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How UM student tied academics, artsy hobby into style sneaker startup


University of Michigan junior Jordana Schrager is an arts major with a business minor on pace to graduate next year — but she's already putting both disciplines to work.

Schrager, 21, took her hobby of making custom artwork shoes for her friends and classmates and made it into a business that has sold more than 10,000 pairs of licensed footwear in dozens of college logos and colors.

She is co-owner of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Sideline Sneakers LLC, which markets the high- and low-top canvas sneakers under the brand name Skicks.

Since launching in August, the single largest-seller is the line of University of Michigan shoes, followed by Michigan State University, said Jordana's mother and business partner, Meryl Schrager.

The Converse-style sneakers, which have a custom sole, are sold online at Skicks.com, and in fan shops and college bookstores.

The high-tops retail on the company's website for $69.99 and low-tops sell for $59.99. Selling more than 10,000 since August translates into more than $600,000 in revenue.

Sideline Sneakers has a license with each university, and the schools typically get about 10 percent of the retail sales price as a licensing fee.

Licensing deals generate millions in revenue for universities.

Collegiate Licensing Co., based in Atlanta, handles UM's apparel and merchandise licensing, which has generated $3.2 million to $6.8 million annually for the university over the past decade.

CLC is an arm of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based IMG College, which has been contracted since 2007 to manage and sell all marketing and sponsorship deals for UM athletics.

"From the start, they wanted to make sure they were doing things the right way with the licensing process," said Kristen Ablauf, Michigan's director of trademark licensing. "We want to make sure our brand is being portrayed in the right way. We felt like, after reviewing all of her business history, it was worth granting her the license and seeing what she could do with it."

Skicks isn't the only college-branded footwear maker. CLC's database shows nine companies alone licensed for Michigan sneakers, including Gladwyne, Pa.-based Reversus LLC, which makes a Keds-like two-tone shoe, and Matthews, N.C.-based Renaissance Imports Inc., which does sandals and casual footwear.

Other schools, such as Michigan State, directly license products such as Skicks rather than using a third-party company, Meryl Schrager said. Besides the two Michigan colleges, the schools available now include Indiana, Wisconsin, Florida State, Syracuse, Penn State, Miami (Fla.), Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, Cincinnati, Louisville, Baylor and Clemson.

Skicks is currently applying for a license from Ohio State University — a potentially hot seller because the Buckeyes won college football's national championship in January.

Soon to be added to the Skicks lineup are Mississippi, Massachusetts, Rutgers, Maryland,Florida, Arizona, Nebraska, Tulane and Cal.

School days

Jordana Schrager began decorating shoes as a high school sophomore, starting with doodles on an old pair of white Vans. Her friends began wearing them. She kept it up once she enrolled at Michigan.

"She did a Michigan-themed pair for herself and her friends. Everybody wanted that Michigan-themed sneaker," said Meryl Schrager, who is co-president.

When students began putting the sneaker on their social media accounts, the university noticed and posted a photo on its official Instagram account.

That was free marketing. So is having students wearing her shoes.

"It was walking advertising," Jordana said.

Before long, she and her mother, along with her mother's close friend since their days atSyracuse University, Lisa Benedict, launched Sideline Sneakers and began the hard work of getting collegiate licensing. Benedict also is co-president.

Jordana creates the designs, and her mother and Benedict handle the business side.

Most of the college shoes are relatively simple designs, but Jordana continues to create her handmade custom shoes as a separate business.

For the handmade shoes, she uses Sharpie paint pens that ensure the designs are water-resistant and allow her to create small, vivid details.

The professionally manufactured university logo/color Skicks, which are made in China, also resist weather.

"The kids wear (homemade shoes) to a tailgate and they get ruined in 5 minutes. They never had sneakers to go with outfits," Meryl Schrager said.

The UM shoes come in five styles — three high-top and two low-top, the most of any Skicks. Other schools have two styles, a high and low top.

The company also makes a pink low-top sneaker for breast cancer awareness.

Custom kicks

The non-Skicks custom sneakers on the SneakersByJordana.com site are an array of colorful footwear collages that include famous retail brand logos, bands and musicians, celebrities, pro and college sports teams, states, and famous artwork. Some are made on off-the-shelf Vans and Converse sneakers.

The non-Skicks custom sneakers — she'll put up to 15 designs on a shoe for $250 to $400 — can take up to three months to ship because of a 50-order backlog and her busy college schedule.

She also sells non-collegiate artsy shoes online for $150 a pair.

"It's hard work and I'm always busy, but I really enjoy creating all the sneakers. It's relaxing. It's really fun. I'm really learning a lot with the businesses," she said, adding that she typically completes four pair of custom shoes a week.

What helped launch her career, she said, was being contacted by Barclays Center in Brooklyn to create shoes for the arena's gifts to performers as part of a gift selection.

Now, entertainers such as Nick Cannon, Selena Gomez and Pink all wear custom sneakers designed by Schrager.

Her shoe success has resulted in profiles in Teen Vogue and Seventeen magazines, and she has more than 10,000 Instagram followers at sneakersbyjordana.

Once she graduates in 2016, Schrager's plan is to keep doing what she's doing already.

"I want to continue to grow both Skicks and SneakersByJordana.com," she said.

That includes expanding into other licensed merchandise, but the ideas remain under wraps because they're still in the concept phase.

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