Sole Men: The Past, Present, And Future Of Sole Technology.

The Year 1990 was a tough time to launch a company. Just as the Cold War ended, America was at war in the Middle East. After a decade of economic prosperity, the economy was sliding into a recession, and the skateboard and surf markets were in a slump.

But with three strikes against him, Sole Technology President and CEO Pierre André pushed forward, anyway. He figured he could a carve a niche in the skate-shoe market — a daunting task considering it was dominated at that time by the Big Two: Airwalk and Vans. He aligned with French fashion-shoe-company Rautureau Apple Shoes, which had recently tapped into the U.S. skate and surf markets with a quirky brand of high-top footwear called Etnies.

By 1990, Etnies’ tenure in the U.S. market had spanned only three years — three insignificant years. Other than signing the first pro-skate-shoe contract with Natas Kaupas, the brand’s dive into the market created more of a ripple than a splash. Distribution was poor, and Kaupas’ shoe — a leather-ridden hightop akin to the Nike Air Jordan — was a rare sighting.

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But André saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Plus, with a fading pro-skate career, he wanted an outlet within the skate industry. He asked Rautureau if he could distribute Etnies in the U.S. The company agreed, and soon he was tackling the tough logistics of distributing shoes designed in Europe, produced in Korea, and sold in the U.S. Needless to say, retailers were hesitant at first.

“We had many problems,” said André in a 2000 interview with TransWorld SKATEboarding Business. “I remember the first container of shoes. It was delivered three months late, and I had 80-percent cancellation. I had to go back on the road and start selling shoes again to all the shops.”

On top of the delayed delivery, most retailers were used to dealing with slick operations like Vans and Airwalk — not with a pro-skateboarder turned businessman. Plus, the shoes were more expensive at wholesale but priced competitively with Vans and Airwalk, so retailers resisted stocking the footwear because of the low margins.

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But challenging the status quo is a mantra of both André and Sole Technology. “Pierre is super, super smart,” comments Brandon Lillard, Etnies surf team manager. “He sees down the road a couple years. There’ve been times when he’s done something, and I’ve been like, ‘What’s he thinking?’ And then six months later I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what he’s thinking.’ He’s pretty on it.”

However, André’s forward thinking couldn’t reverse the fact that the gaudy, French-designed shoes were off the mark for the U.S. marketplace. Hightops were still big in Europe, but the West Coast-driven skateboard market was begging for low-tops. So André took matters into his own hands in 1992 and massaged a deal with Rautureau Apple that would let him design Etnies shoes in the U.S. under a licensing agreement.

André partnered with Sole Technology Vice President of Marketing Don Brown, a professional freestyle skateboarder from England who traveled the world riding for Vision. Brown’s rapport with retailers, manufacturers, and the media complemented André’s keenness for the U.S. skateboard market. Together they created the Lo Cut, Etnies’ first low-top shoe and now a perennial best-seller. This move, incidentally, opened the doors to additional markets as the Lo Cut appealed to non-skateboarders as well.

André and Brown tag-teamed the entire Etnies operation, with André handling the financial aspects and Brown tackling sales, teamriders, and marketing. Both of them were burning the candle at both ends. “It was a small operation,” recalls Brown, “and we just needed to get the shoes out there.”

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Eventually the duo got some back-end support, and by 1994 — the birth of the skate-shoe boom — the brand was growing steadily and had eradicated its delivery problems from South Korea.

That year, Etnies was joined byewcomers DC Shoe Company and DuFFs. Brown says he welcomed the new competition, citing it was the catalyst for the boom because it opened retailers’ minds to new brands, giving Etnies a stronger foothold in the marketplace.

It also helped that, feeling the pressure for continued growth, the Big Two began to expand distribution. “Vans and Airwalk made it so easy for us,” Brown says. “They got to that point where they said, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to sell out,’ and they sold to every single shop in the world. They hired and fired reps — they just turned them over left and right. I don’t think any retailer could look those guys in the eye and have any trust in that brand or that company, so it just left it wide open for us to come in as skateboarders and just go, ‘Hey, this is what we’re about.’

“At the beginning we didn’t have the best product, and those shops would buy them more because of who we were than the product,” continues Brown. “I think of those retailers a lot. Those are the people who helped get us to where we are.”

