Why Boat Shoes and Nautical Silhouettes Could Grow Market Share in 2023

As more people turn to comfort and preppy styles, boat shoes could be the next big trend to sail away with footwear market share.

Just last week, Italian luxury company Loro Piana said it opened a new factory to meet the “ever-increasing demand” for its footwear, particularly its popular nautical-inspired White Sole shoes. The brand first launched the style in 2005 as sailing boat shoes and gained momentum for its comfortable and light feel and its understated luxury look.

At the same time, Wolverine Worldwide CEO Brendan Hoffman last week announced a renewed focus on core boating styles within its Sperry brand, which saw revenues decline 28% in the quarter and 10% in fiscal 2022.

“We need to refocus on boat and making boat cool again,” Hoffman said of the brand known for its boat shoes and coastal identity, walking back a recent push to expand Sperry’s appeal beyond its waterside heritage. “And that includes focusing our collabs and marketing around boat with new updated styles that really resonate to the core.”

As people return to offices and live events, fashion footwear sales are on the rise. The category grew 7% in 2022 compared to the prior year, according to data from NPD. At the same time, people are not ready to give up the comfort they got used due during the pandemic, when sneakers are running shoes dominated sales.

When it comes to boat shoes, the category’s look fits in with an overall shift towards preppy fashion, led by brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger.

“I think we are seeing a return to preppy,” explained Matt Powell, an advisor at Spurwink River consultancy. “And boat shoes are the epitome of preppy.”

Ralph Lauren, in particular, was a luxury standout in the most recent quarter, with CEO Patrice Louvet describing the brand as “understated luxury grounded in heritage and icons.” The company beat sales expectations and noted a solid performance across multiple regions, including China, in part due to the success of a recent turnaround plan focused on streamlining its retail strategy and doubling down on its direct channels. The retailer said it plans to open more than 250 stores over the next three years, focusing on 30 top cities around the globe as Louvet aims to reestablish its standing as a strong luxury fashion player.

At PVH Corp.-owned Tommy Hilfiger, men’s polo sales hit 2019 levels in its most recent quarter as the brand leans into bestselling, hero products to drive growth in North America.

“These traditionally preppy brands are doing well compared to the rest of the apparel market, and a boat shoe fits with this look,” explained Liza Amlani, principal and founder of consulting company Retail Strategy Group. Boat shoes also offer comfort with a slightly more elevated look than a running shoe or sneaker, which makes them an ideal option to wear in the office.

“Loafers are also making a comeback for this same reason,” Amlani added.

At the same time, the factors that define a boat shoe — or any category of footwear, for that matter — are becoming less concrete. Crocs technically originated as a boating shoe that debuted at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in 2002 and has since become a major statement in the high-fashion world — as well as a clog designed for comfort and ease. Loro Piana’s white soled shoes, while rooted in “sailing heritage,” also emphasize softness and comfortability.

“Shoes that are comfortable and easy on/off are strong right now,” explained Powell. “Boat shoes fill that bill.”

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