The Shoe Genius of Early 1970s Earth Shoes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because not all success stories end in great success.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Beds. Stairwells. Coffins.
All relatively unchanged era after era, their functional design rarely heeding the changing tides of fashion. They’re staples of living (and dying) that resist revolution and evolution as steadfastly as possible. Almost like the basic form of the shoe.
Or at least until 1970 when a Danish shoe designer, in a perfect “screw you” moment, decided to take a swing at the standard shoe. Instead of having a heavy heel in the rear and thin sole in the front (like most shoes since just about forever), Anne Kalsø decided to invert the entire operation.
The perfect example of convincing people that a product was new, exciting and needed because it was better for you.
Her shoe would have a thick sole and a thin heel. She called it the Earth Shoe since it clung closely to ideas that had been working in her head over years of practicing yoga all over the world. It was while yogi-ing in Brazil in the late 1950s that she noted footprints in the sand suggested a natural stance with heels lower, not higher, as most modern shoes placed them.
After 10 years of development, Kalsø built a niche but passionate customer base from her small store in Copenhagen. Critics would question the efficacy of what would later be called “negative-heel technology,” but in the hysteria that followed Kalsø’s worldwide expansion, competitors still copied and fans freaked out.
In a master stroke of marketing timing about three weeks before the first Earth Day celebration — April Fool’s Day, 1970, to be exact — the Earth Shoe had its debut in the U.S., and all kinds of low-heeled hell broke out.
“There was an Earth Shoe store on 17th and Irving,” said Noam Freedman, retailer and president of the New York Firestore, about the first Earth Shoe store, the Kalso Minus Heel. “Lines totally down the street. My mother called them my ‘Frankenstein Shoes.’ But they were the perfect example of a company convincing people that their product was new, exciting and, above all, needed because it was better for you. Like walking barefoot! Not the genius of the Pet Rock, but close.”
Close enough to generate a consumer frenzy for the $38.50 shoes that rivaled an earlier public passion for bell-bottom pants or the next generation’s fervor for jelly sandals. Less than a year later, in 1971, the company that now bore her name, Kalsø Earth Shoe, had to run ads asking clamoring customers to be patient. Patient? Yup: Demand had outstripped supply. In New York City alone, the demand among its 8 million people was staggering for a shoe that wasn’t expected to appeal to more than a motley collection of yoga enthusiasts.
And customers’ patience was wearing thin, even as the shoe scored an appearance on The Tonight Show, championed by the Earth Shoe–shod head of U.S. distributors, and got a write-up in Time. It wasn’t just pop-culture notice, either — the Earth Shoe earned a permanent place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1973. Yes, a shoe. And not a super-attractive shoe, either.
Still, it had us waiting months to get a pair and, once we got them, they generated conversations with strangers who stopped us on the streets to ask where they were from and how good they felt. The standard bit of wisdom was that the shoe was so amazing it would take you time to get used to them.
They were ugly. Ugly, comfortable and nicely Euro. All we really needed in the ’70s.
— Noam Freedman
Time apparently not to be had by Kalsø since, when the thirst for the demand didn’t slow, franchises started to sue. By 1977 it all came screeching to a halt, and as of 1980 the Earth Shoe could no longer be sold in American retail outlets. Negative heel technology went on to weather litigation by some who called bullshit on its supposed health benefits. And fashion, as it does, rambled on: Running shoes took over as the everyday foot-friendly norm.
Exit the Earth Shoe.
Until 2001, when it was resurrected after a six-year struggle and legal wrangle by a fan of the brand, Michel Meynard. At that point, after the death of inventor Anne Kalsø, the company amounted to little more than the rights. So, for $250,000, the Earth Shoe was reborn.
Renamed Earth, Inc., the shoe franchise won an Excellence in Design award in 2008 and continues to sell some 60 versions of its shoes in more than 500 stores. Priced for less than $100, some of its styles are vegan, some are sandals, and all come with negative-heel technology. None has inspired the frenzy of its predecessors.
Meynard may have said it best in a 2002 interview with the New York Times: “[Earth Shoes] are an experience. People have always been intrigued by them.” People, their wallets and their feet.
“They were ugly,” laughs Freedman. “Ugly, comfortable and nicely Euro. All we really needed in the ’70s. Well, that and oodles and oodles of cocaine, but you get my drift.”
Indeed we do.