By and  on August 18, 2014

“The sneaker is like jeans for the feet,” proclaimed Karl Lagerfeld. “Women wear sneakers everywhere these days — to work, to dance.”

In January, Lagerfeld accessorized Chanel’s spring couture show with an ultratony take on sneakers: the traditional athletic trainer done in pastiches of python, tweed, lace, pearls and crystals, each pair taking 30 hours of labor to make and only available for sale with the purchase of an entire haute couture ensemble. That same season, Dior’s Raf Simons showed haute sneakers as well, glittering, hand-embroidered mesh slip-ons.

Yet chic women don’t have to go haute to step into fashion’s growing high-end sneaker craze. Chanel offers an impressive selection of ready-to-wear styles (four-figure prices; no clothing purchase necessary), while this summer, Dior adapted Simons’ couture sneakers for broader distribution, launching Dior Fusion.

Those houses are not alone. The number of luxury rtw brands embracing the comfort-shoe moment includes, among others, Prada, Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Rick Owens, Saint Laurent, Gucci, Burberry, Etro, Givenchy and Rick Owens. (Contemporary labels, too, have upped their fashion quotient, including Marc by Marc Jacobs, DKNY, Rag & Bone and Tory Burch.) Christian Louboutin, too, is offering sneakers — 10 different red-soled styles for fall.

Céline’s Phoebe Philo is widely regarded as having initiated the sneaker obsession with her now-famous takes on the classic slip-on; Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz was an early proponent of decorative lace-ups. Spring 2014 saw heavily embellished styles from Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada; the former showing low-tops done in pony hair and embroidered crepe with sequined trim, retailing for $1,750; the latter, lace-ups encrusted in crystals, priced at $1,600.

The most recent iteration of the trend evoked the silhouette of classic athletic sneakers — the shape more gym-casual than catwalk-ready, but the materials were often decorative and luxe, with retail prices averaging between $500 and $1,000, with plenty extending beyond. Chanel’s low tweed sneakers from the fall range from $1,395 to $1,425; high-top versions from $1,550 to $1,800. Louboutin’s styles go from $795 for a low-top worked in spikes, glitter and metallics, to $2,595 for suede high-tops encrusted in Swarovski crystals.

That high-end brands are embracing sneakers with such gusto can be attributed to a number of stimuli. First: novelty. Fashion is about newness, and sometimes, dramatic swings away from the status quo. Aggressive, sexy, dangerous-looking shoes have dominated the industry for years. A reaction was inevitable. Secondly, the ath-leisure trend is all over the streets. It was only a matter of time before purveyors at the highest reaches of fashion would want in. According to The NPD Group, sales for women’s athletic sneakers reached $2.8 billion in the 12 months ending June; a 2.2 percent increase over a two-year period ending at the same time.

And sneakers feel good. “Girls are so into comfort,” said Ida Petersson, senior footwear buyer at Net-a-porter. “Once we realized we could wear something cool and comfortable, the news was out. We all embraced it.”

Simons’ decision to send sneakers down the Dior couture runway initially baffled chief executive officer Sidney Toledano. “Raf loves sneakers and wears them all the time, but it was a surprise when he said, ‘Sidney, I’m going to have sneakers for couture,’” Toledano said. “I said, ‘How can you make an haute couture sneaker?’ and he said, ‘You’ll see, I will combine the sneaker technique with real embroideries.’”

The embellished trainers were a hit (Toledano notes that all couture pairs have sold, keeping mum on the exact number), prompting the house to produce a viable rtw version. Enter Dior Fusion, a line of decorated mesh slip-ons that retail for $1,100. The collection debuted in June with a series of pop-ups around the world, such as Colette in Paris, Dover Street Market in London, the Dubai Mall, Joyce in Hong Kong, and most recently, Maxfield in Los Angeles. The early response has exceeded expectations. “To be frank, we thought it would be a success and that young people would buy them,” said Toledano. “But then the mothers followed their daughters. I myself had that experience. My daughter saw the shoes on Instagram after the couture shows, and when they came to the store, she was the first to buy them. And then my wife came after that….They got a lot of buzz. We did no advertising, but the customers came right away to the store. The other day I saw a woman come back to buy two more pairs. She wanted five different styles.”

Toledano credited the positive reaction to the infusion of Dior’s heritage with real-life functionality. “The comfort explains it,” he said. “High heels are sexy and fantastic, but sometimes you want to take the sneakers and relax.”

According to Kosha Gada, a principal in the consumer and retail practice at global management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, fashion sneakers are homing in on a consumer base previously untapped within the athletic market: wealthy women. “It’s really targeting a niche that can afford these price points and value a high-fashion sneaker,” said Gada. “These are women with a high shoe budget. The fashion houses are trying to get them to buy one less pair of stilettos and buy a high-fashion sneaker.”

Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni, who introduced strappy running shoes for resort, described her customer as “a fashion-oriented person who is searching for an alternative to sportswear brands and a different aesthetic with surprising color combinations.” Prices sit at $580.

Jennifer Sunwoo, executive vice president, general merchandise manager of women’s at Barneys New York, said the store sells fashion sneakers ranging from $110 to $1,000, citing “strong performances,” from Céline, Chanel and Giuseppe Zanotti as well as Golden Goose, Comme Play and Nike. “People will pay $2,500 for Christian Louboutin sneakers, and they are happy,” added Petersson.

With more and more high-priced fashion sneakers hitting the shelves, are premier athletic brands shaking in their sneakers? Not quite.