Sole Technology still prides itself on the fact that it’s the first shoe company owned and operated by skateboarders. Nearly everyone in the office — from the receptionist to the designers to upper management — surfs, skates, or snowboards. Even the accountants and strategic financial planners brought in from outside the industry, or “HTCs” High-Trouser Crew as they’re known in the office, dabble in the boardsports. (“After a few weeks, we break them down,” quips Brown about HTC newcomers.)

“This is a family kind of thing that we have,” says Brown, “and that’s what helps us maintain our integrity. We don’t really look at things financially — which may be a bad thing — but we’re looking at how we can go into a sport and really help that sport grow.”

As Etnies continued to grow, André and Brown were looking for other opportunities in the flourishing skate-shoe market. In 1995 they introduced éS, an athletic-driven skate-shoe brand, and a new snowboard-boot line called Thirty-Two. “From the beginning, we had these amazing riders,” says Brown. “We had the Jamie Thomases, the Kostons, the Ed Templetons — all the heroes of today. They had different lifestyles and different images — and image is so key with any kind of product you have to wear. We recognized there was a market for having that athletic, hip-hop, ‘yo’ look éS, at the same time as having the ‘core, fuck-off, antiestablishment image Emerica.”

With éS and Thirty-Two just in their infancy, Etnies was faced with another decision. A European shoe conglomerate purchased Rautureau Apple, but Rautureau still owned the Etnies name. Not knowing how the takeover would affect his licensing agreement, André and Brown introduced Emerica to replace Etnies (they also restructured the company under the Sole Technology umbrella). Shortly after the purchase, however, Rautureau Apple put the Etnies label up for sale. Both Reebok and Nike wanted the brand, but André had an affinity for the Etnies brand and feared for the fate of Etnies if it were controlled by the either of those footwear juggernauts. So André decided to buy the brand, and due to his relationship with Rautureau — not to mention his French roots — André got the nod.

It took just a year to relaunch the Etnies line in the U.S., and when it hit shops in 1997, it was to take on a new direction.

**** A New Direction ****

While skateboarding was and is the focal point at Sole Technology, André and Brown saw other footwear outlets within the action-sports industry. There were untapped opportunities in the surf, snowboard, BMX, and motocross markets, and Sole Tech had a plan.

André and Brown limited distribution of éS and Emerica to the top hardcore specialty skateboard shops, and decided to take the well-established Etnies label to broader markets.

Brown saw a shared attitude among all action-sports athletes, whether they’re surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders, BMX riders, or motocross riders: the drive to progress their sport. “They’re all pushing their comfort zone,” Brown says. “They always want to progress and move forward. That’s something I’ve always had a lot of respect for, and I wanted to support those guys. We had éS and Emerica cater 100 percent to skaters, so it was kind of more of a thing for Etnies to become a multi-sport brand that could take it to everyone and try and progress the footwear for their needs.”

While Brown saw a connection between the sports, they were relatively alien to him. In order to understand these markets better — and to approach them legitamately — Sole Tech hired a crew dedicated to each individual sport. “They know the sports better than anyone, and they’re the ones giving us the feedback on where we need to be going,” says Brown.

Lillard, who has a background in surf retail, was brought on board as the surf team manager. As one of the first skate brands to cross over into the surf market, Etnies was careful not to rock the boat. “We didn’t want to come across like some shoe company that was just buying its way into the surf industry,” says Lillard. “I think it worked out pretty good just by the riders we hired and the way that we went about our advertising. When we first started advertising, it was just product featured in the ads for six-to-eight months, and then we started to get the riders in there.”

But Sole Tech was happy to wade into the surf-industry waters, because it knew its patience would eventually pay off. “Anywhere there’s water and there’re waves, there’s a surf shop,” says Brown. “So it’s a real important part of Etnies because we have to grow horizontally within all these different sports. It’s also refreshing to deal with surfers because they have a different mentality.”

The move into additional markets risked diluting the brand, but it was a necessary action. Behind Etnies’ expansion into other facets of the action-sports industry was a strategic move to fend off major footwear giants like Nike and adidas, who were starting to creep into the skate-shoe market as team-sports participation continued to dive. That attitude still exists today.

“They’re doing whatever it takes to get into this industry,” says Brown, “and we don’t want those guys controlling our industry. I want Etnies, éS, and Emerica to control skateboarding. I want DC, Vans, and people who know what the hell’s going on to be in control.”

