“It’s funny how sneakers became the male corsage of contemporary culture,” observed American designer Rick Owens immediately after his menswear show in January. Owens’ fashions often turn out to be prophetic – his designs seem outlandish at their release but slowly seep into wider usage – and here once more he has spotted an emerging truth. Forget the brogue, the derby, the desert boot and the Oxford; consign the stiletto, slingback and sandal to oblivion. Trainers are the plumage of the 21st century. Rubber-soled, comfortable shoes, first conceived for sport, have scaled the pinnacle of high fashion.
It may seem strange for so many of us to don sports shoes when we are fatter and more sedentary than ever. Yet this is no fad. Sales of trainers are rising far faster than the footwear market as a whole. And the decoupling of running shoes and running has been mirrored by the manufacturers too – cool trainers are no longer the preserve of sporting specialists alone. They are now a high-falutin’ Veblen good: as the price has gone up, so has demand.
Designers have introduced scarcity to the formula. French fashion brand Balenciaga makes small numbers of a shoe called the Triple S, a pre-scuffed, ornate bulky item whose accentuated, moulded heel and panelled upper shoe sparked a popular trend for “ugly” trainers when they first went on sale in spring 2017. The price tag is £600, yet so many customers pre-order them that even Selfridges department store, which has the largest footwear section in the world, has never managed to stock a pair of Triple S’s on its shelves.
“Ugly” is suddenly attractive. Since running shoes are now ubiquitous, those who yearn to stand out from the crowd are opting for extreme designs. Not all are as tractor-like as the Triple S. The B22 by Dior Homme blends a vogueish, chunky sole with a relatively sleek, silhouetted upper – a shoe for more tasteful sneaker peacocks. Years in the making, the Louis Vuitton Archlight by Nicolas Ghesquière features a soaring, accentuated gothic arch instep and is easily the prettiest extreme trainer out there. The RRP is $1,050.
Four figures? The plimsoll, a basic pump with a vulcanised rubber sole, has come a long way since it was invented in Britain in the 1860s, to be worn by the Victorian middle classes on the beach. Versions of this shoe are still available for under £2.
A number of other early incarnations retain a strong presence too. Keds, which debuted in 1916 in Connecticut, were the first mass-market sneaker (so called because the rubber soles allowed the wearer to sneak around without being heard). In 1917 a Massachusetts shoemaker named Marquis Mills Converse developed a high-topped shoe for basketball players. Called the All-Star, this cheap, flexible and versatile boot was endorsed by ball player Chuck Taylor in 1923 and became the Model T Ford of trainers – though unlike the Model T, it is still in wide use today. Later on, adidas (founded in Germany in 1949) and Nike (founded in America in 1964) were to the development of the trainer what the USSR and USA were to the space race, pushing both performance and comfort.
It took a century for trainers to move from functional shoes to street wear. Basketball was the game that really did that, writes Bobbito Garcia in his book “Where’d You Get Those?”. In the 1960s many players took pride in wearing the latest on-court models off court too. The shoes seeped further into popular culture in the 1980s when hip-hop artists, many of them emerging from the same New York neighbourhoods as the basketball-crazy sneaker-heads, gave trainers more street cred.
As incremental technological advances made sports shoes progressively more comfortable – and so more appealing – the decline in deference, formality and hard boundaries between work and leisure also helped to usher in the age of the workaday trainer. Yet for a long time the déclassé trainer presented a problem for luxury labels, standing for everything that high fashion was not: cheap, ubiquitous, durable, functional. Most brands steered clear, with scant few exceptions such as Gucci’s tennis pump in 1984 and Prada’s sailing shoe in 1996.
That began to change after adidas approached two fashion designers – Yohji Yamamoto in 2001 and Jeremy Scott in 2002 – to produce editions of their designs. Soon Lanvin, a Paris fashion house, was showing patent-toed men’s trainers on its catwalk, and in 2009 Louis Vuitton released a new collection co-designed by hip-hop artist Kanye West. Some cost over $1,000 – they sold out immediately.
Fast forward, and the fashion twist of this decade is that, though functional in appearance, many designers now give absolutely no thought to the performance of their shoes. The first sign of the aspirationally “ugly” sneaker was adidas’s Ozweego, a “running inspired” shoe designed in collaboration with designer Raf Simons in 2013 – shortly before he grafted a moulded sneaker sole to a patent-leather, high-heel pump in his day job as creative director of Christian Dior. At the time the Ozweego was considered as outlandish as the Dior pump. But it prefaced the extreme fashion sneaker – exemplified by the Balenciaga style – that has since become prevalent.
So the class-of-2018 fashion trainer is chunky, ugly and big. Can the trend last, or will the trainer soon flex in a fresh direction? Of course it will. In January Rick Owens unveiled a new, puritan design of rubber shoe, unadorned save for a few nylon tufts. “I wanted them to be really generic. Almost Kmart,” he said, “I’m a little tired of bombastic sneakers.” Perhaps 2019 will be the year of the $1,000 Keds.