Vans “Checkerboard”; Ferragamo “Vara”; Clarks “Wallabee”; Merrell “Jungle Moc”
Nike “Air Force 1”; Ugg “Classic Short”; Bernardo “Miami”; Dr. Martens “1460”
Frye “Campus”; Reebok “Freestyle”; Stride Rite “Parker II”; Birkenstock “Arizona”
Converse “Chuck Taylor All Star”; Hush Puppies “Earl”
Sperry Top-Sider “Authentic Original”; Tecnica “Moon Boot”
Keds “Champion”; Tod’s “Gommino”
Minnetonka’s simple, beaded Thunderbird moccasin encapsulates the essence of American styling and, in doing so,
captured the fancy of Europeans.
By Angela Velasquez
Long before Throwback Thursday was a weekly ritual, Minnetonka’s Thunderbird moccasins were flying off the shelves of Seguin’s House of Cheese in Marinette, WI—an unlikely bestseller held in the same ranks as the cheese emporium’s popular extra sharp cheddar and requisite cheese foam hats. Located on a main road connecting Chicago to Canada, Owner Ron Seguin recalls the tourists in the ’70s who snapped up the moccasins en route to their summer holidays. Nowadays with the likes of Nicole Richie and Kate Hudson wearing the effortless mocs and being captured by the paparazzi, Minnetonka Director of Marketing Kalyn Waters says, “We have enough celebrity photos for Throwback Thursdays for the next five years.”
First introduced in 1955, the beaded whipstitched moc with a tuft of fringe has been a mainstay in Minnetonka’s line ever since. A little Thunderbird trivia: the debut version came in white leather, which was soon followed by brown and black suede. In the ensuing decades, an array of colors have been made available. But CEO David Miller points out that the style wasn’t an instant case of lightning in a bottle. “It was accepted but not what we would call a great initial success,” he recalls. His father, Marshall, designed the Thunderbird as an ode to the Native American beadwork that caught his fancy. For what Miller describes as a tiny company at the time that offered just a few moccasin styles, the beading was really a unique way to distinguish one style from the next. Eventually, he notes, it became a steady seller. “We were pleased with its performance within our line of mocs,” Miller says, modestly.
To say the Thunderbird went on to earn its keep is an understatement of iconic style proportions. With no real intended target consumer beyond the general Minnetonka wearer, the shoe became a popular souvenir item at gift shops near national parks and many other resort areas across the country. For example, in Nisswa, MN, where the population swells from 30,000 to 300,000 in the summer, Biff Ulm, manager of family-owned Zaiser’s Souvenir & Gift, has seen generations of families purchase the Thunderbird. “The shoe is representative of the Northern Minnesota lake country. It’s a tradition to buy it,” he explains. Miller recalls Melissa Coker, designer of the Los Angeles-based clothing line Wren (and most recently a Minnetonka collaborator) telling him how picking up a new pair of Thunderbirds on the way to her family’s cabin was a signal that summer vacation had officially begun. “And we hear that repeatedly,” Miller says. “The shoe is part of personal histories.”
The first real hint that the Thunderbird had international appeal and would become an iconic style is when French tourists visiting New York were pillaging Manhattan retailers’ inventory with the intent to resell the mocs in Parisian boutiques. It was 1978, just before the Urban Cowboy craze struck America, and Miller says it was a distinct Americana look already brewing in France. “It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but at that time Europe still dictated our fashion,” he says. “If you needed to know what was selling in the U.S. all you had to do was look to see what was selling in Europe a few seasons prior.” Those smuggled pairs of Thunderbirds quickly led to Minnetonka establishing distribution throughout Europe. “Our distributors kept saying, ‘Just wait until it washes back to the U.S.,’ but at the time we were just too close to the product,” Miller recalls. “We had been selling it for decades. We wondered what made it unique now?”
