In the midst of a designer exodus and one of the weakest luxury apparel markets in recent history, many wondered if this September’s New York Fashion Week could still keep its luster. Yet, where others saw weakness, some sensed opportunity. As an army of journalists chased fashion shows all over New York City, a single idea drew them (and the eyes of the world) back again and again to just one location: sneakers.
For three days straight, New York Fashion Week orbited around Nike’s “OFF CAMPUS.” Located on Wall Street, the pop-up installation offered programming, events, and most of all, a closer look at “THE TEN,” this fall’s highly-anticipated Virgil Abloh x Nike collab. The media circus surrounding the sneakers themselves only intensified throughout the week, with rumors about who had pairs dominating conversations everywhere from Nautica x Lil Yachty to the front row of Tory Burch.
By week’s end, the noise surrounding “OFF CAMPUS” had drowned out all but Raf Simons’ sophomore show at Calvin Klein, a critically-acclaimed collection that showed the same night as KITH Sport, a sneaker-fueled spectacle that was as much about the clothes as the celebrity shoe collabs.
In many ways, the most recent New York Fashion Week – an event created to showcase the ready-to-wear clothing created by New York’s Garment District – was, instead, all about the shoes.
While this may seem like a new phenomenon, last week’s prolonged shoegazing is actually the peak of an industry disruption decades in the making. In 2001, Yohji Yamamoto collaborated with adidas on the “Tenet Flower,” a sneaker he envisioned as a fitting complement to his sports-focused collection debuting that Fall. While the sneaker has since become a storied part of Yohji’s history with the Three Stripes, original reports from the runway mention neither shoe nor brand, instead focusing entirely on the clothes.
Three years later, Hedi Slimane (who had forged his still-young reputation entirely in suiting) walked models in sneakers for Dior Homme’s FW04 collection. The shoe, a Dior-branded homage to the German Army Trainer, was the brand’s first sneaker, and one of the first “luxury” sneakers to debut since the Gucci Tennis in 1984.
Perhaps due to the maturation of a generation that grew up on ’80s sneaker culture, by 2006, any cutting-edge designer worth their salt was putting athletic shoes on the runway. In his first-ever menswear show at that year’s Pitti Immagine, Rick Owens introduced the world to the idea of designer leather basketball shoes with his now-infamous “Dunks.” The shoes would soon earn Owens a cease-and-desist letter from Nike, who accused him of trademark infringement for a Swoosh-like side panel detail bearing resemblance to the world’s most valuable brand.
By then, the cat was out of the bag. Raf Simons would introduce his first luxury sneakers for Lanvin Spring/Summer 2007. Balenciaga debuted the now-famous “Arena” sneaker in 2010. The list goes on. Before long, it was mere table stakes for a fashion house to include sneakers in runway shows.
But a runway show about the sneakers themselves? That would turn heads.
At Paris Men’s Fashion Week SS16, two occasional collaborators unveiled a first-of-its-kind co-produced fashion line: “adidas Originals by White Mountaineering.” While the apparel intrigued and the show entertained, the true purpose of the show was lost on no one. adidas x WM was all about the shoes.
The next year, sneaker boutique KITH made its New York Fashion Week debut with “KITHLAND,” a buzzy, shoe-heavy runway as much a fashion collection as a high-production ad. As expected from a store whose global fame was gained through high-profile sneaker drops, collabs with BAPE, adidas, ASICS, and more took center stage. Short of an oh-so-unfashionable tech unveiling, KITHLAND was, for all intents and purposes, a sneaker preview.
Then Nike did the unprecedented.
Last October, the Air VaporMax running shoe (the latest in the brand’s “Air” performance line) was revealed to the world – not at a Sneaker Con, not at a press day, but on a runway in Paris. The shoe, first seen in public during COMME des GARÇONS’ SS17 show, wouldn’t release for months. Yet, like the fashion cycle of old, sneakerheads bided their time, waiting anxiously until that laceless blacked-out Vapormax first seen in Paris released that February, one season later.
