Reebok had a long and distinguished history in fell shoes as well as orienteering. It had been a mainstay of the UK factory throughout the 60’s and 70’s accounting for over half the shoes that where made in Bright Street, Bury. As Reebok had grown in the USA, attention had shifted more and more to road running and track shoes, then aerobics, tennis etc. Fell running had been left to rot and by ’84 when Chris Brasher had come in to the business with Reebok UK, it was long in the tooth. Chris had been an early advocate of orienteering and distributed Silva from Sweden, selling compasses and footwear. He was keen to see a new range of shoes, less keen was my dad to spend on it, so Paul Brown had zero budget to create a new shoe.
What Chris got was Wild Runner, a warmed over AZII upper with a light grey upper and red side stripe with the upper leather replaced with a new toe cap, sway bars and big toe protector included made from a new material from Freudenberg of Germany. This PVC material was backed with nylon felt and used in the door and head linings of Mercedes Benz cars. It was waterproof and didn’t crack or split with time or wear, brilliant! To this was added a new sole with a raised stud design, made in Korea and imported as complete units, just as we had done with Victory Gti and City Trainer. Plans were big and sales topped 20,000 pairs until!!!!
What no one had known was the headlining material was made in a transfer release process, to give it a nice, leather finish. This was achieved by adding a mould release agent, so it didn’t stick in the mould. When our shoes were made, we primed this and stuck the soles to it without a problem. Six weeks later the agent continued to ooze out of the material, releasing it from the sole. The first few came back, I looked at them and thought maybe we had not primed the uppers. I showed them to Bob Johnson, who agreed maybe we missed one or two pairs. The operatives concerned were shown the offending shoes and asked to pay special attention. Then the avalanche started until we had 10,000 pairs of unworn shoes that you could simply peel the soles off. Bob and I rushed to visit the adhesive manufacturer, who after testing, found the mould release culprit, but whatever they did nothing would make the sole stick!
A meeting with Chris, my dad, Dave Singleton and Keith Wilkinson, Paul Brown now having departed to the US, I admitted defeat with the material, Bob backed me. “What’s the answer?” Chris demanded. “Back to suede, until we can find something to replace it!” I winced. Agreed, Black suede, with a change of stripe colour to yellow and Wild runner two was born!
We had to get the said ‘black suede’, so Bob made the call to Newman in Cheatham hill Manchester. “Of course, my boy, come and get as much as you want!” Bob and I set off in my Ford Fiesta. Arriving at the run down warehouse that was Newman’s. We were greeted by Mr Newman junior who ushered us into what was a mountain of hides, he brought out an ancient set of wooden ladders, there you go, offering me a hand, up I went 20ft on a ladder missing at least a couple of rungs and climbed onto the huge pile of leather. Calls came from down below, “to the left” “further back”. I spotted it and threw down 20 bundles, to get us going. Bob chuckled all the way back as my little ford now full to the roof with bundles of suede chugged back to Bury.
Suede did the job, but it wasn’t the end of our wows, six months later a second issue arose, with the fast demise of the PVC upper material, what we had not known was the studs on our new sole were collapsing in use and wearing down at a rapid rate, runners got just three months out of a pair before they were running on slick soles. Not good!
Now fell running was a bad odour when mentioned within Reebok. It was 1986 and I was thrown this toxic potato that nobody wanted. I went out to visit a few of the local runners, got involved and studied their worn shoes, just as my Uncle Jeff had done in the 1960’s. Lots of people remembered him and the atmosphere was always warm, they told me what was good, what was bad, the main complaint of every brand was that they used a cardboard insole, this disintegrated in the constant wetting the shoes endured. Suede leached out, dried and cracked. Stitching cut and broke on the heather.
Fjell runner was a clean sheet design. The side stripes were removed and suede covered the whole lower part of the upper. Just a little two colour flash on the lateral side and the window label said ‘I’m Reebok’. A new harder, lower profile midsole was added to a new patented, pentagonal studded sole, these I placed around the periphery of the design, developed with Larkhill soling, the same company that made the Road Star sole from the Aztec, designed by my Uncle Jeff. This time the studs did not collapse even on the road. The cardboard insole was replaced with a waterproof none woven from Texon, that did not rot in use and maintained the integrity of the shoe. At last we had a contender, but the suede still dried out over time.
It was in early ’87 that we had a visit from our Distributor in Japan, Marubeni. Mr. Sasaki told me that one of their companies had invented a lightweight material, they sold to make footballs, called Clarino™. He sent me samples for us to try in our new soccer programme that we were developing. Mr. Sasaki sent me two samples, one looked just like glove leather, the second, was matt black and was being used for footballs by adidas, it absorbed no water, was impervious to anything you could throw at it. It was cementable and easy to cut and sew, on top of that at 1mm thick it was really light.
I made some samples to test and then was summoned to the USA for three weeks to work with the Design Team in Boston. In Boston I was given a seat by Paul Brown and a list of new court shoes needed, I drew and drew every day, taking designs in different directions, exaggerating each feature further and further. Designs where the lateral logo took over the shoe. Toe drag designs with large breathable panels and exaggerated toe caps and arrow features.
At the end of each day we would review my sketches with the other members of the design team, Chris Kittle, Juan Diaz and Dave Miller, they would like different features and I would spend the next day drawing in a new direction. This went on for six days a week for three weeks, hundreds of drawings that would lead to new feature the design team would adopt.
World series running shoes:
Tennis shoes, also used a version of the raised toecap design language, Axis tennis made a big , play on this along with the two colour PVC insert.
The Basketball category, used a twist on the same raised toecap, with cut out:
Three weeks over I packed my pencils and went back to Bolton and the fell shoe project. The test shoes had come back very positive, so I redesigned Fjell runner with the new high foxing design I had developed in Boston.
Added a new racing shoe with more classic lines of a Reebok, side bar on the lateral side, revolutionary on the medial side, a new racing last and, a lower heel drop, new exaggerated version of the Fjell sole. Fjell racer, pushed the boundary of what was possible for fell shoes.
And to top it off, I threw in a dedicated orienteering shoe based on Fjell racer, for my old friend Chris Brasher, Contour. He loved his shoes I presented him with. It had taken three years several thousand miles and a little soul searching heartache. But I left reebok with a range of world beating shoes they could be proud of.
© David Foster 2020