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Photo: Teva
Photo: Teva

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Teva’s Quest for the Ugly Shoe Throne

From river guide essential to fashion world favorite.

Harry's Shoes is an Upper West Side stalwart. A remnant of a New York that is swiftly slipping away, it sits on a stretch of Broadway dotted with unfussy, multi-brand stores that sell practical things. Down the block there is a Laytner's Linen and Home and a Marshalls outpost. These are not places people shop for the sport of it. These are places people shop when they need something.

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Harry's is quite busy on a late summer afternoon, its shelves lined with Cole Haan kitten heels, Mephisto sandals, and Toms slip-ons: a wardrobe of shoes for the Columbia University freshman or her 60-year-old professor.

It's a good time to traffic in the sort of comfort-driven shoes that Harry's sells—in particular, comfortable (and yes, often "ugly") sandals. According to a recent survey released by market research firm NPD Group, more than three out of four men and 85 percent of women believe comfort is "extremely important" or "very important" when it comes to shoe shopping. That sentiment has resulted in a jump in sandal sales at independent retailers, up 8 percent from March 2014 to March 2015.

Photo: Teva

Birkenstocks are tops in the comfort-sandal category, leading sales at indie stores, followed by Finn Comfort, Naot, Vionic, and Keen. At Harry's, Birks are afforded prime window real estate, and with reason. They have become, in the past three years, a symbol not only of comfort, but comfort as a fashion statement. It no longer looks smart or cool to wear six-inch stilettos.

The savviest of street style stars prefer a flat slide for shuffling from runway show to runway show, as inspired by just about every major designer, from Céline's Phoebe Philo to Michael Kors. Birkenstocks currently appeal to every sort of customer Harry's wants to attract: the local pragmatist, the style-conscious student, the fashion-obsessed Upper West Side transplant who was priced out of Brooklyn.

Despite their relatively sleek design, there might not be another shoe that says IDGAF so loudly.

But while the two-strap Arizona might reign, it only takes a few moments inside Harry's to see that Birks have plenty of competition. At several points throughout the 6,500-square-foot store, one will also cross paths with Teva, the water sandal brand beloved by Grateful Dead fans and what I, as a real, true city person, can only describe as "adventure folk."

Birkenstocks might be crunchy, but Tevas—which typically feature a velcro strap around the ankle and one across the toes—are downright geeky. Despite their relatively sleek design, there might not be another shoe that says IDGAF so loudly. Aside from Crocs, of course. They are the ultimate #dadsandal to go with your #dadbod.

And like anything else that falls under the "normcore" moniker, Tevas too are having a bit of a moment. Their role crystallized at the spring 2014 shows, where Marc Jacobs embroidered his version with bugle beads and Miuccia Prada studded hers with chunky gemstones.

Teva's Opening Ceremony collaboration. Photo: Teva

Soon enough, Opening Ceremony announced an ongoing collaboration with Teva, which includes a $60 version of the brand's classic "Original" sandal done with a multicolor flatform bottom. There's also a $90 riff on the sportier "Hurricane" style. It features a sneaker-like bottom that's sturdier than that of the Original, whose sole is reminiscent of a flip-flop's. Next up was a partnership with Nasty Gal, complete with a $110 white flatform with crackled-leather straps, and a $90 blue, green, and white version of the Original with mesh straps.

Even with the upsell associated with hip clothing labels like Opening Ceremony and Nasty Gal, Tevas are cheap. The core line starts at $25, less than the price of a pair of Converse.

They aren't, however, ubiquitous. At least not yet.

There first thing to know about Teva is that it's pronounced Tev-ah, which is the Hebrew word for "nature." (Not Tee-vah. Sorry.) Outdoorsman Mark Thatcher invented the shoe for his fellow Colorado river guides in 1984. Back then, guides typically wore flip-flops, which dried fast and had a flat footbed.

"There was a moment in the early '90s, a realization that this footwear wasn't only going to serve outdoor enthusiasts."

"Passengers would look at us like we were crazy," says Adam Druckman, a former river guide who joined Teva as a sales rep in 1993. (He now runs external and internal events at Deckers Brands, Teva's Goleta, California-based parent company.) Thatcher knew that the guides needed something more substantial, so he taped some velcro watch straps onto a flip-flop footbed. The first Teva sandal was born.

Soon after Teva launched, Thatcher struck a licensing agreement with Deckers, originally a flip-flop company founded in the 1970s. The line continued to build its outdoorsy reputation, but like hiking boots and Birkenstocks before it, a counterculture—or pseudo-countercounture, depending on who you ask—soon adopted it as its own. Turns out, Tevas are the ideal shoe for outdoor festivals and hacky sack tournaments; Deadheads and Phish Phans were now Teva obsessives, too. It helps that the custom jacquard velcro straps (developed by French designer Nadine Marchal, who still works with the company) look nice with a tie-dyed T-shirt and a pair of wide-leg jeans.

