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Uneek shoes from Keen. Footwear “that you could pilfer from a retirement-home denizen” is becoming popular with millennials and Gen Z-aged men.

Ugly sandals, ‘old people’ walking shoes: millennials and Gen Z are choosing comfort over looks

  • The walking shoe appeals to younger consumers because it is relatively uncommon when most in their generation are focused on the oversaturated sneaker market
  • Footwear is the latest retail sector that working from home has transformed, having already fuelled the comeback of tie-dye, the day gown and lingerie

Walking shoes are getting new life in the soles of millennial and Gen Z men.

From Keen’s Uneek sandal to the Merrell Jungle Moc, 20- and 30-somethings are donning footwear “that you could pilfer from a retirement-home denizen”, The Wall Street Journal wrote recently.

The trend is born out of the desire for comfort over looks in the work-from-home era, according to the newspaper. “People just want to be a little bit more cosy,” Stefano Gugliotta, the 29-year-old behind the Obscure Sneakers Instagram account, told the Journal. “I think that practicality is what people are gravitating toward right now.” 

Footwear is just the latest retail sector that the work-from-home economy has transformed, having already fuelled the comeback of tie-dye apparel, the rise of the day gown and a renaissance of the lingerie category.
Salomon sneakers have been embraced by fashion lovers.

In December, both UBS and Bank of America noted the uptick in sales for footwear retailer Nike during the pandemic. Its web traffic was up by 36 per cent for its first quarter, and then up 40 per cent for the next three months, per Bank of America.

Nike said on its December earnings call that it was seeing permanent shifts towards digital, athletic wear, and health and wellness amid the pandemic, and Bank of America said these trends aligned with its thesis on the dominance of solitary leisure during the pandemic.


But some young adults want something less mainstream. The walking shoe, with roots in normcore, the “average” fashion trend that rejects other fashion trends, is also appealing for being relatively uncommon among younger cohorts amid the now oversaturated sneaker market.

It, helps, too that they can be more affordable than expensive sneakers. Air Jordans can cost as much as US$235, compared to the Merrell Jungle Moc that averages US$85.

It’s not the first time millennials have redefined footwear as a status symbol. Its symbolism has evolved as millennials and Gen Z have come to prioritise function over appearance. Both generations fuelled the “ugly fashion movement”, which favours more comfortable, practical clothing, and dressing ugly as irony.

5 sustainable sneaker brands selling cool shoes at affordable prices

“Uncool companies are ideal for millennials and Gen Z to love, discover and sport because they represent exactly what the younger generation craves: being different without looking like you’re trying,” Jason Dorsey, millennial and Gen Z-expert of the Centre for Generational Kinetics, said back in 2015.

“It’s easy to wear whatever the hot thing is that is all over social media for the one month it’s new, but it’s a lot harder to go on a different path and find the brands that are unexpected for you to be seen wearing,” he added.

Halfway through the last decade, Birkenstocks and LL Bean boots had garnered a youthful street appeal, considered cool for their practicality. By 2019, the same could be said of the No. 6 clogs favoured by Brooklyn mums in New York, touted as an “ugly-chic shoe obsession” by the likes of US fashion magazine Vogue.


The preference for comfort over looks is what propelled much of sport leisure footwear that year, driven largely by Gen Z and millennials. Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at market research company The NPD Group, said in 2019 that the trend was largely a reflection of how the younger generation was working and living.

“A casual and comfortable lifestyle has become the norm, and we see this reflected in consumers’ footwear and apparel choices,” she said. “And, in some cases, sneakers are the new status items.” 

Such demand drove up the prices of sneakers over time. Luxury kicks came to replace professional wardrobes as symbols of power, nonchalance, and creativity in pre-pandemic workplaces in Silicon Valley and the fashion industry. At the time, a tech CEO might have preferred a pair of US$564  Lanvin low-tops, while a fashion lover might have gone for a pair of US$900 Balenciaga Triple S sneakers, yet another staple of the ugly-fashion trend.

But popularity is the downfall of any status symbol, giving rise to the new. In a pandemic era, that’s the walking shoe.