They carry the same stripes as Asics shoes popular with runners do, but that’s the long and the short of it for Onitsuka Tiger, a premium shoe brand made by the Japanese company of the same name which also owns Asics.The difference is they're trend-driven, pricey and all about form not function. Then, they're almost entirely handcrafted, made in leather, and actually come in limited editions with throwbacks to sporting heritage and events like the Olympics. Onitsuka Tiger, Asics' holding company kicked off its first sports fashion shoe shop at the Palladium Mall in Mumbai a couple months ago, with a view to launching at least a dozen more locations across metros in the next three years.
So why would someone market and sell sporty shoes for Rs 30,000, the same as an entry-level motorcycle, when you can't even use them for sports? For one, the market size for aspirational lifestyle sneakers that include shoes made by Puma, Diesel, Gucci, Onitsuka Tiger, Tods, is worth around Rs 300 crore for 200,000 units at an average starting price of Rs 15,000.
Kenji Oh, marketing director for Asics Asia Pacific says it's "all about sports heritage fashion." By that what he means is that the premium Nippon line of OT shoes for example are made from top-shelf Kobe cattle hide, washed and textured one pair at a time. The Mexico 66 range uses high-end leather as well as canvases, includes lacquer finishes and is available in dozens of colors.
"They're not made for running," Rajat Khurana managing director for Asics India says. But what they stand for is being cool, or as he puts it "These are street smart shoes." It's a niche that athletic companies across the world are tapping powered by twin engines of pop culture and celebrity following. Take for example, Puma's Fenty line of shoes that pop star Rihanna has helped popularize with younger buyers has revitalized the German brand that's now owned by French luxury goods company Kering.
So much so that Puma's CEO Bjorn Gulden told listeners on a media call that the relationship with Rihanna, who's now Puma's creative director, made the brand hot again wth younger consumers. Rihanna's shoes are distributed in India through eight stores in limited editions and are priced between Rs 10,000 and Rs 19000, says Abhishek Ganguly, managing director for Puma India. Historically, Kihachiro Onitsuka started his company in 1949 under the Onitsuka Tiger name with products made for track and field.
Then in 1977, he introduced two other brands and changed the company's name to ASICS, a Latin acronym for anima sana in corpore sano meaning "of sound mind, of sound body." In India, Khurana operates 24 stores for Asics, with an annual turnover of Rs 74 crore that he thinks can grow by between 15% to 20% with the addition of OT.
Khurana knows that he's got to build on an emotional connect with young consumers and he's OK with bringing on a celebrity ambassador that can synchronize with the what many Japanese see as a "symbol of pride." Actor Akshay Kumar for one is a die-hard fan of the brand, and reputed to own several pairs of Onitsuka Tigers but Khurana says he's he's not restricted to just Bollywood - it could be athletes or achievers in other spheres as well, as long as there's resonance.
Payal Kothari, a Mumbai-based shoe designer who makes footwear under the label Veruschka, says that historically, the sneaker culture was driven by the IT boom in the West over the last decade or so. Now in the present it's common-place amongst hipsters in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and younger people in general. "If you recall earlier nightclubs had dress-codes which didn't allow sneakers. Now fancier pairs cost as much as $1000 and you're probably sitting at the VIP table, if you're wearing a pair," she says.