Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Ultimate Trendoid

Sari Ratsula's Job Is To Figure Out What Teenagers Will Embrace Next As A Fashion Statement For The Feet. This Is No Joke. This Is Risky Business.

December 08, 1996|ED LEIBOWITZ | Ed Leibowitz is a frequent contributor to the magazine

Trickling into the company conference room, the afternoon's focus group is greeted by enough images of mass youth culture to put even the most jittery teenager at ease. Huge studio portraits of two skateboarders stare out from the walls--one tattooed and shaved bald, the other sprouting Kurt Cobain damp blond locks. Cokes and Sprites have been placed on a silver platter. There are no stodgy prints of the fox hunt, no brandy snifter in sight. * The studied casualness, nevertheless, masks a purely corporate endeavor. Still hidden beneath misshapen black shrouds are 200 prototypes for Vans' 1997 fall women's line. Twelve coeds from Costa Mesa and Santiago high schools in Orange County have been summoned here to heap praise, ridicule or indifference upon the sneakers. Their enthusiasm may signal mass production; their scorn, premature fashion death. * From her perch on a high Formica counter, Sari Ratsula has watched the room fill up, her royal-blue Vans dangling above the carpet. As is her custom, Vans' 32-year-old vice president of design and product development is dressed entirely in black. Her eyes are opaque blue. Her blond hair, parted to the side and quickly caught in tiny pigtails, betrays both high fashion sense and a certain teenage exuberance. Suddenly, the shoes stop dangling, and Ratsula calls the meeting to order. Brimming with youth and vigor and self-assuredness, she would seem the very apotheosis of Southern California beach culture--at least until she begins to speak. * "We believe that you are the type of girls who will be wearing our shoes," Ratsula proclaims, revealing more than a hint of a Finnish accent. "We're really happy with that. So we want you to take a look at the product before we come out with it. And we want your feedback." * She launches into a plea for honesty: "We don't want to hear any beautiful stories like, 'Oh, it's OK, but I would never buy it.' We want to hear, 'Oh, it's horrible! We don't like it!' And better yet, if you can tell us why. You don't have to worry about us." She gestures to the six Vans employees who will be jotting down observations in their notebooks. "We're just here to take the information. You won't hurt our feelings."

To anticipate the volatile desires of these girls, Ratsula has for the last six months conferred with three fashion and color forecasters, traversed much of Europe monitoring trends and kept apprised of the latest rages among the modish youth of Tokyo. She has witnessed the British phenomenon of businessmen sporting sneakers with expensive suits and mulled over its possible impact on the Vans product line. And she has also drawn deeply from her own fashion sense. Once, her eclectic tastes made her a curiosity in business school in Helsinki. But since she joined the company in 1990, her sensibilities have spawned more varieties of Vans than were churned out during the 25 years before her arrival.

Crafting shoes for the American athletic footwear market is now an $11.4-billion industry. It has also become a speculative--and somewhat rigged--science. Vans will cater to teenage cravings as well as shape them through advertising, shrewd placement in magazine photo spreads and sponsorship of a traveling grunge concert and skateboard tournament called the Warped Tour. Inevitably, the process of creating fresh teen desire must lead to the decay of preceding desires--maybe a contempt among these coeds for the very sneakers they so lovingly wear right now.

So in the fall of 1996, Ratsula realizes that the girls will sneer at more than a few of these prototypes, only to fervently embrace them by the fall of 1997. This knowledge gives her and the assembled design team strength as they plow through the three-hour ordeal. "Don't conform!" Ratsula exhorts the teenagers as she concludes her pep talk. "If everyone likes it and you still hate it, say so!"

The girls, obliging her, are often brutal. Shannon Bruce Elliott, senior designer of Vans women's line, unveils a pebbled leather sneaker with a "retro racing" theme. "Those remind me of sneakers I wore in the fifth grade," gripes a junior sporting Jackie Onassis sunglasses above her blond hair. The shoes are further disparaged for looking too much like basketballs.

"Here come the Ronald McDonald shoes," one girl warns, spotting a shiny balloon-toed model in multicolored leather. "I don't like the colors on them at all, because they look like something I would wear for Halloween, maybe," gripes the maven with the Jackie O sunglasses. "But I like the shape. I usually buy guy's shoes because I like how they're wider. I don't like how girls shoes are all pointy." Like other condemned models, the sneakers are unceremoniously dumped into a hip-high cardboard box.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|