Sole Seeker

The race is on to create the next great luxury brand, and Gordon Thompson III is determined to finish first. The creative director and executive vice president of Cole Haan (the once somnambulant 73-year-old Maine leather-goods company), Thompson wants to give companies such as Gucci and Prada a run for their money. "An American luxury brand should be more casual and reflect our national lifestyle," says Thompson, the former global creative director of Nike, Inc., which has owned Cole Haan for 13 years. By merging Nike Air technology with Cole Haan's luxury construction, he created a whole new category of leather shoes—perfect for the foot soldiers of the New Economy confounded by deregulated dress codes.

Using Nike's A3520 airsole, which had originally been developed for a Nike Cross Training application but was only used once, Thompson's team designed both casual and dress shoes. Unlike Air Max and other Nike athletic shoes that use this type of cushioning, however, the Cole Haan shoes have a discreet, low profile. More important, they look sleek and elegant—much more like a shoe than a sneaker. "Now you can have comfortable walking shoes that don't look like comfortable walking shoes," says Thompson, as he fondles a sleek Oxford made of nappa leather. "It's luscious on your foot."

For Thompson—who was one of the few executives at Nike who didn't wear sneakers to work—the new line is both a professional and a personal victory. "At Nike we were designing products for athletes," he states. "But these are shoes my friends and I wear. Now I use much more personal insight in the creative process." His pursuit of good design literally knows no boundaries: Cole Haan's "360-degree design" requires every seam and sole to look good, so the shoe will be attractive from any angle. Thompson matched that design principle with top-tier materials (including crocodile, alligator, lizard, and cashmere suede), then focused on finding the right craftsmen. The new shoes are made one at a time in Italy by skilled artisans wearing white gloves. "When you open the box, someone that made that shoe put it in the box," he says. "That's a pretty special feeling these days. They really understand leather—and quality."

Nonetheless, Thompson still has to sell America on Cole Haan. "At the time I joined there wasn't a lot of brand development," he says. "It was your grandmother's shoe store, and now it's Palm Springs modern." Under his direction, the company is evolving into a lifestyle brand. The newly redesigned Cole Haan store on Chicago's high-visibility Michigan Avenue, for example, carries not only shoes for men and women but also briefcases, belts, socks, handbags, leather coats, and some sharp duffels. But shoes are still a major focus—not to mention a personal obsession of Thompson's.

So how many shoes should an average guy have in his closet? "My general rule is that you should have at least one pair of shoes for every ten CDs that you own," Thompson declares. Of course, he happily practices what he preaches. "I love to wear what we make. And now I have more shoes than CDs."

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