TRAVEL FOX & THE ART OF ‘CASUALETICS’
Blog post from May 2009.
Every decade seems to get an excessive epilogue. The ’60s had team Manson on the loose. The ’70s saw Spielberg set the hit or miss megabudget tone when ‘1941’ flopped. The ’80s had Travel Fox. Something of a mystery to me at the time, the late ’80s were a breeding ground of new shoe brands. Whether indeed they actually served an athletic purpose was superfluous.
Sitting at the MacBook with a bombastically worded press release for Kanye’s LV creations (priced at up to a grand) and strangely attracted to the third Yeezy makeup, we’re still fascinated by the high-end sports-inspired shoe and there’s plenty more on the horizon. The Travel Fox was the product that brainwashed me into thinking pricetag equals props. The Travel Fox is the product that left me verbally and psychologically adding an “only” prefix to anything sub £100 in the two decades that followed. This is a shoe that opened a floodgate. It’s got a lot to answer for.
Yet there’s little true history surrounding the brand out there. Travel Fox was brought to my attention via the same West Indian trendsetter kids round my way who brought Click Suits and Chipie (like Travel Fox, a Euro lifestyle product reappropriated), Vikings (which on a macabre note I believed to be long-gone but recently saw on the feet of a deceased rudeboy in a Kingston crime scene picture) and Ballys. I’m surprised the pinrolled aspirational style of the time hasn’t been sufficiently dismantled and analysed beyond ‘The Face’ pieces of the time. As a gawping onlooker of the time, denied costly flash-in-the-pans, I’m not qualified to analyse them myself.
As I understand it, Travel Fox was an Italian brand, making premium sneakers designed for day-to-day wear. The enterprising Ashley Schapiro spotted them and imported them to the States circa. 1985/6 with Hongson International, a NYC Fifth Avenue-based company with plenty of Far East connects, later teaching their Asian factories the intricacies of Italian manufacture techniques, where they fitted in perfectly with the Bally, Gucci and MCM looks. They ran a few famous risque ads, and ended up firing their ad agency in 1987 after an AIDS-era controversy over using sex to sell. As time went on, we saw a few in the UK a couple of years later – whether these were US imports, Italian imports or a UK license is unknown to me. This was a time when oneupmanship was the key to self-esteem, not a check shirt and Chukka
The ultra-expensive Troop got finished by (unfounded) KKK rumours and ended up being the garish centrepiece of my local Burtons. Being provincial, the brand seemed to get 24 extra months of cool whereas you’d probably be laughed out of South London for your metal-plated, snakeskinned monstrosities. In Bedford town there was even a rumour (again, utterly untrue) that Reebok had some shady investors too. I like to imagine that the minds behind Travel Fox instigated these rumours too. Tone Loc endorsed the brand too, back when he was a big deal.
Reebok actually hit hard with the original Pump, later renamed The Bringback in. ’89 – total, total, excess. Hideous in retrospect, and first spotted by me on the cover of conservative housewives’ choice ‘You’ magazine worn by none other than predatory pop pundit Jonathan King, who boasted about them being £175 and him being the first in the country to own them. Not the greatest endorsement. Travel Fox shoes stood out to me via their £140 price tag. Considering the Air Trainer SC and Stab were an eye-watering £85 at ripoff club book prices, and a pair of Jordan IVs were £65 round my way, this was a colossal sum. Which instantly meant they were amazing.
Beyond the economics, the quality of materials was excellent. The soft nappa leather, hangtags, box complete with a mini-essay on why you’d made the right choice choosing Travel Fox also made them more desirable.But they were also elusive. By the time they’d hit the shelves of stores I was frequently visiting, for the basketball boot themed models, it was game over.
