From protecting our feet to today’s endless number of personalized customizations, shoes have gone a long way. But the same can be said about the shoe companies and their corporate landscapes.
A shoe might be “an item intended to protect and comfort our feet while doing various activities”, as Wikipedia says, but it is also, as all items of clothing, a status symbol that can, at a glance describe you as a person. As the saying goes, you are what you wear – but what can shoes tell us about the evolving nature of the corporations behind their production?
We invite you on an enlightening short walk through the history of shoe making in the 21st and the shifting nature of contemporary corporate landscapes behinds their production.
Live, think and work Bata.
Our journey starts in the 1930s when, inspired by Fordist theories, garden city principles and socialist ideals, the Czech shoe company Bata went on a mission to “shoe the world“ and built around 55 company towns all around the world. The Bata System aimed at the optimization and rationalization of production processes as a means of ensuring profit under the Fordist industrial production principles. It was a centralized vertical system of control aimed at the entire production from the processing of raw materials to selling the finished product, covering not only the production of shoes, but also social welfare, architecture, urban planning, communication and social behavior. Bata meant not the production of shoes but a way of standardized life. All aspects of the Bata life had to be profitable, that way the system was sustainable by itself.
Bata shops selling Bata shoes, grocery store selling products from Bata farms for workers to buy from, cinema and theatre for workers to enjoy their evenings and weekends; sport facilities for workers to spend their weekends and to participate in events, schools for children to study and be formed as Bata Young men and women – meaning that the money it was paying to the workers always returned to the company and that they barely had the necessity to leave the premises of the factory, being 24h on call. By supplying the local recruited workers all their needs, it created fidelity. By controlling all the production facilities, it created profit.
Free yourself. Just do it.
While the Bata System was a worldwide network of factory towns, Nike Town is not a town but a concept store chain. Established in 1971, Nike Inc. exemplifies the shift to post-Fordism in terms of its organizational culture and flexible specialization. This arrangements increase pluralism and fragmentation and thus, its corporate geographies are harder to define. Nike is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
While its headquarters remain fixed in Beaverton, Oregon, shoe production takes place under several subcontracting arrangements that allow the company a high degree of flexibility in dynamic and fluid markets. Thus, Nike no longer owns the means of production nor its shops but relies on subcontracting and franchising, in order to produce and sell their products.
While this means that production no longer requires the development of complex factory towns, Nike’s products themselves become abstract “cultural signs” that reinforce a belief in a potential to get things done, to accomplish athletic achievements and “Just Do It” – rather than buying the shoe itself.
This new relationship with the product allows Nike to better adapt to the changes on the market but also to expand its line of products in new ways by promoting new types of experiences associated with sports and healthier lifestyles.
Today large tech companies pride themselves in no longer owning property or goods. Airbnb doesn’t own the apartments they are renting and Uber doesn’t own the cars that drive its clients around. This is also the case of Zappos, our last part of the story. Zappos is no longer a shoe manufacturer, but an online platform that delivers happiness to its customers.
While delivering happiness allows the company not to own goods but rather just work as a matchmaker between costumers and production companies, it also allows it to expand freely in new and completely different markets – but most importantly into the urban environment. This is the case of the Downtown Project in central Las Vegas which started from the need for a new type of company campus and the acquisition of the former Las Vegas Municipality building. This new relationship between the company and the urban has transformed Las Vegas’s Downtown into an experimental urban incubator for start-ups, all curated by Zappos in the name of delivering happiness to its employees and the visitors of the area.
From protecting our feet to today’s endless number of personalized customizations, shoes have gone a long way. But the same can be said about the companies that make them. From producing a standardized affordable product to selling a symbol for personal aspirations and the experience of a great service, the business of producing and selling shoes is as innovative and versatile as any nowadays. More importantly, the physical mark of their activities, from company towns to dispersed geographies of production and consumption and todays growing importance of the urban as an incubator for business innovation can tell us a lot about what we can expect from corporations in the near future.
We ask, does this signal the rebirth of the company town under the realm of spillover economies and how will this change the way we live, work and play? Stick around and find out…