HARDCOVER is a digital content series exploring the people, places and things that define and continue to shape the Highsnobiety universe. In this chapter of The Brands You Used to Love, Alec Banks takes a comprehensive look back at Savier, a company once at the forefront of skate footwear that's all but disappeared.
In The Search for Animal Chin, the classic 1987 film from Powell Peralta, the final scene features four skaters from the Bones Brigade simultaneously perfuming handplants. Despite Vans' connections to skating in the late '80s, Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, and Mike McGill were all wearing Air Jordan 1s. While this would seemingly suggest Nike had taken over skating by the end of this decade, the Swoosh would have to wait another 20 years until they felt they had a stranglehold on the market.
So how exactly did Nike and skateboarding become interconnected? It's impossible to explore this relationship without first examining the history of Savier skate shoes.
Nike Fails to Penetrate Skateboarding
Many sneaker insiders speak of a "sneaker plateau" occurring in 1997 that was the result of oversaturization and Michael Jordan's unexpected retirement. Although the skate shoe market was a tiny segment compared to Nike's $9.5 billion in annual sales at the time, the brand saw an opportunity in owning the niche.
Throughout the 1990s, Nike tried multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, opened up an office in Orange County, and teamed up with a local surf-skate clothing label, Counter Culture, to pick their brains about what made action sports enthusiasts tick.
Nike launched its "What if we treated everyone like skateboarders?" campaign in the late '90s — imagining if athletes from track and field, tennis, and golf — carried themselves like skaters — or were forced to contend with prickly security guards looking to end the fun.
"We saw the vision of what it could become, said Kevin Wulff, a former Nike executive. "Action sports made sense."
The campaign won awards and delivered a strong message. But the Orange County office was shuttered after three months in 2000 after Nike's line of skate shoes and clothes failed to attract much attention at trade shows. Nike was perceived as a corporate outsider trying to cash in on the explosion in skateboard participation, and the products themselves didn't meet the technical expectations of skaters. Their biggest success in the space, the Air Jordan 1, had only become a favorite of skaters because of the ankle support and cushion.
In the aftermath of Nike's failed attempt at dominating the marketplace, Consolidated Skateboards, founded by Steve Guisinger, launched his own anti-Nike public relations campaign in August 1997 behind the slogan "Don't Do It." Stickers with logos discouraging skaters from supporting Nike and other large sporting goods companies popped up at skate parks nationwide.
Vans wasn't fairing any better. According to a survey by TransWorld Skateboarding Business, the brand had fallen out of the top five at influential skate shops.
DC, an upstart brand at the time, had become popular by incorporating Nike-like high-tech polymers, padding, and air pockets. Nike surely had an epiphany when evaluating DC's success; skaters liked Nike-esque tech, they just didn't like Nike's monolithic attitude. Thus, Nike needed to find a trojan horse inside skateboarding.
Nike Partners With Savier
In 2001, Nike partnered with Savier, an upstart Portland-based label. Technically, Savier was an independent subsidiary, but Paul Fidrych, a former Burton Snowboards product director, launched with Nike money and had full access to the brand's technology labs.
Like other skate-shoe companies, Savier’s products were manufactured in China — while it maintained its main research and development facility in Taiwan. Yet, it was Nike's infrastructure that would elevate them above competitors like DC and Vans.
"The company’s (Nike’s) labor practices are exceptional,” Fidrych said. “The standards that Nike put into the factory are much better than what’s out there, whether it be child labor or wages or environmental losses. The facilities that I’ve seen over there are amazing. It’s a company choice—nobody’s forcing us.”
Fidrych was adamant that Nike was handling the brand's Zoom Air technology and a type of patented polymer that resisted the types of ripping skaters encountered, while Savier would handle the other materials on their own.
Savier attended its first Action Sports Retailers convention in 2001 and quietly grew into a $10 million to $12 million company, according to Wulff. Yet, Nike wasn't sold on if Savier could become a real moneymaker.
Nike also created an in-house skateboard division. Sandy Bodecker, the division's general manager, oversaw the company's entrance into soccer and helped turn the sport into one of the company's top three categories with revenue of more than $1.5 billion. Bodecker saw how skaters responded to the Air Jordan 1 and formed his strategy around producing something similar, albeit for the rigors of skateboarding.
"The DNA was there," said Vada Manager, a former Nike executive. "It needed to be retooled and better authenticated for the community."
The company referred to this project as the Nike Dunk SB. As opposed to releasing the shoes in mass quantities at big box stores, they instead opted to give them to skate shops in limited quantities. Almost instantly, Nike was perceived as a supporter of a tight-knit community. Both Nike and the local skate shops saw how limited quantities fanned the flames of hype. This combination didn't birth the contemporary sneakerhead, but it preemptively combined all the elements we see today.
Savier didn't bat an eyelash. Hundreds of teenagers mobbed the "Savier Trade 'Em Up" tour van as it pulled into a public park in Washington, D.C. in 2000. It was one of 47 stops Savier planned that year. The initiative was relatively straight forward: kids could trade in shoes from brands like Vans in exchange for a pair from Savier. While Vans had successfully navigated a 1984 bankruptcy and came out the other side as a 36-year-old Southern California company which stood by skateboarding as its popularity ebbed and flowed, this was a direct assault.
The brand prided itself on its technological advances. It was a shoe for skaters, tested and made by skaters. However, the introduction of prominent pieces of technology caused the price of the shoe to balloon. As a result, Savier shoes were not at a price point in tune with the rest of the market.
Skate shoes accounted for about 1.6 percent of the $9.3 billion athletic footwear market in 2002 — up from 1.4 percent of the market in 2001. Nike SB was launched with the "Colors By" series in March 2002. Each of the four Nike SB Dunk Lows had a color and material combination chosen by team riders Gino Ianucci, Reece Forbes, Richard Mulder and Danny Supa. In September of the same year, they produced a dual colorway SB Dunk Lo with Supreme.
Nike Figures Out How to Skate
Alex Corporan, Supreme’s NYC store manager at the time, recalled the impact it had on the brand’s small downtown skate shop. “The change was huge. The whole sneaker culture really shifted the demographic of people shopping at the store. The Dunk itself had its own cult following in and out of skateboarding, so those limited-edition colorways caused frenzy amongst sneakerheads. Sneaker resale culture became a big thing and that brought a huge new set of eyes to Supreme because we carried the largest stock of the Nike SB line in NYC.”
Savier countered Nike's moves by signing Shaun White and announcing a signature model. White was the recent winner of the 2003 ESPN Espy award for Best Action Sports Athlete. Savier declined to disclose revenue at the time, but insiders reported that the brand increased sales by 20 percent between 2002-2003.
Nike was complimentary of Savier's success. However, their talking points seemed to suggest that they were not one united front.
"We have two different brands that sometimes play in the same channel," said Joani Komlos, Nike spokeswoman. "They don't usually eclipse each other — they usually complement each other."
In 2004, Savier shoes ended its run, stating it was, “not able to achieve its financial goals in today's challenging retail and economic environment.”
It will always remain unclear if Savier would have been better off without Nike's involvement. But there's no doubt that the surging popularity of Nike SB coincided with the downfall of Savier.