LA Gear shoes had all the hype during the ‘80s. It was the only sneaker brand that mattered. If you were a prepubescent youth, a high-schooler, or even an adult in the ‘80s, you probably wanted and owned at least a cool pair of LA Gear shoes. It was the ultimate fashion statement at the time, giving people the style in its high-top glory. Their spotlight in the fashion world lasted until the ‘90s, when people of all ages wanted their light-up shoes that flicker hues of vibrant life as they swag their way through everyday life.
LA Gear Shoes ‘80s
LA Gear had high street cred during the 80s while looking super cute on women’s feet, as evidenced by celebrity spokesmodels Paula Abdul and Belinda Carlisle. Well, how did it came to be?
In 1979, Robert Greenberg founded the LA Gear brand that sold not just fashionable footwear but a lifestyle. They had other products, such as active/lifestyle clothing, activewear, swimwear, eyewear, sunglasses, watches, and hosiery. They sold products that allow people to be part of the glitz and glam of the perpetual sunshine in Los Angeles, CA. It was initially launched as a women’s fashion retail store, but as it helped revolutionized the athletic shoe market in 1985, it became third-leading in sales next to athletic footwear giants Nike and Reebok by 1990.
The company founder designed shoes that appealed to young women, giving them the comfort of sneakers with the frills and colors of fashion shoes. The name “LA Gear” actually came from a T-shirt saleswoman who commented that their shirts were “real LA gear.” A clerk jotted down this idea and submitted it for the contest Greenburg introduced to find the right name for the store. By 1984. Greenberg decided to concentrate on the company’s business to wholesale shoe sales and closed its retail store. Greenberg’s business partner Ernest Williams did not see a need for another athletic footwear company, so he opted out of their partnership.
It didn’t take Greenberg a long time to establish his company’s presence in the athletic shoe market. The Canvas Workout shoe, released in 1985, became a hit, and the company soon met with great success. LA Gear shoe designs were designed for fashion-conscious females between the ages of 12 and 35 who wanted comfortable yet stylish shoes. At the beginning of the year, the company earned $200,000 in sales and gained $1.8 million at the end of 1985.
Building on the success of its Canvas Workout shoe for women, LA Gear began sprucing up its line of basic women’s shoes with pastel colors, fringe, spangles, and gold lame. Their shoes were all about the style, colors, shininess, and flashiness. They also stimulated children’s eyes by designing shoes with designs that appeal to children, like a black and white checkerboard and cow spot designs.
The company also marketed Street Hikers, which are street shoes that mixed the comfort of sneakers to urban style.
LA Gear unveiled original styles every year, making it appeal to more customers who rarely set foot on a tennis or basketball court. Their formula became a hit – they take a shoe that’s not a technical shoe, add some colored trim on it, and put some spangles. Their shoes are not expensive to produce, and the company put their money into advertising and marketing. Their ads weren’t as slick and techy as ads for Nike or Reebok, but they were effective. LA Gear’s ads featured the sunny glamor of the Los Angeles lifestyle (staying true to the name), featuring beautiful, young blondes wearing ice-cream colored crop tops and spandex shorts paired with their LA Gear shoes.
After finding success in the women’s market, LA Gear decided to expand its sales in the men’s department in 1989. LA Gear used the same fashionable design and glamorous marketing techniques to sell shoes for the fashionable basketball market. LA Gear sold boldly designed, colorful high-tops called Hot Shots, Street Slammers, and Brats. But since the men’s market was highly competitive, LA Gear was not as successful in this area. For LA Gear’s competitors, men’s shoes accounted for 70 percent of their sales, but men’s shoes only comprised 20 percent of LA Gear’s total sales.
The company’s strategy to emphasize fashion in the men’s department seemed to be an odd strategy because men pay less attention to style but more to the technology of the shoe.
Decline around the ‘90s
LA Gear realized they had to expand into other markets to stay strong. Back then, they got prestige, as shoes were only sold in high-end department stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s. During the early 1990s, they branched out to more economical stores like Sears and J.C. Penny.
The company made a big mistake in 1991 by signing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a retiring basketball star, as their endorser for a line of basketball shoes called Jabbars. They tried to appeal to the geriatric crowd rather than foster their current growth in the young people’s department. They also made another huge mistake when they got pop singer Michael Jackson as the company’s main endorser for their athletic shoes. LA Gear tried to tap on Jackson’s popularity by coordinating a Jackson line launch with the release of his greatest hits album called A Decade. However, Michael Jackson’s album was never released, and his heavily buckled shoes didn’t sell well. This series of events cost the company several million dollars.
Aware that fashionable men’s athletic shoes can’t generate a lot of profits, the company tried to enter the men’s technical shoe market by introducing the Catapult basketball shoe in 1991. The company learned from its past mistake and chose a more likely endorser, Karl Malone, a Utah Jazz basketball star. Unfortunately, they encountered product quality issues. One time, a player from a Marquette University basketball team tripped on a Catapult basketball shoe as the sole peeled off during a televised game. To add to that, Nike even filed a suit against LA Gear, alleging that the Catapult infringes on their patented spring moderator technology.
Meanwhile, the company found its success again after introducing LA Lights, a series of lighted athletic shoes for children, which fared so much better than the men’s line.
By 1993, the popularity of the brand was beginning to wane. They tried to return to higher-end department stores, hoping to gain a more upscale clientele for their shoes, but eventually failed to earn expected profits. The company became desperate to sell their remaining inventory that their shoes began showing up at supermarkets, flea markets, and swap meets.
In 1994, the company was forced to end their men’s sports shoe line and focused again on the women’s market, but the age of LA Gear was already gone at that time. Girls were already into drab plaid, torn denim, and grunge fashion – all of a sudden, everyone wanted to look like they’re from Seattle instead of LA.
LA Gear may have never regained the fashion craze status they once had, but the brand still exists today.