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Once-Lowly Deck Shoe Now the Chic Sneak : Velvet and Suede Vans? Yes, It’s True, Says Company That Has Found Niche by Emphasizing Fashion Over Gizmos

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Inside the corporate offices of Vans, makers of rubber-soled deck shoes, designer Sari Naukkarinen is defending her latest creation before a skeptical co-worker.

“We’re not that fashion-forward,” the co-worker tells her, shaking his head.

Naukkarinen, however, sees nothing radical about black velvet sneakers for kids.

“I think it will work,” she insists.

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Velvet Vans? The fact that they have already been made for women--in three colors, no less--shows that the once-lowly deck shoe has been elevated to high-fashion status.

“Velvet’s something new,” says Naukkarinen, assistant marketing director in charge of product development for Vans. “You can’t even tell they’re Vans. They make the shoe look more sophisticated. You can wear them with jeans and a nice jacket.”

Today’s sophisticated sneakers fall into two categories: those engineered for a specific sport, and those, like Vans, that emphasize fashion over high-tech gizmos.

Some athletic shoes have become so advanced, they look like they’re designed for walking on the moon. Manufacturers of these shoes are in a dead heat to see who can come up with the latest in footwear gadgetry.

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Reebok has scored well with the Pump, which allows one to squeeze air into the soles of its shoes for better support. Nike’s popular Air Jordans have a cushion that looks like a miniature raft built right into its soles. Exult by Asics has a silicon gel pad, and Saucony has something called a Torsion Rigidity Bar made from the same stuff used in bulletproof vests.

Denny DeSimone and Roberta Cortez, owners of Second Sole in Dana Point, often sound like junior physicists when discussing the merits of the different brands. Words such as G-force, Hexalite, webbing systems and cushioning factors pop up often in their conversation.

A superior athletic shoe can cost $60 to $100 or more, “depending on how much technology you require,” DeSimone says.

“There’s a shoe for every activity,” he says, pointing to a wall full of shoes, each designated for running, walking, doing aerobics, cross-training or playing basketball.

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Vans, meanwhile, is more concerned with how its shoes look than outdoing manufacturers with the latest technology.

“We’re not worried about being squashed by Nike and Reebok,” says Jerry Gross, vice president of Vans. “We think we can compete with them, because we’ve learned through studies that 80% to 90% of athletic footwear is worn as a fashion element, not the purpose it was intended.”

Vans’ aim is to stand out from the crowd of white leather athletic shoes.

“All white leather is basically boring. We’re looking for other fabrics that are appealing,” Gross says.

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For this reason, Vans come in 30 or 40 colors, 40 prints and a variety of textiles--in total, about 200 different styles. Vans come in suede, corduroy, distressed canvas and linen.

One of Vans’ latest looks for women is an ankle-high chukka boot with felt lining and trim, available in chocolate brown, camel, brick and olive suede.

Wild prints have become a company trademark. This spring brings a Pucci-inspired print called “Spin Ring” in fuchsia, yellow, electric blue and black. There’s also a pink and blue marbleized print and loud geometric and ethnic patterns.

To keep up with trends, Naukkarinen studies fashion magazines and subscribes to the same color-trend services used by clothing designers to put together seasonal collections.

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“We know neon colors definitely won’t sell. Neon is just dead,” she says, pulling out an eye-popping neon swatch no longer in production. “The colors are deeper and richer, especially for fall.”

Following in fashion’s footsteps, Vans introduced canvas shoes in spice tones of pumpkin, mustard and curry.

Vans staffers also visit trend-conscious stores such as the Gap and the Limited to find out what colors and patterns will be hot. Their research has given rise to bright green, purple and blue deck shoes designed to match the season’s bold ‘60s prints. For fall, Vans is launching canvas shoes with a washed look, in keeping with the season’s prefaded apparel.

If all else fails, customers can have shoes custom-made in quantities as small as one pair. They can even bring in their own fabric. For its custom service, Van tacks on $2 or $3 a pair to its average retail price of $35 to $45.

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“We’ve made some shoes that are so ugly you wouldn’t believe it,” Gross says. “Kids mix and match anything and everything. I guess their parents never told them you shouldn’t mix plaids with stripes.”

Vans has the advantage of being able to produce new styles in a pinch. The company can fill orders in 19 working days, allowing it to “really stay on top of trends,” Gross says.

For instance, Vans recently learned a competitor was doing unexpectedly well with bright purple sneakers in New York City--so well it could not keep up with the demand. Vans responded by getting purple shoes onto store shelves within three weeks and immediately sold 4,000 pairs.

“We can react quickly because all of the manufacturing is done right here,” Gross says.

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At the Vans factory in Orange, 1,200 workers assemble the shoes by hand, turning out 15,000 pairs a day. In a huge warehouse, hundreds of men and women cut and sew each piece of the shoe’s upper fabric.

Most fabrics are dyed and printed at the factory, according to Gross, ushering a visitor past a massive roll of teal canvas being fed into a machine that prints it with an abstract black pattern.

In another part of the factory, workers produce honey-colored slabs of rubber that fill the air with a pungent odor. A young man stamps out soles with what resembles a large waffle iron.

Vans, founded by Paul Van Doren, sold its first pair of shoes in 1966. Over the years, remarkably little has changed about the shoes’ intrinsic design. Despite their fancier fabrications, they still bear the company’s distinctive thick-bottomed soles with their front rubber bumpers.

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Since its purchase by a venture banking firm in February, 1988, Vans has watched its sales grow from $40 million annually to $70 million. Gross attributes Vans’ growth to a “more fashion-forward approach.”

Still, half of all Vans’ sales are attributed to a less colorful product--plain black and white canvas deck shoes.

Says Gross: “Even though we offer 180 or so different styles, the leader is still black and white.”


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