Rubber, Canvas, And A Little Spit

“Less is more” is what I keep hearing. And it seems truerthan ever in the world of skateboard footwear lately. I mean, howoften do you hear complaints from kids about a skate shoe lookingtoo tech, too b-ball, too dope, or whatever? And if they don’t say it,you can see it in their faces or in the fact that the whole size run isstill in inventory while all the simpler, less expensive shoes are flyingout the door. What about when the reps come into shops or theretailers show up at trade shows? Nowadays, more often than not,people are wincing at the übertech, and companies and riders areembracing simplicity, history, and respect for consumers’ wallets.

Skate-shoe companies are reverting to classic skate-shoestyles with basic cup soles and medium pricepoints all the rage andpopping up en masse in everyone’s new catalogs. Airbags andarched, hourglass-shaped soles are less dominant, and in no attemptto be subtle, just about every skate-shoe company has some knock-off in their lines of the classic Nike Dunk, precursor to the 80s-eraAir Jordan–the definitive skate shoe of its time–which by the endof the decade was being hand-cut into lowtops. Additionally, thereturn of some old favorites, like Vision’s shell-toe, Airwalk’sEnigma, and Etnies’ Sal 23 and Natas are forcing everyone to look atskate footwear in a whole new light–or a new old light. Osiris isreleasing the Jay Adams shoe, and Vans has an all-leather Alva shoethat is oh-so retro and available in both low- and mid-top models.Why? Is it more fashion trends and identity crises, or is it necessityand performance? Is it a much-needed history lesson or just a bunchof old fogies seizing a chance to get ultra stoked on nostalgicskateboard stuff? Or maybe it’s a money issue? Actually, the answeris D, all of the above.

Fashion Versus Performance

Current fashion trends are clearly a huge factor in therecent simplification of skate shoes. Let’s face it, hesh and punk arethriving, and skating may very well be on its way to a more “roots-based” state. We all acknowledge that everything goes in circles andcan’t avoid the ever-swinging fashion pendulum. “I think people aretired of the over-tech, overdone features,” says Sole Technology PRManager Piney Kahn. “A lot of the features put into skate shoesweren’t always necessary, but put there for visual appeal. People aregetting back to basics and what skating is all about. The heshertrend definitely helps that.”

In the old days, skate shoes were designed for utility, butKahn believes those days are gone: “Unfortunately skating is farmore affected by fashion now than it ever has been. The majority isalways influenced by trends–tragically. There are a handful ofpeople just into it for the skating, they are purely into function, likethe minimalism (of classic designs), and will continue to wear thosestyles.”

DuFFS Director Of Athletic Marketing R.P. Bess alsoacknowledges that simple is in. “If you look at fashion right now,that’s what people are doing,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong, thehesh thing has a lot to do with it in skate. It’s hard to wear big shoeswith tighter pants. It doesn’t look right.”

But many also feel that shoes are heading in this directionfor performance purposes in addition to fashion. Although no oneexpects the ultra-tech skate shoes to disappear, perhaps this is areturn from the super-tech to a sensible middle. Even if it takesconcealing some of the tech features for a more minimalist look,which is another step most companies seem to be taking. “Fewerpieces on the shoe helps prevent stuff from pinching your feet orlayers peeling back,” says Airwalk Footwear Category Manager RobDotson. “Different TPR treatments or direct injects start to make theshoe too bulky, wear funny, and peel back. Fashion definitely hascontributed to it, but it opened people’s eyes to realize that asimpler style in a shoe actually performs better than your typicaltechnical skate shoe.”

Dotson says that many breakthrough features oftraditionally tech shoes should continue to be included in otherwisebasic shoes: “You’re even seeing basic uppers on a more techbottom for cushioning purposes with airbags, PU midsoles, EVAs,tackier gum rubbers for traction, grip, and better flex in theoutsole/midsole combination.”

Dylan Raash is a footwear designer at Vista, California-based DC Shoe Co. Raash says that at DC they feel they have to pushresearch and development with skate shoes. “By doing that, you’realways going to have a tech shoe,” he explains. “Whether you make ashoe more durable, have better shock absorption, or just morecomfortable, it takes a lot of research and development, which bydefinition makes it high-tech. But that doesn’t mean the shoe willlook like a spaceship with a Honda flare kit on it.”

DC pushed the technical envelope in the mid 90s whenskate shoes were predominantly cup-soled and uncushioned. “Ithink with every kid in the country watching the X-Games and beinginfluenced by skateboarding, sales of the stereotypical ‘super-tech’skate shoe went off the charts,” says Raash. “Now with the marketsaturated with the tech style, it opens the door for the simple stylesto come back. The ‘core market needs to separate themselves fromthe mall kids–as a result, the hesh/classic trend begins.”

