Titanic In A Sea Of Shoes

Airwalk loses Hawk and takes on water.

People loved the movie Titanic. It had the drama and action of a big boat splitting in half and sinking to the ocean floor packed into a little tale about greed and money. The folks at Airwalk must have felt an eerie twinge of déjà vu as they sat in the darkened theater and realized that the movie was actually an artistic metaphor for their company’s position in the skateboard-shoe market. The director, James Cameron, could give a shit about the big boat – the real story goes much deeper; those people froze and died in Arctic waters just to emphasize a point: the bigger they are, the uglier they fall.

The company that at one time owned the skateboard-shoe market can now seldom be found in skate shops. Sportstyle magazine rates Airwalk the fifth-largest casual-shoe company in the U.S.*, but while their non-skateboard shoes continue to sell in malls across the country, Airwalk footwear fails to register on skaters’ wish lists. Even the pro who invented the trick the company was named after recently quit their team. But does it even matter to them?

Airwalk seems to view the skateboard world through the eyes of a person afflicted with multiple personalities – the company’s attitude toward skateboarding seems to flip-flop, depending on which personality you get at that moment. Let’s see … will it be the totally indifferent attitude, or will today be the manic side where they want to pump bucks into absurd demos at football games?

Airwalk has blown so much hot air at the skateboard industry the last few years, people are beginning to wonder what orifice it’s originating from. Hearing many of the horror stories from pro riders who had problems getting paid on time, or one who waited a year to get his own signature shoe in his size, it’s hard to believe that Airwalk is committed to its skateboard team – or skateboarding, for that matter. Greg Woodman, vice president of marketing, says that almost all of Airwalk’s active-casual shoes are skate inspired, but inspired is different than designed for. And according to Woodman, only ten percent of their entire budget is directly focused on their skate-shoe line.

Back to Titanic – Airwalk seems to react to the flooding-water and sinking-ship scenario with a shrug. There’s no concentrated effort to plug the holes or ask their talented skate team for creative assistance, and the only Airwalk employee visibly working to improve the company’s image is Team Manager Rob Dotson. He has the dubious task of trying to bail the water out of the ship’s hemorrhaging hull – but with his limited control, it’s as though he’s been given a shot glass to do it with.

“We’ve made some decisions in the past regarding skating that weren’t in our best interests,” says Dotson. “We talked to some of the accounts we lost and tried to correct the mistakes, but some of them didn’t return.”

Why would they return? Airwalk did the big no-no and took their skate shoes to the mass market, losing the trust of the ‘core skate shops that launched the brand in the first place.

“A lot of kids don’t even know they make skate shoes,” says Brandon Pappas of Bykez, Bordz, and Bladz in Omaha, Nebraska. “Personally, I don’t think they’re bad, but kids don’t want them.” Pappas dropped Airwalk five years ago and notes that one of the shop’s final orders never even arrived.

But that was years ago, the company must have changed with its new accounts, right? Boards of Missoula, in Missoula, Montana carries Airwalk footwear and, well, it doesn’t sound like they will for much longer. “We stopped carrying them when they went mainstream, and picked them up again when they said they’d sell only to skate shops,” saysManager Chris Bacon. “They have the worst warranty in the business. It takes at least two weeks to get an RA return approval number – most companies give them to us over the phone when we call – and we’ve returned probably 50 ppercent of the Airwalk shoes we ordered.”

Baconcontinues: “I sold one pair of S. Parks to a customer who didn’t even skate, and he came back a day later with the seams blown out. Our rep only gave us the voice-mail phone number, so I was in voice-mail jail for a year straight. I’d leave messages and nobody would call me back. They’re only five percent of our shoe sales, so we’ll probably dwindle off on ordering them.”

I can’t go on – this is too brutal. Airwalk’s only salvation would be to give someone like Dotson, who works closely with its skate team, more control of the skateboard program – or at least give him something bigger to bail with. Having spoken with several of Airwalk’s pros, it’s apparent that Dotson’s dedication has everything to do with their staying onboard. But manageable team relations are only part of the equation. For a shoe company to be successful, shops have to actually carry and sellyour products. “We have to prove ourselves again,” says Dotson.

It’s easy to believe him. As a skater and devoted team manager, he really seems sincere. It’s too bad that so many of Airwalk’s decisions are made by the home office and upper management, rather than by Dotson and the team. So as Airwalk’s skate-shoe program sinks, Airwalk’s casual-shoe luxury liner sails by and on to more lucrative ports of call.

* Sportstyle, May 1998.