From sports basics to in-demand auction items, a sneak peek at the boom in the $ 80 billion sneaker market


While once the symbol of athletics, sneakers have transcended their primary function to become fashionable and commercial objects of desire. From basic sportswear to high fashion status symbols, sneakers have established themselves as a cultural product and in doing so, the global sneaker market has become almost a 80 billion dollars industry as of 2020 and is expected to reach $ 120 billion by 2026. With such significant growth at stake, it’s no surprise that sneakers make for big business.

The last decade has seen a huge change in the way sneakers are worn. Slipping on a pair is no longer frowned upon in the workplace (in many cases) or for more formal occasions, and even UK etiquette experts Debrett gave their seal of approval, deeming the sneakers socially acceptable for smart casual occasions. At the same time, the continued domination of the athleisure trend had a significant impact on the growth of sneaker sales – associated, of course, with the continued comfort. This existing trend only accelerated during the pandemic, as lockdowns made people focus more on comfort, which has resulted in increased sales of loungewear, athleisure and flats, such as sneakers. As such, sneakers have gone from exclusive footwear and sportswear to items with serious fashion references. In fact, the shoe is now the best-selling category in the online luxury market, and sneakers have largely contributed to this growth.

Meanwhile, high fashion brands – from Gucci to Balenciaga – have helped set the tone in the luxury sneaker market. In 2017, Balenciaga’s Triple S, for example, has become the biggest seller in the luxury sneakers market and its popularity has largely seemed unstoppable since. (And who could forget Phoebe Philo’s embrace of adidas Stan Smith sneakers at the height of her tenure at cult label Celine?)

Such are the advancements in the sneaker industry that new exposure to London Design Museum explores how the shoe has become an undisputed cultural symbol of our time. To understand how the sneaker became a shoe phenomenon in its own right, it is important to trace its heritage from function to cultural icon.

Tennis shoes on the track

The first sports shoes were created by The Liverpool Rubber Company, founded by John Boyd Dunlop, in the 1830s. Dunlop was an innovator who discovered how to bind canvas uppers to rubber soles. These were known as sandhoes and worn by the Victorians on their beach trips. Historian Thomas turner defines the last decades of the 19th century as a time when industrial progress and social change were paired with a growing enthusiasm for sports activities, especially lawn tennis. This resulted in the need for a more specialized type of shoe, which Dunlop’s rubber sole could meet. Dunlop launched their now iconic model, Green Flash in 1929, which was worn by tennis legend Fred Perry at Wimbledon.

Other important sports shoes of the 20th century included the Converse All Star, designed for basketball. However, it was Nike and adidas that both shaped the evolution of the sneaker from sport to style. Founded by Adi Dassler in Germany in 1924 under the name “Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik”, the company was later renamed adidas in 1949. The brand created the first running shoe with a full leather sole and hand-forged toe, which was worn by Jessie Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Fast forward to 1964, and Nike was created by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, initially as Sport blue ribbon, but eventually renamed Nike in 1971. The titan’s rise from Beaverton, Oregon, coincided with the racing craze that hit America, Nike’s first commercial design being its Cortez shoe, specially cushioned for running. The once humble sneaker was worn by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, thus ensuring the cultural status of Nike.

The marketing of cool

Research by sociologist Yuniya Kawamura defines three waves of the sneaker phenomenon. The first wave of the 1970s was defined by an underground sneaker culture and the emergence of hip-hop. Adidas’s Samba design, as a key example, has become a key part of Terrace mode within the football fan subculture. In 1986, Run-DMC released the song “My Adidas”, leading to a sponsorship deal with the brand, serving to forge the sneaker’s deep-rooted place in popular culture.

After that, the second wave of the phenomenon started in 1984 with the Nike Air Jordan launch, a movement that gave rise to the commodification of sneakers and their desirability as status items, fueled, in large part, by support from high-profile celebrities, as with the Jumpman, himself. Finally, for Kawamura, the third wave is marked by the digital age, with a booming growth in the marketing and resale culture of sneakers, the latter of which was valued at $ 6 billion in 2019 and is expected to be worth a whopping $ 30 billion by 2030.

The growing presence of “Sneakers”, that is, sneaker enthusiasts who collect and trade sneakers, have ensured continued demand for such shoes, and more specifically, cemented the resistance of an array of specific sneaker styles as symbols of cult status. Nike and adidas regularly publish limited edition shoes associated with a celebrity, hip-hop star or athlete, and it’s not uncommon for people to go to great lengths to get their hands on these rare models, stand in line all night or pay hundreds, even thousands, for some pairs. Examples include Nike Air Yeezy 2 “Red October” Air Jordan x 1 Off White “Chicago”, and Kanye West’s Air Yeezys, which were auctioned by Sotheby’s in April for $ 1 million, making it not only Sotheby’s most expensive shoe list, but a shining example of the heights reached by the lucrative sneaker resale market.

From sports to fashion, sneakers dominate the consumer market. Yet despite their mainstream adoption, sneakers retain their freshness as cultural icons.

Naomi Braithwaite is Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing and Branding at Nottingham Trent University. (This article was originally published by The Conversation.)

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