See Why Classic Comfort Brands Are the New Cool When it Comes to Shoes

hush puppies Decades
The men's Bernard oxford from Hush Puppies' Decades collection for spring '18.
Courtesy of brand

Comfort is in the air — from food to furniture to footwear. While comfort shoes have typically conjured up images of dowdy orthopedic styles, the category has recently taken a cool turn as brands such as Crocs, Birkenstock and Dansko are getting a nod from high-profile designers and retailers.

For spring ’18, ready-to-wear designers Christopher Kane and Balenciaga put their spin on Crocs styles, while fall ’17 saw sneaker boutique Concepts collaborate with French brand Mephisto on a limited-edition collection. And Birkenstock took center stage with its Barneys New York and Colette collaborations. “Leave it to Demna Gvasalia [Balenciaga’s artistic director] to take something so pedestrian and make it a must-have,” said Cleo Davis-Urman, contemporary fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, referring to the design house’s blinged-out platform at Paris Fashion Week. “While they certainly aren’t for everyone, they remind us that fashion could be fun and will undoubtedly be worn by the street-style set come spring.”

Balenciaga Spring 18 Balenciaga Spring ’18 runway show with an update of Crocs classic clog. Rex Shutterstock

For Niwot, Colo.-based Crocs, the collaboration opened up new design opportunities. “When Balenciaga approached us, we were intrigued by the opportunity to push the boundaries of our design and molding capabilities to see what we could create together,” said Michelle Poole, SVP of global product and marketing. “Working with Balenciaga has been so much fun for our team and once again demonstrates the relevance of our iconic clog in today’s fashion and design world, as well as allowing us to tap into the excitement and energy that comes from unexpected partnerships.”

Crocs isn’t the only comfort brand that has caught the eye of designers. When New York-based ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Cohen was looking for a clog to complement his spring ’18 runway collection, he found just the thing in Dansko’s Sonja, a black patent leather style he bought on Amazon.com. “We thought immediately it would look perfect with the [collection],” said Cohen of working with his stylist. “We had planned to use it for one or two looks, but it kept working with all of them. We even used it with evening gowns.”

Cohen’s Dansko pick was as much about style as wearability. “We see our customer traveling, working and [valuing] comfort,” he said. “She’s always looking for that shoe that will be able to transition from the office to a function. That did it for us.”

According to Cohen, his unexpected footwear choice caught the attention of the fashion media. Vogue wrote about it, and a lot of editors were really into it,” he noted. “Buyers also liked the idea. A lot were wearing clogs but said they never thought about a Dansko.”

While fashion buzz can be helpful, it’s equally important that the brand is authentic, according to Tiss Dahan, VP of marketing at Dansko. “Consumers are seeking the real deal and know a brand like Dansko is authentic and comfortable. Whenever they walk into their doctor’s office, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll see a nurse wearing our shoes. These people are on their feet all day, so they automatically think there’s something to it.”

Ellen Sideri, founder and CEO of ESP Trendlab, a New York-based research and consulting firm, said the increased excitement around comfort can be felt in many areas. “It’s growing across all sectors of fashion and footwear, fueled by the trend toward athleisure, relaxed work styles as well as living healthier lifestyles,” she said. “Being kind to your feet and treating them well is a new priority that goes beyond the pedicure. Therefore, it’s no surprise that alternate choices like flats, Birkies, Dansko and Crocs are carving out new territory in the consumer’s closet, taking the place of high heels that kill and shoes that are worn only for special occasions.”

Few brands understand this market shift better than Birkenstock, which continues to lead in attracting fashion insiders. In addition to a range of designer and retail collaborations, this spring the brand presented its first runway show. “Brands like Birkenstock have gained a large following with influencers,” said David Kahan, CEO of Birkenstock Americas in Novato, Calif. “It’s now beyond just a trend, one of the rare times in industry history when the demand is growing across multiple channels. It’s the Hollywood elite like Julianne Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, yet also teenagers and college students in Middle America.”

During New York Fashion Week, Barneys partnered with Birkenstock on “The Box,” a shipping container-turned-pop-up store in the Meatpacking District featuring exclusive styles from Birkenstock and other brands.“They are an incredibly talented company and were willing to do things they hadn’t done before,” CEO Daniella Vitale told the WWD summit crowd last week. The project attracted both loyal Barneys shoppers and a host of new consumers.

