Camper: One Step Ahead -- And Running Hard

The hip Spanish shoemaker can feel Nike breathing down its neck

The Spanish shoemaker Camper takes its name from the Catalan word for peasant. But many devotees of its quirky, colorful footwear are decidedly well-heeled. Talk-show host Jerry Springer often wears his Camper Pelotas on his show. European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson walks his dog in his Omega lace-ups. And Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston each own a pair of Camper's $185 Bou boots. Even regular folk can become instant stars when they step into a pair of Campers. "When I go to a party, people always end up talking about my feet," says Sally Greer, a 34-year-old computer software writer in London. Greer favors Camper's Twins styles, in which a shoe design starts on one foot and continues on the other.

You won't find punishing stilettos or pointy pumps in any of Camper's stores. Its designs emphasize fun and comfort. One of the company's best-selling styles is Pelotas, a $150 plus unisex shoe that resembles a retro soccer boot and is named after the rubber balls that make up the sole. Camper's designers are also daring in their use of color, drawing inspiration from their surroundings on the island of Majorca. "Our 22 designers work in a rural environment. We look out on the mountains of Majorca and are surrounded by the colors of the Mediterranean," explains founder Lorenzo Fluxá.

Thirty-year-old Camper logged revenues of nearly $181 million in 2004, a 7% increase from the previous year, on the sale of just over 3 million pairs of shoes. Fluxá, 57, will not reveal profits, though he says the company has never lost money. But perhaps a better measure of Camper's success is the myriad imitators it has spawned. Variants of its Pelotas shoe are on sale everywhere from Hermès to Marks & Spencer. (MAKSY )

Now Fluxá & Co. are bracing for competition on a new scale. Nike Inc. (NKE ) has just launched its first line of nonsports shoes, called Considered. Instead of the usual 20 to 30 components, Nike promises the shoes, priced between $65 and $110, will have just five, which can be recycled into surfaces for basketball courts and playgrounds, among other uses. Camper insiders say Nike is taking direct aim at its eco-friendly philosophy, and in particular its recyclable Wabi line. "Nike has taken our breath away," says a Camper manager, "and with it the philosophy we have held close for 30 years."

Perhaps, but the shoemaker has taken some hard knocks before. Dalia Saliamonas, Camper's marketing director, acknowledges that the company's Asian sales are still recovering from the SARS scare, which "hit sales of all branded goods badly." A four-year U.S. distribution agreement with Dr. Martens proved to be a bad style fit, crimping revenues stateside. But Camper is striking back. It aims to increase its number of U.S. stores from six now to as many as 15 in the next three to five years. The company runs 43 of its own shops worldwide and has 50 mini stores inside department stores. Sales through its 18-month-old Web site are also growing briskly.

The trick is to stay fresh in a business where trends wear out as quickly as a pair of flip-flops. "They have to rejuvenate themselves every year," says Armando Branchini, deputy chairman of luxury goods consulting group InterCorporate in Milan. And sometimes Camper's efforts to stay hip rub the rest of the fashion world the wrong way. When it prepared for the inauguration of its store on Milan's high-fashion Via Montenapoleone, Camper refused to follow local convention and board up the site. Instead it whitewashed the interior walls and invited passersby to write messages on them with felt-tip pens. Nearby retailers including Gucci Group (GUC ) and Giorgio Armani complained. But those scribblers walked right in.

By John Lawless in Barcelona

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