A struggle for the sole
• Blackspot sneakers strike a defiant, anti-corporate stance
Blackspot sneakers are designed to give Nike co-founder (and now former chief executive officer) Phil Knight 'a kick in the ass,' according to Adbusters, the 'anti-corporation' that makes them. The question is, how many people want to walk around in a metaphor?
After 18 months of talk, the 'fair trade' sneakers began arriving in people's mailboxes in November. They sell online for $67.50 plus $11.50 shipping within the United States.
Now the consumer has the chance to vote with his or her feet.
'Blackspot came about in a brainstorming session, out of extreme dissatisfaction with Nike,' says Vancouver, Canada-based Kalle Lasn (pronounced kol-lay lazzen). He's the founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, which is known for its Adbusters magazine and for organizing the annual Buy Nothing Day protest against consumerism.
The fire he's fighting is 'the mind-(messing) cool (Knight)'s created, paying off celebrities and coming up with bogus corporate cool and pushing it down teenagers throats.'
Nike Inc. spokeswoman Caitlin Morris noted that the company does not comment on competitors' products. She says she doesn't know whether anyone at the Beaverton campus has come across the shoe.
'Nike is on its own corporate responsibility path, and there really aren't any lessons here for us to learn,' Morris says. She cites the hemp issue, saying Nike has used hemp (in its skateboarding shoes), and that Nike is one of the world's largest purchasers of organic cotton and a founding member of the Organic Exchange.
'From a labor perspective I've got a compliance team that is focused on improving working conditions in over 900 factories around the world,' she says. 'On that scale you have successes and you have ongoing challenges, but we're committed to that work.'
Lasn, for his part, often talks about 'Phil' as if he has a personal relationship with Knight.
'We (culture) jammers and activists have been fighting him for 10 years and nothing happened,' he says.
Culture jammers try to critique corporate dominance and hyperconsumerism by creating parody ads. The idea was to undermine what Lasn calls 'mega-corporate capitalism, which seems to be the dominant form of capitalism these days,' by picking on the athletic shoe industry.
'Three or four huge corporations control that one industry. Adidas, Nike and a couple of others control over 90 percent of it,' he says. As the Blackspot Web site puts it: 'Our business plan is to cut into his market share, unswoosh his swoosh and give birth to a new kind of cool in the sneaker industry.'
A low-top version of the Chuck Taylor All-Stars style was chosen because in 2003, Nike bought Converse, the maker of All-Stars, long considered a humble, purist sneaker. (John Lennon wore them, Kurt Cobain died in them, Avril Lavigne has a pair.) Adbusters types have been particularly cross about Yoko Ono licensing John Lennon's image to 'Peace Chucks,' which came out last summer.
Lasn, who tends to be brash, fell out with Adam Neiman the president and co-founder of No Sweat Apparel, who at first wanted to help. So Neiman brought out his own No Sweat Converse knockoff last summer, made in Indonesia.
'You can produce a Converse knockoff in Asia for about $5, and sell it here for $45,' says Lasn, referring to No Sweat. 'Working conditions in Asia were OK,' but he was looking for factories with 'spirit' where the workers had rights.
Blackspots conform to vegan standards, using 70 percent biodegradable rubber and organic hemp instead of canvas. They're made at a factory in Felgueiras, Portugal, a town with a tradition of shoemaking. Workers there earn well above the Portuguese minimum wage of 365 euros per month.
As for Nike, after 10 years the company weathered the sweatshop storm and today retains its peculiar blend of jock credibility and, in some places, street cool. Nike has grown, too, buying up other brands such as Cole Haan and hockey-equipment maker Bauer. (For the quarter ending Nov. 30, Nike's revenue was $3.15 billion, up 11 percent from the previous year.)
Morris says Nike already has scoped out whether it Ñ irony of ironies Ñ uses the same Portuguese factory as Blackspot, but it doesn't.
'If Kalle Lasn's just attacking us because we're big and successful,' Morris says, 'I suppose big lights cast shadows. Are they misrepresenting us? I think they're simplifying the issue. We probably work with 10 to 15 apparel factories in Portugal, and they make a better wage, too.'
The Blackspot battle is for the hearts and minds of consumers, but where the biodegradable rubber hits the road is in how the shoes look and feel.
To anyone used to the snug, lightweight modern sneaker, these feel like Chucks: there's not much give, and they could use a bouncier insole. Already on the Adbusters Web site several people purporting to be buyers have complained about the metal eyelets popping out.
It seems putting out a shoe with a coherent message isn't as easy as it sounds. One e-mail writer, Venom1, complains that he thought he was getting a pair of shoes with red stitching and black eyelets, as depicted on the Web site. He also complains that the red dot on the front is too small and is not durable. And finally, he writes: 'The message (on the label) in the shoe, 'Live Without Dead Time,' has nothing to do with the actual idea of the shoe.'
Last Thursday Lasn told the Portland Tribune that the company is making its second run of 5,000 shoes, and around 2,500 more orders were waiting to be filled. All's fair in love and business. 'We jacked the price up (from the original $47 a pair) by 20 bucks because we needed more capital,' he says with a laugh.
Lasn says complaints about quality came from only about 10 people, and that the company is excited about a possible lawsuit against Fox News Channel, which he says refused to carry Blackspot ads.
There's also an issue regarding its billboard in Beaverton.
'Nike made us change it, so now it just says, 'Rethink the cool.' It's pretty lame. But it's a provocation that'll last for a full year, and will get into the brains of just about every Nike employee.'
How many soles Blackspot gets to is another question.