The New York Times June 17, 2007
The Shoe ChangeS, buT The FiT DoeSn’T. he Can explain.
by MiChael FiTZgeRalD published: June 17, 2007
The shoe is about as elemental as it gets. although the materials, brand-new move. he says that “only a nonshoe guy” like Mr. Klein,
the designs and the manufacturing process have changed tremen- who was watching the customization trend not just in computers
dously over the last 150 years, a shoe still comes down to a sole but also across things like cars (Toyota’s Scion) and television (via
connected to an upper part, with inner support for the foot. TiVo), would have thought to do it.
That basic concept has existed for a very long time: Ötzi the The idea has kept Mr. Klein and his management team going
iceman, who died 5,300 years ago in the austrian alps, was found through almost five years of design, development and fund-rais-
in shoes that you and i would recognize, says elizabeth Semmel- ing. The original lineup will feature 19 patterns, 10 for men and 9
hack, curator of the bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. for women. each pattern will have three to six choices of colors or
but if Mark Klein realizes his vision, shoes for both men and materials. They are meant for business casual and more general
women are about to change. in late July, Mr. Klein’s company, wear.
Skins Footwear, intends to break the shoe in two, giving it an outer at the heart of the concept is the bone, which needs to be
part, including the sole and upper, which he calls a “skin,” and a comfortable but firm. The initial bones are made from thermal
removable inner part, which he calls the “bone.” polyurethane, which can be firm or flexible and can last years. over
“The bone is the constant fit and feel,” he says. “Then there’s time, the company expects to make bones out of other substances,
this blank canvas for you to express yourself with the skins.” including natural and recycled materials.
The idea is that a shopper will buy a bone, for about $60, and Mr. Klein bankrolled the first year of design and development
several skins, which will range from $125 to $300. people will shift himself — hiring someone to develop a prototype, then going out to
from one skin to the next, depending on what they’re doing, much raise capital. eventually, Skins raised money by going public on the
the way they can with other kinds of apparel. over-the-counter bulletin board.
Mr. Klein, who is 33, says he thinks that his patented skin-and- There have been setbacks — in particular, a spring introduc-
bones concept will eliminate the problem people have with shoes tion this year was delayed to refine the bone and to make it more
that look good but don’t fit correctly, since the bone should guar- comfortable. but now that the product is almost on the market,
antee the same fit for any skin in that size. he also says frequent Skins is meeting with some excitement from shoe retailers.
travelers will appreciate the chance to pack only the foldable, light- “We’re going to push it,” says isack Fadlon, co-founder of
weight skins, instead of full pairs of shoes. Sportie la, a four-store chain in los angeles.
The idea came to him one September night in 2002, when he Mr. Fadlon was skeptical when Mr. Walker called him to say he
invited friends for dinner at his apartment in Tel aviv. Mr. Klein, who had something that would turn the industry upside down. but when
worked in marketing for iCQ, a unit of america online, realized that he saw it, Mr. Fadlon says, “i was blown away” by the shoe and its
one of his friends was wearing almost the same shoe as he had interchangeable parts “Wow! You hit your head and say, ‘Why didn’t
worn three days before — but not quite. i think of that?’ ”
in fact, his friend had something like seven variations on the Mr. Fadlon says he thinks that the shoe has the potential to
same shoe, largely in different colors, from different manufactur- revolutionize the market. he notes that it is even a “green” product,
ers. Mr. Klein wondered why shoes weren’t customized in the same because the bone is reusable and long-lasting.
way that computer screens are — users can design their own inter- buT Ms. Semmelhack, the museum curator, wrinkles her
faces, or “skins,” on the screen. nose at the idea of having to pull a bone out of a shoe. in 1951, she
his friend, whom Mr. Klein describes as “a bit of a shoe freak,” says, Salvatore Ferragamo introduced a patented product called
liked the concept. That pretty much ruined dinner for Mr. Klein, the Kimo, which combined a sandal bottom that meshed with a va-
who — though he hadn’t previously thought that much about foot- riety of uppers that were effectively socks. That product, she notes,
wear — spent the rest of the evening contemplating how to make “didn’t become a Ferragamo classic”
a two-part shoe. Ms. Semmelhack also thinks the bone smacks of being an or-
it wasn’t Mr. Klein’s first entrepreneurial idea; he moved to thotic, which she calls “the Depends of the shoe world.”
Tel aviv in 2000 with a plan to create a Web site covering israel’s but Joel Sigal, president of littles Shoes in pittsburgh, which
high-tech sector. That failed — “a very humbling experience,” he at 20,000 square feet is one of the biggest shoe stores in the coun-
said. So he was nervous about the shoe idea, not least because he try, says he thinks that if the bone is comfortable, the shoes will
knew nothing about the market. at a gathering the next day with sell. he says that the styling is innovative and the idea of appealing
a group of friends, he cautiously spelled out the idea. To his relief, to more affluent consumers is the right place to start.
they liked it. Mr. Klein, who is racing back and forth from Skins headquar-
a week later, Mr. Klein quit his job and started working on ters in new York to shoe stores in a dozen states and factories in
his company. “if i’d had more people tell me it was a bad idea,” he China and italy, has big plans for his little company. Skins is gear-
says, “i probably wouldn’t have persevered.” ing up to introduce a high-heel bone and a winter line-up of new
it helped that the concept was easy to understand. “The min- skins. he eventually hopes to sign licensing deals with large shoe
ute i heard about it, i thought it was a great idea. it depended on and apparel companies for more skins and for other market seg-
the execution,” said Dennis Walker, who now runs sales for Skins ments (Skins currently isn’t making athletic shoes, for instance, or
Footwear. children’s shoes.) it also intends to expand into europe.
Mr. Walker has seen plenty of innovations in the shoe market another shoe is about to drop, and the size of its footprint re-
— he mentions Reebok’s aerobic shoe for women, or the more re- mains to be seen. but the idea is big.
cent Crocs phenomenon. he was also president of Rockport Shoes
when the company’s concept of comfortable dress shoes was gain-
Michael Fitzgerald is a boston-area writer on business,
technology and culture. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
but breaking the shoe into pieces, Mr. Walker says, was a