Footwear designers on the move in Portland among Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Columbia Sportswear

Footwear designers on the move in Portland among Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Columbia Sportswear

It would be understandable if Nike, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear felt like Under Armour was picking on them.

Since Under Armour opened a design studio near downtown Portland about a year ago, it has plucked at least 16 of its three dozen employees from the trio of established Oregon footwear and apparel companies.

There’s the footwear designer who worked three years at Columbia, the footwear designer who worked nine years at Nike and its Jordan Brand, the designer who worked seven years at Nike, and the footwear designer who worked six months as an Adidas America intern in Portland, got a full-time Adidas gig, then bolted within months across town to Under Armour.

But it was the recent defection of three high-profile designers from Nike to Adidas that has really put Portland talent swapping in the spotlight. Denis Dekovic, Marc Dolce and Mark Miner were among the best known of Nike’s footwear designers.

People change jobs all the time — all the more as the economy improves and employees feel emboldened to test their value elsewhere. But the Dekovic/Dolce/Miner defection sent ripples across the sports apparel business in the Portland area and left some wondering whether the industry here is starting to mature beyond the Nike focus that has defined it for decades.

It’s not that Nike, one of Oregon’s two Fortune 500 companies, is doing badly. Quite the contrary: It has boosted employment by nearly 50 percent since 2010 at its headquarters campus near Beaverton.

A host of other local brands — Adidas, Under Armour, Columbia Sportswear and Keen Footwear, among others — are doing the same. As that rapid growth takes hold, and sports apparel startups increasingly come out of the woodwork, Portland figures to be an even bigger hotbed of job-hopping.

That has some advantages (easier to attract talent when people have more than one career option in town) and some disadvantages (legal spats over no-compete clauses and allegations of poaching).

“There’s a handful of little brands here to feed off the bigger brands,” said Enrique Washington, a longtime Portland-area executive recruiter who specializes in the sportswear industry. That, he said, will only increase in the years ahead — and some of the little brands may not stay so little forever.

Talent poaching has been around the industry for decades. And around any other industry that has a cluster of competitors in the same area, like software engineers in Silicon Valley or financial analysts in lower Manhattan.

Adidas owes its North American headquarters location to two former Nike employees who insisted that Portland — not an East Coast outpost — was the forward-looking location for the German brand. Other shoe brands soon followed, including Fila (now gone) and Mizuno and now, Under Armour. They filled roster spots with Nike alumni. And the street went both ways, as Nike also plucked their talent.

Some believe the pace is picking up, though. And now involves more than just a handful of competitors.

“There’s much more activity in the past year or two than the five years prior,” said Matt Halfhill, founder and editor of the sneaker blog Nice Kicks.

Halfhill attributes the marketability of top-notch footwear designers to their celebrity status among shoe collectors. His publication, along with more than 20 other widely read sneaker blogs, have helped those designers build their personal brands with lengthy Q interviews. Dekovic, Dolce and Miner have all been given the sneaker-blog star treatment.

Adidas participated this summer in the all-out effort to entice NBA star Kevin Durant to defect from Nike after his endorsement deal expired. Under Armour did the same. Both lost out when Nike re-signed the forward.

But Halfhill says Adidas still emerges as a winner because of the potential impact of Dekovic, Dolce and Miner.

“These three are going to do more for that brand than signing three celebrities,” Halfhill said. “Celebrities are huge, but you have to have product to sell.”

The troika’s move is a broader indication that Adidas is stepping up its game, said Nick DePaula, a writer for SLAM Magazine and the former editor-in-chief of Portland-based sneaker blog Sole Collector Magazine.

“The company has also been very aggressive in seeking out the best talent in the industry,” DePaula said. “A rise in competition between brands will be great to follow, and will lead to a sharper focus and increased innovation from both” Nike and Adidas.

In addition, Adidas last week announced its chief human resources officer will be located in Portland, replacing a predecessor who had been based in Germany. In September, Adidas said it had moved global creative director Paul Gaudio from Germany to Portland, an example of its efforts to connect more deeply with the American market.

Dekovic and Dolce declined interview requests for this story; Miner did not respond to a request sent through his LinkedIn account.

An Adidas spokeswoman declined to say when the Brooklyn studio featuring the three would open in 2015. Also, officials for Nike and Under Armour did not respond to requests for comment about this story.

That may be because no-compete clauses cover all three.

“No-competes are very common,” in the footwear and apparel industry, said Dione Katelhut, founder of the Portland fashion employment agency The Fit. “Enforcing them is less common.”

Typically, these agreements include a one-year “restriction period” that prevent a former footwear designer from working for another brand as well as a one-year prohibition on the former employee from persuading former colleagues to join them in their new venture.

It’s not know how much Adidas will pay the troika. The median hourly pay for a fashion designer in Oregon is $29 while those in the top tier earn at least $47 an hour, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Halfhill, of Nice Kicks, knows that talent designers moving from one competitor to another can be problematic for brand managers. But overall, he thinks it’s healthy for the industry.

“This is putting some value in the marketplace,” Halfhill said. “If you don’t have good designers, who cares about the sponsorships, who cares about the celebrities?”

— Allan Brettman

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