In January 2014, Karl Lagerfeld held a couture show set in a fictional club, complete with a full orchestra and grand, sweeping staircase, down which his models tripped in gossamer, bejeweled creations, each one complete with its very own custom sneakers.
There were 64 sneakers in all, with approximately 30 hours of handwork in each, courtesy of the couture shoemaker Massaro. Designers had flirted with sneakers before, including Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens, but because this was Lagerfeld, who does nothing halfway, and because this was couture — the fanciest, most elitist kind of fashion — the choice was taken as a major cultural signifier. As opposed to, say, a shoe.
It was hailed as a breakthrough. Comfort for all! A small step forward for footwear, a huge step forward for womankind!
Four and a half years later, the fashion sneaker phenomenon has reached the point of absurdity. As marketing executives the style world over have become convinced that every single brand has to have a sneaker in its footwear arsenal, and the pressure is on to up the ante with each new design — to make it crazier, and bigger, and artier (and, sometimes, uglier) — the form has begun to flirt with being a parody of itself.
During recent runway shows, there were sneakers at Versace: on a chain-link rubber sole, boatlike in size or reduced to Velcro sandal straps, like a cross between Chacos and a rapper necklace. Sneakers at Cavalli: giant, silver, with spaceship bottoms. Valentino made sneakers nurselike, with detachable feathers.
So did Coach (metallic, with a loafer fringe), Tory Burch (canvas, with contrast laces and soles) and Escada, for its New York runway debut: candy-colored high-tops with quilted hearts on the ankle, seemingly sourced from a pick ’n’ mix shop.
And it didn’t stop there.
Gherardo Felloni, Roger Vivier’s new creative director, introduced the Viv’ Run, a shoe not remotely made for running (as even he admitted), in multiple colors with a giant signature diamanté buckle and inbuilt heel, so the shoe is actually a 7-centimeter semiwedge.
Then Jimmy Choo unveiled the Diamond sneaker, with the “silhouette of a vintage racing shoe, superimposed into a Diamond-soled footprint” that had been created using a special plastic mold that encloses the actual sole, all of it adorned with Swarovski crystals.
Some of these shoes are great. But many look more like Frankenstein monsters of the foot, cobbled together from references and peer pressure, unwieldy and aggressively clumpy. They don’t free the wearer to take flight. They weigh her down.
And they cost an awful lot — $580 for Gucci; $895 for Balenciaga’s Triple S; $1,090 for Louis Vuitton’s Archlight — while doing so.
So while Rati Levesque, the chief merchant of luxury resale site TheRealReal.com, said that women’s fashion sneaker sales are up 35 percent year on year, and while Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear analyst for the NPD Group, said that designer sneakers are the No. 1 growth area in the entire footwear space for men and women, it’s hard not to wonder: Have we reached peak sneaker ridiculousness?
“I have a bet with Sebastian Manes, the buying and merchandising director of Selfridges, that we are at the top of the trend and the pendulum is about to swing back,” said Neil Clifford, chief executive of Kurt Geiger Ltd., which owns four shoe brands and also administers the shoe departments of various department stores.
Goldstein of NPD agrees. “I think it will slow,” she said.
Prada introduced its first sneaker in 1996. Adidas brought on Yohji Yamamoto and Jeremy Scott as collaborators in 2002. Lanvin introduced its sneaker in 2005 — and Michelle Obama got flak for wearing her $540 pair in 2009, which was the same year Vuitton enlisted Kanye West to help the brand with a sneaker.
The force behind this, all armchair analysts agree, is the rise of streetwear and comfort dressing: athleisure, leggings, hoodies. As the world and workplace get increasingly casual, so, too, does the footwear. Although the sports brands (Nike, Adidas, Puma) were the first to see the possibilities in combining our yen for a sneaker wardrobe with the planned obsolescence of fashion, the brands themselves soon cottoned on to the possibilities of the style, and the money to be made.
Besides, it is true that once you trade in your stilettos, it is very hard to go back. Serena Williams wore her sneakers to Meghan Markle’s wedding after-party under her Valentino gown — and then she Instagrammed them for all to see. (Not to mention her own wedding party. Remember her bedazzled Nikes?)
But now that we are in a situation where the sneaker has become so removed from its original purpose (freedom, functionality) that it has become an end in itself, it may finally be deflating. When designers are making a sneaker just because they think they have to make a sneaker, as opposed to because it makes sense for their brand, or their shopper, it’s time to stop.