words_Ira LaFontaine Pigeon Dunk Image via NY Post Staple, ad & sneaker images courtesy Airwalk Not even 'Twoine, the hired bouncer weighing in at 300 pounds, could keep order, so the Reed Space employees called the NYPD and individually ushered the customers out of the back door and into waiting cabs one by one. Outside, the stick-up kids licked their chops and eyed each customer as they left, waiting for one who wouldn't take the mandated cab. The customers, who had waited in the frigid February cold for three days, left with a pair of Nike Dunks that they paid three hundred dollars for and exhaled. By morning, a fair amount of the New York-themed Pigeon Dunks will have been listed and sold on eBay for around two thousand dollars, which is about six times what they sold for at Reed Space. Of course, Reed Space wasn't hurting either; they charged roughly four times the MSRP of eighty dollars. The Pigeon Dunk wasn't really a strike of luck, either. Jeff Staple, whose real name is Jeff Ng, had been meticulously working on his clothing company for eight years by 2005 and had been stockpiling business cards from the world over for nearly as long as that. The Pigeon Dunk simply vaulted him to a new height and once he got there, his stock only continued to rise. Aside from Staple's clothing brand and store, Reed Space, he had also hatched a design firm that had an even more decorated list of partners: Apple, Uniqlo, Louis Vuitton, Versace and Sony, to name a few. Needless to say, Staple's stock was still rising and quickly leaving name brands in its wake. Everyone wanted to align themselves with Staple, from the sveltely marketed top shoe companies to the aspirational up-and-comers and old world luxury brands. Like a chess player thoroughly outmatching his opponent, he waited for the right move until he saw what he liked, and soon he saw the opportunity he couldn't pass up: Payless Shoes and their subsidiary Airwalk. Airwalk was once much like Staple; it was what everyone wanted. In 1995 they were ranked as the 13th coolest overall brand among teenagers, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. The list didn't include just shoes, but Pepsi, magazines, and any brand a teenager thought was cool. That year, Airwalk topped out at $200 million in sales. Now, Airwalk sits at the epitome of anti-cool. They're a company that has changed hands over and over again and sits in its current state as a brand that is almost exclusively sold at Payless. If a company could become less cool than Airwalk, it would take a brilliant strategist to do it. When Airwalk began selling its first vulcanized soles in 1986, it was a young company based in the skate and beach subculture of southern California with a main focus of creating a better skate shoe for hardcore skateboarders. Vans and Vision Street Wear were the dominant brands in the emerging skate scene, but their simple canvas shoes couldn't really protect a skater's foot from the wear that would be inflicted on it. Airwalk set out to improve upon skate shoes and quickly began having success. Around the same time, they began adding promising riders left and right. Their first employee, Sinisa Egelja, rode with most of the skaters and managed to sign Tony Hawk as one of their first riders. Airwalk's stable soon grew to around 70 riders promoting the brand. By their first trade show, they had booked a million dollars in business, which continued to grow as they rooted themselves in the skate community. They had signed a large group of skaters, but didn't force them to wear anything other than Airwalk footwear, which kept the skaters happy. It also didn't hurt that Airwalk was putting money back into the skateboarding community, holding tournaments with large amounts of prize money. They were based entirely on a grass roots campaign with little advertising and were enjoying tremendous success. By the early-nineties, Airwalk's executives decided that it was time for them to grow. In this stage of brand development words like "reorganize" and "reconceptualize" are usually thrown around. So that's what Airwalk did, they wanted to become an iconic youth brand, so they dove into other categories like snowboarding, surfing, BMX and, eventually, lifestyle. Airwalk grew at a staggering clip, from $16 million in 1993 to $44 million the next year. Then they hired Lambesis, a small ad agency that helped propel them to a single year gain of over $100 million dollars. Airwalk was at the peak, at the top of their game, trailing only Nike and Reebok as the largest athletic shoe manufacturer. In 1996, speculation had them doubling on the $200 million dollars in sales they did in 1995. Something else happened though; when Airwalk became bigger, they began providing all of their distribution channels with a single line of shoes. The balance that Airwalk had created by signing skaters to their team, putting money into grassroots skating and the coolness that Lambesis had created in their ads began to crumble. The electricity around the brand faded and sales