It’s the age-old question across the footwear industry: What makes a shoe a bestseller? From the early Air Jordans to the Yeezy Boosts, the power of must-have kicks is undeniable, but they remain difficult to predict.
Whole marketing and design departments are dedicated to developing product that can crack the secret formula, if there is such a thing. FN asked designers and retailers from both the athletic and luxury markets to share their thoughts on creating a sneaker superstar.
Owner, Sportie LA
“While there have been many shoes that have become blockbusters, the most recent, the Adidas Yeezy Boost, stands out as one of the most iconic. The combination of a heritage brand like Adidas partnered with a powerful voice like Kanye West’s, compounded with unique styling, creates a formidable scenario. And most importantly, it speaks of authenticity and genuineness. Many celebrities will endorse a particular shoe, but when that individual truly believes in the shoe and the style — that distinguishes a decent shoe from a phenomenal one.
The consumer clearly knows and feels what’s genuine with Kanye, as his passion is a signature of the Yeezy. A brand like Adidas giving him so much latitude in design and marketing has surely enhanced its avalanche of success. The uniqueness of that experience makes it very difficult to replicate. With the Yeezy, the formula is seemingly perfect. However, much of that was organic. It’s always difficult to emulate when the organic flavor is missing.”
VP & Fashion Director of Men’s, Home & Beauty, Saks Fifth Avenue
“The Fendi Monster sneakers were blockbuster bestsellers [for us] this season. Fendi and Saks collaborated on a major marketing push behind the brand, including
Fifth Avenue windows in New York in October featuring all things ‘monster.’ That, combined with the fact that the sneakers are fun, whimsical and not in anyone’s closet, helped. We always try to replicate this type of success. Most of the time it works, but sometimes, it’s just that a trend catches on for whatever reason and the stars align to
create a hit.”
Founder, Staple Design
“[To create a blockbuster], there has to be a sense of timelessness, design accessibility and price accessibility. The Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star was the first shoe that had a spokesperson, and in its day, it was a technological wonder. It also had innovation and simplicity in its design and was accessible — you could buy the $50 in-line version or the pricier Maison Margiela version. If you look at the distribution, you could get the Chuck everywhere from top-tier Margiela-esque stores all the way down to factory outlets. It’s the same shoe, the same style. What other shoe can do that? If you make 12 shoes and they sell out, is that a hot-selling shoe? Make 50,000 and then tell me how long it takes to sell out. And a blockbuster has to stand the test of time.
There are plenty of shoes that, in the moment, I thought were the hottest I’d ever seen, and then seven months later, they’re sitting in a box collecting dust. I think the Chuck Taylor’s success can be replicated, for sure. If you look at the Yeezy, it has all the same ingredients — you take the influential person of the day, technology and innovation and put them all together.”
“The Adidas Ultra Boost in all-white comes to mind as an unexpected blockbuster in 2015. The Boost technology had been well-received by our community, and the shoe looked amazing in the allover white colorway, so we brought it into all our stores. But I don’t think any of us expected it to take off as fast as it did. What propelled it to blockbuster status was an image on social media of Kanye West wearing it. Three things consumers find most compelling are true innovation in design or technology, limited availability and hype. You need at least two of the three to be a blockbuster.
The Ultra Boost is an innovative shoe in its minimalist design and uber-comfortable cushioning system. It would have sold well just based on those merits. West’s involvement added the necessary hype for it to become a blockbuster. Those kinds of sell-out items are not hard to predict — the Air Jordan 4 Cement with the Nike logo, the next Yeezy 750 or the next OVO Jordan release will be blockbusters. They’ll be relatively limited and have the hype necessary to drive them on launch date. What’s more fun is to find that next Ultra Boost, that model that appears on the scene without a great deal of fanfare and ends up being a game-changer.”
