The Sole Of A Frenchman

Sole Technology’s Pierre Andre leads the footwear race.

Sailing into Newport Harbor, it’s not difficult to spot Pierre Andre’s residence among the shoulder-to-shoulder chateaus. While most of the masts adorning the private docks fly Old Glory, one is conspicuously displaying a different pattern – the red, white, and blue bars of La République Francaise.

At 35, Andre – much easier to articulate than his actual surname, Senizergues – owns and operates Sole Technology, the skate-shoe conglomerate that produces three of this market’s most popular brands. Collectively, Etnies, Emerica, and éS dominate skate-shop shoe sales. And as long as he can leave the daily details of the business to his talented staff, Andre will enjoy managing from his remote office overlooking the harbor. “It gets really crazy there,” he says of the company’s new 70,000-square-foot facility. “Here I can focus on what I’m doing.”

Good excuse, but his company’s success is well-deserved, considering how difficult it was when he began in 1990 to compete against giants Vans and Airwalk. At the time, the native of a Parisian suburb was still grappling with English, America was at war, the economy was in recession, and skateboarding was in a slump. “We had many problems,” he says, his French accent now subdued, but still apparent. “I remember the first container of shoes. It was delivered three months late, and I had 80-percent cancellation. I had to go back on the road and start selling the shoes again to all the shops.”

Like many company owners today, Andre is a pro skater turned entrepreneur turned businessman. After winning the European Championships a few years in a row, and several international freestyle titles, he had to leave the contest circuit in 1986 to serve his compulsory duty in the French army. “It was February and freezing cold,” he says. “It was the worst winter we ever had in France. I talked to some of the officers, and said, ‘You know, I’m a professional skateboarder.’ And they laughed.”

But the army soon warmed up to the idea that they had in their ranks a French international champion of something – skateboarding or whatever. Assigned to drive a truck and allowed to skate one afternoon a week, eventually he was asked to perform at his base for a visiting general and his family. “The general was super stoked,” says Andre. “Then he went home, and his kids had TransWorld. The general was so hassled by his kids that he talked to my captain, and the next day I had every afternoon free to skate.”

With ample time to practice, Andre made a quick transition after his service, returning to professional skateboarding full time in 1987 to promote his Sims pro model.

This happened just as freestyle was merging with street skating and disappearing as discipline in its own right. Flatlanders like Andre had to find other jobs, and many just started their own companies or distribution houses.

While in France, Andre met the owners of a French fashion-shoe company, Rautureau Apple Shoes, who had started a line of sneakers in 1986 targeted at the skate and surf markets. Designed by sophisticated fashion-shoe makers, Rautreau’s Etnies line consisted of gaudy-colored Korean-made hightops. The company sought Andre’s help, but at the time he was under contract with Vision Street Wear.

In 1987, the owners of Etnies came to Los Angeles to see for themselves what skateboarding was about. Having heard so much about Natas Kaupas, they decided they had to meet him. That encounter resulted in the first pro-skate-shoe contract. The Etnies Natas Kaupas was a hightop shoe resembling the Nike Air Jordan, but it incorporated materials like very flexible leathers that Andre says were found only in high-fashion shoes. “They had a Goodyear gum-rubber cupsole that lasted four or five times longer than other soles at the time,” he says. “That was really cool, but really expensive.”

The Natas shoe was a rare sighting in the U.S. because the company didn’t have proper distribution here, but by 1990 Andre had eased out of his career as a pro, and was looking for another pursuit. “I asked if they would consider me to distribute their product in the U.S.,” he says. “So I set that up, which was a nightmare in the beginning. The price was way too high because they were much higher quality, but we priced them the same as other shoes. Our margins were so little that it was ridiculous.”

There were other problems trying to sell skate-shoes designed in Europe and made in Korea to Americans. The designers in the small French village where Rautureau Apple was located had a slanted perspective on skaters’ tastes. “They thought skateboarding was a certain way, and their kids were stoked with it,” says Andre. “But all the hardcore guys didn’t want what they were doing.”

While Etnies were a hit in the French countryside, Andre had to peddle the product to dubious and cash-strapped American retailers. Even when Etnies USA split from Rautureau Apple in 1992 and Andre began designing and producing the shoes under a licensing agreement, the logistical problems of manufacturing and distributing shoes loomed large. “We were the first skateboard-shoe company owned by a skateboarder,” he says. “It was very difficult for the skate shops to believe in what I was doing, because they were thinking, ‘We are doing good business with Vans, so why should we be buying that little thing?'”