began to do the same. In 1999, the brand was sold to Sunrise Capital Partners and later sold again, due to debts owed by Sunrise, to Collective Licensing International. In 2003, when Airwalk landed in the hands of Collective, it was at an all-time low. Collective, who owns a portfolio of "youth lifestyle brands" (which coincidentally includes the aforementioned Vision Street Wear), licensed them to a near exclusive deal to be sold at Payless Shoes. That agreement effectively ended any credibility they had left in the skate and beach subculture of southern California that they started in. At around the same time that Airwalk began hitting the right side of the bell curve during the mid nineties, Jeff Staple was making inroads into the design world. When Staple, then known only as Jeff Ng, first started his clothing company, it wasn't a floodgate opening up like Airwalk. He was a communications and design major at Parsons who moonlighted as a data entry clerk. His first delivery was a run of 12 tees for the now famous Triple5soul's retail store. That run bankrolled his second run of 24, which in turn bankrolled his third run of 72 tees. Soon after, a retailer from Japan ordered 1,000 of his T-shirts. After a few seasons, his clothing company began gaining more notoriety. In the late nineties, streetwear consisted of far fewer companies than it does today, and Staple's unique aesthetic, which draws inspiration from traditional modes of learning, began to catch the eye of other, much larger companies. In 1999, Staple Design began its ongoing relationship with Nike. Jeff Staple worked on the then novel concept of limited-edition shoes and was able to parlay that into off and on graphic design work for Nike. Often time his work appears without even a mention of the Staple name, which only goes to show how well regarded Staple has become as a design firm. He designed the Navigation pack in 2005 and the Nordic pack in 2006; both were considered classic general releases and had no Staple branding attached to them. Staple Design isn't just able to make good colorway and material choices, either. In 2005, the shoe giant enlisted Jeff Staple to work from inception to finish on their Nike Considered line, Nike's company-wide green-based initiative. The Considered line aimed to create a shoe that would reduce the corporate footprint while favoring environmentally-preferable materials, reducing toxic chemicals and curbing waste. Reed Space was its global launch. Aside from Staple's overwhelmingly successful Pigeon Dunks, Staple followed them up with two more successful Pigeon-themed shoes. The first was a New Balance 575, and just last year he delved into Converse's archives to pull out the Sea Star and give it the Pigeon treatment as well. Even though those models didn't reach the two thousand dollar frenzy that the Dunks did, they proved that by 2009 the value of the Staple brand was at an all time high. So why would Jeff Staple take on a partnership with a company at its lowest point? "You wanna talk different? This is the thing I have been waiting to do for a while now," he admits to Sole Collector. "I'll be honest, and the people who know, will vouch for this; I have offered up this similar deal with other much more notable footwear companies. I said let's do a release, but instead of the usual suspects, let's release at Walmart, or K-Mart, and sell it for $40. They laughed, but I was serious." While a lot of people in the streetwear and boutique world would scoff at working with anyone connected to Payless, he takes it as an opportunity. The tight rope that exists between "making it" and selling out is a thin one. Any shoe store, clothing brand or person jumps at a chance to attach their name to a pair of Nikes, but when companies that aren't readily accepted in the collector world make it into the mix, it gets tougher to say what makes you too "big" and un-cool. If you've ever watched a YouTube interview of Jeff Staple, you can see how he takes everything carefully into consideration before giving an answer to a question. This is one he definitely weighed before giving the go-ahead. Payless has over 4,500 stores worldwide and has a much, much lower average price point than more renowned sneaker boutiques like Leaders or Commonwealth. "If you were a graf artist, you did the side of a train so everyone could experience your creation," Staple recounted in Collective's press release on the partnership, "As a graphic designer, I want my works published and available for everyone to see." He makes a strong case. The sheer amount of stores he'll have his name in, in this case they'll be produced under the "STPL 4 Airwalk" name, would be difficult for anyone to pass up and more than that, Payless' inexpensive price points make a product more accessible and available to a wider customer base. Of course, with that wider customer base, what happens to Staple from a collector's stand point? The boutique market is largely driven by exclusivity, you can ask 'Twoine or anyone who's waited in