The Ultimate Trendoid

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.

As they denounce a canvas sneaker silk-screened with cyberspace squiggles, the girls provide a glimpse of just how short a life cycle any shoe can look forward to in today's climate of instant obsolescence."They're ugly," several yell out. "They're like '80s--totally'80s," a freshman recoils. "Or early '90s!"

Nevertheless, there are successes. A high-rise boot oozing fake fur is universally praised, even though it would seem impractical during those none-too-bitter Orange County winters. Although the girls have panned most of the high-couture prototypes, they respond warmly to Vans' spangled red-and-purple Hush Puppy variations. The lounge-and-swinger look, it seems, has trickled down to the campuses of Costa Mesa and Santiago high schools.

After the focus group has fled, each with a coupon redeemable for a free pair of Vans, Ratsula and her designers launch their post-mortem. "I'm thinking that this sole is for a much older customer," Elliott muses on one new configuration that, despite its daring angularity, fell flat. "Say, 25?"

"I think it's for someone who understands fashion," Ratsula says, "who follows fashion more. The young girls who are still going to school look at what the guys are doing. Even though they want to have a feminine side, they're still influenced by more masculine stuff."

Ralph Serna, whom Ratsula has only recently lured away from Reebok to shape Vans' men's line, chalks it up to a limited fashion horizon. "I think it's obvious that a lot of these girls haven't seen the things coming from Europe yet," he says, "so they're not as much exposed."

"And I think that's a good word!" Ratsula brightens. "It's not so much that they understand it. They're exposed to it from somewhere else."

Seven years ago, as a Helsinki business student, Ratsula could claim only a dim understanding of the sneaker business, and her exposure to Vans was limited to a splashy catalog that the Van Doren Rubber Co. had sent in advance of her six-month internship. Apparently, the Vans checkerboard slip-on that Sean Penn made famous in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" had never penetrated Finnish airspace.

Nor could Ratsula be expected to possess more than a regional knowledge of couture; when it came to fashion, Helsinki was no Paris or Milan. Finland's leading exports were timber products and hulking industrial ships; indeed, Ratsula's mother had designed ship plumbing through most of her engineering career. The country did churn out loads of footwear for the former Soviet Union, but in Ratsula's estimation, they were merely "dumb-dumb, not fashionable boots."

As for business, it wasn't even Ratsula's first career choice. A former Girl Scout leader, she had wanted to teach, but within Finland's framework of social priorities, a young woman could not lead a classroom without top grades. However, if she merely got a high score on a matriculation exam, she could get into the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration. After a year spent arranging custom gift boxes for a leading Finnish chocolatier, Ratsula opted for business school.

Still, there were a few auguries of the woman who would eventually reshape California's one great native sneaker manufacturer in her own high-fashion image. Ratsula had cut a dramatic pose at business school, sashaying to and from marketing theory classes in boots, weathered jeans and a motorcycle jacket, defying the prim careerists in their pink cashmere sweaters and strings of pearls. Her boyfriend and future husband, Jussi Ratsula, came from a family that owned one of Finland's leading department stores; her wardrobe diversified dramatically with the help of the family discount. And, of course, her name itself connotes fashion. Her mother had chosen Sari (pronounced "Sadi"--with a soft "d"), also the name for the wraparound dress of India. A few years later, Sari became a huge fad in Finnish baby names.

In Vans, Ratsula had expected to find a fine example of late 20th century American enterprise--a forward-looking company availing itself of the latest computer technology, whose marketing, manufacturing andstrategic planning would leave everything European, or at least Finnish, in the dust. She was soon disabused of that notion.

Even though founder Paul Van Doren and his partners had sold the company in 1988, Vans was still a defiant anomaly. Its "Off the Wall" skateboard shoe and canvas slip-on had survived a decade without much alteration; the design for its lace-up boat shoe was at least twice that old. While its competitors had absconded to plants in South Korea and Taiwan, Vans' huge sneaker plant, looming directly behind corporate headquarters in the city of Orange, spat out the entire product line--as many as 100,000 pairs per week.

Everyone was friendly and nice, but in Ratsula's estimation, this was not really a professionally run company. She had been promised an internship in product development, but at Vans, product development was mainly a dialogue between inflexible salespeople and slightly more inflexible factory managers. "It didn't really matter what happened in the marketplace," Ratsula says. "It didn't really matter what our consumers wanted. What did matter was whether the factory was able to make the product or not."

