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Design Competition Is Keen, but the Shoe Must Go On

October 07, 1988|BETTIJANE LEVINE | Times Fashion Editor

The "shoe that leaks," New York Gov. Mario Cuomo's granddaughter and a "Brat" sneaker with its tongue sticking out were hot topics at the recent spring shoe show in the L.A. Convention Center. If that sounds more like show biz than shoe biz, you've got it right.

The leaky shoe is for sailors, of course. It's the Timberland Co.'s latest entry in the $8-billion athletic-shoe industry, where Nike and Reebok continue to battle for first place. Timberland, not in the running with those big guys, makes classy sport shoes for country gentlemen and for chaps with boats.

And, according to the firm's Bob Malheiro, the latter group can now find a "performance sailing shoe, a lace-up style with athletic support" from which water drains through open channels in both the heel and ball of the sole.

A New Twist

This high-top style retails for about $100 and will probably not prevent anyone from sinking in a squall. But it has a new twist, and that, increasingly, is what the athletic-shoe business seems to be all about.

Witness the "Brat," which is L.A. Gear's top-secret trend shoe for spring. So secret, in fact, that executives in the firm's 7,000-square-foot convention booth had to huddle before bringing it out of hiding and allowing a photographer to snap.

"You know how kids like to wear athletic shoes with the laces partly untied and the tongue sticking up?" asked vice president Sandy Saemann. "Well this shoe is designed to look untied, even though it isn't. And the tongue sticks up as part of the design."

The shoe quickly went back in hiding to prevent piracy, Saemann said, echoing a mild form of paranoia that seemed prevalent at booths of all the "hot" companies.

L.A. Gear is one of the hottest. Local businessman Robert Greenberg started the firm five years ago, took it public two years ago and expects a gross sales volume of $200 million in 1988. Both its L.A. name and its sunny West Coast image (a blond model in a miniskirt) capitalize on California's burgeoning charisma in 36 countries and in 8,000 retail outlets across the United States.

Perhaps the hottest non-athletic shoe company in the country right now is Kenneth Cole Productions, headed by a 34-year-old New Yorker who last year married Gov. Cuomo's daughter.

Piracy was so feared at the Cole station that buyers sat in booths curtained off from public view. If you weren't known to the preppy sales force, you couldn't see the shoes.

'Most Knocked-Off Style'

"Ours are the most knocked-off styles in the country," explained Stephen Hoyt, a vice president of the 6-year-old, New York-based firm.

Cole himself couldn't make it to the convention because his wife had just given birth to a baby girl. But his zany, activist spirit permeated the space via copies of his magazine ads, which were sprinkled everywhere.

The ads feature everything but footwear. One pictures a condom and reads: "Our shoes aren't the only thing we encourage you to wear."

Cole's shoes, sold locally at Bullock's and Nordstrom, are considered as trendy as his ads, ranging in style from avant-garde to ultra-hip. They appeal to the young, the chic and the cost-conscious--an unusual combination in this industry where high style usually means high prices. Women's shoes range from $65 to $100; juniors, from $50 to $70.

The firm's best sellers for fall are "any pump with a Louis heel and anything with a bow, and, of course, our Dr. Martins," Hoyt reported.

Dr. Martins, for those who haven't heard, are black, clunky, rubber-soled laborer's shoes with laces or metal buckles, at $65 per pair. They have been best sellers at Nordstrom all summer, Hoyt said, because many West Coast kids have caught the no-nonsense shoe attitude that European teens first exhibited about four years ago.

"A lot of European kids suddenly said 'I won't play that fashion game any more,' and started wearing nothing but black every day, from head to toe. Their black laborer's shoes came from a 50-year-old English firm called Dr. Martin, so that's what we call our versions of the shoe," Hoyt explained.

He added that Cole, who is the firm's head designer, is attuned to "almost everything happening in the community." Cole is on the board of AMFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research), and has named his junior line "Unlisted," because "anything hip in New York is unlisted these days."

The Perry Ellis exhibit was a field of brightly colored and patterned flats, many with uppers made of fabric rather than leather. The newest style here is a fabric shoe with a flat, stiff leather toe, like the slippers ballerinas wear to dance en pointe.

Buyers for Macy's, Sears and other big chains were shopping at the show, but refused to talk to the press. "We're not allowed to say what we're buying or what we like for next season. We don't want to dilute our edge," said one buyer of a major chain. "The competition is too keen."

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