Robust footwear sales, sped by the comeback of dressier leather styles, promise to make the category a “third pillar” for more of Europe’s big luxury labels, and a boon for savvy high-heel specialists and fashion retailers, observers said.
According to Bain & Company’s Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study 2022, compiled in collaboration with Fondazione Altagamma, sales of high-end shoes are forecast to grow 7.5 percent this year, mainly due to stores reopening and the resumption of international travel.
Shoes and leather goods were the fastest-growing luxury categories last year, with the Altagamma-Bain Monitor valuing the footwear market at 23 billion euros, up 11 percent compared to 2019, according to Stefania Lazzaroni, general manager of Italian luxury goods association Altagamma.
“The ‘comfy shoe’ trend — with designer collabs on sneakers, loafers, boots and ballet flats — continues to dominate the high-end segment, but there is also new interest in more elegant styles, heels and special-occasion shoes, including embellished high heels,” she said in an interview.
In Italy, a key center for luxury footwear production, industrial production and exports registered double-digit growth in the first quarter of 2022, according to Confindustria Moda Research Centre for the Italian footwear association Assocalzaturifici.
Exports grew 21.4 percent in value in the first three months of the year, when 58.7 million pairs were shipped with a value of 3 billion euros.
Confindustria Moda’s numbers show that the strongest recovery was registered in categories that suffered the most from the effects of lockdowns and restrictions in 2020, including classic men’s and women’s shoes, which saw sales increase around 30 percent in terms of both number of pairs and value compared to the first quarter of 2021.
Speciality retailers confirmed the buoyancy of the overall category, and predicted more bright times ahead.
“We’ve increased our investment in shoes as a segment and we’ve seen very strong growth, particularly driven by parties and occasions,” said Richard Johnson, chief commercial officer at Mytheresa, citing strength among designer brands like Valentino and Prada in addition to shoe specialists including Christian Louboutin, Amina Muaddi, Roger Vivier and Gianvito Rossi. “Shoes in many respects have the power to redefine an outfit and many consumers find them particularly exciting.”
Johnson described a “more balanced picture” across women’s footwear today, driven by leather styles, whether heels, sandals or flats, as the sneaker juggernaut ebbs.
He noted that some designer brands pivoted strongly towards sneakers amid the streetwear craze and the pandemic, seeing them as a “golden bullet,” and are now playing catchup to offer a range of other footwear options. “They forgot that consumers have a lifestyle.”
By contrast, Mytheresa took a more prudent approach, and never abandoned dressier footwear.
“We were always pretty careful with the sneaker trend. We saw a lot of competitors chasing it so hard,” he explained in an interview. “We really focused on designers that had some cultural integrity in the space, redefining what sneakers are….We kept it narrow and deep.”
Now that sneaker sales are softening, Mytheresa finds itself in a good place.
“Our leather shoe business is bigger than our sneaker business,” Johnson said, singling out Amina Muaddi heels among the hottest items on its site. “Our business with shoes is comparable to our business with bags.”
Ryan Kleman, divisional merchandise manager, accessories at Moda Operandi, noted that women’s footwear has historically proven “exceptionally resilient” in times of uncertainty. “A shoe quite literally changes the customer stance and often, her attitude. Footwear also parallels the beauty space, in that the product is feel-good in nature, and customers will checkout for a bit of joy,” he said.
According to Kleman, customers maintained their appetite for high heels even throughout the pandemic, which kept the category at the core of Moda Operandi’s offering as it represents more than half of its women’s footwear business. The demand continues to build as shoppers have increasingly more reasons to wear them, with Kleman underscoring that “in many ways, we are seeing the customer ‘dressing from the feet up.'”
“We’re seeing the pre-pandemic appetite for ‘more is more’ within our footwear category [with] our shoppers seeking out bright colors, satins, embellishments and an overall high-octane aesthetic,” echoed Hollie Harding, buying manager for non-apparel at Browns. “The appetite for party shoes is at an all-time high, with towering heels and chunky platforms performing incredibly well.”
“The customer is embracing color, texture and print in ways she never has before,” agreed Jennifer Jones, Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of center core, a cluster of categories encompassing fashion accessories, shoes and fine jewelry.
Jones said heeled sandals and evening shoes have been the fastest-growing classifications this season, which led the retailer to boost inventory to support the demand. “Across the board, from contemporary to luxury, our customers are reacting to accessories that are emotional and exciting. Embellishment with rhinestones, pearls, crystals and metallics have been some of our strongest styles this season,” Jones continued.
