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2018: The Year in Sneakers

Over the first half of 2018, U.S. footwear sales increased by 7 percent, according to the NPD Group—led by gains in casual footwear and omnichannel shopping. The state of footwear is strong, but the underlying details tell a larger story.

For one, most gains in footwear over the last year have come from comfort footwear and fashion sneakers. The performance footwear category, including things like football cleats and basketball sneakers, continues to suffer through a four-year period of stagnation as brands like Nike and Adidas have reported negative sales in the latter portion of the year.

Athletic sneaker sales in the U.S. were down in the months leading up to the holidays, NPD said, and Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor for the group, doesn’t expect sales will recover enough over the holidays to return the sector to positive growth.

However, Powell acknowledged that 4 percent revenue growth in the third quarter of 2018 for performance sneakers was higher than anticipated. Much of the industry’s troubles, according to Powell, are a result of price issues and the lack of “inspirational and aspirational products that surprise and delight.”

Overall, NPD anticipates that 2018 will record 1 percent or flat growth for sports footwear, which Powell said would be a significant loss compared to a few years ago when sneaker growth would regularly hit 5 percent in the year. Powell was not optimistic about positive overall growth for performance footwear going forward.

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The exact opposite could be said for casual and lifestyle footwear, which continued to be the largest category in the sneaker market in 2018, with double the growth of performance sneakers in Q3, at 8 percent.

An NPD survey released in September said the majority of today’s consumers prefer lightweight, breathable footwear—a clear advantage for the casual lifestyle market that’s currently defined by the knit upper trend made popular by Nike and Adidas.

In fact, the most important ongoing battle in footwear—which started in 2012—continues to be the fight over which of the two footwear giants have claim to the knitted upper trend. Should Nike’s Flyknit technology be considered the original or will Adidas and Primeknit get the last laugh? The world will continue to wait as a legal battle between the two wages on.

However, a new player emerged in 2018 when Nike decided to sue Puma over the use of its evoKNIT, the same knitted upper tech that sparked the initial lawsuit with Adidas. Puma attempted to have the suit thrown out, arguing the style of upper was now ubiquitous and Nike should have no claim to it. A judge threw out the motion in October and the case is headed to court.

This year was also one that saw sneaker brands collaborate with basically anything that already had a recognizable brand. NBA point guard prodigy, Kyrie Irving, saw his exceptionally popular sneaker, Nike’s Kyrie 4, collaborate with Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Kix for the “Cereal Pack.”

Anime was also a player in the sneaker world in 2018 and more than one high-profile anime/sneaker collaboration hit stores this year. Nike created an Airmax 98 collaboration with Gundam, one of Japan’s best-selling cartoon properties, and Adidas partnered with Dragonball Z, the most successful anime to ever hit the U.S., for several shoe drops based on the most popular characters from the show.

The year’s most unique collaboration may have been between Nike’s Jordan brand and Levi’s. Although the initial online reception for the collaboration was tepid, Nike’s store in Soho had to be shut down on the day of the release due to high demand and concerns over safety.

Drops were popular in the sneaker world long before the trend came to high fashion, but a natural symbiosis seems to have developed between the sneaker world and luxury in 2018.

Virgil Abloh, the godfather of streetwear in fashion, collaborated with Nike’s Converse brand to create a transparent pair of “Chucks” and Tyler, The Creator also partnered with Converse for the GOLF le FLEUR line. Balenciaga’s Triple S sneaker was one of the hottest chunky sneakers this year, retailing for $900. Luxury sneakers officially arrived in 2018.

The past year also saw Nike’s mindshare among teens drop in favor of Crocs and Vans, suggesting Nike’s dominance, and the sneaker world as we know it, may be on the verge of changing once Generation Z has their say.