The Thunderbird, in fact, was at the helm of the Western street fashion fad. Less polarizing than a full-on cowboy boot and more practical than a Stetson, the style easily suited a range of women’s wardrobes and its reign carried on for four years, peaking in 1983. “All of our mocs were pulled along by this Western-inspired fashion movement, but it was the Thunderbird moc that became a worldwide fashion item as a result,” Miller states.
Minnetonka saw another uptick in the Thunderbird’s popularity beginning in 2005 when moccasins were deemed a must-have amongst bohemian trendsetters. An extensive list of celebrities also coveted the style, including Kate Bosworth, Hilary Duff, Selma Blair, Kirsten Dunst and Avril Lavigne. But, Miller states, it’s always been very organic. “We’re not placing product as an orchestrated PR move,” he says. “They discover the shoe themselves.”
That celebrity following has impacted sales at California-based Kitson, where the Thunderbird has sold consistently for the last eight years. “It certainly helps,” says Founder Fraser Ross, adding that the shoe’s celebrity connection is almost as important to the brand as a logo. “They own it.” Amongst Kitson’s selection of trendy platforms and boots, the moc stands out as a familiar American classic. “It hits every demographic from the yummy mummies to the college kids, and the shoe goes with everything,” he says. Ulm agrees: “There’s really two types of customers now: the people who buy the Thunderbird for nostalgic reasons and the college-age crowd that buys it for fashion.” And while he isn’t selling 100 pairs a day like he once did, Ulm reports the store did “gangbusters” with the limited edition Wren x Minnetonka Thunderbird this year. “It brought a more mature, sophisticated Nordstrom, hip crowd,” he says of the metallic beaded, deerskin moc.
Apart from a rounder toe, tweaks to the sole and the occasional seasonal color variations, few modifications have been made to the style over the years. The trademarked image of the Thunderbird beaded design remains the same. In terms of sales, suede versions exceed the original white leather, which was an anomaly in itself because it sold equally well in the spring and fall. Another aspect that’s never changed: the fact that the Thunderbird continues to be a hit with Europeans. Priced under $40, Ross says his European clientele are wowed at the value and like to bring home several pairs. “People want their high heels to be expensive, but their flats need to be comfortable, go-to shoes that are priced right,” he says, noting Thunderbirds consistently sell at full price.
As for what the Thunderbird’s future holds, Miller says the company is open to adapting the style in creative ways to make it more contemporary. But the exec is also perfectly happy to continue offering the shoe in its classic version that has resonated with millions of consumers for 50-plus years. “It’s the simplicity of its classic design, the comfort and, certainly for many people, the memories associated with where and when they wore their first pair,” he says of the Thunderbird’s enduring popularity. “There’s a true emotional connection with this style. Women keep coming back to buy it and pass it down to their daughters and now granddaughters,” the exec says. “And we never get tired of people sharing their stories about it.”
When Rockport launched the first fitness walking shoe in 1985, the ProWalker created a whole new category of footwear, becoming a brand trait that resonates nearly 30 years later and counting.
By Lyndsay McGregor
From packs of sweat suit-clad walkers doing their morning laps along shopping mall corridors to workplaces issuing pedometer challenges to willing employees to millions of people of all ages participating in charitable fundraising walks each year, it’s hard to imagine an America where walking was not thought of as a legitimate fitness activity. But back in the ’70s, less than 40 percent of Americans were taking advantage of this simple—and free—form of exercise. Rockport co-founder Bruce Katz, however, was one person who was at the time. “Bruce had two passions in life besides footwear: sailing and walking,” recalls Frank Carroll, regional account representative at the Adidas-owned subsidiary. “He very much enjoyed walking for exercise, and he wanted to build a shoe specifically designed and marketed for fitness walking.”
It was during the early ’80s—at a time when the running boom of the previous decade was fading out—when Katz became more determined than ever to design the perfect walking shoe. “He saw walking as the perfect alternative for customers who weren’t going to run, swim or go to the gym,” Carroll says. Rockport was already known as a maker of lightweight comfort footwear, and Katz first embarked on a multi-faceted marketing program to promote walking as an exercise, sponsoring Gary Yanker and Rob Sweetgall, the country’s foremost advocates of fitness walking, and becoming a corporate member of the American Running & Fitness Association. But Katz knew there was more to do because, while people were starting to walk for fitness more, they were doing so primarily in jogging shoes.