**** “Keeping It Real” ****

As Sole Technology’s footwear has evolved from the original Rap with suede uppers and gum-rubber outsoles, to the high-tech K3 with the O2 heel-cushion system and a full-length polyurethane midsole, so has its operation.

The business has grown from two to 100 employees at its 70,000-square-foot headquarters in Lake Forest, California. There are about 60 styles spanning Etnies, éS, and Emerica, not including all the colorways. The company also has an extensive softgoods line, which is complemented by a slew of accessories. Sole Tech’s footwear is distributed in 56 countries — and counting — and the corporation deals with 1,200 different retailers, Brown estimates.

As Sole Tech has grown in each of the past ten years, it’s driven itself to another major fork in the road. There’s not much room to grow at the specialty level, because Etnies, éS, and Emerica already account for more than half the space on retailers’ shoe displays, says Brown. Sole Tech faces a critical issue: How far will it expand distribution in order to maintain its growth?

“That’s the biggest challenge for us,” says Brown. “The mainstream is knocking on the door every day. For the past ten years we’ve had all the majors crying for our product, but we never felt it was the right step — not right now. We want to be able to support everyone to grow with the company, and we want to make sure we’re taking care of our foundation of people who are taking surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders, BMX riders, or motocross riders: the drive to progress their sport. “They’re all pushing their comfort zone,” Brown says. “They always want to progress and move forward. That’s something I’ve always had a lot of respect for, and I wanted to support those guys. We had éS and Emerica cater 100 percent to skaters, so it was kind of more of a thing for Etnies to become a multi-sport brand that could take it to everyone and try and progress the footwear for their needs.”

While Brown saw a connection between the sports, they were relatively alien to him. In order to understand these markets better — and to approach them legitamately — Sole Tech hired a crew dedicated to each individual sport. “They know the sports better than anyone, and they’re the ones giving us the feedback on where we need to be going,” says Brown.

Lillard, who has a background in surf retail, was brought on board as the surf team manager. As one of the first skate brands to cross over into the surf market, Etnies was careful not to rock the boat. “We didn’t want to come across like some shoe company that was just buying its way into the surf industry,” says Lillard. “I think it worked out pretty good just by the riders we hired and the way that we went about our advertising. When we first started advertising, it was just product featured in the ads for six-to-eight months, and then we started to get the riders in there.”

But Sole Tech was happy to wade into the surf-industry waters, because it knew its patience would eventually pay off. “Anywhere there’s water and there’re waves, there’s a surf shop,” says Brown. “So it’s a real important part of Etnies because we have to grow horizontally within all these different sports. It’s also refreshing to deal with surfers because they have a different mentality.”

The move into additional markets risked diluting the brand, but it was a necessary action. Behind Etnies’ expansion into other facets of the action-sports industry was a strategic move to fend off major footwear giants like Nike and adidas, who were starting to creep into the skate-shoe market as team-sports participation continued to dive. That attitude still exists today.

“They’re doing whatever it takes to get into this industry,” says Brown, “and we don’t want those guys controlling our industry. I want Etnies, éS, and Emerica to control skateboarding. I want DC, Vans, and people who know what the hell’s going on to be in control.”

**** “Keeping It Real” ****

As Sole Technology’s footwear has evolved from the original Rap with suede uppers and gum-rubber outsoles, to the high-tech K3 with the O2 heel-cushion system and a full-length polyurethane midsole, so has its operation.

The business has grown from two to 100 employees at its 70,000-square-foot headquarters in Lake Forest, California. There are about 60 styles spanning Etnies, éS, and Emerica, not including all the colorways. The company also has an extensive softgoods line, which is complemented by a slew of accessories. Sole Tech’s footwear is distributed in 56 countries — and counting — and the corporation deals with 1,200 different retailers, Brown estimates.

As Sole Tech has grown in each of the past ten years, it’s driven itself to another major fork in the road. There’s not much room to grow at the specialty level, because Etnies, éS, and Emerica already account for more than half the space on retailers’ shoe displays, says Brown. Sole Tech faces a critical issue: How far will it expand distribution in order to maintain its growth?

“That’s the biggest challenge for us,” says Brown. “The mainstream is knocking on the door every day. For the past ten years we’ve had all the majors crying for our product, but we never felt it was the right step — not right now. We want to be able to support everyone to grow with the company, and we want to make sure we’re taking care of our foundation of people who are taking care of us.”