In this post-“seasonal trend” age of fast fashion disruption, sneakers, it would seem, have usurped both Fashion Week and the traditional diffusion cycle from runway clothing. Although, perhaps “usurped” is the wrong word.
In fact, if you look past the runway, sneakers have disrupted fashion week by quietly riding a pair of trends that, paradoxically, position them as the ideal luxury fashion product. Moreover, sneakers of all shapes and sizes have been dominating the sidewalks as well as the runway, becoming some of the biggest status street style symbols.
On the one hand, most growth within luxury and high-end fashion is driven by accessories. While brands have recently “doubled down” on apparel (i.e. the recent noise surrounding Gucci’s jackets and tees), they’ve only made these investments because the high-end handbag category that actually keeps the lights on at Louis, Chanel, and the like, has literally hit market saturation. Major luxury houses just can’t sell many more bags because – like most accessories – they’re versatile and durable enough to be worn across seasons.
Sneakers occupy this same niche. Shoes are by-and-large accessories, which also means that they’re arguably more versatile than apparel. The internet fashion trope of “expensive shoes, Uniqlo everything” exists for a reason – you can buy a wardrobe full of cheap clothes, splurge on a pair or two of killer shoes, and still project the image you desire. Plus, unlike that Raf tee, you don’t have to launder your Ozweegos after you wear them.
On the other hand, sneakers just aren’t that expensive compared to most high-end apparel. Yes, they may sometimes be resold at rapacious mark-up (see: Nike x Virgil’s “THE TEN” – god forbid I ever get my hands on a Presto), but a $200 sneaker – even one bought for $1200 resale – is vastly more accessible than a $3000 statement bomber.
Considering that “versatile accessories” bit from above, buying a fashion house’s sneaker rather than its ready-to-wear grants you that all-so-important brand association at a fraction of the cost, dollars per wear.
Ask yourself: if you’re splurging on Saint Laurent, do you choose the $495 SL/01 sneaker or the $5350 moto jacket it was styled with? For all but the super-wealthy (i.e. the only ones actually buying runway apparel), the choice is simple.
Combined, these two forces (plus a growing acceptance of sneakers as shoes for more than just street kids) have both incentivized brands to create these runway sneakers and made the cries for sneaker fashion impossible to ignore. The result: a Fashion Week where the clothing takes a backseat.
However, that’s not to say we’ll see NikeLab hosting monobrand shows just quite yet. In my opinion, New York is just the first of the four major fashion capitals – all of which are Nike’s ” Target Cities, ” FYI – to embrace the ability that sneakers have to bring people who normally ignore Fashion Week into the fold.
Despite the occasional breathless market feature calling out “the sneaker trend,” sneakers aren’t going anywhere, full stop. The global athletic footwear market was valued at $75.2 billion in 2015, and unlike the theoretically-larger apparel industry, that value is concentrated in just a handful of companies. Plus, activewear (the sneaker’s natural companion) is now the fastest-growing category in the entire fashion industry.
While we’ll likely never see a proper Nike or adidas runway show, expect to see footwear brands participating heavily around Fashion Weeks by putting more collaborations on the runway, planning more experiential events around host cities, and before long, by winning more eyeballs in total than the brands paying to show collections. Recent expressions of this trend include the Nike x John Elliott Vandals, Reebox x Vetements Pump Supreme, recurring PSNY x Jordan Brand collabs, Feng Chen’s debut of the Air Jordan 1 Flyknit, and more. Even VLONE’s debut runway presentation was basically just an excuse to showcase the brand’s collaborative Air Force 1s.
New York was a logical starting place for this wave given the city’s connections to global sneaker culture, but as the next wave of Nike “OFF CAMPUS” kicks up during London Fashion Week in just a few days, my hunch says that, in aggregate, we’ll see more noise about limited-edition kicks than most of the lines showing put together.
When sneakers (not clothes) steal this year’s NYFW headlines after nearly two decades of gaining momentum worldwide, it’s hard not to feel like we’re on the verge of something bigger.
Footwear Week does have a nice ring to it.
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Main & Featured Image: Josh Sobel / Highsnobiety.com