Best foot forward: The rise and fall of the sneaker

Forget high heels. From high end to high street, as we crave comfort with our style, trainers have become a runaway success, writes Annmarie O’Connor.

Best foot forward: The rise and fall of the sneaker

Forget high heels. From high end to high street, as we crave comfort with our style, trainers have become a runaway success, writes Annmarie O’Connor.

Sneakers, trainers, runners, kicks: call them what you want. The humble athletic shoe has dismantled Draconian dress codes to become the symbol of a new fashion democracy.

As modern life gets busier and more blended, the need to multi-task has, fittingly, lent itself to this casualisation of footwear with mainstream and luxury markets swapping heel heights for the down-to-earth rubber sole.

And the proof is in the profit margins. With a global value of over $63.6 million (Bain & Co, 2017), the sneaker industry has officially outperformed that of the hierarchical handbag in revenue and status.

From the cult success of the Balenciaga ‘Triple S’ to stalwarts like the adidas Stan Smith and four-figure Air Jordan collectables, consumers don’t just want to look good; they want to feel good too.

No more separating ‘dressy’ from ‘casual’; no more compartmentalising work and play. The age of bricolage is now officially among us and there’s plenty of legroom to mix it up.

As with most paradigm shifts, the movement is tectonic and barely felt until it hits critical mass. Wellness, a mainstay of 2019, was finding its feet in 2010; a time when ‘athleisure’ dressing was a relative breakout term.

That same year, Phoebe Philo, 2.0 feminist icon and former creative director of French fashion house Céline, would spark a sneaker sensation with her autumn 2011 after-show bow in which she sported an unassuming pair of adidas ‘Stan Smith’.

By 2013, the term ‘normcore’ (an alloy of ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore’) peppered the style lexicon to describe increasing evangelisation of the everyday. As consumers shifted towards a non-binary, non-conformist dress code that reflected their evolving needs, anti-fashion sneakers like New Balance became the disruptive kingpin of kicks.

The not-so-quiet storm had begun. From haute couture runways (Chanel x Air Max 2014) to high street homages, sneaker styles proliferated to prove this was more than just a trend; this was a bona fide movement.

Clodagh Shorten, owner of Cork’s Samui boutique (samuifashions.com) shares why. “It’s been a real revolution, hasn’t it?” she says. “None of us here are really high-heel girls, so flats have always been part of our armoury.

I think the idea that trainers can now be worn with dresses and long skirts, or smartly tailored suits — it’s given women a whole new way of wearing clothes. Sneaker style has really embraced all of fashion, and fashion has embraced it back.”

Stocking luxury sneakers like Sweden’s Axel Arigato and Italy’s Golden Goose Deluxe Brand, Shorten has experience of this love-in, especially with the proverbial Golden Goose.

Designed to look lived-in and love-worn with pops of metallic leather, sequins and glitter, their popularity has soared in line with their three-figure price tag thanks to the power of Instagram and fashion week shutterbugs.

“We actually started stocking the label in 2016, as soon as they launched a women’s line of trainers,” says Shorten. “Within a season or two, we knew we had a big hit. Still, now, we get four drops a year and they sell out really quickly; then there’s always a wait list for the next drop.”

Shelly Corkery, fashion director at luxury department store Brown Thomas (brownthomas.com) has noticed similar inclusivity. For her customers, the draw is simple— versatility. “Instead of making an outfit feel dressed down, they can glamorise a look more easily than one would think — take into account now designers use of embellishments, stud detail, feathers or flashes of neon from Valentino to Gucci and Dior to Balenciaga.”

That said, chunky silhouettes reinforced by heavy tread soles as epitomised by the Balenciaga ‘Triple S’ and Alexander McQueen oversized ‘Show’ sneakers have successfully challenged minimalist optics, creating a new normal and continue to be a customer favourite for BT.

Unsurprisingly, sneakers, according to accountancy firm EY, are a big driver of the luxury shoe business. Evolving from minimalist silhouettes to include more experimental styles, the shoes have moved from their streetwear roots to appeal to a cross-generational audience.

There’s no doubt about it; what’s on your feet determines your tribe whether that’s an iconoclastic ‘dad’ sneaker, eco-conscious Stella McCartney offering or a hype pair from Yeezy.

Speaking of which… Developed by adidas in collaboration with rapper-designer Kanye West, Yeezy boasts a fundamentalist following thanks to the brand’s clever scarcity model. Think limited-production collections sold through a niche number of outlets with instant create retail buzz.

Self-proclaimed sneakerhead Tony Foote (Insta @tony.foote99), a San Francisco-based Limerick native shares his own tale of ‘catching heat’ (sneaker speak for acquiring a popular shoe) with a pair of Yeezy ‘Boost’ 350 V2 Oreo sneakers – the most expensive pair of sneakers in his collection.

Retailing at $220, a pair of box-fresh Yeezy ‘Boost’ sneakers can fetch up to $2,000 on the burgeoning second-hand market, making them a real hot commodity.

“Rachel (my wife) got me these for Christmas 2016. She got pulled out of the Size? (shoe store) raffle in Dublin so we got very lucky,” explains Foote whose fifty-strong edit also includes elite Nike styles from Air Jordan and Air Max to a coveted high-fashion collaboration with Off White.

The day she picked them up, she was offered €1,000 by another customer in the store for them - fortunately for me, she turned that down.

The double-edged sword of trophy kicks? The real slay is in the fashion statement, not the bank statement. Let’s not forget the bragging rights that come with bagging some killer swag.

Tribal allegiances aside, one thing is for certain — comfort is king. As our cultural fixation with functional fashion continues its upward trajectory, it might be worth hanging up those stilettos – for a few years at least; and, perhaps, not entertaining a career in podiatry.

Sneakers, trainers, runners, kicks: call them what you want. The humble athletic shoe has dismantled Draconian dress codes to become the symbol of a new fashion democracy.

As modern life gets busier and more blended, the need to multi-task has, fittingly, lent itself to this casualisation of footwear with mainstream and luxury markets swapping heel heights for the down-to-earth rubber sole.

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