“One of my fondest memories was the release of the Nike Air Revolution. It was a combination of my age, the year it released and what the shoe meant. It was adopted in my neighborhood as the shoe that was out of your financial reach. The shoe was $100 — and that meant status. Also, it was released in limited quantity, so it was hard to get — at least on Long Island, where I grew up. But the main reason was Tinker Hatfield’s design. He pushed the envelope with the exposed air bag and the Velcro strap. The colors were so simple and yet complex at the same time.
And lastly, the commercial was everything. I believe it was Wieden + Kennedy that put it together, with iconic images of athletes in motion and ‘Revolution’ by The Beatles playing. Amazing! I don’t think you can repeat the history of something that changed the world — the standard was changed. You might be able to outdo a shoe’s success, but not replicate it, because each moment in sneaker history is unique — Jordan, Air Max or Louis Vuitton x Kanye, Buscemi 100mm. These moments are similar but so different.”
Divisional VP of Accessories, Holt Renfrew
“The re-release of the Adidas Stan Smith was an instant success across the market, re-establishing the sneaker as one of the most important and coveted of all time. Its celebrity fan following, high-profile collaborations and social media presence have all contributed to the sneaker’s icon status amongst sneakerheads and fashion ‘it’ girls alike. Trends come and go within an extremely fast and turbulent retail environment in which brands, magazines, celebrities, bloggers, social media and consumers clash to influence what’s ‘hot’ in the ever-changing world of fashion. While there is no secret recipe to replicating a shoe’s success, understanding and engaging with the customer in new and innovative ways is key.”
“The Coby sneaker has been one of our most successful styles. The sneaker combines luxury elements, like soft velvet and contrasting metallic bars, with a sporty silhouette. When I started designing sneakers, I never imagined they would be such a successful endeavor. The market is always so unpredictable — you never know what direction it will take. As a designer, the most successful formula is to have your DNA and stay true to yourself.”
Founder, Brandblack (former senior designer for Fila)
“The Fila Grant Hill II was the largest phenomenon I was involved with, not in terms of volume — I’ve had bigger shoes in terms of volume — but in terms of culture. It was a perfect indicator of all the things that have to happen for a shoe to sell out and be a blockbuster. You need a brand that people respect, a celebrity who’s trending or is culturally relevant — and somebody with an organic connection to the brand helps — and then if the product is really strong, it has a chance to stand the test of time.
For the Grant Hill II, this was the mid-1990s, and Fila was hot. And then you had Grant Hill — when that shoe came out, he was killing it. He was putting up close to [Michael] Jordan numbers. So you had a brand that was on point, an athlete who was killing it and a product that was different but not different in an awkward, weird way. I definitely think the success could be replicated. Every marketing person at every big company wouldn’t have a job if they couldn’t try to replicate it. Nike sells a whole lot of LeBrons and KDs, and they replicate those sales every single year because they have a great brand, they have a phenomenal athlete and they build a product that is perfect for that spot.”
“The Tron Sneaker was a unique shoe [for us] because at the time, no one was doing anything like it. The Japanese market was the first to catch on, and then it blew up. It was a shoe that stood out on the street, so it became identifiable. I believe you can replicate the success of a shoe. For me, it’s about creating something I believe in that is pure in design. The success of a shoe should happen organically.”
Owner, Packer Shoes
“The Nike Air Trainer 1 in the OG colorway, Chlorophyll, was perfect. It was a blockbuster when it came out, and it still is. It’s in the top three or five shoes that are iconic. That colorway has been retro’d three or four times since — the last was about a year and a half ago — and every time it dropped, it was gone. Most people buying Air Trainer 1s are not resellers looking to make a quick buck. They’re people who appreciate that shoe for what it is. It had the perfect storm to become a blockbuster: timing and design. It was a Bo Jackson shoe, made for Bo and marketed that way, but Nike had John McEnroe wearing that shoe on court.
Back then, it was Tinker Hatfield designing these things, and he didn’t design that shoe to wear with jeans — it was made for the gym, that’s what it was marketed for. If you try too hard to replicate its success, it will never happen. Companies have tried too hard to make something special, but if you don’t have the public buying into it, it will never work.”
[Editor’s Note: This story first ran in print 02/08/16]