Blame it on Kanye West. The Spring 2018 release of the rapper/designer’s adidas Yeezy 500 running shoe sent the trend towards ugly sneakers or ‘dad shoes’ into overdrive. Infected via Instagram leaks of the shoe, hyped beasts and high snobs worldwide caught ugly tech shoe fever.
Now it’s gone viral. We’re witnessing the rise of bulky, technical, athletic (even orthopedic)-looking sneakers featuring generous padding, bulbous outsoles, excessive use of mesh, PU eyelets, and color-blocking in garish primary colors. That glorious Puffy Tech Sneaker formula created – and done to the death – by core skateboard footwear brands in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Recent shoe drops from major fashion houses blatantly copy the look, including Balenciaga, Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Prada. Rapper A$AP Rocky designed a puffed-out shoe for Under Armour, openly crediting the D3 skateboarding shoe by Osiris Shoes as inspiration. Predicting trends for the SS2019 season, fashion insiders expect every major label to be gunning for their version of a hype-inducing tech sneaker because “sneakers are the new handbags”.
But while ugly designer sneakers with $900 price tags are a pretty nice way to start a conversation, at the end of day the 1990s tech skate shoe trend dates back to more humble times. To a period when skater-owned footwear companies dominated shoe walls at skate shops, and the industry’s wagons remained tightly circled against outside profiteers. Back when rocking knock-off Gucci tees in a souped-up Honda Civic was the pro skateboarder’s equivalent of living the dream, and air pockets, huge logos, and chunky outsoles first found their way into skateboard shoes.
When it comes to setting the blueprint, one brand gets tagged more often than others: éS Footwear. Started in 1995 by skater-owned Sole Technology (also home to etnies and Emerica), éS Footwear barged onto the scene with an A-list pro team headlined by heavy hitters such as Tom Penny, Sal Barbier, Eric Koston, Chad Muska, and Ronnie Creager. Marketed as ‘Sophisticated Skateboard Footwear’, éS introduced an athletic aesthetic that would rewire skateboard footwear design forever.
For the inside story on how puffy tech shoes first rolled into skateboarding and whether or not the current ‘dad shoe’ craze will help endemic footwear brands take the power back, ILLUMINATED PAPER talks to Don Brown, former pro skateboarder and Chief Brand Strategist at Sole Technology (éS Footwear, etnies, Emerica).
When did you first notice that some of the new high fashion sneakers and ‘dad shoes’ are borrowing heavily from éS Footwear classics?
The first one was probably the [adidas] Yeezy Season 6 Runner. That was when people began tagging me all over my personal social media and email, like: “What the hell?! Check out this shoe, it’s ripping off the éS Scheme [model] from the Nineties!!!” And the Instagram for éS Footwear was also getting tagged heavily every time that Yeezy 500 shoe was posted.
Even shoes like the new Balenciaga Triple S sneaker get referenced to us, because people associate them with the ‘puffy’ shoe look that éS pioneered in the mid-1990s, that more technical style of skateboard shoe. [Global Brand Manager] Kelly Bird at Nike SB posted a picture of the éS Scheme and the Yeezy Runner on Instagram with a comment on how they are ripping us off.
Seeing the two shoes side-by-side, the resemblance is hard to deny.
We heard through a friend connected to the design team that worked on the Yeezy line. They told us the shoe was heavily influenced on the éS Scheme and “90’s skate”. It makes sense as fashion trends usually cycle in eras of the past and the 90’s were a revolutionary period that had a defined look.
So what, are you collecting any royalties on shoe designs from these designer labels?
If they wanted to kick us some money as a small, privately owned shoe brand, that would be great (laughs)! In the shoe industry and general fashion it got kind of dry for a while and a lot of things started looking the same. So companies were thinking: What can we do to create a point of difference? I feel it’s kind of a compliment when multi-billion dollar brands like adidas or fashion labels like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Balenciaga are looking at our shoes as inspiration.
Nobody would have thought that the high-fashion pendulum would swing towards bulky, high-tech shoes when éS Footwear first launched in 1995, right?
It really came from the fact that skateboarding was progressing so fast in the mid-1990s and we as a shoe company wanted to keep up with the way our riders were throwing themselves down bigger and bigger stuff. We just wanted to make a more technical shoe to help with this higher toll on the body. It came more from a functional standpoint than considerations in terms of fashion.
