HONG KONG — For the better part of a century, Chinese school kids in physical education class turned to Warrior for their gym shoes. Shenzhen-native Bohan Qiu was one of them, and recalls how his primary school trainers were mandatory-issued Warrior ones.
This was before China had really opened up in the Eighties, and foreign sneaker brands were unheard of. Warrior, which was created in 1927, “was one of the only cool Chinese sneaker options you had out there, one of the only ones that was branded,” Qiu said. But with the entrance of international sportswear giants Adidas and Nike, Warrior shoes and other Chinese-made labels fell to the wayside.
Now Qiu is part of a team of four spread across China and Italy trying to revive the cult Shanghainese sneaker brand for an international audience, under a new name — WOS33 — although it’s not the first time someone has spied potential in Warrior.
In 2010, trade publication Jing Daily reported on an attempt to push Warrior products upmarket within China itself that fizzled out, and an online search for the name reveals a long-inactive Warrior shoes site for the Australian market, a separate attempt to adapt it to foreign tastes.
The latest re-branding effort, which launched this month, only applies to the international market, for which Qiu’s team holds the rights for a year. Their products are currently sold only online but in January the team will head to Paris for a pop-up shop during men’s fashion week, with similar events planned in major cities including Los Angeles, New York and London.
There are two models for sale now on the WOS33 site which feature Warrior’s signature design, produced in blue and red. WOS33’s versions are priced at 70 euros, which the international team said owes to its improved design and durability, while the Chinese original Warrior sneakers, which are still sold around China, cost about 50 renminbi ($7.60).
“We upgraded the whole shoe so it’s more durable, improved soles, better quality, and more suitable for modern contemporary lifestyle,” Qiu said. “The original is not the best-made shoe. The Chinese company, they still have deals with the educational department and do have quite a big group buy for kids in school but our stuff is separate from that part of the business.”
If WOS33 catches on, it will be following in the footsteps of Feiyue, a remade hipster Chinese shoe brand which is known for its connection to Chinese monks and martial arts. But earlier this year, a fight emerged over Feiyue, which at one point was under the same parent company as Warrior. Like WOS33, an enterprising young team started producing a version for overseas markets but it angered the Chinese parties, who said the European versions were tantamount to fakes.
Qiu said the initial contract with the Chinese company that manufactures the original Warrior shoes is a short one-year period because it wanted to see what kind of quantities their team can sell.
“Previously with the Australian partner, they didn’t really do a very good job. They weren’t going to the right distribution channels,” Qiu explained. The Chinese side does not care much about pursuing international growth, he said, so they aren’t worried about encountering a situation like Feiyue.
However, “the company that is building up the WOS33 name outside China may be taking a risk,” said Dan Harris, a lawyer who founded China Law Blog. “It may be thinking that it will do a great job and then the Chinese company will be so happy it will renew the licensing agreement for another five years because the Chinese company will know that it has no ability to just step in and take over outside China.
“Then again, Chinese companies tend not to have a good understanding of international marketing,” he continued, “and they tend to think it is a lot easier than it is so we may get a situation where even though it does not make sense on any level for the Chinese company to take over outside China, it wrongly believes that it does and so it does take over and then everyone loses. We have seen this happen on many fronts so that is definitely possible. Of course, without any ability to see the contract, there are all sorts of possibilities here.”
While WOS33 is seeking new customers overseas, not those who may have had a nostalgic memory of wearing Warrior shoes as a child, there is little doubt there is a burgeoning sneaker and youth culture scene in China. Against a backdrop of a general sportswear boom, August saw the debut of Sneaker Con in Asia. One Shanghai retailer, a chain with five stores whose main business is both Warrior and Feiyue shoes, estimates that sales are up 50 percent this year. At the same time, the chain’s retail presence has gone more upmarket, from hole-in-the-wall street side shops to a shiny new store in Shanghai’s upmarket Xintiandi shopping precinct.
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“We didn’t want this heritage to go to waste. We wanted to take something that is our culture, making it really worldly, really global,” Qiu said. “It’s the new Chinese cool, I think.”