During her first three months, between trips to the copy machine and make-work errands, Ratsula pestered the company president. "I don't want the paycheck," she harangued him in rickety English. "I just want to do something." She was shunted to the art director, who became a mentor, allowing her to do the styling for a Vans catalog. Since there wasn't much of a product line, Ratsula ferreted out some of the more eye-catching incarnations of Vans' custom models--canvas uppers silk-screened with stereo amps, smiley faces, even a black acid-washed jeans motif that had somehow survived the early 1980s. She also assisted at the oceanside photo shoots. Satisfying work, but after the internship had run its course, Ratsula returned to Finland, not unhappy that she was done.

By September of 1990, she was again in the city of Orange. The art director and the company president had conspired to woo her back--this time with the mandate to develop some new models. "My first reaction is, there's no way I'm going to waste my time, because it wasn't what I expected in the first place," Ratsula says. "So why would I come back now? I want a career, and I want something that I could build my life on." But the president assured her: The organization is growing. There's a lot of potential.

As a line-builder, Ratsula was hampered by Vans' entrenched culture. The sales force formed a quick opinion of her. "All the reps hated me," Ratsula recalls. "They felt that, 'Who is this stupid 25-year-old blond who comes from the other side of the world and tries to put a line together? This is our living!' "

Vans' production process posed even greater obstacles. The factory was only equipped for vulcanization--a 150-year-old method in which the rubber sole is fused to the upper in a hot oven. Unable to alter the shape or ergonomics of that sole, Ratsula ventured an experiment in exotic uppers. "I thought it would be cool," she remembers, "to do a nice velvet sneaker." The concept didn't garner much enthusiasm among the sales force. "The first time we showed the velvet sneaker, all the guys laughed at me," she remembers. "They said, 'You are stupid!' I mean, not 'stupid.' They didn't say it that way. But you know, 'You're ridiculous! Nothing will come out of it!' " The velvet sneakers--in gothic purple, navy blue or black--became massive sellers, and the foundation of Vans' women's line.

*

Each season, Vans produces well over 100 models, in a panoply of colors and patterns, shipping out new products to retailers every six to eight weeks, ranging from $27.99 to $64.99 a pair. The customer craves so much variety and the market has cultivated such a fickle fashion sense that even a smashingly successful shoe carries the seeds of its own demise. Teenagers now embrace styles that, however bold and brash and daringly unhinged, are more fleeting than youth itself.

One afternoon in her office, Ratsula retrieves a sneaker fantastic even by her standards--flaming orange hologram-vinyl uppers, bordered by leather as white and shiny as a dollop of whipped cream. It is a special edition of the Vans "Blunt," made exclusively for the Patricia Fields boutique in Greenwich Village last fall. "Are you familiar with the store?" Ratsula asks. "It's very drag-queen oriented. You go there. The majority of the people who work there are drag queens. I mean, it's a place where Howard Stern goes to get his hair cut, because they also have a little salon in the back."

She places the sneaker above her desk. "Now a year ago," Ratsula lectures, "this was not a meaningful shoe for the mainstream consumer. Today it is. So that's also a way to get ahead of the game." Still, these custom Blunts will probably not survive more than a season or two.

"As of today," she says, "the vinyls and holograms are really important. I don't believe that's going to be the case a year from now. There's something new. There's something different. We need to understand the consumer so well that we know these changes that happen."

To provide some theoretical focus, she pulls the Vans spring 1997 design "trend boards" from a portfolio. Pieced together by Ratsula herself, these boards are visual aids to educate the sales force on the sociological undercurrents beneath the product lines. A collage of consumer items, cartoon sketches, smiling and pouting models, all glued on cardboard, they resemble a B-minus high school art project. Only with Ratsula's running commentary do they resolve themselves into a prediction of what teenagers might be inclined to slip on their feet when the acacias again bloom.

The first board, labeled "Soul Searching," is dominated by trickster skateboarders, BMX bikers and surfers. "What we want to emphasize here," Ratsula says, "is to make sure that the guys who created these sports get the product they need, and that people understand that these are not just drug addict guys who are weirdos and 'out there,' and no one wants to be associated with them. They're incredibly talented sportsmen and athletes, who really work hard for their sports."

A yellow alien claw, an astronaut orbiting around an eyeball and a couple of blue-skinned fashion models appear on the "Mutants" board. "This is a whole continuation of the 'cyber' thing," Ratsula says. The trend dictates a fusion of unexpected styles, like the bulky toe from a Vans snowboard boot grafted onto a skateboard shoe upper.

"Mutants" also represents the intrusion of hospital wear on high style. "In women's fashion, the white little nurse's dress has been really popular for the spring '97 runway shows," Ratsula continues. "I just think there's this whole clean, protective mentality. We're getting to the time where people are looking at protecting themselves. And I think the hospital seems very sterile; it's a clean environment for you to be in." Case in point: the Vans "Croodle," directly inspired by a nurse's white slip-on.

