Couture Sneakers Give Performance Footwear a Run for its Money as Comfort Becomes Cool

Women on the go are ditching their towering stilettos for flat alternatives – from androgynous brogues, moccasins and loafers to childish jelly shoes and espadrilles. Comfort has assumed an unshakable importance in today’s female footwear market, and, arguably, no flat shoe permutation has been a bigger benefactor of this trend than the humble sneaker.

As a bevy of glossy luxury labels and high street brands churn out their own versions to capitalise on the craze, how are the legitimate performance sports footwear brands, for which sneakers have long been their bread and butter, retaliating?

The Current State of Affairs

Looking at sports footwear category splits, performance footwear (where sportswear players mainly operate) accounts for a much greater share of the market in North America than Western Europe. In the latter, sports-inspired footwear (which is an area for general fashion brands and sportswear players, eg Nike’s Converse and adidas Originals) is more popular. In terms of growth prospects over 2013-2018, the growth of performance and sports-inspired footwear will be almost neck-and-neck in North America, but sports-inspired footwear will continue to dominate in Western Europe.

Sports Footwear Breakdown 2013

Western Europe North America
Performance 32% 55%
Outdoor 25% 11%
Sports-inspired 44% 34%

Source: Euromonitor International

Fashion Lends its Style Credentials to Sports Shoes

The world of sports-inspired footwear is an “anything goes” category – technical sophistication is often irrelevant, comfort is key and style credentials are a plus, giving fashion brands an easy way in.

Ever since Isabel Marant first designed her legendary hidden wedge sneakers (which now share shelf space with a spate of copycat designs) with comfort in mind, fashion designers everywhere have been keen to offer their take on the style, including Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and Céline. Perhaps the ultimate statement that sneakers have penetrated even the highest ranks of luxury is that the twin doyens of Parisian haute couture, Chanel and Christian Dior, both sent sneakers down the runway for their spring/summer 2014 fashion shows.

Collaborating rather than competing with such fashion designers enables sportswear brands to capture a slice of the sports-inspired footwear market, piggybacking on the street credentials of the collaborator in question. In March 2014, Givenchy’s Creative Director Riccardo Tisci designed a quartet of trainers for Nike, reinterpreting the brand’s most popular style, the Air Force 1, following a similar partnership between adidas and Raf Simons in 2013. Such collaborations ensure Nike is part of the growth in both sports-inspired and performance footwear, with minimum to zero cannibalisation.

Classic Styles Appeal to the Glitterati

Simultaneously, sportswear players have seen their own brands benefit on account of fashion trends. From the fashion week circuit to dance floors and music festivals, performance styles like Nike’s Flyknit, which was designed with Olympic level functionality in mind, have taken off. H&M-owned & Other Stories, centred on selling the building blocks of style, sells chunky Nike styles including its renowned Air Max alongside its other fashion-forward offerings.

In January 2014, adidas launched its classic Stan Smiths, which have peaked in popularity among fashion week regulars, most notably Phoebe Philo, Creative Director at Céline. Their pared down aesthetic has been favoured over bolder styles like Nike’s Air Max.

Both adidas and Nike have also ventured into more fashion-forward designs on their own merit, rather than through collaborations with designers. adidas, for example, under its Originals brand, sells statement pieces like lace wedge heeled sneakers. Partnerships with pop icons like Pharrell, who designed a pair of Swarovski crystal encrusted luxury Stan Smiths, have further put the adidas brand in the style spotlight.

The Women’s Activewear Revolution

Amidst the fashion flurry, sportswear brands have certainly not lost sight of their original raison d’être – performance sports footwear.

In fact, when it comes to functional footwear, sportswear brands have a clear advantage over fashion brands. Consumers look for a higher level of technical sophistication in footwear compared to clothing, especially for sports such as running. So, while consumers might favour purse-friendly leggings from GapFit, they are also more likely to fork out on a pair of Asics. The fashion element comes through the marketing of the product. For example, Reebok’s latest Skyscape Runaround campaign is fronted by high-profile lingerie model Miranda Kerr.

Launching gender-specific performance footwear is an evident opportunity for sportswear specialists. Lululemon’s latest CEO, Laurent Potdevin, was previously at the helm of Toms, spurring speculation that the brand may expand into footwear. The category is a natural extension of the brand, and the brand is well-positioned to provide innovative footwear solutions for yoga and pilates. Already ahead of the curve, sportswear heavyweight Nike launched its Studio Wrap shoes in 2013, supporting its push into the women’s activewear market.

Performance Matters

Women’s sports footwear in general remains a relatively underpenetrated market compared to men’s. Even in highly developed sportswear markets like the US and the UK, women’s sports footwear accounted for around just 35% of category sales in 2013.

While it makes sense for sportswear brands to have a presence in the sports-inspired category, given its strengthening presence in daily fashion wardrobes, it also makes sense for them to lead the fray in terms of performance sports footwear. After all, fashions come and go, but the sure and steady progression of active lifestyles and the associated uptick for activewear is a more enduring trend.