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Sneakers Served Up Plenty of Highlights in 2019

For the past few years, sneakers have enjoyed “it” status in footwear.

Brands that never expected to add anything resembling a sneaker to their lineups turned to sneakers to boost sales, each new release adding to the footwear style’s reputation as a sure thing. Many declined to even call their new shoes “sneakers,” instead opting for non-committal terms like “sports-leisure” or “athletic-inspired” footwear.

Nevertheless, the sneaker persisted.

Throughout 2019, the footwear industry took cues from athletic brands, working seasonal release schedules out of their business models in favor of fresh, excitement-driving releases.

Sneakers this year played an outsize role in determining the hottest brands and styles, pushing luxury brands like Off-White into the stratosphere, thanks to blockbuster collaborations with important sneaker brands (Nike, in the case of Virgil Abloh’s white-hot label).

Back-to-school season, according to the NPD Group, traditionally one of the most important times of the year for sneaker brands, drove sales up by dollar amount. Fila emerged as the big winner, growing its year-over-year sales by roughly 33 percent during the BTS season. Vans was also able to continue its comeback, adding 25 percent in sales over 2018, followed by Puma in the high-single digits.

Resale has become a dominant theme in sneakers for much of the recent past, and that trend continued its momentum in 2019. This year, the question finally became: are sneakers the next great alternative asset? While the answer to that question may be open to interpretation, Cowen & Co.’s estimate that the sneaker resale industry could be worth up to $6 billion by 2025 is not.

“We propose the idea that sneakers are now an emerging alternative asset class that 1) earns illiquidity premiums; 2) provides diversification—non-correlated with traditional asset classes; and 3) earns favorable risk-reward characteristics with Nike as the driving force in the concept of sneakers as an alternative asset as the sneaker resale market scales,” Cowen analysts said in April.

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A crowd of sneakerheads in New York City waiting enter their names into a sneaker raffle. Shutterstock

Even high-end retailers like Bergdorf Goodman stepped into the sneaker resale world, which has quickly evolved from a casual pastime for dedicated sneakerheads into a recognizable fixture in the fashion industry.

Jordans and Yeezys continued to lead the way in terms of both dollar and unit sales on resale platforms, representing opposite ends of the sneakerhead spectrum. In many ways, Jordans represent the value of traditional and retro silhouettes in the sneaker world while Yeezys illustrate the seductive power of hype.

D’Wayne Edwards of the Pensole Academy—one of only six designers to have created an original Jordan silhouette—offered his perspective on the resale industry and the sneaker world, at large. The secondhand market can give brands a false sense of success, he said, because resellers “are buying product with no intention to use it,” he said. “They just know someone else will like it.”

There was, perhaps, no bigger buzzword than “sustainability” in the sneaker industry in 2019, assisted by the fact that the foams traditionally used to make sneakers are very much not sustainable and have been said to “suck.”

So, in order to combat this reality, brands began releasing sustainable sneakers, a true double-whammy in today’s fashion zeitgeist. Adidas made one of the biggest splashes of the year when it announced a sneaker made of a material that could be recycled over and over again, making good on the concept by releasing a batch to certain members of its Creator’s Club community, asking for the shoes back, melting them down and releasing them again as a second batch.

Adidas’ sister brand, Reebok, also announced that it would be doubling down on its experiments with sustainable footwear with a new performance style created using “things that grow.” Reebok’s plant-based approach kept good company with brands like newcomer Norm and Meghan Markle favorite Veja all making significant strides in the field of planet-friendly footwear.

Additional entries into the race for the “world’s most sustainable shoe” include Kenneth Cole’s rice-husk-based sneaker built with upcycled textiles and a Dr. Scholl’s sneaker, also made with rice husks, that was manufactured using an algae compound.

For a truly boundary-pushing brand, look no further than German concept footwear label Nat-2. Over the past year, the brand has released sneakers made from leftover olive leaves, spoiled milk and even cannabis—not to be confused with the stone sneaker it released last year.

Overall, it was a year to remember for sneakers, especially for one company better known for making mattresses. NPD predicts the lifestyle category will overtake fashion footwear in both dollar and unit sales by 2021. If one thing is certain, it’s that sneakers will continue to deliver the new and the novel, like a shoe that vibrates like a Bluetooth speaker.