Date published: February 1, 2010
The year was 1970 and Daniel Raufast was producing posh, pricey shoes for well-dressed French schoolchildren. While waiting at a red light one day, he glanced absently toward the roadside. Hanging from a fence was an enormous poster for Levi's jeans featuring the cast of the hit musical "Hair." Raufast was so entranced by the image that he barely noticed the light turning green. Here were all these incredibly fashionable young people clad in a rainbow of colored denim-but with nothing on their feet. "I have to make shoes to go with those jeans!" he thought. It was the proverbial "aha" moment. By the time Raufast got home, expansive new business vistas were unfolding in his mind.
Raufast channeled his unexpected wellspring of inspiration into what has become one of France's most ubiquitous and beloved brands. Kickers unveiled its first shoe collection in 1970 with a clear mission: to offer the footwear equivalent of jeans-comfortable, cool, unpretentious, yet undeniably fashionable. The brand soon emerged as a fashion leader in France, renowned for marrying comfort with trendiness. Among its hallmarks were engraved eyelets, uppers with a sewn-in label, a logo hot-branded onto the shoe's back and Kickers' signature-crepe soles with a red circle on the left and a green one on the right. (Originally, the circles were designed to help youngsters know which shoe went on which foot.) These five elements are still visible in every shoe the company makes.
Now the brand is celebrating its 40th anniversary by plunging into the U.S. market. American shoppers will get their first glimpse of Kickers at select Nordstrom stores and on Zappos this month. Retailers unfamiliar with the European powerhouse (sales are split 50-50 between adults and kids) will have a chance to learn more at a slew of trade shows where Kickers plans to have a presence. With New Hyde Park, NY-based Pentland USA handling back-office operations, Kickers is also bulking up its North American sales force and working to build brand awareness among retailers and customers.
The first order of business is educating retailers about the brand. "In Europe, people recognize the red and green dots instantly. We don't even need to include the name in advertisements-just the dots," explains Antoinette Dagobert, vice president of Kickers North America. "We realize a retailer in the U.S. might not know that code. So we're focusing on helping people get to know the brand."
Kickers' DNA, according to Dagobert, is a design aesthetic rooted in sportswear's simple shapes, elaborate leathers and soft, chunky stitched rubber soles-but always with a chic edge. To stay abreast of emerging trends, "our designers travel everywhere-Tokyo, London, New York, Brussels," Dagobert says. "We have specific designers for kids and others for adults."
In an effort to stay true to its roots, Kickers often mines its archives, experimenting with updated twists on its classics. The 40-year milestone is no exception. Dagobert says the Fall '10 collection draws inspiration from three themes: retro chic, a love of nature and ethnic chic, with its penchant for bold, mix-andmatch colors and patterns. This trio of influences is evident in oily split suedes and vintage leathers underlined with contrast stitching or handmade details. It's also reflected in a color palette heavy on browns with violets and true leather tones enhanced with deep greens and grays, plus splashes of bright color-especially in the children's line. Details include Kashmiri prints, bindings, embroideries, decorative buttons and rivets. Derbies, desert boots, riding boots, motocross boots and sneakers also figure prominently into the collection. (Go to Kickers. com to see the entire line).
With an average price point under $100, Dagobert believes Kickers will earn a loyal following in spite of the troubled American economy. "Everybody said, 'It's crazy to start a subsidiary in such a difficult market,' but retailers are always looking for newness, for beauty in brands and for something that will pull customers into the store," she asserts. "If you have great product with interesting designs and a reasonable price, it's not impossible." Yet Dagobert's objective with Kickers is not driven by sales volume in these first few years in this market. Rather, it's to develop a strong brand base. "We don't want to be everywhere-just in the proper couple of stores in each big city, and to have satisfied retailers," she maintains. "When a brand is new in the market, retailers like to be one of the few distributing it. I plan to develop long-term relationships with the people who trust us the first season. That's more important than, say, being in 25 stores in Boston."