Only a few years ago sneakers were declared dead. But now even high fashion has discovered them again.
Normally sneakers are a sure thing: Authentic brands such as Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Puma provide the innovations and fashion brands adopt them. The use of special materials and the luxury name itself then allow retail prices at least twice those of authentic sneakers. “Around 90% of premium brands only follow sneaker trends, copy the silhouette and adapt it for their market,” says Oliver Baumgart of Sneaker Store 43einhalb in Fulda, Germany. He adds that “Isabel Marant is part of that 10% who are actually providing creative input to the market.” It is true: there has hardly been a high-fashion trend in recent years with the kind of impact on mainstream fashion that Isabel Marant’s wedge sneakers have had. At the latest since Hollywood discovered sporty high heels the wave has been unstoppable and even sports brands began to supply their high-heels target group with their own wedge models.
For female fans the wedge is a perfect hybrid of comfortable gym shoe and stiletto. “It has created a new segment among girls,” says Baumgart. Marant did not even have to invent the wedge gym shoe; it has appeared again and again in recent decades. But it has never set off such a boom across all genres. At the most recent prêt-à-porter shows a whole group of designers sent their outfits straight onto the catwalk in trainers– it is safe to say the end of the boom is nowhere in sight. “The trainer trend has become so influential that it is attracting a broad range of buyers,” says Justin O’Shea of the luxury online store Mytheresa.com referring to the entire range of new luxury sneaker models, from Dior to Céline: “It doesn’t often happen that a shoe trend combines comfort, price and coolness,” he says. They are also so popular because they have captured a new market because of the casualization and relaxed business dress code of the workplace, says Matt Powell, who writes a “Sneakernomics” column for Forbes.
Today, the target group for sneakers is as heterogeneous as the fashion market itself. Sneaker are a zeitgeist phenomenon and have become a permanent part of our everyday life. In the past few years, authentic sportswear brands have learned how to take advantage of cooperations and limited edition models to create an air of exclusivity which pitches them better for the luxury market. For example, this year Nike launched a long-awaited new version of the Nike Air Command Force from the 1990s and for fashionistas entered into a cooperation with Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci. At Adidas there are the cooperations with Pharell Williams, the Stella McCartney Collection, Porsche Design Sport and Y-3, which cover the premium market.
Puma developed Puma Select and New Balance offers a handmade style with its Distinct Collection. Kangaroos also wants to jump into the fray with a “Made in Germany” line this year. All of these examples have retail pricing of up to roughly €250. This is going to put pressure on authentic brands. For luxury stores they represent entry-level pricing and are combined with premium sneaker brands such as Avvikk which retails starting at only €250. Luxury brands, by contrast, even require buyers to spend more than €1,000. What creates this price difference? “Our prices are based on the materials used and the level of hand finishing required for each shoe,” explains Kyrk Macmillan of Avvikk. “Our production standards in Italy are extremely high and workers have to be paid suitable for their contribution to the product.”
Sneaker fans are divided in their opinion about new fashion looks like this. What traditionalists miss most is the history which goes with the product. Others don’t differentiate between fashion and performance–the two have long been scarcely distinguishable from each other. “For me all sneakers have their justification– I don’t differentiate between high performance or high fashion,” says Woody of Australian Sneaker Freaker magazine. For this reason he has no problems with presenting luxury sneakers in his magazine, as long as they are interesting from a design point of view.
Yassine Saidi of Puma Select sees the matter much the same: “Premium sneakers don’t enhance the standing of classic sneakers but also don’t detract from it. They are merely a new take on the classic sneaker. These models are oriented to a different public but these fashion houses use brands like Puma for their inspiration.” The greatest challenge in the premium sneaker market involves distribution. “With online retailing, location doesn’t play a role anymore–everything is global and reaches the masses.” The exclusivity expected of premium sneakers poses online retailing with a problem. That is why stores such as 43½ give careful consideration to what models they sell online and when to make it available. Baumgart explains: “If I present a special, exclusive model with a launch event in a store,I can’t sell it online at the same time.”