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On Solid Footing : It once was one store. Then it became six. Now, Na Na, the mecca for fans of the hippest shoes around, aims to make bigger strides with its own lines.


As a drama major at the University of Missouri, Nancy Kaufman was, well, dramatic . She was the campus weirdo who wore flamboyant clothing and called herself Na Na, after Emile Zola's heroine.

Two decades later, the weirdness and the drama continue--in the form of merchandise. Along with husband Paul and former college chum Lynn Tyler, Nancy owns the Na Na Trading Company, an "alternative fashion" source headquartered in Santa Monica.

The multimillion-dollar company--spawned in a tiny store without plumbing that Nancy and Tyler opened in 1976--encompasses six retail stores, a mail-order business and an international wholesale operation. Na Na advertises, but it hardly needs to. Sassy, Harper's Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Esquire and other publications frequently splash its big, clunky boots and shoes across their pages.

Hipper-than-thou customers shop Na Na for everything from work shirts and overalls to flared cords, crooner-style cardigans, cropped "baby" Ts, plaid pantyhose and trucker-inspired wallets on long zoot suit chains. But the retailer's main attraction has always been outrageous footwear, including English-made, industrial-strength Dr. Marten shoes and boots. Na Na's own concoctions are even more outlandish: boots with wide, upturned toes; shoes and boots atop mile-high striped platforms; thick-soled, no-shine Mary Janes for adults, and work-weight boots with lug soles so thick and grooved they could move a tractor.

For 11 years, Na Na and Dr. Marten were joined at the ankle. Six months ago, at the height of the Doc Marten-grunge frenzy, Na Na was distributing about 25,000 pairs a month. But late last year, the companies parted over their distribution deal. And without the Docs to drum up business, Na Na is taking strides to stand on its own.

As part of an expansion and reorganization plan, the company has put more emphasis on its own footwear designs, including the new Blue Plate Shoe line. The $60-to-$80 collection features knockoffs of such Na Na originals as the $160 pole climber boots worn by Naomi Campbell and the dancers in Madonna's "Girlie" show.

Production of the menswear collection, for which Paul won a California Mart Rising Star nomination last year, has been scaled back to free funds for the shoes. And three unisex utility-clothing lines have been consolidated into the strongest one, Welt Ware.

Na Na's newest store opened last month in the Lab, a so-called anti-mall near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa. Tenants include the first Tower Records alternative store; Urban Outfitters (a Na Na wholesale account); Collector's Library, specializing in comic books; and Taxi Taxi, dealing in vintage clothing and guitars. The setup is "so cool," Nancy says. "Even the bathrooms are cool. If I were really young now, I would move in next to this place."

Every Na Na store has its own ambience, starting with the neighborhood: SoHo in New York, the Castro District in San Francisco and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, site of an outlet store scheduled to become a regular retail operation next month.

In Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, Na Na's headquarters and store fill a space formerly occupied by a Thrifty drugstore and a Hallmark card shop. The "post-mortem" interior, as Paul describes it, contains a huge plywood torso above the dressing rooms, a giant abstract face with one gold and three white teeth, two moving mirrored globes, a half-finished inverted boot and a phallic symbol, which, he says, "isn't as obvious as we could have made it."

His office near an interior staircase is decorated with a hodgepodge of shoes (antique inspirations and production prototypes), sequined Haitian voodoo flags, and childlike artworks with moving parts made by a friend in England.

Nancy's office resembles a tastefully cluttered Victorian sitting room, down to the ornate bottles of potpourri and antique love seat. Above is a walkway and miniature office for the progeny: 10-year-old Mae Elvis Erin Kaufman, an actress and model whose credits include a commercial for Fuji Film and an appearance in Italian children's Vogue, and Bix Nathaniel King Kaufman, 6, also a professional model.


The foursome--plus a menagerie including two white rats that recently surprised the family with a litter--live in a small Santa Monica house crammed with memorabilia, much of it from the '50s.

Nancy says neighbors and passersby call it "the Elvis house," because the display-case front window ("part of the reason I wanted to buy this house") is devoted to oddball arrangements. One featured "Elvis laid out in a coffin with money around him."

Antics like this keep Paul and Nancy, who hover near 40, in sync with their hard-core, youth-culture customers. "Na Na is an institution among young people, who are really hip and who really work at it," says Ty Moore, 30, co-designer of the Los Angeles-based Van Buren clothing collections.

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