line for a release about that, and when things become easier to get a hold of, the price drops and so does the buzz. From Airwalk's standpoint, the buzz is what it's about. They're a brand that is trying to right their ship, and Jeff Staple has more credibility as a collaborator than just about everyone not named Supreme. OR THE KING OF BEERS. But, those successes have always been on a small scale in the grand scheme of things, as even a partnership with Nike won't number more than 10,000 pairs at the very most. So, will Airwalk really be hitting the customer that's tuned into the collector world and will they even care for what Airwalk and Staple are trying to bring them? And will the everyday shoppers at Payless have remotely any clue who Jeff Staple even is? The partnership is a multi-season deal that will have Staple releasing as many as 12 silhouettes for Airwalk that will retail at about 400 Payless stores and Payless.com. "I actually knew that doing a one shot deal...or some new color-up on an existing shoe would not help either of our brands," says Staple. "So we started discussing what could be done to take the project to the next level and really do something that hasn't been done in this market before. When we got deeper into the conversation, things got much more interesting. Instead of doing one shoe; it was, let's do an entire collection." There will be men's and women's footwear with price points ranging from $30 to $50 a pair. The first designs are to hit the shelves of Payless now, in August of 2009, and continue into spring of 2010. His hints have shown that there may be plans on bringing back the sports pack that Airwalk launched in 1994, which included a tennis-inspired neon felt Jim Low and a basketball-inspired pebbled leather Jim Mid. The original Jim, and those two mock-ups in particular, were some of Airwalk's most well received models. He also made a post on his personal blog hinting towards a chukka-style shoe that had the logo of Oscilloscope Records, the record company of Adam "MCA" Yaunch of the Beastie Boys, as well as the Peace Shoe, which was Airwalk's take on the classic Vans deck shoe. Although he didn't show any pictures of new models, Staple hinted at their potential aesthetics in the partnership press release, "The design sneakerhead in me today is really excited to create fresh new silhouettes that embody the skate park and the street." Retro shoes drive today's market and many boutiques, including Undefeated, have handed over large amounts of shelf space from Air Force Ones to classic vulcanized shoes, like Converse Chuck Taylors and Vans Authentics. That shows that boutique shoppers are willing to go to lower priced vulcanized shoes that have been considered classics, but is Airwalk, with its veritable drop off of the face of the earth during the mid-nineties, considered one of them? With Airwalk's prime, mass-market years being 1993 to 1995 for teenagers, their door on bringing back shoes that are relevant for collectors, especially younger ones, is quickly closing and may have already shut. So it begs the question, what happens if the partnership doesn't meet expectations, or worse, fails outright? Payless, like any large company, tries hundreds of marketing strategies a year, and would be able to count it off as a miscalculation on their marketplace and consumer, but a poor showing could do far more damage for Staple. Staple relies on relevance and buzz as its engine driving it forward. If a miscalculation happens with a brand accepted in the collector world, then there's marginal effect, but if it's with the elephant in the room, that engine begins to slow. Staple has had other collaborations that didn't go as planned, as in the fall of 2008 he helped craft a boutique offering for another mid-nineties sensation, Starter, which launched to little fanfare and has since disappeared from relevance. Oh yeah, and there was also the puzzling Reed Space-collabed trio of Fila Grant Hill II's 96's that released with little fanfare. That's exactly why he's taking on this project with Airwalk though, because when the risks are higher, so are the rewards. You could look at it as natural progression, as when an artist fails to grow, they begin to become stagnant. Frequent Nike collaborator Stash's popularity has waned after producing so many repetitive products and the same has happened to a thousand other artists. Last summer Staple went much further outside of the norm and released a collaborative, purposely over-saturated, off-kilter exposure camera with Lomography. Even though that camera was produced with an obscure Russian manufacturer, it had all the tell-tale signs that the Airwalk partnership does: unknown territory, a challenge and a chance to show something new to the consumer. When an artist feels like he has accomplished everything within his genre, he begins to work outside it and this might be about the exposure, reach and accessibility that Airwalk has to offer, but it also could be about the challenge of working in a new medium.