Enter the ProWalker. After extensive research on the foot and its mechanics while walking, Rockport designers discovered that there are basic differences between a good running shoe and a walking one, namely the last shape and rigidity of the sole. Taking these findings, the company introduced the ProWalker as part of its RocSports line in 1985. Initially aimed at men age 45 and older, the ProWalker featured an extended heel counter for lateral stability and support, a rocker profile to aid the natural walking motion, a Vibram Superflex outsole for durability and a Poron insole to cushion stress points. Outside magazine dubbed it “the Mercedes-Benz of walking shoes.”
“Customers flocked to the shoe right from the get-go; they finally had a shoe they could wear while walking their dog or walking with their spouses,” Carroll says, adding that the style has since sold in the millions of pairs worldwide. “This shoe hit the market and changed people’s lives,” notes Bob Mullaney, president of Rockport Americas. “People were nervous because it was a new concept, but the marketplace took a wonderful liking to the shoe because it resonated. There were a lot of consumers looking for a product that would perform, and the style was easily translatable to everyday wear as opposed to many other athletic styles.”
New York stalwart Harry’s Shoes was one of the first retailers to pick up the ProWalker. According to Owner Robert Goldberg, the shoe is the epitome of “an authentic original.” “It was something of a revolutionary product at the time because in that era walking footwear wasn’t thought of as a category,” he says. Danny Wasserman, co-owner of Tip Top Shoes in New York, agrees. “At the time the ProWalker came out, athletic shoes other than tennis and basketball really had no classification as they do today. Back then there was no such thing as walking shoes, cross trainers, trail running shoes, etc. The ProWalker was an important shoe for the entire industry. It made the walking category what it is today,” he says, noting that it’s “right up there” with some of Tip Top’s all-time bestsellers. “At times we’ve needed to pre-book the shoes in order to get product,” Wasserman adds.
The ProWalker remains a leading seller to this day for the brand. When online retailer PlanetShoes added Rockport to its selection in early 2012, the decision to carry the ProWalker was a no-brainer. “It’s an integral part of Rockport’s business,” says Brooks Maitland, director of merchandising. “There’s a consumer that just replaces it and replaces it.” She adds, “The fact that it comes in extended sizes and widths is a huge benefit to the consumer. The wides and extra wides really sell well.”
While the ProWalker has changed aesthetically over the years, including technical updates such as an amply cushioned heel cup, the addition of shock-absorbing open-cell foam in the forefoot and blister-preventing collar, and supportive Vibram outsole, its fundamental design remains the same. “Each season we’ve had to reflect the change and movement of style,” explains Dave Pompel, vice president of Rockport’s men’s product. “But what hasn’t changed is this notion of walkability, this commitment to the ability to move on your feet. That’s the DNA of the shoe and the brand.”
These days the original ProWalker wearers are entering their retirement years. But unlike any generation before, many of them remain active. And while they may not be running as much, they are definitely still walking. “Walking products have evolved so I would say that it’s become more of a utilitarian type of purchase,” notes Goldberg. Maitland agrees: “It’s an older customer—someone who’s much more concerned about fit and comfort.”
The walkability of the ProWalker remains a design tenet for Rockport’s entire collection. It spans its latest TruWalk Zero effort—the brand’s lightest ever collection of walking shoes—to Total Motion, which fuses stylish uppers with sports technology to deliver all-day comfort for the busy metropolitan professional, to RocSports Lite, a collection of casual dress shoes weighing less than the average running shoe. “The ProWalker was never built to be a seasonal item; it was built to be a transformative item in an area that was untapped,” Carroll says. Mission accomplished. “We’re proud of a number of shoes in our portfolio, but the ProWalker is a very special one,” Mullaney says. “It’s helped carry us forward as a brand.”