place within just about every skater’s personal Hall of Fame. One lesser-known fact about him is that back in 1987, a little-known French shoe company called Etnies signed him and produced the first-ever signature skateboard shoe. While he did some art direction and design for Etnies back then, he says his main focus was skating.

With Vita, however, Natas is much more involved in the company, and he personally designed his signature shoe. In addition, he’s also the company’s art director, responsible for creating all Vita advertising layouts, graphics, logos, and T-shirts. “I’m the art director and designer of all things paper,” he says. “I try to get one or two good photos for ads every year, and I give constant input on shoe design.”

The Vita team now consists of Natas, Jason Dill, Reese Forbes, Tim O’Connor, Danny Garcia, and Rob Pluhowski. According to Oblow, the team is formally involved with all major company decisions. Dill and Forbes call the shots where their pro-model shoe designs and ad layouts are concerned, and Oblow has frequent phone conversations, meetings, and road trips with all the team riders. “They’re responsible for what Vita is,” he says. “Everyone on the team works really well together, and that kinda rubs off. Everything is a team vote¿no one gets on the team unless everyone is 100 percent for it. If one guy’s against it, then it doesn’t happen. We definitely are where we are because of them.”

Not so strangely, Oblow believes the greatest strengths of the company are the team direction and its small size: “I think maybe the most unique thing about Vita is how much we involve our team, and how much we respect our team riders, as far as what they do and say. Also, our company being small, you’re able to actually talk to people, and if they need something, we’re here to answer it. And the owners¿we’re in the back packing boxes. It’s a ‘core, down-to-earth thing. We try to keep it a positive company.”

Having built a solid team, Vita’s current focus is to design a new series of functional pro-model shoes. They want to take advantage of new technologies, and still price their line competitively. “All pricepoint shoes are being phased out, mostly because they were older designs,” says Krause. “We’ve gone through a lot of changes recently, and we’re putting a lot more emphasis on functionality of the shoe construction, durability, and weight. Those factors, all combined, are very difficult to put forth in a pricepoint shoe. We’re gonna stress a lot more of the functional shoes and try to keep them reasonably priced. The $42.50 wholesale price range for the Natas and the Dill shoes is pretty low for a pro model. You can’t call it a pricepoint pro-model shoe, but we’re definitely trying to keep the cost reasonable.”

Vita’s next pro model will be the Reese Forbes, slated for a Spring 2001 release. In the meantime, Vita’s working on eight new SKUs for holiday 2000. The line will include three new Jason Dill colorways and two new Natas Kaupas colorways. They’ve been revised to include durable, recessed stitching, substantial arch support, air soles in the heels, and more mesh for style, breathability, flexibility, and support. The Natas shoe features an elaborate dual-lacing system, and one version of the Dill shoe is made of vegan-friendly synthetic materials.

Once marketing the new pro models is in full swing, Vita will reintroduce pricepoint shoes designed by Natas. These shoes, according to Krause, will feature very basic constructions and durable gum-rubber outsoles.

But what, if any, are the long-term goals for this young, upstart company? Will it suddenly grow too big for its own good, move into the malls, and stretch into all the peripheral action-sports markets? Oblow says no: “As far as getting into the big mall stores, that’s definitely not a route we’re looking at for now. We’re focusing on the mom-and-pop shops and the ‘core stores. I don’t think we’re really gonna try and head toward BMX or motocross, or come out with snowboard boots anytime soon. We saw a lot of other shoe companies going the way of Airwalk and Vans, which is completely fine. But just as far as Vita, we’re into the ‘core market.”

Nonetheless, Oblow’s definition of the ‘core market is not limited to just skateboarding. “We’re looking into going into surfing as the other sport,” he says. “I believe the two go hand-in-hand. I grew up surfing and skating, and all the other members of our team surf and skate.”

Still, the battle for wall space in any shop is fierce, whether it’s in ‘core skate or surf shops, hipster boutiques, or the much-maligned mall stores. And the oversaturated shoe market often makes it difficult for retailers to take on a new brand. That makes it very easy for a small company like Vita to get shut out when retailers put their trust in the proven giants of the shoe business. But the Vita staff remains undaunted, if not totally inspired, by their humble underdog status. “We knew coming into this it would take a while,” says Oblow. “So we figured we’d take the time to build it, and build it right, because we plan on being here for a while. We’ll work for our time.”rding to Krause, will feature very basic constructions and durable gum-rubber outsoles.

But what, if any, are the long-term goals for this young, upstart company? Will it suddenly grow too big for its own good, move into the malls, and stretch into all the peripheral action-sports markets? Oblow says no: “As far as getting into the big mall stores, that’s definitely not a route we’re looking at for now. We’re focusing on the mom-and-pop shops and the ‘core stores. I don’t think we’re really gonna try and head toward BMX or motocross, or come out with snowboard boots anytime soon. We saw a lot of other shoe companies going the way of Airwalk and Vans, which is completely fine. But just as far as Vita, we’re into the ‘core market.”

Nonetheless, Oblow’s definition of the ‘core market is not limited to just skateboarding. “We’re looking into going into surfing as the other sport,” he says. “I believe the two go hand-in-hand. I grew up surfing and skating, and all the other members of our team surf and skate.”

Still, the battle for wall space in any shop is fierce, whether it’s in ‘core skate or surf shops, hipster boutiques, or the much-maligned mall stores. And the oversaturated shoe market often makes it difficult for retailers to take on a new brand. That makes it very easy for a small company like Vita to get shut out when retailers put their trust in the proven giants of the shoe business. But the Vita staff remains undaunted, if not totally inspired, by their humble underdog status. “We knew coming into this it would take a while,” says Oblow. “So we figured we’d take the time to build it, and build it right, because we plan on being here for a while. We’ll work for our time.”