When he saw the photo of retired baseball star Alex Rodriguez wearing his sneakers while proposing to actress and musician Jennifer Lopez, Eric Sarin felt flattered.
The 1989 Astoria High School grad, after gathering more than a quarter century of experience in the sneaker industry, recently started Alma Mater Footwear, a high-end leather sneaker startup that counts Rodriquez among its most famous fans.
“I guess you could just call them sneakers for grown-ups,” Sarin said of his 1980s retro white leather lace-ups, each with a distinctive black Velcro band halfway down the foot, which sell for nearly $200 a pair online.
The name of Sarin’s company is taken from the stands at Astoria’s gymnasium, where he played high school basketball. Sarin was visiting family when his brother, Mike, took him to the gym, and he saw the alma mater song printed on the wall behind a basketball hoop.
“All the memories of what it was like there came flooding back,” Sarin said of the gym, then packed with Fishermen fans. “Something sort of clicked that maybe that would be the emotional core of a brand.
“It’s the place where you developed your character and where your loyalty lies.”
Sarin said he had no idea what he wanted to do after graduating high school. After a brief stint at Chaminade University of Honolulu, he dropped out and moved to Portland, where he tended bar and entered the music-booking business.
“It’s very clinical, booking bands,” Sarin said. “You have to figure out how to get people into the nightclub for a specific band.”
Sarin was looking for another job after the club he was working at shut down when a roommate approached him about being a designer at Adidas. He had no experience in the footwear industry, but parlayed his experience designing graphics for clubs into digitally coloring sneakers.
“I’ve always found the sneaker business to be fascinating,” he said. “It’s not like making toothpaste or any other product. Shoes are kind of different than anything else. People have an obsession with certain products.”
Sarin’s career has largely focused on starting up new brands and turning others around. He helped found Adidas Originals, an arm of the shoe giant reissuing classic brands that has grown into a multibillion-dollar business. He has reached high-level positions with companies like Puma in Boston, Le Coq Sportif in Paris and K-Swiss in Los Angeles.
Sarin now runs Alma Mater and a shoe consultancy from his house, his small batches of sneakers warehoused in the garage. He keeps an office near where his sneakers are made in the Felgueiras region of northern Portugal, an area known for manufacturing shoes. The offices are also about four hours away from the hometown of his wife, Beatriz, who he met while working for Adidas in Germany.
“Portugal’s in the shadow of Italy, but it’s every bit as good,” he said. “It just doesn’t have the cachet.”
With his company’s identity established, Sarin is focused on growing its presence online and finding distribution in Europe and the U.S. Asked whether he’d ever think of finding a local distributor such as downtown shoe store Gimre’s, Sarin said, “I think it would be cool to have them there.”