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Pop icons step into shoe biz

Savvy pop icons seeking to cash in on their fame are stepping out with their own shoe lines, but manufacturers can easily trip up.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 16:26 IST

Savvy pop icons seeking to cash in on their fame are stepping out with their own shoe lines, but manufacturers can easily trip up when banking on something as fleeting as a hot name, industry experts warned.

At the World Shoe Association's (WSA) semi-annual show in Las Vegas last weekend, musicians' monikers seemed as common as those of fashion designers.

But unlike Nike Inc's Air Jordans, named after basketball icon Michael Jordan, for example, many of the latest celebrity shoes are not co-branded. Instead, they rest solely on such names as Jessica Simpson, Gwen Stefani, Carlos Santana, Snoop Dogg and Nellie.

"We've never seen anything like this before," said Michael Greenberg, president of hip shoe maker Skechers USA Inc, of the large number of celebrity brands. Skechers has used singers such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera as spokeswomen, but has never named shoe lines after them.

Licensing in vogue

The extension of a celebrity image into a footwear brand is not such a leap, said Diane Stone, chief operating officer of WSA, a marketing services firm for the footwear industry.

"In today's celebrity-focused culture, where the line that exists between celebrity and fashion is an extremely straight and very short one, I think it's a natural," she said.

For decades, manufacturers have paid upfront licensing fees and royalties to attach a celebrity or brand name to their products, especially toys and games.

"It's not anything new, but it is sort of new to footwear," Stone said, referring to nonathletic shoes.

Signing a sneaker contract has almost become a rite of passage for star basketball players, with LeBron James, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant following the co-branding trend that began with Air Jordans in 1985.

But the new breed of celebrity shoes is not a sneaker that imparts hopes of star performance. It's a fashion accessory meant to mirror the personal styles of singers and rappers.

The stars' personal involvement in the shoes' design varies from case to case, but "you can generally assume that because someone is putting their name on a product ... they're going to have some role," Stone said.

You can sing, but can you sell?

Success is not based on names alone, though, noted Ron Fromm, chief executive of Brown Shoe Co. Inc. The company has been making Carlos Santana shoes since 2001, and Barbie-branded shoes for close to 20 years.

"It's all about building a relevant product, not the name on the shoe," Fromm said.

"So even with Barbie, we didn't focus on the Barbie character, plaster that on the shoe, and say 'Now it's something (the Barbie consumer) wants,'" he said. "We focus on 'Are these shoes that she would want?'"

Brown Shoe's Carlos Santana line, named after the guitarist whose prolific solo career rivals the success of his namesake band, ranges from metallic-hued strappy sandals to floral-patterned fur boots.

By creating a women's line named after a man -- common in designer apparel, Brown Shoe sidesteps a problem faced by many licensed shoe brands.

"Customers today don't automatically believe that just because a celebrity has her name on a $59 shoe that she will ever be seen on the Grammy red carpet ever wearing that product," said Killick Datta, chief executive of privately owned Global Brand Marketing Inc.

"It's got to be believable," said Datta, whose company is the footwear licensee for Diesel, XOXO, Nautica, Mecca, Harlem Globetrotters and Doggy Biscuitz by Snoop Dogg.

Flights of fame

Licensing a celebrity's name can be a quick way to grow, but depending on the fleeting nature of fame can be risky.

"It's a way to jump-start a business," said David Weinberg, Skechers' chief operating officer.

But "celebrities' names are like fashion brands -- they go up and they go down," Skechers' Greenberg added. "Their movie could flop or their sitcom could get canceled."

A safer bet, according to the executives, is the type of co-branding deal common with sneakers that feature names of both the manufacturer and celebrity.

"When you solely use a celebrity brand you're dealing with the person, and their personality, so your destiny is not totally in your control," Greenberg said.

But "if the shoes have validity, you're off to a great start," Weinberg said.