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Outdoor Footwear Brands Blend Trend with Performance

A slight head-scratcher of a trend has gripped retail this spring season: performance-ready hiker sneakers and sandals are making their way into the mainstream.

“Consumers are asking for versatile, performance-ready options that work for their everyday lives, or as we say, from ‘trail to tavern,’” explained Merrell brand director Kelly Ballou.

Increased participation in outdoor activities has led to a surge in popularity for active footwear that blends “tech and style,” she said.

That tech (and arguably, that style) center around cushy foam outsoles that cradle the wearer’s foot, offering support that’s anything but subtle.

Though its core selection is geared chiefly toward athletes, Hoka One One has also introduced shoes in recent seasons that adapt the brand’s “oversized, max-cushion midsoles” to everyday use, explained Gretchen Weimer, VP of product for Hoka.

“Consumer behavior has shifted, and more athletes are looking for a comfortable shoe that blends athletic performance and everyday lifestyle, or one shoe they can use for everything,” said Weimer.

“Consumers still want their shoes to look good, in addition to working well,” she added.

Carrie Hill, design director for Chaco, echoed the sentiment, explaining that the brand’s foundation in “functional design” has increased appeal for today’s lifestyle footwear consumer.

But even as brands like Hoka, Chaco and Merrell cite performance as their raison d’etre, there’s no doubt that their designs have unexpectedly come into vogue largely due to aesthetics.

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“We hope consumers are attracted to Hoka for our authenticity and inclusivity, and it comes as a bonus that our products and their designs are aligning with the fashion moment,” said Weimer. “That said, we put a lot of thought into our color and design stories, and performance and fashion are not completely separate entities.”

There has been a 53 percent increase in chunky sandal styles at retail compared with last year, according to Edited analyst Katharine Carter, who attributes the growing trend to the ongoing style influence of the ‘90s and early aughts.

“I always enjoy watching the shift of the decade reflection,” added Hill in agreement, referencing the “chunky dad trainer” trend of 2018 that has given rise to this season’s exaggerated athletic sneaker and sandal styles.

Hill also believes that the trend has taken hold because it offers something that the market has been lacking.

“Fashion, in its purest form, is constantly reacting to yesterday,” she explained. “After back-to-back seasons of sleek, minimalistic silhouettes, it was only a matter of time before we started to see a backlash.”

Hill points to a lack of comfort as one reason for consumers’ ennui with the thin-soled sandals and flip flops of seasons past. Across categories, cushioning has become an important feature for consumers who not only want to brave the trails but also run errands around town.

The result? “Bulk. Mass. Larger bases, fuller uppers and wider silhouettes,” Hill said.

Chaco has worked to incorporate comfort features into its design process, and showcases a shoe’s heftier silhouette instead of hiding it.

“In terms of color, I’ve noticed an unapologetic approach to this trend,” said Hill, adding that vibrant hues infuse chunky silhouettes with an air of casual cool. Chaco’s style is what it is, said Hill, and the brand sees no need to “quiet it down and make it something it isn’t.”

Outdoor and athletic footwear brands are banking on success in the lifestyle arena this season, and are already iterating on the look for Spring 2020.

“We’ll continue offering trail-ready boot and sneaker styles designed through a lifestyle lens,” said Merrell’s Ballou, adding that the “pops of color, performance and thick outsoles that are currently trending in sandal offerings” will continue into next season.