IN RECENT YEARS ATHLETES HAVE been drawn to couture like so many moths to the runway footlights; witness Dennis Rodman's appearances on MTV's ""House of Style'' or volleyball powerhouse Gabrielle Reece's photo shoots for Elle. Now it's the designers who are having real success merging sports and fashion. Two of this year's hottest athletic shoes--long a sign of jock success--bear the names not of Michael Jordan or Grant Hill but of Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan.
Michael probably doesn't have to worry about going toe to toe with Tommy on the court, but Adidas and Fila just might. In addition to DKNY and TH Athletics, Nautica's Competition line of shoes is already selling well (and worn on the hardwood by Charlotte Hornets forward Glen Rice). Ralph Lauren is expected to launch Polo Sport performance shoes in spring '99, and Calvin Klein is rumored to be considering licensing deals. Salomon Brothers footwear analyst Brett Barakett projects that by 1999, designer shoes could make up 7 percent of the $8 billion U.S. athletic footwear market. Barakett estimates that the Hilfiger line will rake in $65 million in sales in its first year, ""an impressive debut.''
Still, Nike spokesman Lee Weinstein doesn't seem too worried: ""It's one thing to slap a logo on a pair of shoes; it's quite another to be working with the world's top athletes,'' as Nike claims to do. But licensees like Stride Rite (Hilfiger) and Reebok's Rockport (Polo Sport) will take care of technology; in any case, industry experts say that less than 20 percent of consumers actually wear athletic shoes for sports purposes. Just ask Joaquin Phillips, 19, who proudly points to the shoes he and two friends are wearing as they hang out in New York's East Village. ""Right now,'' he says, ""I'd rather watch basketball on TV wearing my Tommy Hilfigers than my Air Jordans.''