FEW consumer items have been hotter in recent years than high-tech athletic shoes. Companies fiercely compete to come out with that added touch of style or performance that will catch the imagination of everyone from playground "wannabes" to millionaire pros.
The Converse company of North Reading, Mass., will soon debut its latest entrant in this race for dollars: the "Run 'N Gun," a basketball shoe the firm bills as the first one developed specifically for the "running game" that's the stock in trade of many National Basketball Association teams.
The player who exemplifies this game, in Converse's view (and whose endorsement will help carry the product), is Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns.
The idea of aiming a shoe directly at the running game makes sense, according to John Horan, who follows footwear trends for Sporting Goods Intelligence, an industry newsletter.
"They have figured out a way to target a segment of the market, and that's the direction the industry is moving," he says. Converse, which is owned by Interco Inc. of St. Louis, has always been strong in the basketball area, but they still lag behind powerhouse Nike.
Converse's new shoe could increase its market share a bit, however. The company says that orders in the first three weeks of 1993 are 316 percent over the same time last year because of their new product.
While promotional blitzes will give the general public the standard come-ons for the Run 'N Gun (suggested retail: $85), the evolution of such footwear occurs largely away from public view.
Converse's process for concocting ever-more-futuristic shoes takes place in a fairly modest red brick and glass building in North Reading, some 14 miles from Boston. This is essentially an ideas factory, where concepts and marketing strategies are hammered out and prototypes pieced together by hand.
The real job of manufacturing top-line items like the "Run 'N Gun," for Converse (as with most of its larger competitors), occurs in Taiwan and other sites in Asia. The firm makes the familiar argument that high development costs, expensive materials, and efficiency concerns dictate overseas, low-wage manufacturing. Company officials quickly point out that Converse's enduring line of canvas shoes - initiated in 1917 by the first "Chuck Taylor All Star" model - are still made domestically by 1,300 workers
at a plant in Lumberton, N.C.
One nerve center - quite literally - of the North Reading operation is the biomechanics lab, headed by Chris Edington. Mr. Edington takes obvious pride in demonstrating some of his tools: for instance, the "force platform," a dark-glass panel inset into the lab's hardwood floor. Above it hovers a basketball hoop. As a Converse staffer leaps and feints on the platform, color blasts show up on a nearby computer screen. They look like the infrared photos of distant galaxies in astronomy texts, except that t hese have familiar earthling features - heel, instep, and toes.
Edington passes around the thin, foot-shaped Mylar sheet the lab technician places in a subject's shoe to generate the computer images, noting that a 200-pound NBA player puts 800 pounds of pressure on his shoes every time he lands after a rebound. The lab's data about stress on the foot and on shoe materials are passed along to the "advanced concepts" team charged with brainstorming a shoe into existence.
This is where shoe development can get a little James Bondish. The team works far ahead of the date an item is scheduled to reach store shelves. The vaunted "Run 'N Gun," which goes on sale this spring, is a distant memory to them; they're immersed in the show-stopper for spring of '94. No use asking about that, however. Doors from some other parts of the building into "advanced concepts" areas have knobs only on the inside to help preserve secrecy.
The lead designer for the new basketball shoe, Bernie Allen, has a touch of mad-scientist gleam in his eye as he talks about the company's move beyond what it saw as the limits of competitors' "air-bag" technology for cushioning athletes' feet. Converse's answer was plastic bladders filled with a top-secret - "proprietary" - liquid. The gold-colored donuts (toroids) are built into the heel of the "Run 'N Gun," the sides and soles of which have little windows so one can peek at the high-tech innards. (Mar keters loved that idea.)
Another team, headed by design director Rick Mochen, took the roughed-out concepts from Allen's shop, refined them with the help of marketing research, and added some fancy stuff like colors.
Brainstorming on a shoe concept may continue for as long as six months here, in order to find, for example, the right lightweight material for the shoe's body (here, a variation of a dense polyester foam), and the best combination of hues for sides and soles. "You just keep regenerating it until you're at the point you want to be," Mr. Mochen says.
On to engineering and back to computers. Andy O'Shaughnessy in the production-development department shows how computer programs can customize colors for big retail outlets like Footlocker, which want their own version of the shoe. A laser cutter produces shoe components exactly to specifications, which go to the "pattern room."
Finally, the "making room" is reached, where a finished prototype is molded and glued together in what amounts to a mini shoe factory. The machinery is identical to that in the Asian factories, so that any hitches in production can be ironed out. Making-room chief Michael Blandini shows off the customized shoe lasts, or forms, for Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Julius Erving, and other NBA greats. The same wall display has Bird's 1992 Olympic team shoe - and, for contrast, the original rusty-tan 1917 Chuck Ta ylor canvas sneaker.
Does canvas have a future? Not among NBA players or trendy teenagers, but the traditional canvas high-top still tops the charts with rockers. In one corner of Converse's making room, a worker is assembling customized, psychedelically splashed high-tops for the heavy-metal group Def Lepard.
A half-dozen or so groups - including U-2 and Twisted Sister - come to North Reading for a customized variation on the company's oldest idea.