KICK IT! IT’S SAFE TO say everyone has at least one pair of sneakers in their closet—and that’s a conservative estimate. With legions of devotees ranging from athletes to fashionistas to obsessive fans, sneakers undoubtedly make up one of the most popular footwear categories and the growth in appeal and sales show no signs of letting up any time soon.
Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group and author of Forbes’ Sneakernomics blog, believes the popularity of sneakers reflects the casualization of America. “We have been a denim nation for decades and sneakers are clearly the shoes of choice to wrear with a pair of jeans,” he says. He also points to the healthy living movement—and with it the mainstream acceptance of fitness apparel—as bolstering the sneaker’s popularity.
The current “athleisure” fashion trend (which helped drive a $2 billion sales increase in apparel, footwear and accessories in 2014, according to NPD), translates to slip-on Vans in a variety of colors and materials and sleek running shoes from the likes of Nike Free and Skechers Go Run in a rainbow of hues. Brendan Dunne, news editor of the Sole Collector blog, says economics are a factor in the current proliferation of casual athletic styles. “It’s all about a [relatively] cheap model that’s got an athletic feel to it but [is] not necessarily a pure performance shoe,” he says.
Then there’s the generational influence. “Millennials have grown up wearing nothing but sneakers their whole lives, and they’re very health- and fitness-conscious,” Powell offers. “They’re also looking for versatility in the products they buy, so to wear sneakers all the time makes a lot of sense.”
from the basketball court to the skate park to the catwalk and beyond, sneakers have come a long way over the last 25 years.
The fact that the sneaker has become the statement piece to many an outfit today has ushered in designer takes on the silhouette, be they Chanel, Christian Louboutin or Prada. Who would have thought, 25 years ago, when the sneaker was primarily worn by men, that the world’s most renowned design houses would be sending their own takes down the runway? Dunne says people—particularly sneakerheads—are open to the idea of these designer models, and as a result, aren’t experiencing the sticker shock one might expect for styles priced north of $500. The jump into the luxury footwear realm is proof that sneakers are no longer just for play.
Deckers Brands CEO Angel Martinez cites the ongoing success of
the running category over this span as being instrumental in the sneaker’s growing popularity; in fact, it has influenced the entire shoe market. “Running has become the anchor of the shoe business,” he says. “It’s the driver of technology, fashion, function and performance in all other types of footwear.” Tony Post, CEO of Topo Athletic and the former president of Vibram FiveFingers, is of the mind that “running shoes changed the world.” He points out that when running shoes became acceptable casualwear, makers of casual shoes had to redefine their products as lighter and more comfortable. “If they didn’t, they were probably going to be out of business,” he says, adding the running shoe’s effect on the overall footwear market “really helped to change fashion and design [and] the way we live today.”
Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum’s exhibit Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture (which is slated for a U.S. museum tour beginning in July), believes sneakers gained their iconic status through their broad appeal, dubbing them “one of the most democratic forms of footwear. Everybody, absolutely, can find a sneaker that is suitable to them,” she says. Post cites sneakers’ high functionality, authenticity and comfort as contributing to their timeless appeal, as well as their lifestyle-defining properties.
So what’s on the horizon for the next 25 years of sneaker evolution? Powell expects the casual dress trend to continue and, as such, sneakers will remain popular, albeit with added futuristic perks. “We are really in the golden age of technology right now in footwear,” he says, noting that every season brings new advancements. Powell thinks the wray sneakers are made will also continue to evolve. “The advent of 3D printing and labor-saving manufacturing techniques are going to be the next frontier for us,” he says. “It’ll allow greater customization so that you’ll have a shoe that’s made specifically for your foot and to the specifications that you want.”
Semmelhack echoes that sentiment, adding that a customizable future wrould be kind of a throwback. She notes that shoemaking used to be a collaboration between customer and cobbler, but mechanized production replaced it with
a one-size-fits-all approach. “In many ways, it’s a return to a bespoke concept that defined the history of shoemaking,” she says. “What most people would consider to be the most cutting-edge form of footwear—the sneaker—is actually leading us back to a very traditional form of footwear production.”
Let’s check out types of sneakers!
On the heels of the bells & whistles basketball shoe era, the mid ’90s ushered in the bare bones skate shoe look. Vans, Airwalk, DC Shoes and Etnies took center stage as alternative sports and music entered the mainstream. Here’s Vans Chima Ferguson Pro:
Considered the new ugly, which in the performance athletic market is the utmost compliment, Hoka One One’s maximal running shoes feature a high-volume mid-sole boasting 50 percent more cushioning than the standard running shoe. A number of stalwart running brands are getting in on the maximal game, including Asics, Saucony, Brooks and New Balance. More than just presenting a polar alternative to minimal shoes. Powell says maximals offer runners a range of options. “It’s really showing consumers that you don’t want to run in the same shoe every day,” he says. Hoka One One Clifton!
Just as indie record stores used to be the arbiters of cool, sneaker boutiques like Bodega, Concepts and Undefeated have become the epicenters of sneaker fashion and limited-edition collabs. “It started when the skateboarders and the graffiti artists grew up and wanted to make businesses of their own,” says Lee Smith, manager at sneaker shop Dave’s Quality Meats (DQM) in New York. Smith points to Jeff Staple’s Nike “Pigeon Dunks” for Reed Space NYC in 2005 as getting the collab craze rolling. Tarek Hassan, co-owner of Concepts, notes kids today can buy select collabs for $150 and flip them on eBay for $4000. “Which items can appreciate that quickly, besides maybe a painting?” he says. “That’s only possible in the sneaker world.”
The excess of the ’80s was still evident in fashion at the dawn of the new decade, and tech-loaded basketball hi-tops by Nike, Reebok and Adidas ruled. Endorsed by Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway, Larry Johnson, Allan Iverson and a host of other NBAers back then, the category remains popular with a new generation led by LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Led by the Vibram FiveFingers “foot glove” (debuted in 2004) and Nike’s Free collection, the minimalist category took the market by storm and spread into the comfort arena under the guise of natural motion. Less was deemed better for the body, helping improve posture and balance while strengthening tendons and muscles.
The Puma Clyde, originally introduced in 1973 as a basketball sneaker, gained renewed fame in the mid ’90s when Mike D. of the Beastie Boys sported a pair on the cover of the band’s Check Your Head album. Back then, Puma’s Tony Bertone called it “the match that lit the fire.” Today, New Balance, Nike, Converse, Vans and Adidas sell about as many retro styles as new ones.
MBT was at the forefront of the rocker-soled shaping and toning craze that caught on in 2008 during the financial crisis (one of the sales angles was that wearers could forego the cost of a gym membership). Skechers jumped into the mix with Shape-Ups, and Reebok got in on the action with their EasyTone and RunTone categories, among others.