Of course, some of those mainstream calls have been answered, and Etnies can be found in random mall shops and department stores like Nordstrom. But Brown says the goal of the expanded distribution isn’t the company’s bottom line. The objective is to channel money back into skateboarding and surfing through the sales of Etnies at mainstream outlets. In addition, it’s a way to promote the sports in a credible way instead of having a company like Nike try to convey skateboarding to the mainstream. “It wouldn’t be healthy for the industry for Nike to come in and do it,” Brown says.

Giving back to the ‘core sports is Sole Tech’s primary objective, not maintaining its ten-year growth cycle. “We take it deeper than looking at how we can get into something and cash in,” says Brown. “We want to make long-term commitments. We really want to go in there and make a difference for the athletes and retailers and make a healthy business relationship for everyone.”

In fact, the company doesn’t have a five-year plan. “We don’t really look at it that way,” says Brown. “We look at what we achieved the year before and where we feel comfortable. We don’t have a five-year plan of how big we’re going to be. It’s more about how we feel. If we have to go back just to keep that place, we’ll do it. It’s not like we’re going to sell out just so we can meet the goal we create.”

**** Pushing The Limits ****

Moving forward, Sole Tech will continue to focus on skateboarding. “Skate will be the strongest category, and it will be the one we’re going to push because of our foundation,” says Brown.

Brown notes, however, that there’s still a lot of potential in the girls’ market. “Sixty to 80 percent of skate shoes sold in specialty shops are to non-skateboarders,” Brown says, “and 50 percent of those are girls.”

As the shoe market continues to heat up, Sole Tech will stick to its guns. “The skate-shoe market is saturated, but I personally enjoy it,” says Brown. “You have to turn everything upside down and start again. It brings out creativity. Change is inevitable, and it’s always going to be a part of this industry. It really makes me think about the future of where we’re going and how we’re evolving with the sports, the demographic, and the whole picture.

“As a company that’s being run by skateboarders and surfers, it’s an attitude in our corporate culture to always be pushing ourselves further today than we did yesterday,” continues Brown. “And that’s what I think is shared between all the athletes — the motocross guys, the skaters, the snowboarders, surfers, and BMXers — they’re all just trying to push themselves to the limits of what’s possible.”ing care of us.”

Of course, some of those mainstream calls have been answered, and Etnies can be found in random mall shops and department stores like Nordstrom. But Brown says the goal of the expanded distribution isn’t the company’s bottom line. The objective is to channel money back into skateboarding and surfing through the sales of Etnies at mainstream outlets. In addition, it’s a way to promote the sports in a credible way instead of having a company like Nike try to convey skateboarding to the mainstream. “It wouldn’t be healthy for the industry for Nike to come in and do it,” Brown says.

Giving back to the ‘core sports is Sole Tech’s primary objective, not maintaining its ten-year growth cycle. “We take it deeper than looking at how we can get into something and cash in,” says Brown. “We want to make long-term commitments. We really want to go in there and make a difference for the athletes and retailers and make a healthy business relationship for everyone.”

In fact, the company doesn’t have a five-year plan. “We don’t really look at it that way,” says Brown. “We look at what we achieved the year before and where we feel comfortable. We don’t have a five-year plan of how big we’re going to be. It’s more about how we feel. If we have to go back just to keep that place, we’ll do it. It’s not like we’re going to sell out just so we can meet the goal we create.”

**** Pushing The Limits ****

Moving forward, Solle Tech will continue to focus on skateboarding. “Skate will be the strongest category, and it will be the one we’re going to push because of our foundation,” says Brown.

Brown notes, however, that there’s still a lot of potential in the girls’ market. “Sixty to 80 percent of skate shoes sold in specialty shops are to non-skateboarders,” Brown says, “and 50 percent of those are girls.”

As the shoe market continues to heat up, Sole Tech will stick to its guns. “The skate-shoe market is saturated, but I personally enjoy it,” says Brown. “You have to turn everything upside down and start again. It brings out creativity. Change is inevitable, and it’s always going to be a part of this industry. It really makes me think about the future of where we’re going and how we’re evolving with the sports, the demographic, and the whole picture.

“As a company that’s being run by skateboarders and surfers, it’s an attitude in our corporate culture to always be pushing ourselves further today than we did yesterday,” continues Brown. “And that’s what I think is shared between all the athletes — the motocross guys, the skaters, the snowboarders, surfers, and BMXers — they’re all just trying to push themselves to the limits of what’s possible.”