“What we wear affects our mood and novelty in fashion can enhance how we feel. In footwear, we are leaning into this concept of excitement and balancing it with wardrobe essentials such as a chic loafer and a tall shaft boot,” she added.
As the desire to dress up again made a comeback, established names of the industry such as Manolo Blahnik, Aquazzura, Jimmy Choo and Gianvito Rossi experienced a resurgence, while top fashion brands also seized the moment to further beef up their footwear offering.
“Brands are definitely strengthening their ‘high heels’ segment and building out this portion of their collection. Additionally, we are seeing a sharpened focus on every [stock keeping unit] in the offering having a very clear client and end use. Everything feels more intentional, but with a focus on shoes that you can’t live without,” Kleman noted.
The spike in interest for occasion footwear also created space for newer brands to further accelerate and compete in the shoe arena.
“Iindaco is one to watch for their innovative designs, and we can’t wait to launch the brand this season,” Harding said about the Italian brand headed to Browns. She also mentioned Paris Texas as a brand in expansion, with the offering extending beyond the signature boots to include platforms and heels, too.
Meanwhile, Arielle Baron is Moda Operandi’s one to watch, offered Kleman, who also highlighted that “from a trend perspective, ‘Cinderella slippers’ and heavily embellished/crystalized shoes continue to dominate the selling reports. Platforms, flat mules (think: clogs and loafers) and thigh-high stiletto boots are ‘what’s next.’”
So what happened to sneakers, which had brought so much heat to the designer footwear category?
Alexis Mourot, chief executive officer at Christian Louboutin, allowed that sneakers took market share from heels just before and during the pandemic, though the Paris-based brand held its own due to its credibility in the category, and due to the popularity of its sneaker iterations like the Loubishark.
“We were expecting a bounce back after COVID-19, but not the level we saw,” he said, describing robust demand for mid-heel styles like it 85-mm Just Nothing style. “It’s doing extremely well, especially in the United States.”
Louboutin now sells a range of lower heel heights, from 45- to 85-mm, which are proving popular and easy to wear.
Mourot declined to provide specific figures for the privately held firm, but cited double-digit increases for women’s shoes, which account for half of its business.
He credited the founder’s creativity, and modest price increases based on rising material costs only, for the company’s vitality.
Bullish about its prospects in luxury footwear, and limited by its production capacity, Christian Louboutin plans to invest in 15 new factories, nine of them for women’s shoes, to its current complement of 32 sites.
“The category is getting more market share, so we are in a good place to take some market share on high heels,” Mourot said.
During the pandemic, many pundits declared the end was nigh for high heels, which Mourot took with a grain of salt, mentioning how the advent of the Apple Watch did not supplant mechanical watches as so many had predicted.
“After the pandemic, people still want to dress up, and it’s not going to stop,” Mourot said. “The pump has a really strong potential.”
To wit: At Net-a-porter, pump sales have doubled since last year, according to Libby Page, market director.
“We’re seeing an ongoing appetite for dressier styles, particularly heeled pumps and sandals, which have been some of our star categories,” she said, noting that “sneakers are also reigning supreme due to our varied assortment of cult, practical and everyday styles.
“There’s been a larger appetite for shoes and accessories overall, and for fall ’22, we’ve amplified our offering across bags, shoes and accessories by 65 percent,” she added. “We’re seeing a surge in customers opting for a heel height of 105-mm, a shift away from the flats that were trending last year.”
However, Net-a-porter expects a “normalization” in demand for dressy heels and a “return to the pre-pandemic balance between the different subcategories,” Page added.
Not surprisingly, it’s a sweet time to be a shoe designer or industry specialist.
During the pandemic, most European luxury players put recruitments “on the back burner,” but not for footwear, said Mary Gallagher, Paris-based associate of boutique recruitment firm FIND Consulting. “Shoe roles picked up — not just designers but also merchandisers and developers.”
She noted that salaries for top footwear designers are on the rise, and beginning to rival the eye-watering compensation for top handbag creators.
“Shoe designers are very sought-after because there are fewer fashion schools churning them out than for ready-to-wear,” she said.
Gallagher noted that some luxury brands that glommed onto the sneaker trend started poaching from activewear brands. And savvy ones are turning the category into a lifestyle business, offering everything from pool slides up to glamorous evening shoes.
“For fashion brands, where once the shoe offering was an image collection matching the catwalk’s trends and a larger one for commercial adaptations and carryovers, now they’re creating shoes for every activity and occasion,” she said.