I feel it’s kind of a compliment when multi-billion dollar brands like adidas or fashion labels like Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Balenciaga are looking at our shoes as inspiration.
PIONEERING THE TECH SKATE SNEAKERS CRAZE
Putting things in perspective, it’s probably important to note that bulky tech shoes represented a major leap in skateboard shoe design at the time. What were some of the steps that paved the way?
The early Nineties were a pivotal point for skateboarding when skateboarders took skateboarding back in their own hands after years of corporate ownership. Within a few years, multiple skater-owned brands, media, distributors, and retailers overthrew the complacent past, while the corporate giants continued their downwards spiral. Etnies, owned by former world champion skateboarder, Pierre André Senizergues, was the first skater-owned footwear brand. It continued to grow by integrating street trends into footwear. Mainly because skateboarding had become more of a lifestyle and people wanted to wear their shoes 24/7 and look good on and off their skateboard.
Around 1992/1993, that meant cup sole shoes with suede uppers. etnies reinforced this formula with skate technology integrating more durable materials and design function thicker suede/leathers, 400NBS outsoles, triple-stitching, sorbothane heel pads, extra shoe laces, rubber underlays and much more. The etnies Rap, Senix, Intercity, Sal 23 were models that looked street casual, but were highly functional for skateboarding.
By the mid-1990s, the market was full of companies mimicking what etnies had created with very similar styles and colors. When éS first arrived, the shoes were clearly built on a different template and far more technical. Where did you draw inspiration from?
It’s funny, we have this timeline at Sole Technology and there’s etnies models in there that kickstarted other brands: The etnies Intercity style was taken by DuFFS as their first shoe, the etnies Screw was taken by Globe, the etnies Cyprus by DVS. Its all good though, its just the way the whole skate/street footwear and apparel world worked at the time. Now I think if it not many people know but etnies made the first DC shoes for Doors (laughs). It’s the way it was, we were all growing, we were all friends helping out friends.
By 1995, hip-hop culture and the whole urban culture had come in really strong. So you were seeing skaters like Eric Koston, who is a big Lakers fan, rocking Air Jordans or stuff like that when they were not skateboarding. And Chad Muska was coming in wearing nylon pants with one leg rolled up, because that’s what his favorite hip-hop artists were wearing. Or [Sean] Sheffey and [Ali] Boulala were wearing Timberland boots. It was more of an urban athletic kind of vibe and that’s where éS really blossomed. We happened to be on trend by pushing the entire skate footwear segment towards a more urban athletic and technical design.
Wearing that kind of brand at the time was also the emblem of progressive, technically-minded skateboarders. There were always the hessians with their Dickies and vulc shoes. But if you had éS, you were keeping it ‘fresh’!
Exactly. It was also a time of skater-owned brands ripping off logos from multi-billion dollar corporations and fashion labels and tweaking them their way. [éS pro rider] Sal Barbier was really a leader in that with his Plan B [Skateboards] model featuring the Ralph Lauren logo. That sparked a whole wave of brands “borrowing” logos, and you can see it all over fashion and footwear. For instance, the DC [Shoes] logo is a Chanel logo.
Etnies had seasonal graphics with inspiration from all kinds of brands… it had become the thing to do in this era of anarchy. From a traditional business perspective skateboarders disregarded all the rules. I label the early ‘90s as the “Cease and Desist” era as no one really knew what they were doing other than just doing what ever they wanted and it took a while for the corporate attorneys to catch up with a mass attack of their Intellectual Property. So we just took inspiration here and there and threw it into shoes made for skateboarders.
The entire designer logo phase in skateboarding also had a bit of a ‘ghetto fabulous’ element to it, with dirty skateboarders wearing $200 Polo shirts…
I remember the years when everyone went to all the liquidation stores to buy designer gear, because no one really had any money. In the early 1990s, every top pro skateboarder – if they were making really good money – drove a Honda Civic. Fast forward to 1995 and all of a sudden there was money coming into skateboarding, and some of these pros were stepping it up to getting BMWs. It was great to witness that tipping point in skateboarding where it really took off. It was great be able to pay our riders the highest amount that had ever been paid for wearing skate shoes – hundreds of thousands.
It was more of an athletic kind of vibe and that’s where éS really blossomed. We happened to be on trend by pushing the entire skate footwear segment towards a more athletic and technical design.
