They’re the go-to shoes of skateboarders, Shaolin monks, and Orlando Bloom.
For years, the Chinese sneaker brand Feiyue has been a favorite of kung fu artists and street artists alike, spawning collaborations with Céline, Marvel, and Swarovski. English model Poppy Delevingne once told W Magazine that she “lived” in the sneakers.
The shoes date back to the Mao era, and for a long time, they were seen in China as a cheap alternative to higher-quality foreign brands.
But they inadvertently became a street fashion icon after a French entrepreneur brought 3,000 pairs outside of China and started selling them to the world.
The move made Feiyue an international icon, but it also led to a trademark dispute between the French and Chinese manufacturers of Feiyue.
As a result, there are now two Feiyues—one in China and one in France—and they both claim to be authentic in their own right.
How the shoes get made
But ask most people, and they’ll say the real Feiyues are made in a small town in eastern China called Rui’an.
This is the canvas shoemaking powerhouse of China. There are more than 100 shoe factories here, and many of them make the kind of canvas shoes sold by Vans, Converse, and, of course, Feiyue.
Every day, about 3,000 workers clock into the Feiyue factory here to make its iconic shoes. The company sells an average five million pairs a year across China.
The factory runs eight assembly lines and makes about 4,500 to 5,000 pairs of Feiyue shoes every day. That means more than 36,000 pairs a day.
(Read more: Inside the White Rabbit candy factory)
The factory is particularly proud of its rubber, owing to its legacy of tiremaking. The previous parent company of Feiyue, Dafu, got its start in tire production and went into shoemaking because it had excess rubber.
To show just how durable the material is, a worker takes a large chunk and starts throwing it on the ground. The chunk bounces up to his arms and continues to bounce off the floor two or three more times before settling on the ground.
That rubber will eventually be turned into soles for shoes. Chen Ming, the chief designer, compares the process to making buns.
“With buns, first, you need to make the dough,” he says. “Well, in our case, we have to refine the rubber.”
After it’s refined, the rubber is stretched—like dough—into soles. Meanwhile, another team is working on sewing the canvas tops. Those then get glued to the soles.
After that, the shoes are off to the vulcanizing ovens, where they’re baked at 275 degrees Fahrenheit or 135 Celsius. This process bonds the materials together and makes the rubber stronger.
“This is when we say the raw shoes become baked shoes,” Chen says. “After that, they’re ready to wear.”
Every year, the design team comes up with 13,000 to 15,000 designs, but only 300 make it to production.
How Feiyue came to be
The most iconic design remains the Feiyue 501, a white plimsoll with red and blue chevrons. The design dates back to the 1950s, when a Chinese tire company called Dafu Rubber started making consumer shoes.
The company initially got into shoemaking because it saw an opportunity to turn excess rubber into shoes. The first product it rolled out in the 1940s was a line of military shoes called Jiefang, or “liberation,” named after the People’s Liberation Army.
When demand from the military declined in the 1950s, Dafu turned to consumer shoes. The first design it came up with was the Feiyue 501.
“After we came up with the design, my boss said we should give it a new name,” recalls Liu Wangsheng, now a general manager at Feiyue. “What should we call it? Well, it was 1958, a special period in China’s history, so we called it Feiyue.”
In Chinese, Feiyue means “leap forward,” as in Great Leap Forward, a period when the Communist government hoped to rapidly industrialize the country and overtake the West in just four years.
Feiyue quickly became a favorite of athletes and martial artists, who valued the shoes’ comfort and flexibility. In its first year, the company sold 4.7 million pairs.
The shoes continued to be popular through the 1970s and ’80s, but things changed when China opened its market to the world in the 1980s.
Foreign brands like Nike and Adidas quickly overtook Feiyue. The biggest disruptor was Converse, whose vulcanized canvas shoes were similar to the plimsolls that Feiyue made.
Shoe production took a further hit when Dafu decided to focus on making tires, which were more profitable.
Dafu went bankrupt in the early 2000s, and Liu Wangsheng, along with his business partner Liu Qinglong, took over the Feiyue brand.
They set up a new company, rehired most of the former staff, and turned Feiyue into a private business.
Two countries, one brand
At around the same time, a French entrepreneur named Patrice Bastian was traveling around Asia and discovered the shoes on a stop in Shanghai. He saw potential to sell them outside China and bought the rights to Feiyue.
The only problem was that he didn’t buy them from the original factory. He had actually bought them from a contractor. Liu Wangsheng said his company never gave Bastian permission to register Feiyue outside China.
In 2017, Bastian told the South China Morning Post that he had tried to find the original owner, but “the main issue is that many people are claiming the right to the brand in China. So it’s very difficult to work with one owner.”
Meanwhile in China, the Lius were fuming. Because while the French Feiyue was taking off in other markets, including the United States and Europe, they couldn’t sell their shoes abroad because Bastian owned the rights.
In 2010, the Lius sued Bastian in France for trademark infringement but lost.
“We basically lost all the overseas trademark rights,” says Liu Wangsheng.
Despite the bitter legal battle—in the same SCMP piece, his partner accused Bastian of being a “robber”—Liu is moving past it.
He now acknowledges that the French Feiyue brought the brand international fame and has helped reintroduce domestic consumers to the Chinese shoe.
Now, Liu and his team are now trying to differentiate themselves from the French Feiyue.
“We’ve added the word Dafu on the sole, the shoe tongue, and inside the shoes, so customers can know this is the authentic Feiyue,” he says.
(Feel like buying a pair? We carry the authentic Chinese ones on the Goldthread Shop!)
In terms of price, the French Feiyue runs about $50 to $65 a pair. The Chinese Feiyue is about $15.
There’s been a lot of debate online about how to tell whether the shoe is a Chinese or French one.
Many have speculated that a green triangle on the sole indicates it’s the Chinese version and a red dot the French.
But the green triangle is actually the mark of a Chinese contractor called Top One, whose rights to manufacture Feiyue expired a decade ago.
Now, Dafu has incorporated the red dot on its Feiyue shoes to match with the French, an ironic end to a decades-long battle for a brand that never quite belonged to any one entity.