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What’s an Athletic Shoe Anyway? The Footwear Industry Wants to Know

Taylor Swift might not be an athlete, but according to the U.S. government, her branded Keds sneakers are “athletic.”

To be sure, the definition of what constitutes “athletic footwear” has done a lot changing over the years. One needs only to look at Converse’s iconic Chuck Taylor All-Star. Once a popular basketball shoe during the 1950’s and 60’s, the All-Star hasn’t been worn on a professional court since 1979. And yet, Converse’s shoes are still classified as “athletic.”

Hoping to clear up any confusion, the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) is challenging the U.S. government to clarify and update the criteria for classifying footwear as athletic, which can increase or decrease the duty rate for these types of shoes.

In an open letter to U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), the FDRA claimed the explosion of “athletic-looking styles and technology in fashion and lifestyle footwear” for muddying the waters.

Citing Chapter 64 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTSUS), FDRA said a shoe “must exhibit features that make it ‘particularly suitable’ for athletic use,” in order to be classified as properly athletic, explaining that merely looking the part isn’t enough.

“The mere fact that a shoe has a flexible sole and/or ‘a general athletic appearance’ is not a sufficient basis to classify footwear as athletic,” said FDRA President Matt Priest in the letter to CBP. “There must be one or more features that demonstrate suitability for use in athletic endeavors.”

FDRA cited numerous examples where it feels CBP rulings inappropriately label shoes that are insufficiently athletic as athletic, such as the presence of a foxing or foxing-like band as an indicator of athletic use. FDRA said a foxing band alone is “not a reliable indication of suitability for athletic use.”

FDRA also criticized CBP rulings on so-called “walking shoes” as athletic. “Walking is not an athletic activity,” said Priest. “Walking may be good exercise, but it is the polar opposite of fast footwork or extensive running.”

He continued, “This is a clear distinction as intended use is the most important determining factor for athletic classification and not the inclusion of several characteristics that might be shared with athletic footwear.”