NEXT-LEVEL SKATEBOARD SNEAKERS
Design-wise, éS added lots of bells and whistles to skate shoes after years of basic cupsoles with suede uppers. That probably required some experimentation on the backend?
Skate shoes were so plain before éS that whatever we did it was considered bells and whistles but everything was created under a functional premise: Lace loops, air bags, foam mid-soles, stash pockets, padded tongues, breathable mesh, tongue stabilizers, Heel loops, 400NBS outsoles… the list goes on forever on what we bought to the market so definitely a lot of bells and whistles!
Visible air pockets made a big impact in the éS Koston 1 in 1997, together with other technologies. So you were able to implement these outside influences rather smoothly?
The first éS Koston 1 had the double cup construction and a PU-insert in the middle and the air pocket. That shoe worked out really well. It drew inspiration from a volleyball-type court shoe and came out really comfortable and impact-resistant. But then the Koston 2, which was more running shoe-inspired, turned out a complete nightmare!
When you get into that level of tech, you better be an expert. And we were just skateboarders who made cupsole shoes in a Korean factory all these years. So when we sent over the Koston 2 to have them made – you had to fax over your designs at the time, no email – we just could not get the shoe last (three-dimensional mold in manufacturing) to maintain its shape. It was wobbly! We ultimately ended up moving factories from Korea to Taiwan because they specialized more in that athletic-type shoe last.
What other measures did you take to boost your technological capabilities?
Pierre André is a super talented skateboarder, engineer, conceptualist, designer so is was fairly easy to progress our designs. As we pushed design to new shoe lasts we started to have issues with the Korean factories that didn’t have these lasts… so we had to transfer to a factory in Taiwan who had the expertise with running shoe type lasts. Around 1997 we brought on shoe designer Franck Boistel who took out design to another level.
Franck made such a difference. His first project was finishing the Koston 2 and then he did the premiere [Chad] Muska shoe, which had nubuck, PU inserts, lace loops, a hidden stash pocket on the inside, and ollie protection. It was a beautiful shoe and the first one we sold at wholesale for $55, which in retail terms would be $110.
The Muska shoe really raised the price point ceiling in skate footwear at the time. Was that a risky move?
I remember being really scared. ‘This is the first $100 skate shoe, what if this thing doesn’t sell?!’ Then it dropped and just sold out. Also because it had the stash pocket, which blew up all over the media and cops were looking at skateboarders like all their shoes had hidden pockets in their tongues to smuggle illegal substances. That entire story helped get the hype going behind those bulkier shoes.
I remember being really scared. ‘This is the first $100 skate shoe, what if this thing is never going to sell?!’
THE TIPPING POINT
The bulky sneakers trend really caught fire at the end of the last millennium and peaked with ultra-puffy shoes in the early 2000s. How did it get so extreme?
The thing with skateboarding and general fashion is that when there’s a trend, everyone jumps on it. And someone will ultimately take that trend to another level where it becomes completely unfunctional. Like when Natas Kaupas and Matt Hensley brought in that oversized apparel look in the late Eighties that also resonated in streetwear. That led to skateboarders adopting larger shirts, baggier styles. But then there’s always that kid like the whole ‘Goofy Boy’ image from Big Brother magazine that takes it to a XXXL, and you’re just going ‘What the hell?!’ Or wheels went from huge T-Bones down to 37.5mm, so small they no longer worked.
So trends always get maxed out. Someone is going to make the baggiest jeans ever, or the smallest wheel. In skateboard shoes, puffy style was in, so someone said: ‘I’m going to make the puffiest shoe ever!’ That’s where brands like Osiris with the D3 [model] designed by Brian Reid [in 2001] took it to a whole different level.
Ultimately there was huge backlash in skate sneaker designs when Geoff Rowley’s pro shoe for VANS changed the direction back to understated vulcanized styles again. How was that shift from your perspective?
That was one of the moments in our industry where you just look and know, ‘F@#k! Everything is going to change now!’ And our whole entire story with éS was all about technology and athletic, progressive designs. Suddenly you see this photo of Geoff Rowley, pro skateboarder from Liverpool, England, hitting that hubba in Los Angeles wearing these thin, vulcanized low-tops. After coming from an era of bulky, highly technical shoes and seeing someone do a trick like that basically wearing slip-ons was a major game changer.
That was one of the moments in our industry where you just look and know, ‘F@#k! Everything is going to change now!’
