2019 was a year for reflection in the fashion industry. Looking back at the year’s prevailing trends reveals more about attitudes than aesthetics.
The last year of a waning decade was defined by uncharacteristic introspection from industry insiders, who have come to recognize that fashion’s waste problem—the result of decades of lighthearted obsession with flighty fast fashion trends—has turned deadly for the planet.
This melancholy realization has manifested itself in the industry’s output. Trends in footwear in 2019 relied on the reimagining of old stand-bys, rather than the introduction of groundbreaking new styles and silhouettes. Nostalgia ran deep, reawakening stagnant heritage brands.
Comfort also won out over new trends. Athleisure’s reign seems, at this point, more fact than fad. Sneakers have wormed their way into high fashion lines and replaced even easy-wearing styles like ankle booties and block heels.
The overall movement toward practicality and versatility could signal a true evolution in consumer attitudes. Concerns over climate change—coupled with the threat of a looming recession—have many shoppers prioritizing purchases they feel will have a place in their wardrobe for seasons to come.
Fond feelings for the sartorial stylings of Gen X dominated footwear in 2019, most notably through the relentless ubiquity of the platform “dad shoe.”
FILA’s chunky, stark white Disruptor II was the year’s MVP, propelling the brand’s growth by more than a third from 2018, according to NPD. Once derided as a label that had passed its prime with little attempt to update its signature style, FILA nonetheless dominated back-to-school wishlists and captured the hearts of teens and young shoppers this year.
California cool slid back into the style lexicon, with Santa Ana-based skate wear brand Vans also scoring high with Gen Z. The brand’s iconic checkered lace-ups and slides proved as indispensable to today’s youths as they were to those growing up in the Clueless era.
Punk rock stalwart Dr. Martens remains an immovable force in the industry after more than 72 years. The septuagenarian label refuses to show its age, though, and the brand’s trajectory shows all the indicators of growth as it moves into 2020.
In response to growing consumer interest, the British company unveiled vegan styles in 2018 that have catapulted sales to a 70 percent increase in profit and a 30 percent increase in revenue during the fiscal year that ended in March.
A relatively new reliance on direct-to-consumer distribution is also helping Docs reach a new generation of digitally native shoppers.
The last gasp of the twenty-tens may well be remembered for the mainstream popularization of shoes and styles that were once perceived as deeply utilitarian and decidedly un-stylish.
Boomer staples like Crocs and Birkenstocks have morphed into fashion fodder for millennials and Gen Z shoppers in recent seasons, and have utterly dominated the footwear landscape this year.
Mimicking the strategy for drumming up hype around exclusive sneaker drops, Crocs has partnered with pop culture figures and fashion icons alike to draw younger consumers to its signature foam clogs.
Ranging from tattooed crooner Post Malone to embattled luxury retailer Barney’s and designer Vivienne Tam, the limited-edition collaborations have helped the brand test new, niche markets by appealing to a wide range of consumers.
In December, the brand launched its fourth collaboration with “Rich and Sad” singer Malone—a jet black and blue camo-printed “tactical” clog with hook-and-loop backstraps. The Duet Max Clog sold out immediately upon launch—a similar result to the brand and singer’s previous joint ventures.
Heritage sandal brand Birkenstock has also made the multi-generational jump, enticing shoppers from all walks with its ultra-wearable comfort sandals as well as collaborations with high fashion brands.
Birkenstock hit the catwalk in a first-time partnership with Valentino in January. The Italian label’s creative director, Pierpaolo Piccioli, said that the sandal brand’s basic silhouettes helped lend an air of simplicity to the show, tastefully complementing the more luxe, statement-making elements of the collection.
While Birkenstock debuted its injection-molded EVA sandals nearly five years ago, it’s taken a handful of seasons for the innovation to hit its stride at retail. In 2019, though, the light, full-foam versions of Birkenstock’s core line (usually made from cork and leather) made a powerful impression on celebrity stylists and influencers across the ‘Gram.
The styles have proven popular with a range of consumers for their water resistance, enticing range of hues and lower price point (the EVA version of the Arizona costs about $40, while the original will set shoppers back $100 or more).
Function over fashion
The era’s shoppers aren’t lusting after Louboutins and Manolos with the same fervor that they did during the Sex and the City days. In fact, the modern female shopper has basically dumped the stiletto in favor of more comfortable options.
Style and practicality were once essential antonyms, but today’s shopper is looking for wearability above all else. According to footwear designer Ritch Erani, whose styles have graced the feet of pop culture royalty like Beyonce and Priyanka Chopra, even luxury footwear consumers are looking for silhouettes that are simple and versatile.
“It’s the basic shoes that really go a long way with all kinds of customers,” he said, adding that celebrities, stylists and everyday shoppers have been gravitating toward less embellishment and lower heels.
“There’s been a loss of appreciation for what’s going on the runways,” he said, explaining that haute couture styles are “not really trickling down” to the average shopper the way they used to.
Instead, Erani said, women have been looking to pared down looks with minimal detailing that can be worn trans-seasonally and across wearing occasions.
The shift in consumer appetites has left an opening for comfort brands that focus more on cushy soles than replicating runway style.
Still, the industry as a whole has struggled to find the next “it” shoe, and the ethos of contemporary footwear in 2019 may well be defined by a complete dearth of inspiration.
According to Barbara Lefkowitz, the general merchandise manager for Upper East Side ballet flat haven French Sole, brands have been at a loss for the next statement-making silhouette or trend this year.
“There isn’t something out there where everyone says ‘That’s it,’” she told Sourcing Journal in August.
“There’s a lack of direction, no first animal in the pack,” she added. “It isn’t there right now.”
Because it’s imperative that brands court consumers with newness and styles they don’t already own, shoe lovers may have to wait until 2020 to fall for their next pair.