With Vans still producing their shoes domestically, and Airwalk having licked the delivery problems associated with Korean shoe factories, Andre had yet to learn many of the hard lessons of the imported-footwear trade. “Our factory was overseas, so I wasn’t sure when I would get the delivery,” he says. “The shops wanted minimum headaches, you know?”

In the early 90s, small skateboard-hardgoods companies were garnering more interest, but the shoe category was still dominated by the Big Two. Andre was encouraged to persevere, though, when he realized that the new low-top skate shoes he was making appealed to non-skaters. “It’s hard to wear hightops,” he says. “But then we started making the Rap in lowtop, and the Lo-Cut came out, and my parents said, ‘Oh, those are skate shoes? I would wear that.’ I started realizing there’s a huge potential for the skateboard industry to make shoes for other non-skating people.”

In 1994 Andre began to see the skate-shoe category grow, and Etnies’ solid-colored suede shoes helped define the skate-shoe look at the time – a look that was knocked off by mainstream footwear companies and renamed “casual.” That year other small skate-shoe companies began to appear, which Andre believes is one of the reasons skate shops began to take his company more seriously. “Duffs started in ’94, and I started doing DC’s production in Korea,” he says. “Duffs was a Rocco thing, so people started thinking, ‘Hmm … ‘ Because these little shoe companies started having more influence in the market.”

In 1995 Andre introduced éS, a more technically oriented line, and that year he reorganized his company under the Sole Technology corporation. Andre also expanded into the then-growing snowboard industry with the Thirty-Two line of snowboard boots. With éS and Thirty-Two, Andre finally owned his own brands. “The purpose of having different brands is to appeal to a different type of person,” he says. “Even though all the brands are for skateboarders, we came up with different concepts for each brand. Otherwise we’d be competing for exactly the same thing. It’s very challenging to pick a direction and not move away from that.”

As the skate-shoe market exploded that year, Andre was faced with another major decision. Rautureau Apple was being bought by a European shoe conglomerate, which at the time was simultaneously being bought by an American company. He wasn’t sure what this would mean for his licensing agreement. “I already had a lot of employees and distributors believing in us, so I didn’t like not knowing what was going to happen,” says Andre. “I told them, ‘I’ll
buy the name Etnies, or you take it back. Then at least I’ll know what I’m doing.'”

Rautureau Apple chose to keep the name, so Andre launched Emerica to replace Etnies, and a new pricepoint label, Sheep, whose ad campaign and team were more free-spirited than the other brands. A few months later, the Etnies brand was finally put up for sale by Rautureau Apple. “Nike and Reebok started getting interested in buying Etnies, says Andre. “But those guys in France had some integrity and were prepared to sell it to me.”

The offer was unexpected, but during a staff meeting at Sole where Andre pitched the idea of reintroducing Etnies, he realized that he should buy it: “We bought it – not so much out of a business decision, but more because we felt like it was part of us. It was very scary, actually, knowing Nike was going to get into the market. We couldn’t think of Nike using the name Etnies.”

Nike eventually did enter the skate-shoe market under its own name, but failed to make an impact. What companies like Nike have against them, says Andre, is that they’ve been selling themselves for so long in the team-sports arena that they have a hard time attracting individualist athletes like skateboarders. “The team-sports thing is fading away,” he says. “And I don’t know if it’s so easy when you have an image in team sports to go into action sports.”

Andre and his company had established the Etnies brand in the U.S. skate-shoe market, lost it, and now had to find a place for it alongside three other brands that were doing well on their own accord. Etnies was reintroduced in early 1997 with a limited line, and to be able to focus on each of their brands, Sole Technology discontinued Sheep. With Etnies and Emerica both marketed as cleaner-looking, hardcore skate shoes, Andre decided to use the more-established Etnies to impede major shoe companies from introducing “skate” shoes to broader-market outlets. “We thought we had too many brands for one small market, so rather than let the big guys come into the skate market, we were gonna expand it Etnies to wide distribution. We wanted to preserve the image of skateboarding in the main market. Sole Technology has a responsibility to the skate market.”

Part of that responsibility is to serve the ‘core skate retailers, and while Etnies is available to broader-market outlets, Andre says the Emerica and éS brands are only distributed to skate shops. What this arrangement does, he says, is allow some of the money spent in the broader market to filter back into skateboarding through the sale of Etnies shoes. “A lot of the skate shops don’t like when you go wider, but we have two brands that are not going wider, so the shops are secure with those,” he says. “The market will saturate to a certain point, so we have to keep moving on. It’s a conflict – to expand or not to expand – and we deal with it every day. Companies like Nordstrom and Foot Locker keep asking, and we keep denying them. We’re trying to open stores that are closer to what we do, like Pacific Sunwear – that has a surf image. We also sponsor surfers, so that makes some sense.”

