How sneakers became the darlings of luxury fashion brands

Once the preserve of athletes and hip-hop artists, trainers are now a fashion staple and brands are vying for a foothold in the market

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 6:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2015, 11:28am

Hong Kong menswear designer Six Lee has a particular fondness for Oxford and loafer shoes. For the Antwerp-trained designer, they are part and parcel of an aesthetic which favours tailored and formalised menswear with a boyish twist. And when the CEO of footwear label Aqua Two contacted him in the hopes of creating a sneaker together, a new local product was born.

"I visited the company's factory in Xiamen to learn about the brand. I had never made sneakers before, so when I received their invitation I was quite surprised. What they proposed was totally out of my comfort zone, but I saw the task as a very fun challenge and decided to accept," Lee says.

The collection, which features a combination of details including marble print soles, leather with a holographic sheen, reptilian textures and classic tassels, is a design hybrid that marries Lee's love of tailoring with the practical comfort of trainers. More importantly, Lee's collection highlights one of fashion's biggest trends so far: stylish sports shoes.

It is hard to imagine that trainers were once considered a fashion faux pas, and ignored by the luxury elite.

These shoes, known as sneakers or "kicks" in American culture, were once the preserve of athletes and hip-hop artists, but since the movement has gone global, so too has mainstream adoption of sneakers outside the gym and on the street.

Of course, all of this has meant new and untapped opportunities for fashion brands to explore. Sneaker-mania has gone hand in hand with the rise of yoga pants and the overall movement of sportswear-casual apparel, which the fashion industry has dubbed "athleisure".

"People started favouring comfort over chic, giving the sneaker market a boost and creating a new kind of sport-hybrid fashion that was never accepted before by those in fashion," says Nicoline van Enter, creative director of international innovation and footwear education institute SLEM in the Netherlands.

The shoe's undeniable popularity has tempted a variety of brands to enter the market. Some fall under luxury brands, such as the Dior Fusion trainers last season which marry the feminine with the hi-tech. Others are collaborations, such as London multi-brand outlet Garbstore's ongoing partnership with Reebok. Then there's sports brands such as Nike, whose Air Jordan line of sneakers started the trend in the 1980s, and whose Flyknit model has become a mainstay at fashion weeks all over the world.

And while all these different trainers might be considered by the end consumer as part of the same category, they vary dramatically. Luxury trainers, for example, are constructed with traditional methods and made with luxurious fabrics such as high-quality suede or leather. Sports performance versions, on the other hand, need to be constructed with more technical concerns in mind, such as breathability and impact resistance.

I see the most interesting sneakers coming from smaller independent brands. They care for detail, construction and environment
Nicoline van Enter, creative director, Slem

The current generation of fashion designers have grown up surrounded by urban culture. This was the case for Garbstore's founder, Ian Paley. "Growing up in the '70s and '80s and starting my career in the early '90s allowed me to see nearly all of the classic shoes when they were first released."

This has been a key factor in making trainers popular among the luxury elite. For Paley and his collaboration with Reebok, the philosophy is to create something new that relates to the brand's history. The approach has been successful, with 50 models created so far and many more in the pipeline.

Trainers also outpaced other shoe models owing to new manufacturing techniques that allow them to be produced quickly and affordably.

"Advancements such as injection moulding to create outsoles is especially suitable, allowing for many of the complex outsoles that we now see today," says Van Enter.

It seems almost every brand is moving into this category. The trend is reminiscent of the many luxury labels collaborating with figures in the art industry. In many cases, what makes sense business-wise often feels like a hollow and insincere branding exercise.

"In the past decade, focus has shifted entirely to marketing and one celebrity collaboration after another. More attention is paid to whom the brand should collaborate with next than what the shoes should look like, or what new technology they should bring," Van Enter says.

"Frankly, I see the most interesting sneakers coming from smaller independent brands that are either run by or have hired capable designers, such as EKN, Thorocraft, FEIT and Ruit Footwear. They care for design detail, construction and the environment."

The sneaker's foothold in society does not look like diminishing any time soon. Opportunities and new advancement in technologies such as 3D printing are ripe to differentiate what is a competitive industry.

Ultimately, trainers, or sneakers - or whatever you want to call them - are an important and interesting social commentary on the changing values and attitudes of who we are as a society.