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How Exclusivity and Nostalgia Are Driving the Youth Footwear Market

Along with the near ubiquity of athletic-inspired footwear among today’s youth, a new trend has emerged: the dominance of nostalgia and exclusivity in the juniors footwear market.

Perhaps the best example of this trend can be found in the sneaker resale market. According to StockX, a leader in sneaker resale, Nike’s Air Jordan silhouette was the most popular in resale throughout 2018.

This didn’t come as a complete surprise—the Jordan brand has consistently produced since its inception in 1984 as the signature brand of international NBA superstar, Michael Jordan.

However, as StockX pointed out, its customer base and its resellers are overwhelmingly older teenagers and young adults who almost certainly weren’t around for Jordan’s heyday. With athletic endorsements becoming less and less valuable, the natural question becomes: What other forces have made nostalgia so dominant in the youth footwear market and what does that say about the younger generation?

According to Beth Goldstein, NPD’s executive director and industry analyst for accessories and footwear, it’s brands that resonate with the millennial market.

“The brands that are driving growth, particularly in the kids market, are brands like Champion and Fila. Reebok is having a bit of a comeback year and retro products are really driving that,” Goldstein explained. “It’s funny how this stuff comes back around. I think a lot of it is young parents remembering what they wore and dressing their kids in it.”

She referred to this as the “mini-me effect,” in which nostalgia is simply passed down from parent to child. In this way, trends can become popular with the youth as a product of influence—explaining how a player like Michael Jordan, near-universally revered in his time, can hold the attention of young consumers while so many of his peers are long forgotten.

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Goldstein compared the novelty of nostalgic footwear to the rebirth of Polaroid film and cameras earlier in the decade. Young people gravitated toward the products, despite their relative obsolescence, because it represented a certain time and place that seemed foreign to their eyes.

How Exclusivity and Nostalgia Is Driving
The Nike Mag 2016 is the most sought-after sneaker in resale, often selling for upwards of $25,00. It is a recreation of the shoe worn by Michael J. Fox’s character in Back to the Future, released in 1985. Nike

Isis Darks of StyleSage, a fashion analytics firm, said she believes the current wave of retro footwear is popular with youthful shoppers for a more subtle reason.

“Certain clothing elements repeat themselves throughout generations, like baggy pants and crop tops,” Darks said. “But for footwear, this wave is more specific since these chunkier, trainer styles weren’t popular from the early 2000s to about 2017.”

Darks said retro brands have learned to capitalize on feelings of “exclusivity” and “rareness.” Brands like Reebok and Fila then sell this idea through modern-day channels, employing young influencers to champion an appeal designed for an audience decades earlier. As exclusivity and rarity continue to drive the footwear market, Darks said retro brands now package their products with the exclusiveness of a shared past experience.

“For the most part, any brand associated with the ’80s or ’90s is considered nostalgic,” Darks said. “So, footwear brands like Fila, Reebok, Puma, and K-Swiss are more relevant now with clothing and shoes, while classic brands like Nike (Jordan) and Adidas reintroduce older shoe styles to create the ‘nostalgia’ feeling—but more so the feeling of exclusivity. Clothing brands like Kappa, Tommy, Guess, Champion, and Calvin Klein also influence the nostalgic footwear purchase since they were staples during the ’80s and ’90s.”

StyleSage also helped identify the specific trends that brands have been able to co-opt into their designs in order to appeal to the nostalgia trend. For instance, the “chunky” sneaker has been a clear staple for both men and women for some time and Darks pointed to products like the Fila Disrupter II, originally released in 1996, and the recently revived Reebok Aztrek as models that have resonated particularly well as a result.

According to Darks, one of the most common elements of this wave of nostalgia in footwear is also the easiest to spot: the oversized sole.

“Let’s take Adidas for example. From 2014 to 2016, flat sole style shoes were extremely popular, like Stan Smiths and the shell toe Superstar—and even the white Converse craze that swept over Instagram and Tumblr. Now, Adidas noted in a press conference that these styles are dying in popularity while chunkier trainer styles are in favor (like Adidas Yeezy). The size of the sole further reinforces the nostalgia of ’90s streetwear.”

Adidas’ Yeezy silhouette is a perfect example of how a brand can create market share without needing to revive old styles. By simply adopting the qualities that have made retro sneakers so popular, Yeezy styles have become the second most popular silhouette in sneaker resale and among junior shoppers, making up the top-three best selling styles on StockX in 2018.