State of the Shoenion: Have We Hit "Peak Sneaker"?

In 2015, sneakers took center stage. I’m not going to use this space to count down my “Top 10 Releases”, or even wax poetic about how resellers “ruined” a hobby that occasionally wakes me up at 3am on a Saturday (8am London time) to compete over an exclusive release. To the millions of ‘heads around the world, these are old hat. But now, sneakers have a new life.

Thanks to people like them, doing things they never thought significant, sneakers went everywhere from the red carpet to the Wall Street Journal to an international traveling museum exhibition. Sneakers entered mass cultural consciousness - and my family’s group text message - in a comeuppance decades in the making. The Yeezy Boost was suddenly an object of desire that transcended Sneakertalk Facebook groups; Drake’s love for all things Jumpman was worthy of an ESPN feature; and the Adidas Stan Smith gained the cultural nod it had waited five decades for.

Banner promoting "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" at the Toledo Museum of Art, Jan 2016

Banner promoting "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" at the Toledo Museum of Art, Jan 2016

The icing on the cake: designer iterations of classic shoes, rendered in dress-quality leather and handmade in Italy, were now yuppie attire rather than cutting-edge. Common Projects, a brand producing minimalist luxury sneakers long favored by Internet fashion gurus and the style zeitgeist at large, now generates “roughly $10 million” of annual revenue worldwide. Every silhouette imaginable can now be affixed with some variation of "premium leather uppers".

The sneaker display at a Saint Laurent Paris boutique, Dec 2015

The sneaker display at a Saint Laurent Paris boutique, Dec 2015

In 2015, sneaker culture hit peak exposure. I’d like to blame generational divides. Or social media. Or another nebulous, macro-level force. Instead, the enthusiasm I have towards everything footwear may have caused something I love to hit critical mass right before my eyes. My cool, exclusive, differentiated hobby had suddenly become everyone’s cool, exclusive, differentiated hobby. Sneakers have always been casualwear. But now, sneakers had become… casual.

That’s not the fault of footwear, though: since the turn of the twentieth century, American fashion has only ever become more casual. Even notable anti-casual reactions (the homogeneous “man in the grey flannel suit” of the postwar 50’s, etc.) are mere blips in a far grander trend line. Look no further than the modern “white shoe” workplace to see these effects firsthand: a traditionally conservative, “business professional” law firm is now the subject of a New York Times editorial on “statement suits.” Quite a contrast from the white shirt-black suit days of old.

From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, the emphasis has changed. Business casual has become business casualAs early as 2013, “office style” guides have included designer sneakers as dress shoe alternates suitable for the younger, style-conscious business professional. Men’s magazine Esquire even broached the subject of pairing sneakers with a suit all the way back in 2010. Perhaps sneakers – long considered oafish and unrefined - had instead just gained broader legitimacy and instead become fashionable. Sneakerheads have always thought their deadstock pairs were the best-looking shoes on the block; the rest of the world just needed time to catch up. 

Sneakers on the fashion runway at a Public School show during NYFW:M 

Sneakers on the fashion runway at a Public School show during NYFW:M 

That’s not just a turn of phrase, either - I do mean the rest of the world. Given the “soft power” of American music, movies, and culture, the casualization of our dress has set off a chain-reaction across an increasingly globalized planet. Fashion historian Deidre Clemens, speaking to The Washington Post in a recent interview, phrased it best: “The American love of sportswear and comfortable clothes has redefined the limits.” Those limits being redefined deal exclusively with the ever-diminishing difference between what’s comfortable and what’s socially accepted as fashionable. The two seem diametrically opposed, but perhaps the two categories were simply waiting for the right bridge between them.

In a 2007 study by the International Journal of Consumer Studies, participants significantly emphasized comfort when given the choice between dressing for fashion or comfort (vs. other “fashion conscious” behaviors such as following the latest apparel trends). However, they all still prioritized fashion conscious behaviors at a higher than average level! The relationship between fashion and comfort is less conflict, more trade-off. Give any waitress the choice of working dinner shift in heels or Converse, and you’ll see how the desire for comfort in style often correlates directly with a love of athletic footwear.

As a college student uniquely exposed to the recent athleisure trend (though I choke on that word), every auditorium lecture is visual proof of those redefined limits in action. That’s not to say I see row after row of Seinfeld-esque New Balances; we may value comfortable shoes and enable their wear like never before, but that 2007 study forced participants to have their cake or eat it..

The "athlesiure" trend (though I choke on that word) in full plumage: t-shirts, sweatpants, and eye-catching status sneakers. As a college student, I'm uniquely exposed to this phenomena. (photo: Kristen Eisenhauer)

The "athlesiure" trend (though I choke on that word) in full plumage: t-shirts, sweatpants, and eye-catching status sneakers. As a college student, I'm uniquely exposed to this phenomena. (photo: Kristen Eisenhauer)

Consequently, as the function of sneakers has shifted from performance to fashion, a new wave of athletic-inspired silhouettes has combined the two into blockbuster success. This year saw adidas’ expansion of its’ Tubular lifestyle shoe line, Nike’s retro-homage Air Max Zero, and New Balance’s release of “running shoes” rendered in full-grain Horween leather that still sat on a rubber outsole. All of the preceding are sold as sportswear and carefully separated from each brand’s athletic offerings, even though they take both materials and styling cues from their purpose-built brethren.   