What about the pro shoes that are usually feature heavyand driven by bells and whistles? Surely they want to make money,which means following the trends to some degree. Are they toningdown their signature shoes? Airwalk offers its pros the option to doboth high-tech and simpler shoes for their pro models. This way theconsumer has the choice to buy either the tech, feature-filled PatChannita model, or the low-key, skate-by-day, chill-at-night model.

Many other companies’ pros are simply requesting thescaling down of their signature models and are designing shoes thatare more classic looking, feeling, and performing–all the whilekeeping under the 80-dollar retail pricepoint. Matt Hensley washounding DuFFS to do a simple shoe for a while, and with TheGambler his wish was granted. Considering the success of that shoe,you can be sure the upcoming Jason Adams model will follow asimilar logic.

Jerry Hsu’s pro model on Osiris is probably thatcompany’s most simplistic pro shoe to date. The new Rick McCrank2 from éS and Emerica’s Reynolds 2 are a small sampling of SoleTechnology’s toned-down pro shoes. Podium’s Steve Berra 2, KerryGetz, and Marc Johnson models offer further evidence of the newmovement in pro-shoe design, as does the buzz about the decidedlylow-tech I Path brand. “We see our pro models becoming simplerand more classic,” says I Path Co-Owner and Designer Matt Field.”There will always be a few more features to a pro model, making itspecial, but for the most part we are keeping it simple and classic.”

Money

Price is a bigger deal now than it was a year or two ago.With more kids skating, at the shop level there are more parentscomplaining about replacing shoes so often at such high prices. Andthere are more kids who can’t afford new shoes on their own if theykeep shopping for the high-end, high-tech pro models. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” says Osiris Vice President Of DesignBrian Reid. “I’m really stoked for the kids, they can now get twoshoes for what used to be the price of one.”

DuFFS has given the market a break from the prices aswell. “I think the parents like it, and I think the kids are into to it aswell,” says DuFFS’ RP Bess. “Our shoes are less expensive, but they’vealways been very competitively priced.”

“Shops are happy to see a change because everything hasbeen on this bling-bling mania for a while,” says Sole Tech’s Kahn.”The cost goes down with less tech features, so the parents arehappy, too.”

Airwalk’s Dotson offers further insight: “With pricepointbeing such a factor these days, kids going through a lot of product,and shops just trying to find partners to be profitable with, the dayof the 50- to 58-dollar wholesale purchase is slowly but surelystarting to fade. And a lot of accounts are really
even hesitating onthe 45-dollar (wholesale) range. They’re really looking for ‘what canI get in the 30-dollar to 37.50-dollar range wholesale so I can go outand keystone this shoe, make good money on it, and the kid is goingto get a durable performance-driven skate shoe?'”

Past, Present, and Future

What about all these revival shoes and concepts that arecoming out of the archives–is there a market for them? Is it anothertrend as well or a much-needed history lesson? Vans has releasedthe Tony Alva shoe. Osiris, known for being steeped in the present,is releasing the Jay Adams pro model–which they won’t describe,only saying that it’s about the well-deserved respect that Adamsdidn’t get back in the day. Sole Technology knows a lot of theyounger kids don’t necessarily know their history, so rereleasing theSal 23 and original Natas is educating them that the company isn’tthe new dog on the block. Vision can celebrate its twenty-fifthanniversary by bringing back its mid-80s shell-toe hightops, but alsorecognizes a market for such nostalgic items. “There’re those hesherpunk kids asking for it on our Web site all the time: ‘When are yougonna bring out the classics? I want to see that stuff–my dad usedto ride them,'” says Vision’s Mike Acosta. “We want to showconsumers where we were back in the 80s, where we are now, andhow we cater to both markets.”

Airwalk is starting its retro campaign with the rerelease ofthe Enigma. From there, it’ll introduce a lowtop Enigma, newversions of the Jim Shoe and One from the early 90s, as well as theProtoype-series Bruiser model that Mike Vallely originally helpedpopularize. “A lot of people are getting back to the heritage of whata skate shoe is and putting their little twist on it,” says Airwalk’sDotson. “I don’t think it’s really a trend–it’s looking at what skatingwas and realizing your roots, that’s where it all came from andthat’s where it’ll always build from. You can get as crazy as you wantwith skate shoes, you can make the lightest skate shoe or make themost technically advanced skate shoe, but when it really comesdown to it, the simplistic style is always going to be there.”

Dotson says Airwalk management looked at the brand’sfifteen-year history and identified which shoes made an impact overthe years: “These shoes made sense, and they still do. The oldergeneration remembers, but the new generation needs to be educatedon the past and understand where everything came from and how itall evolved. It’s a way to have people remember and go, ‘Damn, Iremember rocking those Airwalks. That’s so sick that they’rebringing them back!'”

Maybe that sums up the whole skate-footwear industryright now?bring back the old simple styles, the old constructionsand materials that perform so well, the old shoes that remind us ofour youth and past, and the old prices that we all love. Just don’t letthat fashion pendulum smack you in the back of the head in a fewyears when it comes a-swingin’.