Andre likes to emphasize the importance of skate shops to this industry that’s seen sporting-goods outlets and bike shops come and go. “We always want to make sure the hardcore shops receive our attention, and that we give them a good product that will sell,” he says. “I think that’s the first place skateboarders hang around. I think that’s one of the best ways to secure skateboarding. It’s important to support our roots.”

With the Sole Technology brands collectively occupying over half of many skate shops’ shoe displays, it’s a wonder that other companies haven’t launched parallel brands. But Andre says that if a brand is doing well and the staff is busy, starting a new brand for the sake of market share wouldn’t make sense: “I have two designers for advertising – one for Emerica and one for éS, because they can’t do both. For me, I was a little bit forced to do this because I was not sure where Etnies was going. Maybe I’m crazy, too, but I saw different types of individuals in the skate market, and I really wanted to aim for those different categories. I don’t always look at it as how much work it is, I look at what makes more sense for the individual who’s gonna wear the shoes.”

Until last year, Andre was Sole Technology’s main designer, working with team riders to develop the different lines. In 1994, pro Sal Barbier also began designing a popular series of shoes on the Etnies, then éS, labels. In 1997 Andre hired two shoe designers, one of them a fellow Frenchman, and now helps direct the lines and attends to a range of managerial duties.

Despite the success of Barbier’s shoe in 1994, Sole didn’t release another pro model until the éS Eric Koston in 1997. Andre says a successful pro shoe requires a recognizable name, but also an attractive design. “I only had so much time to design, because I also had to structure the business, financing, accounting, and everything,” he says. “So I needed more people to design with to be able to do it right. We had all the other top pros wearing it Barbier’s shoe, like Koston. So it had a big push from all those guys. We came out with Koston’s shoe in January ’97, and – boom! – off the roof. Then we were ready to do more pro shoes.”

There is broad speculation among industry leaders that skateboarding and its traditional role in the culture has changed. Now that many parents have grown up around it, they’re less adverse to seeing their children take up the nontraditional, non-team sport. Andre believes this will result in a break in (or at least a softening of) skateboarding’s traditional ten-year popularity cycle. “I think that the skate market is very different from what it was ten or twenty years ago because you can sell the products not only to skateboarders,” he says. “It’s become its own category now, whereas before it didn’t exist. That’s only been in the last two or three years.”

What’s also happened in the last two or three years, says Andre, is much more emphasis in the mass media and other markets on action sports. And that’s drawn interest to skateboarding and skateboard products. If that theory holds true, then Etnies has a bright future in the broader market.

In the skate shops, however, Andre does see oversaturation, and despite Sole’s dominance in the market, he’s been taking precautionary measures. “It’s still a good market, but I think there are too many shoes right now,” he says. “We’re getting much more conservative in what we’re producing. We still do more volume, but instead of guessing like we used to, we’re guessing less now. I think skate shops are starting to consolidate what they are buying.”

Sole Technology and the other established skate-shoe makers have some distinct advantages over younger shoe companies. Besides their size and the marketing muscle they exert, Andre and his veteran competitors were able to learn many of the lessons that newer companies have yet to when the market was much smaller. “A year ago it was easier for new shoe companies to come in,” he says. “And now it’s getting harder because companies like us are much stronger in the product, much stronger structurally. We have a lot of co-op programs with shops, and this year we increased our advertising much more than we did the year before.”

The oversaturated skate-shoe market has produced intense competition among brands. With so much emphasis on creating cosmetically appealing designs, performance seems to have become a secondary concern. “The look is very important because probably 90 or 95 percent of general footwear consumers don’t wear the shoes to do a sport,” says Andre. “So there are lots of shoes that look really good, but aren’t really so good for the sport. At Sole we’re trying to make the shoes really function first, but also make them look good. If they don’t perform, I feel I may as well not even do shoes.”

If he’s as committed to function as he says he is, Andre’s integrity is still no match for his compe
titiveness. With so many cobblers in the game, one might think he’d be worried about losing his footing and falling behind. “I prefer making shoes knowing that there is DC on the market, to making shoes not knowing there is DC,” he says. “Back when I was competing with Vans and Airwalk, I was doing my own designs, and I didn’t like what I was seeing in their lines. I kind of felt left alone in what I was doing. But when DC came on the market, I felt, ‘Yeah! Now there’s somebody who’s gonna bring something else, and we’re gonna be able to do something much better.’

“Of course it’s competition and a business risk, but I think the fact that DC’s there and we’re there really helps skate shoes to be much better, and my first intention – from the beginning – was to do a better skate shoe.”