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Sneakers

Published: 14th Jan 2022
Author: Tony Dickson - S&V Editor

If local manufacturing is to grow, it must find a way of getting into this market

A locally-made Nike sneaker from the 1990s. EVA Industries supplied the midsole.

Define a 'sneaker'. Go on. Try.
Here's a definition from vocabulary.com: "Athletic or casual rubber-soled shoes are called sneakers...You can also call sneakers tennis shoes, kicks, or running shoes, and if you're in Britain, you can call them trainers or plimsolls. Sneakers are made for exercise and sports, but they're also very popular everyday shoes because they're so comfortable. Sneaker, which is most common in the Northeast US, comes from their noiseless rubber soles, perfect for sneaking. Originally, they were called sneaks."
And another Google definition: "Shoe is a generic term for all footwear worn by men and women while sneaker is a term reserved especially for athletic shoes. ... While shoes can be made from many different materials, sneakers are made from synthetic fabric with rubber soles only."
The TR Company weighs in with: "What is the difference between Sneakers and Shoes?
  • Shoe is a generic term for all footwear worn by men and women while sneaker is a term reserved especially for athletic shoes.
  • Not all athletic shoes are sneakers.
  • Sneaker is a term used mostly in America, whereas these shoes are referred to as joggers in Britain.
  • While shoes can be made from many different materials, sneakers are made from synthetic fabric with rubber soles only.
  • Sneakers are meant for comfort and physical activities and considered casual shoes whereas those made with leather are considered formal."
 
What the definitions have in common is that they describe the soles as 'rubber'.
Aside from vulcanised canvas shoes, sadly no longer made in sub-Saharan Africa so far as I'm aware, there are no rubber-soled non-safety shoes made in this region. There is some rubber-soled safety footwear production. Likewise none of the imported shoes described as sneakers have rubber soles - they're all various forms or combinations of plastic.
I propose that in the southern African context, a sneaker is a shoe made with any upper material, on any soling except leather, of stuck-on or direct injection construction, with the profile of a running shoe, intended for casual wear, whether it is of technical design or not. That definition is synonymous with the first use of the term 'athleisure' - running shoes made for casual wear.
That covers a lot of sins, but oddly enough, it excludes what for (older) people is the 'takkie' or 'tekkie' - the vulcanised canvas shoe which used to be the tennis shoe of choice, and a lot more besides.
That definition also excludes the term 'branded' - and for good reason. For most consumers who buy 'sneakers', branding is important. But - again, in the southern African context at least - whether the sneakers are genuine or counterfeit is of secondary importance to price.
Whether that means that the quality of the shoes they're buying is worse is another matter altogether.
 
The reason for this article is that 'sneakers', however you define them, are the dominant category of footwear, and have been for years. What percentage is a guess, but it's surely over half.
And South African footwear manufacturers don't make them. So they exclude themselves from more than half of the market before they start.
There are several reasons for this, probably mostly to do with components, but also to mindset and branding.
It's not that there isn't the desire or interest, and, thankfully, that's increasing.
But there are challenges.
 
The most commonly stated objection is the availability of new soles. Because their heritage is running shoes, sneaker soles mostly have a midsole and an outsole, and the colour and thickness variations are endless. Said one importer: "I have at least a dozen moulds a season." What he means is that importers have the luxury of choosing from China's open moulds. The downside of that is so can anyone else.
South African bottom stock manufacturers, however, have to be parsimonious when it comes to laying down new moulds, both in terms of complexity and in size range. How cruel that feet range from size 4 to 14 - and never mind the width fittings.
Upper materials are also endless. Most sneakers have PU uppers, but knitted textiles have become very important, and there's no reason why a manufacturer can't make imaginative use of any type of leather.
 
Brandon Geyser of EVA Industries recalls that his company made midsoles for Jordan Shoes - now part of Bolton Footwear - when it was making shoes for Nike. Sadly, there's been "nothing recently".
 

A knitted upper available from A. Greenaways. Any design is possible - the question is balancing price, minimums and branding.

Garth Ribbink, of synthetic upper material supplier A. Greenaways (Natal), in Durban, KZN, is one of several suppliers offering knitted uppers out of China.
"Obviously there are minimums, but you can have any design you want. We've been offering these for several years, and we've done lots of sampling, but that's as far as it goes."
He thinks the problem is price: "Have you been to Failsworth Road recently?" he asked, referring to a unique street in Pietermaritzburg where manufacturers and importers are lined cheek by jowl competing mostly for the rural hawker trade.
"A pair of knitted uppers from me costs around R60. Add everything else and you're talking R200 to R300 for the pair of shoes. There, the whole imported shoe costs R110 to R150, complete with Nike or Adidas logos. Of course they're counterfeit, but does the consumer care?"
He believes local brands could compete with imported knitted uppers, but he says there would be minimums, probably of several thousand pairs, for unique designs.
 
Alistair Watt of Bresan Footwear in Pietermaritzburg, KZN, makes mostly uppers for BBF Safety Group, but he also makes moccasins and stitchdown footwear under his own label.
"I was very keen to get into sneakers," he said, "but I was concerned about getting the Strobel construction perfected. All the sneakers that I've seen coming out of China are Strobel constructed. Besides the capital investment to get into that, there are other concerns, like the availability of soles, and, of course, the price points, unless you've got a strong brand."
 
Someone who has been banging the drum for local manufacturers to move into sneaker manufacturing is Dionne Prinsloo of Allied Agencies, Pinetown, KZN, who is also involved in Kangol footwear range development locally and abroad on behalf of local licensee Foothills Trading, part of the Jumbo Footwear group.
"Back in the day, Bata SA made 4000 pairs a day of North Star. North Star differentiated between technical footwear and street wear, and that was the key.
"I  currently am in and have been in process with Eddels i.r.o  non technical street wear sneakers. I plan to pursue same as of next week. However the scope of sneaker production in RSA is currently limited to non availability of suitable on-trend outsole moulds .
"I do not see uppers as being the problem. Suitable upper materials can be imported. Clearly the more upscaled the uppers materials and designs, the more expensive the footwear becomes. I do, however, believe that international branded sneaker footwear, produced in RSA to RSP at sub R899, would have a significant edge on local labels. 
"Turnaround of stock supply would play a major factor in working with local supply. Retro sneakers are on track for global comeback, which is why I'm investigating making Kangol branded sneakers rather than unbranded sneakers.
"It's not rocket science, but you do have to have a brand to carry the price differential between direct injection moulded footwear out of China and stuck-on footwear here.
"There's a huge opportunity," he said. "If I could find several factories capable of making that sort of footwear locally, I'd be knocking on their doors on Monday."
 
What historically differentiated South Africa's footwear manufacturing industry from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa was a diverse, strong supply base which, on a smaller scale, gave local manufacturers the variety of options that Chinese and Italian manufacturers have.
That supply base, particularly of component manufacturers, has been decimated. The result is that importers considering local sourcing find the lack of options and the long lead times frustrating.
Global brands are unlikely to source sneakers (or anything other than very basic footwear) locally, but a potentially very important group are locally owned brands which import their footwear. They probably make up well over half of the sneakers sold locally - by pairs, if not value - and they have brands which could support higher retail prices without being undercut by counterfeiters.
Said one: "The divide between importers and local gets larger and larger. There is nothing here that I can source for my business. I'd only be interested in lick-and-stick, and it seems the duty saving isn't worth the effort."
And in a final slap through the face, he added: "Local manufacturing is an irrecoverable fossil."
That, surely, should be motivation to the local industry to prove him wrong.
 

 

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