The vulc sneakers revival really shook the industry and literally transformed shoe walls at shops. How did Sole Technology deal with this shift on a company level between your brands etnies, Emerica and éS?
The Emerica Reynolds shoe in a vulc came out at the same time, right at the shift from hip-hop, athletic style to more of a rock’n roll vibe. And you can’t really wear oversized apparel with such a small shoe, so pants sizes started shrinking. All the way to skate crews like the Pissdrunx wearing tight girl jeans, basically spray-on pants. So the trend had shifted completely. All trends will evolve and cycle.
So at one point you decided to put the éS brand on hiatus?
We were lucky at Sole Technology that we have different brands and they all cater to a different skateboarder, so we could adjust our focus accordingly. With éS we had focused on making the most advanced technical shoe, but the trend had shifted to cheap $45 vulcanized shoes. We weren’t on-trend anymore, so we decided to put the brand on what we called a “creative retreat”. Take a break, assess the evolving market, and redefine our go forward plan. We transitioned our focus and energy on etnies and Emerica and wait for what happens in the market to bring back éS when the we had a solid plan.
RETURN OF THE REAL
Speaking of coming back, you relaunched éS Footwear with some small capsule collections over the last years. How has the response been so far?
The time was just right. People were signing petitions to bring back éS and the energy was right. Japan begged for the Accel OG model so we came back with a small run of the Accel OG model – and it became a best-selling shoe at skate shops. That showed us we can bring it back and do it the way we want from a skateboarder’s perspective. And now with the 1990s shoe trend, the energy has just been multiplied by a hundred, with people requesting all these shoes they want us to make again. We are digging through the archive to bring back the classics, and give the people what they want!
Several core skate shoe companies like Osiris and DVS are reporting a resurgence of their 1990s tech styles. Are we witnessing core shoe brands taking the power back?
The market dynamics have changed dramatically since the ‘90s. The multi-billion dollar corporations saw the influence on fashion that the skate community had created and wanted to be part of it. The skate industry today has been smothered by athletic brand doing what ever it takes to try to own skateboarding. But what I love about skateboarding is it can’t be owned it will always evolve and shift to new things.
There’s still a strong love for skater-owned brands and that’s the niche that éS plays in. We’re seeing great success with our new styles and heritage styles and our hype on Social Media keeps building. Etnies and Emerica have been doing really well and I hear that some of the other core skate brands are doing really well. When you look at the real core level of people who actually skate, it’s a lot smaller than people may think. I think there is a huge opportunity for core skateboard footwear brands, probably not on the same level as in the nineties when we had no competition though, but still huge opportunity.
You mentioned core participation, which a lot of people in the industry hope will increase due to skateboarding’s premiere as an official event in the 2020 Olympics. Is that the case?
Skate participation right now is flat but I feel the skate culture and influence on mainstream culture is bigger than ever. It’s hard to go anywhere without seeing a Thrasher Skateboarding Shirt these days…trends love authentic brands and niches. As the road to the Olympics builds participation will increase as skateboarding will be promoted to the masses more than ever, plus more legal places to skate around the world will pop up. There will be definite increase in skateboarding participation… will it be sustainable post Olympic aftermath though?
Perhaps the whole dad shoe trend and 1990s nostalgia can be a lifeline. As the last question, why do you think that particular moment in culture is on people’s minds again right now?
I think when you look at the trendsetters and the early adopters of new styles, they all have a drive to look different from what everyone else is wearing. So when every shoe company is making the same styles pretty much, people like A$AP Rocky suddenly pick up the Osiris D3 and try to make the puffiest shoe possible again. It’s all about being different, and being unique and standing out. People are picking up the 1990s styles because they are bored with everything else out there.
éS Footwear will be bringing back lots more 1990s styles in footwear and apparel. There’s huge demand right now. Today it feels like we’re at that point again like in the 1980s, when I grew up in England, when we saw anyone wear Vans shoes, we knew they had to be a skater. You could walk up to them and had an instant connection. Today that’s not the case with Vans as skateboarding is a small part of their business. When you see someone wearing éS or Emerica today, you know that person is a 100% skateboarder.
Thanks for the interview, Don.
Thanks Dirk, from our perspective here at Sole Technology and éS Footwear, we’re 100 percent skateboarders and we’re in this for life, not just what’s trendy.