How sneakers became a $ 79 billion business

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Sneakers, once a symbol of athletics, have transcended their primary function to become fashionable and commercial objects of desire. From sportswear and street style to catwalk fashion, sneakers have established themselves as cultural products.

The global sneakers market was valued at around $ 79 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $ 120 billion by 2026. With such huge growth, it’s no surprise that sneakers are considered a big business.

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.

Comfort is king

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 or on more formal occasions. Even British etiquette experts Debrett have given their seal of approval, deeming them socially acceptable for chic and casual occasions.

The continued domination of athleisure trend had a significant impact on the growth of sneaker sales, as well as the continued comfort. This has only increased during the pandemic, as lockdowns have made people focus more on comfort, which has resulted in increased sales of loungewear, athleisure and flats like sneakers.

As such, sneakers have gone from the niche to become coveted fashionable items. The shoe is now the best-selling category in the online luxury market, and sneakers have largely contributed to this growth.

High fashion brands from Gucci to Balenciaga are setting the tone in the luxury sneaker market. In 2017, the Triple S from Balenciaga has become the biggest seller in the luxury sneakers market and its popularity seems unstoppable.

To understand how the sneaker became a shoe phenomenon, 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 Green Flash model 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 Adidas and Nike that both shaped the evolution of the sneaker from sport to style.

Founded by Adi Dassler in Germany in 1924 under the name of 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 toes, which was worn by Jessie Owens at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Nike was created by Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight in 1964 under the name Blue Ribbon Sports and became Nike Inc. in 1971. This coincided with the racing craze that hit America. Nike’s first commercial model was the Cortez, cushioned for running. The Cortez was worn by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, ensuring Nike’s cultural status.

[Photo: Nike]

The marketing of cool

Research by sociologist Yuniya Kawamura on sneakers defines three waves of the phenomenon. The first wave of the 1970s was defined by an underground sneaker culture and the emergence of hip-hop. Adidas samba design 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. This forged the deep-rooted place of the sneaker in popular culture.

The second wave of the phenomenon began in 1984 with the Nike Air Jordan launch. This gave rise to the commodification of sneakers and their desirability as status items, fueled by celebrity support. For Kawamura, the third wave is marked by the digital age and the resulting growth in sneaker marketing and resale culture.

The global sneaker resale market was valued at $ 6 billion in 2019 and is expected to be worth $ 30 billion by 2030.

The growing presence of “Basketball heads” who collect and sell sneakers has made sure to retain their cult status. Nike and Adidas regularly publish limited edition shoes associated with a celebrity, hip-hop star or athlete.

It’s not uncommon for people to go to great lengths to get their hands on these rare models, stand in line all night. Examples include Nike Air Yeezy 2 “Red October” and Air Jordan x 1 Off-White “Chicago. “These shoes have a retail value of $ 190 to $ 240 and sell for between $ 1,695 and $ 6,118. The lucrative sneaker resale market has created a new cult of sneaker lovers which through entrepreneurship generate significant hype as well as personal income.

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


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