In 2015, sneaker culture offered anyone with an internet connection and an eye for style the prospect of fashion without compromise. To quote Elizabeth Semmelhack, the Senior Curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum: “The function of sneakers has shifted from athletics to fashion.  The "image of function," or more accurately the "image of athletic function," is used within fashion to convey ideas of authenticity… but the real function of the majority of sneakers is to shift form in the effort of following fashion.  Form follows function and that function is fashion.”

Nike Flyknit Lunar 1+ running shoes. Capable? Certainly. This Black/White pair has also become a fashion item. (photo: Kristen Eisenhauer)

Nike Flyknit Lunar 1+ running shoes. Capable? Certainly. This Black/White pair has also become a fashion item. (photo: Kristen Eisenhauer)

So what spurred this paradigm shift? A breakout year like 2015 doesn’t come together overnight. In many ways, a perfect storm of image culture, social media, fashion casualization, saavy marketing, and plain old design innovation decades in the making just happened to overlap at the right moment in time.

In 2015, Kanye West’s Yeezy Season shows used his galvanizing star power to propel the line’s signature sneakers to command four-figure price tags on the open market. Fashion designers Ricardo Tisci, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Jun Takahashi, Hiroshi Fuiiwara,  and Yohji Yamamoto all released sneakers in partnership with the world’s largest footwear brands.  Sneaker collaborations tapped the celebrity of pop culture icons Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Pharrell Williams, and even Christiano Ronaldo (the “most popular person in the world”) to drive demand for limited editions.

Y-3 SS16 (shoes: adidas x Yohji Yamamoto)

Y-3 SS16 (shoes: adidas x Yohji Yamamoto)

Raf Simons SS16 (shoes: Raf Simons x adidas Stan Smith)

Raf Simons SS16 (shoes: Raf Simons x adidas Stan Smith)

In 2015, photo-sharing service Instagram hit 400m users, granting nearly 1/20th of the world’s population an unprecedented ability to share their lives (and their footwear): As of December 5, #nike had collected close to 38m unique posts – a paltry one million behind the genre-encompassing #shoes at 39. Meanwhile, “experience” apps like Adidas Confirmed, Nike SNKRS, and the Nike Holiday 2015 “Tech Book” for iOS further integrated sneaker culture into the lives of the smartphone generation.

Graphic showing Nike's SNKRS app 

Graphic showing Nike's SNKRS app 

2015 also introduced the world to 3D-printed runners (New Balance), sneakers made from 100% recycled plastic (Adidas), and auto-lacing “Air Mags” straight out of science fiction (Nike). And on top of it all, both Nike and Adidas stock are trading at five-year highs with yearly earnings for both companies forecasted to be, well, as comfortable as their shoes. Technical innovations put sneakers in the headlines of newspapersfashion magazinesdesign journalsenvironmentalist blogs, and even primetime television. Sneakers were unavoidable.   

The adidas Futurecraft, a 3D-printed running shoe that promises both zero-waste production and ultimate user customization (source)

The adidas Futurecraft, a 3D-printed running shoe that promises both zero-waste production and ultimate user customization (source)

So yes, sneakers stole the show this year. As a fan of the shoes themselves, what a time to be alive! My 2015 Flyknit Chukkas are the coolest shoes I’ve ever laid eyes on, and their production wouldn’t have been possible without the decades of sneaker culture development that hummed along in the background until just this year. From high-tech runners to Italian calfskin tennis shoes, I have never been more impressed with the versatility and construction of footwear than I am now.

Nike Lunar Flyknit Chukkas, a "sportswear" shoe that features the same functional technology as the Lunar 1's above but in a silhouette specifically designed not for athletics. (photo: Kristen Eisenhauer)

Nike Lunar Flyknit Chukkas, a "sportswear" shoe that features the same functional technology as the Lunar 1's above but in a silhouette specifically designed not for athletics. (photo: Kristen Eisenhauer)

But as a fan of sneakers, I can’t help but worry. Throughout all of 2015, Nike released on average ten or more shoes a day. A privileged few models (limited releases; the aforementioned celebrity collaborations) sell through with any reliability.

The rest, well, don't. 

They sit. For months at a time, even as a near-constant release calendar builds up back pressure and pushes thousands of undesirable colorways to outlets. Then, the cycle repeats. With the dialogue surrounding fashion burnout growing louder, I can’t help but wonder if the fashionable, comfortable athletic shoes that made 2015 “peak sneaker” are immune because of their utility or merely approaching their decline.

For now, the State of the Sneaker is fresh. I just wonder if it’ll stay that way.