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Spring hotfoot for sport shoe industry

New technology combined with new sports and more participation by women have ignited the athletic shoe industry. As a result, nearly 40 percent of the footwear industry in the United States is devoted to athletic shoes, says Gregg Hartley, marketing vice president for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and executive director of the Athletic Footwear Association. "And probably 75 to 80 percent of athletic shoes are worn for casual as well as sports activities," he says.

Thirty years ago, today's selection was hard to imagine.

"People don't realize that, in 1968, if you went into a footwear or sporting goods store you could buy three or four kinds of athletic shoes," Hartley says. "Within that category, you had a choice of probably two colors, high top or low top. What we have now in the athletic footwear business is 120-odd athletic footwear companies offering an unbelievable range of products. Nike is in probably 25 or 30 categories with 25 or 30 styles in 25 or 30 colors."

"We used to have two seasons, but it's more like four now," says Bob Liewald, senior vice president and general manager of Fila USA. "We have to re-create ourselves every 90 days with new products in each category _ cross training, running, tennis. We have to bring out new, new, new."

The assortment of shoes can be overwhelming to shoppers interested in style, function and comfort. More is on the way, too.

By the end of this month, shoe manufacturers will be introducing the latest spring styles. Here's what you can expect to see:

Colorful soles: Bottoms with multiple colors and translucent layers make soles so snazzy you'll want to perfect your high kicks and join the Rockettes.

Intricate eyelets: Round metal grommets have been replaced by loops of nylon ribbon, leather or fancy D-rings.

Basic colors: Black and white predominate, but accent colors are popular in basketball and running shoes. Reebok will reintroduce its women's aerobic shoe, the high-top Freestyle, in retro '80s pastels.

Tongues and laces: It's back to the old-fashioned system after consumers gave a lukewarm reception to neoprene sock liners, zippers, hook-and-loop strap closures and other complicated innovations.

Indefinite boundaries: Fancy designing pulls soles into the uppers or blends the tongue color with the collar or heel counter, making shoes look more like wearable, moving sculptures.

Extraordinarily ordinary: Skateboarders like simple chic, preferring old-fashioned canvas and rubber sneakers such as Vans or Converse. Retro reissues such as the Nike Cortez return at nearly half the price. Gimmicks are gone unless they really work.

Sport specific: By spring, Fila will introduce shoes for spinning classes on stationary bicycles. Reebok and Nike make trail running shoes, and other companies are studying the shoe potential in skateboarding and street luge.

Superstar endorsements: Michael Jordan's Air Jordan is still king, but the Grant Hill basketball shoe helped put Fila back on the map.

Integrated design approaches: Adidas has embraced a design concept based on the foot, not on high-tech or sports marketing pitches. The Feet You Wear concept provides protection but allows the foot its natural movement, and Reebok's DMX Series 2000 technology uses a system of components to provide cushioning and stability throughout the foot's stride.

"Brown" shoes: White shoes stay indoors while brown go out. That's industry lingo. The brown category keeps the athletic shoe technology and materials but uses them in running shoes, cross-trainers and lightweight hiking boots.

Sport sandals: Like a stripped-down athletic shoe, the sport sandal delivers the kind of performance that makes it comfortable, durable and a continued best seller.

More shoe for less money: The pricey technology of five years ago is now available in mid-price ranges, from $49 to $90 at retail, says Hartley.

Serious shoes for women: Following the success of the Sheryl Swoopes shoe for Nike, companies are responding to women's increased sports participation, and women's shoes aren't just for looks. Except for fun fashion shoes, girlie colors and ineffective cushioning are gone.

Says Hartley, "It's pretty hard to play in-your-face basketball wearing pink shoes."