"There was a moment in the early '90s, a realization that this footwear wasn't only going to serve outdoor enthusiasts," recalls Druckman, who knew Thatcher from his river guide days and served as an unofficial advisor to the founder long before he was employed by him. "College kids, travelers, urban dwellers—people who didn't even know what a river trip was—started wearing them." They even became a particular favorite of summer camp tweens. By 1993, Teva's sales were $55 million, up 77 percent from $31 million the year before.

Photo: Teva

Throughout the next decade, though, the Teva brand failed to rise above its niche, geek-sandal status, with sales peaking in the $80 millions. In 2001, sales had dipped to $61 million, and in 2002, Deckers bought Teva outright from Thatcher for $62 million. To put that in context, sales of the then-wildly popular Skechers reached $960 million in 2001. At that point, the parent company also owned Ugg Australia (which, after being acquiring in 1995, was finally attracting a mainstream audience), as well as Simple Shoes (whose intellectual property was sold off in 2014).

A wave of change was set into motion by 2005, when Deckers hired Reebok vet Angel Martinez as CEO, replacing Deckers co-founder Doug Otto (who retired fully three years later). Martinez was tasked with repositioning the Teva brand to attract a younger customer, and he shifted the advertising to reflect that. As the years went on, Teva became less and less about performance and more about lifestyle. International sales increased; Japanese brand obsessives fell in love with Teva.

"If somebody wanted to wear them on the river, they could do that. But you can also wear them to the music festival."

Over the past 10 years, music festival attendance has also increased, along with an interest in festival-specific fashion, which can best be described as "1970s style through a 1990s lens, moderately updated for the 2010s." Teva, to be sure, fits into that aesthetic. The company's Pinterest page is a testament to just how much it believes in the power of a good festival moment. There are images from a collaboration with Honey & Silk blogger Stephanie Liu, who wore the sandals to Bonnaroo, and shots of actress-slash-fashion-plate Jamie Chung in Teva flatforms at Coachella.

Last year, Teva's wholesale revenue was $117 million, up 7 percent from $109 million in 2013.  Part of that success has to do with that It-girl adoption of the shoe. But Teva knows that it could capitalize even more on this renewed interest, which is why it hired Nike and Keen vet Lorie Pointer as its director of product and design, a position that encompasses both development and merchandising.

Pointer has been tasked with shifting the product to something even "more lifestyle focused," she says. After all, Teva may have started out as a technical shoe, but it has long been surpassed on that front by the likes of Nike and Adidas, companies with research and development budgets far larger than Teva's annual sales. "We are not as performance-based as we used to be," Pointer explains. "We want to build product that's a little more versatile. If somebody wanted to wear them on the river, they could do that. But you can also wear them to the music festival."

Photo: Teva

Which means that Teva wants to sit alongside Toms and Birkenstocks in its customer's closet, and the line's gentle prices practically beg the company to convince her to buy more than one pair. To do that, Pointer's team introduced the flatform, as well as classic styles accented with metal hardware and faux-snakeskin straps. "Two or three years ago, nobody would have thought that the flatform made sense," Pointer says. "Since I've been here, the product has changed drastically." They're also introducing "covered" footwear to capture the winter market; this will include leather booties and boots, which will start at $120.

As a breadth of offerings is set to expand as we head into 2016, one of Teva's greatest challenges remains getting shoes in front of people and reminding them why in fact Teva exists. Most people don't even pronounce the name right, so how can the brand expect them to know anything about Mark Thatcher's life as a river guide?

"Over the last five years, Teva's challenge has been to find its own identity in the marketplace."

"Over the last five years, Teva's challenge has been to find its own identity in the marketplace," says Deckers' president of brands, Dave Powers. One roadblock is that the shoes are almost entirely sold through wholesale channels, which means stores pick and choose what they'd like to buy from the collection each season instead of telling the entire story. Powers, a veteran of Gap and Converse, acknowledges that Teva needs to "be as close to the consumer as possible." To be sure, "wholesale is still an important business model and a part of revenue growth," he says. "But we want to hear from our consumer directly."

So far, this has come by way of e-commerce, a growing category for Teva. But when you don't have a physical store to use as a storytelling platform, it's more difficult to tease out the rich heritage that made the sandals such a popular product. Just take a look at Deckers-owned Ugg, which has had great success launching branded stores, with sales reaching more than $1 billion in 2014 when combining wholesale and direct-to-consumer revenue.

It'll be up to Powers and Wendy Yang, who Powers enlisted to be Teva's new president, to fully crystallize what the brand stands for. To that end, Teva just underwent the most extensive consumer survey in its history, with 1,600 shoppers across the globe quizzed about what Teva means to them. Maybe not so surprisingly, it all came back to a sense of independence and adventure: the tenants on which Thatcher founded his company all those years ago. "They all share this thirst for freedom," Powers says. No matter where they're wearing them.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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