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Footwear’s forward steps: bracing for a challenging 2019

Tretorn 21 007

Times are tough in the footwear market, but those with clear handwriting and the ability to respond quickly to trends have a chance to thrive.

In recent months, footwear companies big and small have struggled in the face of difficult trading conditions and increased competition. 

Christmas dinners barely digested, we returned to work in January to the surprise news that premium slipper brand Mahabis had entered administration. That was swiftly followed by Clarks’ surprise decision to close its new UK factory less than a year after it opened, and redundancies at Kurt Geiger, which has cut jobs in its buying and merchandising teams.

Footwear suppliers were also left counting the cost after online retailers FYFO (Fuel Your Fashion Online) and Treds went into administration within weeks of each other – although Treds has since been thrown a lifeline.

However, there is still opportunity in the market. The UK footwear market is set to grow by 10% between 2018 and 2023, a 2018 report by analysts GlobalData last year indicated. There are also success stories: revenue at footwear etailer Ego increased by 78% to £10m in the 12 months to 31 December 2018 and luxury footwear brand Church’s is expanding into Asia this year.

Even amid this turbulence, new trends are making themselves known. Shoppers are demanding sustainability, chunky trainers rule the roost, and hiking boots are emerging as the new must-have item. Footwear retailers have to be quicker off the mark than ever before when it comes to getting the right product in front of shoppers.

There’s less of a tribe mentality and it is about demonstrating your personal style

Simon Breckton, Ellesse

“Everyone knows that the market is fairly saturated and that consumers are seeing the latest trends all the time: they’re conditioned to see something and want it now,” says Usman Riaz, co-founder of Ego. “We have to make sure we’re delivering trends while they’re fresh in the customer’s mind. For us, data has been really key to understanding our shopper – when she shops, what part of the website she looks at, whether she shops using discount codes or visits the website twice in one day.”

Simon Breckon, brand director of heritage Italian sportswear brand Ellesse, adds that authenticity and compelling brand stories are also rocketing up shoppers’ wish lists: “Consumers are becoming very self-expressive. There’s less of a tribe mentality and it is about demonstrating your personal style. As a result, they are looking for fashion and footwear that fits into that. Customers now often have very fluid careers and personal lives – there’s less structure and fewer boundaries than there once were. They want to establish an identity and stand out.”

As with clothing, there is a growing interest in sustainable shoes, and growing demand for transparency. Sportswear giant Adidas recently revealed that, in 2018, it sold more than a million pairs of the sneakers it makes from plastic found in the world’s oceans.

Sustainable brand Allbirds, which launched in the US in 2016 and landed on UK shores at the end of last year, has sold more than a million pairs of shoes to date. It raised $50m (£39m) in a round of series C venture capital funding in September.

Today’s consumer is looking for a product or brand that connects with their own social value system

Fredrik Ekström, Tretorn

Swedish brand Tretorn is also making sustainability a focus – its spring 19 sneakers have been made entirely from recycled and recyclable materials.

Tretorn racket 1961 c

Tretorn

“Footwear used to be either a status piece that showed the world how you define yourself, a crucial functional piece consumed to fulfil a promise of performance – like hiking or walking – or just a styling piece to look good,” explains Tretorn’s creative director Fredrik Ekström. “However, today’s consumer, especially millennials and generation Z, is looking for a product or brand that connects with their own social value system. Footwear now needs to look good, but also has to do good. We will see a big increase in consumers asking for transparency, social and environmental manifestos and mission statements from brands going forward.”

Ekström argues that the pace of change in the footwear market, from keeping up with consumer behaviour online to constantly churning trends, means some brands and retailers in the sector are less willing to take risks.

“It is a tough world right now,” he says. “The rate of digital transformation means everyone is a bit nervous and sticking to the mentality of ‘We know what we have, but we don’t know how it will be tomorrow.’ Some brands are starting to play it a bit safer, because they don’t know what the competition will look like tomorrow. That’s damaging to the future of our industry because it limits creativity.”

Footwear brands need distinctive handwriting, says Adam Goldston, co-founder of US sneaker brand APL, which counts Net-a-Porter among its stockists: “What has helped us is that we took a specific viewpoint – the intersection between luxury and performance – and have stuck with it. We wanted to create something different and almost make our own category. We’re also finding that customers want designs that can be worn for multiple occasions. Customers can express themselves through footwear in a way that they can’t with other items of clothing – especially men, who have less of an opportunity to wear bright colours in other items.”

Trainer territory

Indeed, trainers continue to be a star player in the footwear market and the current vogue for vintage-inspired styles shows no signs of waning.

Kat maconie spring 19

Kat Maconie

“Built-up runners [trainers with chunkier soles] are doing well in most markets around the world because of the distinctive style,” explains Ellesse’s Breckon. “And products that have a story to tell are massively appealing. One of the things we’ve done for autumn 19 is relaunch our LS147 running shoes in new, vibrant colours. We went back to our archives and there were a lot of distinctive silhouettes, which ties back to macro trends in the market. It is about bringing back those styles that meet customers’ desire for heritage but with an expressive and modern twist.”

Footwear designer Kat Maconie, who opened her eponymous brand’s first standalone store in London’s Bermondsey at the end of last month, agrees that customers are leaning towards bolder, braver colours: “Neon is a trend we’ve used on our signature heels and our sandals. Asymmetrical heels, jewel tones, animal print and white accessories are all also key trends.”

Riaz’s Ego co-founder Adeel Fiaz has noticed a similar shift: “Our customer is also increasingly experimental when it comes to colour. She loves neon and animal prints. Perspex is still strong and we’re seeing toe shapes change. Last year, we struggled to sell square-toed styles but now, customers are starting to buy into them.

Hiking ahead

Meanwhile, a new contender is looking to usurp trainers as king of the footwear market: the hiker boot.

Chunky, heavy-duty boots stomped to the top of must-have pieces last autumn, thanks in part to social media star Holly Willoughby. The high-profile influencer cemented the trend when she donned a pair of British heritage brand Grenson’s Nanette boots on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here at the end of last year. It promptly sold out – twice. The trend looks set to endure into autumn 19 and beyond, footwear experts tell Drapers.

“Hiker boots are only going to become a bigger trend,” explains Claire Burrows, who spent two decades working for brands including Kurt Geiger, Aldo and FitFlop before launching premium label Air & Grace in 2014. “It was big for last winter but even then, it wasn’t as strong as it could have been because the trend hit fairly late in the season and there wasn’t enough supply – retailers haven’t been able to keep hiker boots in stock. The trend will be massive for autumn 19.”

Fiaz agrees: “Biker boots and hiker boots have been huge for us over the past few months and that’s something we expect to see continue in the autumn.”

Competition in the footwear market makes it a tough corner of the retail industry. The next 12 months could well see more causalities as economic uncertainties start to bite. To be successful, today’s footwear retailer needs a keen understanding of their target consumer, a convincing story to tell and an eagle eye for evolving trends.

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