Why The Hot Sneaker Market Isn’t Cooling Down

How does legendary sneaker designer Jeff Staple sum up the athletic revolution?

“If I looked at my father’s shoe assortment, he’d have six or seven brown shoes and three or four sneakers — for a sporting activity and to kick around in,” said Staple, the founder and creative director of Staple Designs. “Fast forward to a father today, and he’s probably got eight sneakers and two dress shoes.”

There’s no question that sneakers have taken over the fashion limelight — and if you think they’ll start to fade soon, think again.

There are myriad factors fueling momentum today, including celebrity-powered collections that are driving new customers, cool collaborations between designers and retailers, and a growing crop of social media influencers sparking excitement like never before. “I don’t think it’s ever going to end, especially now with the athleisure trend. Even on the runway, it’s pretty strong,” said James Hansen, director of design for Creative Recreation, about the kicks craze.

Brands and influencers agree: Sneakers are here to stay. What will change, however, are the silhouettes of the time, technologies brands will employ and the influencers who dictate what styles are must-haves.

Athletic and Athleisure

Experts presume that the growing trend of wearing sneakers in all settings — from the gym to the office, from the park to the bar — will keep consumers buying them for years to come.

According to Staple, the acceptance stems from the desire for comfort, and he added that having a closet filled with sneakers is more common today — which will keep registers overflowing. “It’s not so strange for people to own 10 to 20 pairs of shoes, whereas not too long ago, owning that many shoes that are all wearable at the same time was extravagant,” he said.

But what styles consume closets in the not-so-distant future is debatable. Retro silhouettes — including running, court and basketball — have become the go-to looks for extended periods of time.

Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 in tan.
Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 in tan.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

However, insiders have differing views on how long retro will remain popular.

Treis Hill, GM of Alife, believes that innovation — not nostalgia — will drive consumers to stores. “Nike had innovation with the Air Max 1, Air Max 90, Air Max 95 and so on,” Hill said, “[but] after 2000, you had this lull with nothing iconic. So they got into retro. [Now] the consumer is bored with that.”

As Nike continues to bank on retro styles that have been in the market for years, Adidas is having success with more modern looks that are pushing the brand to the forefront.

“Adidas has new styles like the NMD, Ultra Boost, Yeezy — the new Air Max 90s, if you will,” said Hill. “We’ll look back in 15 years and say, ‘These are classic shoes.’ ”

Staple agrees that future-driven looks will become the new traffic driver in retail. Plus, there’s only so much retro product available.

“There’s no question retros work — people like the nostalgia,” he said. “[But] if your strategy is retro, even something like [Air] Jordan with 30-plus styles, if you rereleased a Jordan every week in 30 weeks, you’d be done. [And] once a week is not enough, so you’ve got to keep adding stuff, and that’s where innovation needs to happen — new styles and technology.”

However, Matt Powell, global sports industry analyst with The NPD Group, is steadfast on his assertion that retro isn’t going away anytime soon. “There are so many shoes in the vault that brands can bring back, so many greats,” he said. “This retro trend is broad-based, it’s not just basketball — it’s retro running, fitness and tennis that are also performing at a high level. The shoes we’re seeing today as the hottest in retro won’t be in three years, but the cycle can continue.”

What is changing are the people who are influencing what the public buys. “We came out of this era where [athletes such as] Bo Jackson, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang [and] Michael Jordan were influencing what we were buying,” Staple said. “Now it’s an era of celebrities, a lot of them musicians. Sneaker companies are signing music acts as if they were record labels.”

Adidas partner Kanye West is the highest-profile rapper to be aligned with a brand, but he isn’t the only music megastar in the shoe game — Reebok has Kendrick Lamar and Future, and Puma has teamed up with Meek Mill and Rihanna.

Fenty Puma Rihanna Creepers Release
Fenty Puma by Rihanna Basket Creeper Glo.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

While consumers are still making purchases, some players in the footwear industry believe the amount of pickups and the prices they’ll pay will change drastically. “Millennials value experience — going out to eat, going on vacation,” Hansen said. “They’re not spending as much money on things like shoes as previous generations did.”

As far as target audiences, that’s also undergoing a transitional phase, according to Powell. “We will see the brands continue to focus on women, and retailers as well,” he said. “More brands are making women’s-specific shoes as opposed to sizing down men’s. I don’t know that [we’ll] ever get to 50-50 — she’s buying boys’ shoes because they’re less expensive and can get styles unavailable for women, and she will continue to have a broader range of choices beyond athletic. There’s no question the biggest wearer segment gainer over the next five years will be women.”

Designer Realm

As traditional athletic brands bet on a bright future, high-end players are also capitalizing on the sneaker craze. “The boom will last for a long time, as it’s constantly adapting itself to market preferences,” said Louis Leeman, founder and designer of his men’s line.

“The sneaker category has become so large that we see great development in the styling and numerous trends emerging each season,” added Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, which recently expanded its men’s space. “It feels like there is no end in sight for the continuing evolution.”

“Sneakers have become a part of every guy’s everyday wardrobe now,” said Sam Lobban, buying manager for Mr. Porter. “In regards to more fashion statement examples, this will always ebb and flow with a designer’s overall aesthetic, but commercial sneakers will continue to be super-important.”

Pask cited best-selling sneaker styles from Common Projects and Lanvin, which are known for their sleek and minimal silhouettes. “We’re seeing great interest in a more streamlined silhouette — a cleaner, simpler sneaker with the low-top a leading silhouette,” he said. “Fine craftsmanship has also entered the category in brands like Berluti, Hender Scheme and Feit with their vegetable-dyed leathers and hand-finishing.”

Lanvin Men's Spring 2017 Collection
Lanvin men’s spring ’17 collection on the runway at Paris Men’s Fashion Week.

Leeman has noticed a consumer shift toward his simpler styles as well. “In the more recent seasons, we saw strong demand for plain low-tops and slip-ons,” he said. “Seasons ago, the focus was more on richly accessorized high-tops.”

But while heritage brands including Berluti and Salvatore Ferragamo continue to ramp up their sneaker offering, not everyone is on board. Matthew Chevallard, founder and designer of Del Toro, said the luxury market has been flooded with too many outside players.

“The boom itself has hit a ceiling. It went from being undersaturated to over saturated quite quickly,” he said. “It will always be relevant, but I don’t think every brand needs to be doing it — only those where it fits with their DNA and demographic. Those classic shoe purveyors should probably stick to what they do best.”

As the market shifts, high-end trends will also evolve. Lobban said a designer sneaker is no longer enough for consumers, and that brands are now offering many different styles, from sporty to more retro.

“We’ve reached the point where this is no longer one clear trend within the sneaker category,” he said. “Designers are showing and producing different products — whether that’s ’70s retro runners, the skate-shoe trend that doesn’t seem to be disappearing, or the more technical styles such as Nike’s Flyknit technology.”

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