The "Latino Soul" board embraces avocado greens and bright oranges, as well as tighter clothes after an era of utter bagginess. "Skin is showing," Ratsula reports. "You can be sexy again. Girls can be sexy and fun. And guys can have a little bit more Latino macho attitude."

Despite these influences, and even the explosive cross-cultural popularity of hip-hop and Tommy Hilfiger, Vans has steered clear of the African American and Latino markets. "Our customer is a white suburban, young kid," Ratsula says. "The whole inner city is really important for fashion, but again, it's not our customer."

*

In February of 1966, when Ratsula was barely a year old, Paul Van Doren launched the Van Doren Rubber Co. with his brother James and two partners. A high-school dropout and an avid race-track handicapper during his youth, Van Doren had worked his way up from a job sweeping scraps at the Massachusetts-based Randolph Shoe Co. to managing its West Coast plant until a disagreement with the president led him to abruptly resign.

With his new company, Paul Van Doren would follow his own blueprint of nuts-and-bolts manufacturing and entrepreneurial improvisation. His Van Doren shoe would be built like a battleship--canvas thicker than Keds or Converse; massive vulcanized gum rubber soles that refused to blow a hole no matter how often they were dragged across the asphalt. "We never took anything out," Van Doren recalls from his thoroughbred farm in Lexington, Ky. "We always added something to make the shoe better."

Reluctant to seduce retailers with an unknown brand or to let a middleman erode his margins, he decided to scatter Van Doren retail outlets throughout Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange counties. His company would also be known for customized shoes. "At one point in our career," Van Doren says, "every school in Southern California, the cheerleaders and the drill team and the marching bands, was wearing our shoes--because they could get the school colors."

For the first 10 years, Van Doren's product was purely Californian, sold by word of mouth alone. "My dad was a hard guy to get a nickel out of to try to do any promotions," his son Steve, now Vans' vice president of promotions, remembers. "Mostly, it was me passing fliers out at the swap meets or around town."

With its tough upper and bulky sole, the Vans slip-on provided surfers with an alternative to the canvas deck shoe. Scraping toes and heels on the pavement as they charged down hills, skateboarders emerged as the most conspicuous abusers of Vans during the 1970s; an "Off the Wall" model was grudgingly created for their benefit. But no youth subculture could promote Vans as explosively as the appearance of a pair of checkerboard slip-ons in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." "Sean Penn hit himself on the head with it," Steve Van Doren says, "and now everybody wanted these checkerboard shoes."

It took only two years for the Van Doren Rubber Co. to implode from national phenomenon to Chapter 11. Paul Van Doren moved toward retirement in 1982; his brother then embarked on a disastrous course of diversifying the product line. The court brought Van Doren back to bring the company out of bankruptcy. "We just put it back on the same road," he explains. "To hell with fashion trends." By 1988, the company had no debts, $45 million in annual sales and was ripe to be sold to an investment firm in one of the last Drexel Burnham Lambert-financed acquisitions.

Not until the Van Doren Rubber Co. went public in 1991 was the company name officially changed to Vans--a gesture that kicked off four years of turmoil. The INS raided Vans' Orange plant in 1993, arresting 233 workers as suspected undocumented immigrants, although the company was never fined. After a failed 1994 unionization drive, the National Labor Relations Board called for another vote, determining that Vans violated federal labor laws. In May 1995, a month before the second scheduled union vote, the company announced it was going to shut down its Orange facility altogether, eliminating more than 900 jobs.

That same month, Walter Schoenfeld, an entrepreneur who had leveraged his family's neckwear business into the Britannia Jeans conglomerate, took over as CEO. Under his aegis, Vans began shifting its manufacturing to South Korea. Although a small Vans plant in San Diego County still churns out vulcanized slip-ons and "Off the Walls," this traditional fare accounts for only about 20% of the company's business.

The shift was not merely a cost-cutting decision. "Environmental awareness continues to gather momentum as we approach the year 2000," trumpets a Vans press release published this summer. "Vans has taken a leadership role in the footwear industry by producing environmentally responsible shoes." Yet, to manufacture Vans' cup-soled sneakers, the company's South Korean contractors must apply a solvent-based adhesive that's strictly regulated in the United States.

