Foot the Bill for David Lebleu's Sneaker Phone and You Get a Real Long-Distance Walkie-Talkie
On his next visit to his parents' home in Westford, Mass., LeBleu rummaged through his closet and unearthed a pair of old, beat-up size 9 oxfords. "I despised those shoes," LeBleu, now 26, remembers. So he dismantled a $12 telephone, placed the dial in the sole of an oxford, glued a mouthpiece to the heel and stuck an earpiece to the toe—and gradually his affinity for the forgotten footwear warmed.
After graduation David, the son of a carpenter and a housewife, found himself again short on cash. Playing guitar and bass in the odd band gig wasn't paying the rent, so he decided it was time to pull himself up by his shoestrings. He built his own crude shoe-phones to sell to friends. By word of mouth, LeBleu sold them for $60 apiece—and he was hooked as well as hooked up. "The world needed a new Pet Rock, and I thought this might be it," he says. News of the shoes reached Rick Brutti, 34, president of a novelty gifts company, Impulse Products, through an employee who was LeBleu's neighbor. Brutti got such a boot out of LeBleu's creations that the two teamed up and rigged loafers, sneakers and rubber thongs for number punching. Within months they had 6,000 orders, and the race to market was on.
Now LeBleu's talking shoes, which are handmade, are sold in yupscale department stores like Bloomingdale's for $65. The expected runaway hits are multicolored, high-top sneakers (children's sizes available). LeBleu, who is on the fast track as a sales rep for Impulse, envisions a future of profession-specific phones—nurse shoes, for example. Ice skates and spiked golf shoes have proved problematic. "When we tested them," he says ruefully, "we kept cutting our faces."