The legendary Tony Wilson (R.I.P.) wore them badly with Armani suits, twinning his deconstructed tailoring with ice-white and animal skin effect footwear for the double Italian mismatch. BBC 1’s ‘The Clothes Show’ used them as the leathery posterchild for overpriced hi-tops. Half of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s soundalike pop star production line was wearing a pair. Stock and Aitken can eat a dick – Pete Waterman gets a pass for putting out Diamond D’s album four years later. With their high comfort levels, the Travel Fox seemed to take off among clubbers and baggy ravers with expendable income too.
By 1990, even though the big guns were at their prime in terms of innovative output, a kind of brand-off was taking place among youths of a certain age. Alongside the usual suspects, Fila Hikers and suede Champion were big locally. Even in a small town we had two stores selling uber-expensive shoes for a monied crowd who didn’t want their creps duplicated (Sportabello and SCAT). Even K-Swiss tried to sell us the Classic in the UK as a gap in the market of open-minded characters looking to up the ante style-wise sat wide-open. Travel Fox shoes in suede were readily available round my way for a tenner or so over the price of Jordans. Cheaper than their debut, but still a premium pricetag. Jazzy B and the Soul II Soul crew wore the shit out of them too. Then, once again, they were passe. Ubiquity killed off another sleeper sneaker brand.
The same year, US brand spokesmen were falling over themselves to use their buzz-term ‘casualetic’ a casual shoe with athletic influences – they were keen to stress the non-athletic purpose of Travel Fox. In 1992, they were pitched as upmarket hikers in middle class US clothing stores, and Travel Fox US floundered, even trying to make proper athletic footwear with performance elements. A bad sign. And with that, they were pretty much gone for the next seven years Stateside.
In Europe it was a different story- a UK license seemed to be held by the same firm that developed Caterpillar footwear. It was a key brand in Offspring’s early years. I spotted Travel Fox looking forlorn in Offspring in 1997, floundering trying to capture the look of the time (NB 576s, Superstar, Acupuncture, shiny Air Maxes and Terras) at a £45 pricepoint. It was like seeing a flash friend from a decade ago, burnt out and homeless. Stateside, I heard they were residing in sale buckets for chump change.
Whether this was a UK licensee at work, or whether this was Travel Fox Italy’s last ditch bread & butter is another mystery. I’m certain that a few years ago, I saw some retros of the brand’s late ’80’s offerings gathering dust too. Ashley became the sole US-distributor of the brand he championed originally again in ’99 – I’m not sure if this deal was under Hongson or a solo mission.
Onetime Lennox Lewis sponsors and Troopalikes, SPX (shit in the first place) tried a similar tact in the early ’00s – their boombox-shaped boxes clogged up many a stockroom. Even Troop couldn’t retro itself properly, and that’s with Ghostface Killah as their frontman. Sadder still, the UK-based cash-strapped bargain basement sports shops, JJB Sports, a chain famed for their stack and sell of some total crap bought the Travel Fox and Champion labels around 2007. As the lead in
the Scottish Play put it, “…out, out, brief candle…”
Google trawling I also found some atrocious Travel Fox line art that looks distinctly JJB. I really hope it’s not real. Only recently, the people of Jump Shoes, a division of Hongson that launched in 1992 have started hitting up message boards promoting their take on the Vanquish. To tell the truth, it’s not a Travel Fox silhouette that ever caught my UK-based attention at the time. I also borrowed their ad archive to cut through the word excess of this post. They’ve obviously clocked how things have gone full-circle, and that
the market for indies and fashion-led shoes with no pretence to track, field or court purpose is wide open again.
Minus the era, the Travel Fox branding (again pointing to licensing, or the official death of Travel Fox US during the last decade) or the aspirational pricetag, and with the internet stripping most mysteries bare, it’s just not the same for me. But good luck to ’em, all the same. I think the Travel Fox resonated a little harder in its imported heyday than its flash-in-the-pan reputation ever suggested.
(Apologies to everyone whose picture archives, eBay or otherwise, I raided to decorate this blogpost.)
If there’s any ex-Travel Fox employees out there around for an interview – Holler!