Article by Wall Street Journal
As athletic shoes morph and multiply—emerging as a pivotal business for both men’s and women’s fashion—we offer an extensive primer, including the threats to Nike’s dominance and 5 game-changing technological innovations
By Jacob Gallagher
Updated Sept. 6, 2019 4:25 pm ET
What’s the last pair of shoes you bought? Let me guess: sneakers. Maybe a pair of collectible, cartoonishly colored Nike s? Leather Common Projects lace-ups in minimalist, office-friendly white? Or some humbly ho-hum navy-blue wool Allbirds? You weren’t alone. The sneaker business hit $44 billion in sales last year in the U.S., up 9% from the year before, according to market-research firm the NPD Group.
Although the modern sneaker era arguably began with Nike’s first running shoes—the basic Cortez—around 50 years ago, today that type of functionally athletic sneaker is not driving the growing market. Matt Powell, the senior industry adviser for sports at the NPD Group, noted that sales of performance-sport sneakers (for running, basketball, tennis, etc.) are tapering off. “For the last four years we’ve been in this period where we do not have a single performance [shoe] trending positively,” he said. Why pay for state-of-the-art, air-bubbled high-tops if you’re not Steph Curry lining up to take a three?
Simpler sneakers are on the upswing. “Retro definitely has a bit more of the momentum,” said Erik Fagerlind, the co-owner of Sneakersnstuff, a global chain of sneaker boutiques. Tasteful throwbacks, like the reissued Nike Tailwind, Adidas Superstar (see “Os” above) and upscale traditional sneakers like Spalwart’s Marathon Trail Runner and Brunello Cucinelli ’s luxe suede low-tops appeal to a clientele who came of age in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. For Frankie Walker Jr., the co-owner of Unknwn, a Miami sneaker retailer, and a child of the ’80s, the sneakers of one’s youth hold nostalgic charm. A plus? These clean styles won’t look out of place at the office.
Another sneaker that blends well with business-casual garb is the understated, sustainable kick as epitomized by the knitted-upper runner from direct-to-consumer startup Allbirds (“Ds” above) or the subtle shoes from French label Veja (“Ss” above). At a time of staggering clothing waste, these shoes attempt to tread more lightly on the environment.
At the opposite end of the style spectrum, aggressively trendy sneakers are rife in the Instagram age. Statement shoes like Balenciaga’s colossally chunky Triple-S or Nike’s collaboration with Japan’s Sacai (with its double soles and double tongues) leap out on social media, where brash sneaker fans of all ages battle for bragging rights. The thirst for boast-worthy shoes has supercharged sneaker collecting. On resale platforms like Stadium Goods, StockX and Flight Club, obsessives amass and unload limited pairs, sometimes at hammer prices well into the five figures. In July an entrepreneur paid $850,000 for a set of 99 rare sneakers during a Sotheby’s sale.
Of course, most of us are just looking for one everyday pair. For many, it’s a low-key minimalist sneaker, but even if you’d never wear Technicolor Nikes (“Ni” above), they can be fun to look at.
Can sneakers be stylish?
Fashion editor Rebecca Malinsky willed them to be following a debilitating foot injury.
AT A CLOSE FRIEND’Swedding in the Portuguese countryside a while back, I danced until the wee hours in a predictably picturesque setting. The next day, however, my right foot was aching. After the seven-hour flight home and a long walk through customs I knew something was not right. Three podiatrists, two MRIs and one renowned foot and ankle surgeon later, I discovered that I had boogied my way to a rather serious ankle injury that would simply require time and supportive (read: ugly) shoes to heal. Time? Sure. But trading ballerina flats for the same sneakers as my dad?
The accident humbled me into accepting the fragility of the human body—in the painfully conspicuous form of orthopedic shoes. I spent about 18 months solely wearing running shoes, minus the three hours I devoted to getting married in 1-inch Valentino heels lined with Dr. Scholl’s pads (fighting back tears from the pain and the emotion of it all).
Physically, just getting from point A to B has been exhausting; mentally, trying to remain confident as a fashion authority in sensible sneakers has been taxing. In the time I’ve spent in my go-to pairs of shoes—a gray New Balance 990 and a black Asics GT-1000—I’ve had to get creative to make them feel like they are truly a part of my personal style. But along the way, I developed the following guidelines on how to style sneakers fashionably:
- Don’t dress down. Sneakers look more considered and intentional when paired with trendy clothing vs. basics. Try a slouchy linen pant or floral dress instead of jeans.
- Consider the classics. Many designer sneakers are inspired by traditional tennis, or running, shoe brands. Scout out the original: It looks more authentic and saves you hundreds of dollars.
- Venture manward. Why are women’s sneakers always fuchsia and teal? Learn your sizes in men’s sneakers to get the more-interesting lime green/black or red/white/tan combinations.
- Socks matter. They should match your outfit, not your shoe. Invest in no-show peds for summer, and some gray, textured wool tall socks for the cooler months.