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Special Men's Fashion Issue | Metropolis

Center Court in the Retro Sneaker Game

A Prescient Boutique Has the Advantage in 'Old School' Shoe Styles

September 07, 2003|JON WEINBACH

Sunday on Melrose Avenue, and it's chaos as usual for Southern California's premier sneaker family.

In the Sportie LA store across from Fairfax High School, customers ranging from a stylishly pregnant mom to a 300-pound hip-hopper to a skinny Orthodox Jewish guy compete for space amid piles of new Nike styles, reissued Reagan-era Reeboks and sneaker looks from every era in between. Floor-to-ceiling stacks of shoe boxes fill two rooms off the display area and a former hair salon upstairs. Signs implore employees to "Put Shoes Back!" "It takes a special kind of person to work here," says Isack Fadlon, who founded Sportie in 1985 with his older sister, Orna.

Sneaker-philes have haunted Sportie for years, drawn by its selection and souk-style atmosphere--this is one of the few retailers in L.A. where haggling can actually work. But lately Sportie has become a downright phenomenon thanks to surging demand for its breathtaking hoard of original and reissued retro sneaker styles stockpiled by a family steeped in clothing history.

As a teen in 1920s Libya, Isack and Orna's father, Asher, worked in a Tripoli shoe factory. After the family moved to L.A. from Israel in the early '70s, mom Carmela opened a custom-clothing shop in West Hollywood. The kids entered the fray nearly two decades ago, when Orna and Isack opened the Sportie LA store to sell sneakers and sports apparel.

Then in their early 20s, neither had a clue about the sneaker business. "Shoe companies laughed when we'd ask for a meeting," says Orna, who left a job in mortgage banking to start Sportie. "Converse asked us to put our parents on the phone." Circa mid-'80s, the industry stars were expensive "performance" models such as Nike's Air Jordan line, and the Fadlons struggled to compete with the chains. At one point, Isack went to law school and Orna traveled to Israel to marry Eli Amzaleg, then an Israeli narcotics officer whom she'd met at a bar mitzvah party in Tiberias. "It was hard and emotionally draining," says Isack of Sportie's early years.

But the business stayed open, and in the early '90s scenesters started shunning high-end high-tops for retro models favored by Nirvana, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Isack and Eli circled the globe hunting for overstock batches of defunct styles such as the Puma "Clyde," the suede low-tops created for former New York Knicks star Walt "Clyde" Frazier.

The hunch paid off. By the late '90s, the classics were back in production. Everyone from suburban 20-somethings to studio moguls yearned to express their inner Beastie Boy in revived old-school Puma or New Balance looks, and Sportie was waiting for them. In 2002 the "classic" (a.k.a. "heritage" or "old-school") sector represented an estimated 14% of the $17.4-billion sports-footwear market, according to the NPD Group, a market information firm in Port Washington, N.Y. Everyone is getting into the nostalgia act, from sneaker giants to resuscitated brands such as Pony and KangaROOS.

And these days the shoe makers come to Sportie. Companies use the store's clientele to test new designs and colors, and several back-from-the-dead brands have debuted styles on Sportie's cramped shelves months before they appear at a mall. Isack, the Amzalegs and the senior Fadlons now preside over the original boutique, an apparel store next door and a third store down the street offering both clothing and shoes.

At the shoe store, current Sportie exclusives include denim-and-brown Asics Onitsuka Tiger "Mexico 66" lo-tops; turquoise, yellow and purple side-zip lo-top KangaROOS; lo-top styles from Patrick, another revivified brand, including an orange-and-black style with fluorescent green soles; and a pair of knee-high all-white Converse boots that sell for $114.95. The clutter doesn't seem to bother Isack. "My Mom and Dad are always saying we've got to get organized and clean up," he says. "But where would we start?"

Sportie LA, 7753 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 651-1553 and 7454 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 852-8262.

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