'Old school' shoes make the grade

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Matt Nybo, a 13-year-old with spiked blond hair, came to the downtown Lloyd Center Mall looking for a sports shoe -- but not the latest Nike Shox or Reebok Answer V.

''I like the original shoes, the way things used to be,'' he said, turning up his nose at a rack of shiny new basketball shoes at a Footlocker store. The newer shoes were too gimmicky, he said.

''The new things coming out, there's a zipper over the laces. I like the simpler shoes,'' he said.

Teen-agers like Nybo across the country are rejecting ultramodern-looking 2002 athletic shoes in favor of what are called ''old school'' sneakers in the styles of the 1970s and '80s.

In an industry-shaking development that began with trendsetting collectors in Japan, the throwback niche now accounts for about 25 percent of the $5 billion global sports shoe market.

Nybo settled on an old school pair of white Nike Air Force Ones that cost $74.

Companies have brought back dozens of sneaker styles that first appeared years ago to capitalize on the demand. Shoes such as the Nike Cortez, the Converse Weapon, Adidas' Copenhagen or Reebok's Aztec II hark back to sports stars of the 1970s and 1980s and are bought for style over performance.

Some fashion watchers say the trend is a rebellion against technology or a desire to return to a seemingly simpler era in sports and culture. Price also is a factor -- most of the retro shoes are priced under $100, compared for $160 for top-of-the-line shoes.

''It's a very important trend right now,'' said Eric Oberman, spokesman for the basketball shoe division at Nike. The world's largest athletic footwear maker, Nike is based in the Portland suburb of Beaverton.

Major U.S. distributor Foot-locker expanded its classic shoe rack from about one-sixth to one-half of the total display for men's athletic shoes three months ago.

Nike rival Reebok, based in Canton, Mass., believes that up to 30 percent of the U.S. athletic shoe market is in retro styles, said Steve Gardner, who directs Reebok's classics division.

And old school is the newest thing on a much bigger scale in some markets.

Retro sales comprise 40 percent to 45 percent of the athletic shoe business in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and some countries such as Britain and Japan, Gardner said.

Industry watchers say the trend got traction in Europe and Japan. Trendsetters bought used athletic shoes over the internet; used shoes still trade briskly on eBay.

The popularity of old styles is proving serendipitous for shoe makers. In recent years, profits have been down because of slack sales of top-priced shoes like the Nike Shox.

In the retro category, design costs were taken care of years ago. Companies also haven't invested in heavy marketing blitzes that are typical with modern shoes.

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