Dad shoes are clunky, ugly – and the hottest trend in footwear, clomping down the runway at recent shows by luxury houses Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga. The bulked-up sneakers, which can retail for hundreds of dollars a pair, also represent a major challenge for athletic-shoe makers unaccustomed to the volatile world of high fashion.

Until recently, companies such as Adidas AG and Puma SE could count on steady sales of minimalist, retro styles such as Adidas’s Stan Smith and Puma’s Clyde. Increasingly, though, shoppers are turning toward chunky, runway-inspired sneakers including Vuitton’s US$1,000 LV Archlight and Balenciaga’s US$800 Triple S.

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Athletic-shoe makers are jumping on the bandwagon as fast as they can. Adidas launched a chunky model last year as part of the top-of-the-line Yeezy collection it’s developed with rapper-designer Kanye West. Other dad models from the German company, like the Yung-1, look like cartoon versions of 1990s running shoes, with puffy foam soles and garish colours. This time around, however, they’re worn with a wink by ironic hipsters, rather than with triple-pleated khakis by middle-aged American tourists.

Niche labels have joined in the fun. Fila has a collection of clunky sneakers and sandals called Disruptor, while Skechers USA Inc. has its D’Lite lineup. “Skechers will make a big play here for back-to-school,” NPD sports-shoe analyst Matt Powell said.

Puma CEO Bjoern Gulden acknowledged recently that his company had been caught off guard by “major shifts in product trends and consumer demand, especially in footwear”. The company pulled forward the release of some chunky models, including its brightly coloured Thunder Spectra, released in April.

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Fuelled by social media and the popularity of high-end streetwear, sneakers have become one of the fastest-growing categories in luxury goods, with sales up 10 per cent in 2017, according to Bain & Co. By contrast, US sales of conventional sports footwear grew only 2 per cent last year, according to consultancy NPD.

The problem for the shoe companies is that this season’s bestseller could wind up at the back of the closet within six months, as shoppers flock to the next sneaker drop.

“The life cycles change much more rapidly” in the fashion world, Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted said as the company reported better-than-expected sales and profit this month. “That’s where the challenge is, and the opportunity. Can you spot the trend? Can you create that shoe at a much higher speed than we normally do and hit the trend line right?”

Adidas is retooling its manufacturing in hopes of meeting that challenge. It has set up “speed factories” in Germany and the US that can laser-cut and mould together a pair of shoes within 24 hours. That compares with two to three months at the company’s traditional suppliers in Vietnam, which produce shoes in large batches by traditional stitching and glueing, one step at a time.

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Athletic-shoe makers use limited-production collections such as West’s Yeezy, sold through a handful of outlets, to fuel “brand heat.” Even these high-end sneakers don’t command the eye-watering prices that luxury houses charge. Yeezy is mostly in the US$200 to US$300 range – although hard-to-find models on the resale market can top US$1,000.

Stan Smith

Athletic-shoe makers are still counting on longer-established brands. While Stan Smith is losing some of its momentum and now accounts for less than 5 per cent of global sales, it’s still gaining ground in China, one of the company’s fastest-growing markets.

As the dad shoe makes a comeback, it’s no surprise that its much-maligned sartorial sibling, the dad jean – with its light wash, high waist and billowing leg – is getting a second look. Because in fashion the next season’s trend is just around the corner.

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