Vans' offshore formula has been enormously profitable, with company stock rebounding from $3.50 per share in 1995 to as high as $21 this year. Net sales for fiscal 1996 jumped to $117.4 million, a 33% increase over 1995's $88.1 million. The year also signaled Vans' transformation from a regional manufacturer to a global exporter of the California ethos; 1996 sales to its international accounts reached $26.3 million, a 103.5% leap from the previous fiscal year.

Paul Van Doren would prefer not to pass judgment on the direction Vans has taken. But even in 1996, he can see no flaws in his retrograde vision. From his horse farm, he offers this parable: "In a restaurant, you've seen it happen a lot of times. They start out pretty good, and the next thing you know, things get a little slow. And pretty soon, you get a smaller potato. And pretty soon, you get the waitress or waiter, and he's handling seven tables instead of five. And then it gets worse, so the potato gets smaller again. But the real secret is: When it's not going well, give them a bigger potato!"

*

"See, it's so funny," Ratsula offers, "because personally I'm really into this avocado." She and her four-person design team are sitting around yet another conference table examining yet another prototype. This one has been rendered in no less than five three-tone combinations--including a tasteful avocado and white leather treatment with black suede. Bold seams run up the flanks of the shoe, a conceit that a wiseacre skateboarder recently compared to "rain gutters." These and a few hundred other sneakers are being held up to a microscopic inspection by Ratsula's team, the necessary last step before finalizing the fall '97 men's line.

"I love avocado too," says designer Elizabeth Gavigan, 24, dressed in a "Golf Punk" T-shirt. Then, nodding toward the four other color schemes, "but I think those are more salable."

"I think avocado's horrible," offers Brandon Brubaker, the 23-year-old architect of the season's best-received hard-core skateboard models and a skateboarder himself.

"How do you really feel?" Ratsula quips.

"Sorry," Brubaker apologizes in a voice of pure gravel. "But that color is just awful. All of our green avocado shoes have been completely shunned."

The rejection of avocado among serious skateboarders makes complete sense to Brubaker. More peculiar was the uncontained enthusiasm for his subtly beautiful, two-toned shoe built on an old-fashioned vulcanized "Off the Wall" skateboard sole. "It was the funniest thing," he says, "because we have so many rad technical shoes, and then they saw that vulcanized shoe and they were all, 'Oohh oohh!' And it was like . . . 'Dudes! Vulcanized?! Give me a break! We just showed you so many rad shoes, and you got like hyped about a vulcanized shoe?' I think that's like dumb. I think that's so funny." He lets out a hoarse laugh.

The morning cedes to a takeout lunch, during which Ratsula offers to give away avocado slices off the top of her salad. Hidden lacing or exposed lacing? Should the Vans logo be placed on the tongue, flank or base of the heel? Can today's youth possibly accept the higher cost of premium nubuck? Following these and other debates, there is the final separation of condemned color schemes from the ones that will make it into full production.

Well past 6 on a Friday evening, the group breaks off, agreeing to perhaps meet at Universal CityWalk for the finale of this year's Vans/Hard Rock Cafe Triple Crown of Skateboarding Tour. J.P. Kim, an executive with Vans' South Korean contracting agency, will be in the offices next week. If they have time, they should try to take him to Disneyland before he flies off with the season's spec sheets.

Ratsula's sister is visiting with her baby. Ever the doting aunt, Ratsula dropped $250 on her nephew during a recent trip to the Gap. "He was really cranky," she says. "But he has the most awesome outfits!" In Finland, working women are given 12 months' maternity leave; Ratsula's sister has been off all year. "That's one of the most wonderful things," Ratsula marvels. Her admiration for the Finnish welfare state is tempered only by some solid Orange County capitalism. "I have no idea how the companies can manage to do that. Think about the taxes you have to pay to get it!"

In the gathering gloom of the Vans parking lot, Ratsula's Saab 900 awaits her. Despite her claim that this 1995 model was welded together in Finland, the convertible--like Ratsula herself--seems more indigenous to Southern California than Helsinki. She likes to tell the story of the moment she realized the extent of her own acclimation. After only a year of designing sneakers for Vans, expressing her product vision in ever-less-hesitant English, she received a call from a Finnish headhunter. "It was hard for me to speak to him in formal Finnish," she remembers. "Because all the conversations I had with people were in informal Finnish. And then to talk about your job that you learned in English. I was so embarrassed because I couldn't find the words."

Today she doesn't think much about returning. Each new season she confers with editors at Vogue or Elle, and the sneakers she has just approved will be found on the feet of teenagers throughout the world. Back home, her fashion sense could never attain such global proportions. "If I were in Finland, it would be something more local, smaller," Ratsula imagines without too much wistfulness. "Yes, I could adjust myself. But I'm not sure if I wanna."

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