“We design with purpose — it’s athlete-informed and never just ‘new,’” said Andrew Caine, Nike’s vice president of footwear design. “We make products and provide services that make athletes better. The form of a Nike product is defined by its objective, how it solves a problem for the athlete. If it requires a new approach to solve a problem, inevitably the end result will create a new aesthetic. For instance, the Nike Air Force 1 continues to be Nike’s most-popular all-time shoe. It evolved from being worn on court in the 1980s into a street style icon.”

Therein lies the main dichotomy of sneaker design: performance versus aesthetic. While brands such as Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Reebok focus on performance capabilities, fashion houses are putting aesthetics first.

“When you look at what designers are doing with and to sneakers, they aren’t sneaker specialists,” said Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner at MMG, an investment bank that specializes in fashion and fashion-related mergers and acquisitions. “They are designers. They are taking utilitarian footwear and embellishing it.” He maintains that this differentiation will protect the athletic brands’ market share. “Athletic brands don’t need to compete, nor should they,” said Ellinger. “These guys spend a lot of time and a lot of money on developing real sneakers. They ought to stick to what they’re good at. There was a time in the Eighties when Levi’s started to work on the premium denim business because other people were doing premium denim and they thought it was impacting the business. But at the end of the day, it didn’t mean anything to Levi’s. Had they just stuck to what they do best, which is the 501’s and regular jeans, they would have just ridden out that wave.”

Though athletic brands design with performance in mind, they are not immune to outside trends and the pressure to be aesthetically pleasing. “We design to make athletes run faster and farther,” said Caine. “But they’re human; they also want to look good. Design has a psychological effect in sport. We often hear from athletes, ‘When I look good, I play better.’”

One way to ensure new sneakers are fashion-forward? Team up with one of the industry’s hottest designers, as Nike recently did with Riccardo Tisci on the Nike + R.T. Air Force 1 collection. “Collaboration is part of Nike’s DNA,” said Caine. Past partnerships for the brand include Marc Newson, Jun Takahashi, Tom Sachs and Hiroshi Fujiwara. “The best collaboration has to be authentic and is one that brings partners to places that neither could have reached on their own.”

For Nike, that place was the fashion-focused consumer. Upon news of the Tisci collaboration, more than 30,000 people joined Net-a-porter’s mailing list to be notified when the shoes hit the site. “It was insane,” said Petersson. “We sold out of the white style initially, but managed to get some more. The [boot] style is a more refined taste — the hard-core Rihanna-type of girl — but even that has a 67 percent sell-through.” The collaboration has been performing equally well at Barneys, with three out of four styles selling out online within the first few hours.

Ellinger said designer collaborations are the best way for athletic brands to get a piece of the high-fashion craze, while allowing designers to benefit from their technical expertise. “These fashion designers don’t have their own ability to make their own functional sneakers,” he said. “They can walk into a factory and make sweaters or skirts or whatever sportswear items they make, but the only way that they will be able to make these fashion statements is by going to these companies and saying, ‘Hey, let me work with your guys and we’ll make a statement together.’ It’s much easier to collaborate with an expert in the field.”

Adidas has long been a champion of the concept, housing its own internal division, Sport Style, dedicated to fashion collaborations, as well the Adidas Originals brand. Among the most popular and widely known collaborations within the category: Y-3, Adidas’ ongoing collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto, which launched in 2003. Recently, the brand collaborated with Opening Ceremony and Raf Simons. Outside of the Sport Style division, Adidas has also produced a collaborative line with Stella McCartney since spring 2005.

“We’ve been around for decades,” said Dirk Schönberger, creative director of Adidas’ Sport Style division. “We started with Yohji, now we’re working with people like Jeremy Scott, Raf Simons and Rick Owens. They bring something to the brand, but they came to us for a reason. I’m sure there are people out there who love Dior enough to buy a Dior sneaker, but you would not come to us for couture. We are still rooted in street. We make a stylish and very democratic product.” Prices for women’s sneakers offered within the Sport Style division range from $30 to $760.

Schönberger went on to call out a classic Adidas style, the Stan Smith, as a popular style among women thanks to its unlikely fashion connection. “You see Phoebe Philo and Raf Simons wearing a Stan Smith at the end of their show, and think, ‘That is a stylish shoe,’” he said. “Now, during fashion week in Paris, you see people wearing the Stan Smith.…We have had years in fashion that were very formal and strict, and times when it was about sex appeal and embellishments. This is a moment for tailoring and sport to come together. And whereas fashion embraces it for the moment, it may not embrace it two years from now. But I still believe that what we do won’t be obsolete.”

Whether via collaborations or otherwise, the recent influx of high-fashion sneakers has been resonating with consumers. Petersson estimated that just a year ago, sneakers accounted for 5 percent of Net-a-porter’s overall footwear sales; today it’s 10 percent. To keep up with the demand, Net-a-porter has bulked up its offerings, bringing on Adidas in July. The site’s U.S. Nike sales nearly quadrupled in the time period from July 2013 to July 2014. “If you aren’t normally a sporty girl and go into a sneaker store, it can be quite overwhelming,” Petersson noted. “It’s just wall after wall of options. As with the rest of our fashion purchases, we do an edit for shoes and select what are working with trends or the colors that we see for the season. Customers have said that they love that it’s digestible.”

Petersson added that while the intensity of the trend may fade come September collections, the yen for tony sneakers won’t disappear. “Once people embrace it, they’ll always have it in their wardrobe,” she said. “It’s like a pointed pump.”

Toledano agreed. “We’re going to continue [the sneakers]. It’s a real thing now,” he said. “The concept of the shoe itself is great.…I only have one regret: We don’t have sneakers of this kind for men.”

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