Getting product in front of consumers often starts with making the right retail connections. For Santa Monica, Calif.-based retailer and lifestyle brand Goop, founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, Birkenstock was a must-have in its shoe offering, according to Meredith Schroeder, buying director of fashion, who added the brand for spring ’17. “There’s been a migration to having comfort as an important part of the footwear we wear every day,” she said. “The fact that it also has a cool factor has been significant. It’s an important shoe to Gwyneth, so we wanted to make sure we have it in our assortment since our customer gravitates toward it as well.”

Concepts president Tarek Hassan, who has collaborated with Birkenstock and Clarks, decided to reach out to Mephisto. “[It’s] not every comfort brand but the authentic ones where it makes sense,” he said. “We [wanted] to go to young consumers and explain what Mephisto is all about. We feel the consumer would understand why stores such as Barneys New York or Concepts of the world want to collaborate with them. It’s brands that stay within their lane.”

Hassan worked with the Mephisto team in France on the update of its classic Match lace-up style. The result was an updated version in magenta and cool mint that retailed for $375. Available on the Concepts website as well as its stores in New York and Cambridge, Mass., it sold out of a few hundred pairs in under an hour, and Hassan noted that a second collaboration is planned for next year for the Rainbow style.

While trend-driven retailers such as Cambridge-based Concepts are promoting comfort, the category remains the domain of independent shoe stores. At independent Soula of Brooklyn, N.Y., owner Rick Lee noted: “People are looking for shoes that are functional and comfortable [after] wearing sneakers,” he said.

John Holden, GM of fashion-comfort chain Benjamin Lovell Shoes in Philadelphia, agreed there’s room at the table for lesser-known comfort brands. “A lot of [younger customers] have been seeking Birkenstock, and we’ve been able to convert them into styles from comfort brands such as Taos, Earth and Vionic.”

The current democratization of the category is likely to keep the momentum going. “It’s not the older customer of the past [with] foot problems,” said Sal Agati, Dansko’s EVP of global design and sourcing.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

 Iconic comfort brands have had other cool moments over the years. In fall ’95, American ready-to-wear designer John Bartlett sent models down the runway in colorful updates of Hush Puppies’ classic Earl, Wayne and Duke styles. And seven years later, Carrie Bradshaw turned on a whole new generation to the Original Exercise sandals from Dr. Scholl’s when she wore them in “Sex and the City.”

According to Kerry Hartman, VP of global product for Hush Puppies in Rockford, Mich., Bartlett came to the company with the updating idea, which resulted in a co-branded collection. Today, the momentum continues with the spring ’18 launch of the Decades collection of limited-edition men’s styles that celebrate the brand’s 60-year heritage inspired by pop culture and trends of the times.

“Decades is about authenticity and heritage, so we picked the most classic reinvention of the Wayne, Earl and Duke using [similar] lasts and bottoms to craft anniversary shoes,” said Hartman. “It’s [about] a new generation getting to see us, not for our old comfort side but our cheeky, colorful, cool side.”

For Dr. Scholl’s, a nod rom Sarah Jessica Parker’s famous TV character was enough to send fashionistas clamoring for the sandal. “It’s our most iconic shoe and has enjoyed various peaks of high consumer interest since it was created,” said Keith Duplain, SVP and GM. Following the TV episode, the brand saw increased sales, and the shoe returned to the forefront of fashion for the first time since the ’70s. “Since then, it has garnered interest with editors and infl uencers alike, most recently due to a 2016 collaboration with J.Crew,” he said.

Dr. Scholl's Original Exercise Sandal Dr. Scholl’s Original Exercise sandal worn by Carrie Bradshaw. Courtesy of brand

Like Hush Puppies and Dr. Scholl’s, Clarks has racked up its share of buzz. In 1993, the brand appeared on the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album, “Enter the 36 Chambers,” each member wearing a pair of the Clarks Originals Wallabee, sparking young consumers to  embrace the look. This year, the British brand collaborated with hip-hop artist Drake and his OVO record label on a collection, introducing yet another generation to the classic comfort style.

“Clarks Originals was formed around two main icons, the Desert Boot and Wallabee, but has expanded into sport, dress and casual categories,” said SVP of marketing Tara McRae regarding the Desert Boot, which first appeared at the 1949 Chicago Shoe Fair, and the Wallabee, introduced in the ’60s. “They have both been popular cross-generationally as they are rediscovered and made new for younger consumers.

“Collabs with tastemakers like OVO, Supreme and Kith allow for Clarks Originals to reach another subset altogether — the consumer who wants what’s new and exclusive but understands [both] are icons in their own right. They don’t want a knockoff version from another brand; they want the original.”