“Style gurus put the boot in”, The Australian, 5-6 Mar, 1994.

Walking Machines

Ross Harley

If the footwear designers and marketing directors get their way, many of us won’t be wearing shoes for much longer. We’ll be donning “walking machines” instead. In much the same way that mountain bikes became “all terrain bikes” (or “ATBs” to the initiated), stylised mountain boots have become the recreational vehicles for accessory-conscious urban pedestrians of the 1990s.

Lace up and hold on, we’ve entered the age of “all terrain footwear”. A cross between the sports sneaker and a macho boot, “ATF” is designed to stomp all over urban terrain as if it were some kind of wild recreational mountain-scape. Forget about your Air Jordans. In the US, Nike have begun marketing what they refer to as their “four-wheel drive sneaker”, the Air Massa. Reebok have launched a new range of hybrid shoes simply called “Bok”. And Adidas are making a new mutant range of shoes that feel like runners and look like hikers. If we used to metaphorically run, jump and pump our way through the mundanity of life, now we imagine ourselves clomping Godzilla style through the most treacherous of metropolitan situations.

In the 1980s it was the sports shoe that went through a series of pure fashion transformations, in the name of comfort and “performance” of course. Yet as Andy Holman from Adidas America so perceptively put it, “I don’t think all those kids who bought basketball shoes in the 1980s wore them just to play basketball.” Interesting point. Now it’s the so-called “brown shoe” market that’s about to be get the same once over.

It’s a self-conscious transformation, no doubt about it. Take the pakaging for the line of Caterpillar boots presently available in Australia. The graphic on the box says it all, with its image of a solid boot heel, laces, lugs, a bulldozer blade for the toe, and caterpillar tread for soles. Made and sold as the ultimate “walking machine”, the Caterpillar boot is a padded cross between a mountaineering shoe and an industrial snowplough. What better way to battle the uncertain and difficult terrain of urban experience in the 1990s?

The rise in popularity of hiking boots among those who rarely step foot outside their metropolitan environs might seem strange to some. But it is really just a rerun of what happened with Doc Martin shoes in the 1970s and 1980s. Skinheads, then the punks, then everyone else took this previously working class footwear as part of their standard issue urban uniform. In a pair of Doc Martins, the world is imagined as an industrial machine landscape encountered beneath the grip of non-slip oil-, fat-, acid-, petrol- resistant air-cushioned soles.

The sports shoe might have been a serious challenge to the hegemony of leather and rubber laceups in the 1980s. But the runner and the Doc never managed to merge, stylistically speaking. Their cultural and iconographic meanings remain poles apart. Although both became essential items in the basic wardrobe of many urbanites through music and street subcultures (like punk and rap) the two styles never crossed over.

Till now maybe. Companies like Timberland (who make one of the more sought after mountain boot) have more than doubled their sales in the past two years to $US420million in 1993.

No wonder the big sports shoe giants are shaking in their boots, shifting their styles out of the sporting arena and onto the rocks. This is big business, and there are billions at stake in such competitive challenges to fashion. Still, no matter what happens in the style wars, it’s hard to imagine multinationals like Nike and Reebok losing out. Both corporations manufacture their shoes under contract in Indonesia and other South East Asian countries where sweat shops come cheap. A pair of Nike’s cost around ten dollars to make, while the entry-level payrate for the young women who sew the shoes is about two dollars per day. Overtime is mandatory, and if there is a strike, the military will often break it up. Meantime multinationals like Nike make over $US2billion a year profit.

I doubt whether such PR embarrassments have anything to do with the disappearing brand logos which were so prominent and desirable among petty larcenists in the 1980s. The sport shoe aesthetic is transmigrating into new markets, styles and niches. “The kids who are starting into business now have grown up in basketball and running shoes,” says Angel Martinez, Reebok’s US Director of marketing. “Just because they are entering the job market doesn’t mean they are willing to go back to standing on a slab of leather.” Indeed they aren’t. Now they can wear something that combines the appearance of a traditional wingtip dress shoe with a flexible sole and mountaineering style waterproofing (for those particularly tough meetings).

Or for those more relaxed occasions they might slip into Reebok’s new Amazone, a moulded sandal with three velcro straps, sports shoe arch supports and basketball grip sole. Synthetics, leather, rubber, metal lugs, velcro fasteners, waterproofing and fashionable style are easily available to the kid who grew up with runners. Except now it’s all in the one shoe!

With the right paraphernalia we don’t even have to leave the city to simulate the experience, nay the thrill, of hiking through rugged terrain. Now we imagine wilderness and rocky outcrops traversed in the most urban of environments. The nightclub, local mall, or downtown shopping plaza have become the metaphorical equivalents of the bush. To many urban types at least.

Maybe this means that Nike will just have to undo their Michael Jordan advertisements and replace him with some mountaineering equivalent. If they could find one. That’s probably why Reebok decided simply to update their Planet Reebok sneaker campaign by adding a serious global walking message: “How do you get to Planet Reebok?” asks the new campaign. Simple. “Go out the door, take a right and then just keep going.”