“Many fashion brands see shoes as their ‘third pillar’ after ready-to-wear and leather goods,” she said. “If it was previously licensed out, they have brought it in-house as a business unit. Shoes are key because they can be an entry into a brand, they complete a silhouette, a look or an attitude, and they’re technical: If you succeed in shoes, you can produce anything.”
According to the Altagamma Consensus Update report, sales of leather goods are expected to increase 9.5 percent this year.
Data from Launchmetrics suggests the U.S. is the most popular market for luxury footwear.
Yet appetite from other regions is growing, according to an analysis by the data and insights firm, whose Media Impact Value (or MIV) scoring system assigns a monetary value to every post, interaction or article about a brand to measure its performance and impact, as well as what factors are driving them the most.
“Interestingly, Christian Louboutin has generated significant buzz in India during the first half of 2022 thanks to the designer’s inspiration from Bollywood and the country’s rich culture, with India ranking as the second top region with $29 million in MIV, overtaking France, which ranked third with $16.3 million MIV,” said Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer of Launchmetrics. Incidentally, the total MIV for Louboutin in the first half of the year was $122 million across 22,200 placements, and the U.S. was the first market, accounting for $31.3 million in MIV.
In particular, 80 percent of top 10 placements for the brand originated from Indian influencers and celebrities. Nora Fatehi, the Canadian actress and producer best known for her work in the Indian film industry, generated $1.45 million in MIV through two placements, similarly to Indian actor Shahid Kapoor. Shehnaaz Gill generated $965,000 in MIV through one placement, scoring a similar impact Indian model and actor Sidharth Malhotra had for a Jimmy Choo placement, instead.
“India does not fall under the top three regions for any of the luxury brands,” noted Bringé about Christian Louboutin.
One of the key regions for luxury brands in general, China has a penchant for shoes, too. According to Launchmetrics data, the country ranks third for Salvatore Ferragamo and Stuart Weitzman, having earned the brands $5.84 million and $1.37 million in MIV in the first half of the year, respectively.
Yet, “looking at some of the most popular shoe brands, it’s interesting to note the amount of Media Impact Value these companies generate is only 10 to 50 percent of what a fashion luxury brands like Chanel, Versace or even Alexander McQueen generates within the same period,” Bringé said.
Collaborations can come in handy to generate further buzz, grab attention drive sales in footwear.
For one, the Jimmy Choo x Mugler tie-up generated $10 million in MIV across 1,700 placements during the first half of 2022. The project gained significant attention on social media, with almost 80 percent of the total MIV originating from different social platforms helmed by Instagram, where talents such as Dixie D’Amelio, Anitta and Italian singer Elodie spotlighted the product on their accounts.
“Interestingly, the collaboration received significant attention from online media due to Megan Fox’s attendance of the cohosted VIP launch party, which generated an additional $679,000 in MIV. Finally, the brands leveraged their owned media successfully, generating an additional $909,300 in MIV across Jimmy Choo’s and Mugler’s social media accounts, including RED for Jimmy Choo,” Bringé said.
This formula doesn’t apply to the high-heeled business only. Even if remaining in a comfier zone, the luxe Manolo Blahnik x Birkenstock collaboration was another hit, generating an overall of $4.7 million in MIV across 2,100 placements during the first half of 2022. “The collaboration accounted for 11 percent of the brand’s total MIV made in the first half, with 61 percent of the total MIV originated from online media sources,” Bringé said about Manolo Blahnik. Again, Instagram was the top-performing channel but the collaboration drew attention also on Chinese platforms, being mentioned across Weibo, WeChat and RED and earning the brands a total of $240,000 in MIV.
High heels may be back to their pre-pandemic level, but other categories still continue to thrive. According to Harding, another wave of sneaker craze might be just around the corner. “As most trends go in cycles, looking ahead, I do think we will see a resurgence of the fashion sneaker. Currently we’re seeing iconic styles perform well in this category, but we are missing innovation and hype newness from the designer brands,” Harding said.
Looking further ahead, observers see additional opportunities for footwear sales — and hype — via the metaverse and Web3.
“A new trend we are analyzing is the creation of NFT sneakers and footwear for the avatars that populate the metaverse and gaming,” said Altagamma’s Lazzaroni, forecasting that by the end of 2030, the weight of digital assets and the metaverse will account for between 5 and 10 percent of the luxury market, with an estimated value of 25 billion to 50 billion euros.