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Bringing ugly back: lessons from the chunky sneaker trend

Asos menswear (13)g

The “ugly” sneaker went from wonderfully weird emerging trend to powerful sales driver, but has it reached its peak and what can the industry learn from its success?

Every now and then a trend emerges, breaks into the mainstream and eventually becomes so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember it not being around. The “ugly” sneaker – first inspired by the functional shoes unfashionable dads sported through the 1990s – is one such example, an offshoot of the wider sneaker phenomenon.

With their chunky soles and garish details, the throwback style reached a zenith in January 2017 when designer Demna Gvasalia unveiled his autumn 17 collection for luxury brand Balenciaga. Models stomped down the Paris Fashion Week catwalk wearing the supersized Balenciaga Triple S sneakers, which featured an exaggerated sole made up of three footbeds merged together.

Initially met with some bemusement, the shoe went on to become a posterchild for the emerging ugly footwear trend. The hype transferred into sales, and the shoe, which retails for more than £600, sold out. More than a year after it first hit stores, the Triple S is still a bestseller and luxury retailers struggle to keep new colourways in stock.

“It has been well documented that fashion trends tend to come back full circle, and ‘ugly’ trainers are yet another item that has been recycled and updated,” explains Morgane Le Caer, insights reporter at fashion shopping aggregator Lyst. “The ‘ugly’ or ‘dad’ trainer trend is seen by some as the natural evolution of the normcore trend, [a style focused on functional, everyday, conventionally ‘unfashionable’ items].”

As well as the rise of all things 1990s, the explosion of the sportswear-meets-streetwear style has played a part, while the Instagram-ready nature of these bold, chunky shoes has also contributed to their popularity.

Although the trend may have started at the directional end of the luxury market, it has trickled down through the rest of the industry, with almost every brand and retailer’s casual footwear offer now featuring a pumped-up silhouette. Luxury brands led the charge, while high-low collaborations such as a Vetements and Reebok tie-up, or the Raf Simons and Adidas range, bridged the gap, and accessible brands such as Fila, Cat Footwear and K-Swiss brought out their own takes.

Balenciaga triple s mens autumn 19 (1) crop

Balenciaga Triple S

“Our customers really love the ‘ugly’ sneaker and they are continuing to search for the latest update. This season, though they’re still buying into Balenciaga’s Triple S and similar silhouettes, they are getting excited about new releases such as the Chain Reaction from Versace,” says Ida Petersson, director of men’s and womenswear buying at luxury retailer Browns. She points to Buffalo, the 1990s classic currently enjoying a resurgence, and says Eytys, Gucci and Fendi are also selling well, as well as collaborations such as the recent Nike x Martine Rose launch for spring 19.

Forms of the ‘ugly’ trainer are everywhere across the high street

Andrew Graham, Asos

“All brands have a version. We’ve bought into the likes of Fila, Buffalo, Cat, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Ellesse,” says Rink Bindra, head of omnichannel at independent footwear retailer Tower London. “We’ve seen a mixed reaction, with younger consumers buying into it for the first time, while others remember it from the prior peak [in the 1990s]. It’s definitely stronger with the female consumer, but we’re seeing a pickup in men’s now.”

“Forms of the ‘ugly’ trainer are everywhere across the high street,” adds Andrew Graham, men’s footwear designer at Asos. “The ugly trainer is one of our big deals for spring 19, and we have been developing new soles with our in-house 3D print technician. They have sold amazingly. We saw a massive uplift of sales in the week our first style landed on site – we’ve since got more online and all are selling great.”

Businesses that reacted quickly have been able to capitalise, illustrating the need to be as connected to the consumer as possible and have the flexibility to respond to shifting trends. Meanwhile, thanks to the trend’s throwback nature, brands that were part of the original craze in the 1990s have had the opportunity to exploit the new wave of demand and update products in an authentic way that resonates with today’s consumers.

Fila (5)

Fila Disruptor

“Fila had a ready-made, fit-for-purpose shoe, which was developed way back in 1996, sat gathering dust in the archive,” says Marc Canipa, head of footwear at Fila UK, referring to the brand’s Disruptor style, which it relaunched in 2017, retailing for £80. “We upgraded materials, updated the fit and there we had the first accessible-price-point chunky sneaker ready to go to market. As the style already existed, we were able to be incredibly reactive and quick to market. It took a little while for the Disruptor to catch fire – but when it did, it went big.”

Canipa says the Disruptor grew the Fila footwear business by more than 60% over three seasons in terms of sales.

Like Fila’s Disruptor, Cat Footwear’s updated Intruder became a bestseller when it was re-released for autumn 18. For autumn 19 the brand has expanded with two new styles, as well as resurrecting two more designs from its archive.

“We first saw a glimpse of the [ugly sneaker] trend in autumn 16 and decided to dive in,” says Phil Borthwick, product and marketing director (EMEA) at Cat. “We kept a close eye on it and when we judged it to be the right time, we put into work a quick-strike programme. This saw us go from a standing start to a collection with orders from our key partners in less than four weeks.”

I believe that we are about to reach peak ‘ugly’

Morgane Le Caer, Lyst


Skechers 2 (3)

Skechers D’Lites

Comfort-focused footwear brand Skechers has also enjoyed a resurgence of certain styles thanks to the trend, illustrating that closely monitoring consumer behaviour can pay off.

“For [us], [the trend] started in South Korea and China a couple of years ago when we saw our Skechers D’Lites style make a huge comeback with the savvy youth and trendsetters,” says Ryan Rossler, VP of product development at the brand. “We built on this with fresh interpretations of the D’Lites uppers, and then launching two new D’Lites outsoles.”

Now, the Skechers D’Lites line is a bestseller in several countries, and counts Urban Outfitters and Asos as stockists.

But will consumers tire of the ugly sneaker trend? Lyst’s Le Caer believes so, predicting a shift back in the opposite direction: “I believe that we are about to reach peak ‘ugly’. We’ve already seen a shift happen on Lyst, with customers turning to more minimalistic trainers like the Veja V 10 or the Common Projects Original Achilles sneakers.”

Asos footwear designer Graham agrees, believing there will eventually be a “180°” turn back to more streamlined styles. However, for now he feels the ugly trend still has legs, only getting “bigger, chunkier, and more aggressive, with a mix of more tech fabrications” in coming seasons.

S15 orange 080

Cat Intruder

“If you take cues from the likes of Gucci, the ugly sneaker trend will evolve by adding an outdoor twist – whether directly through hiker styling or the addition of more functional outsoles,” adds Fila UK’s Canipa. “Mesh and retro styling will become more important when mixed with contemporary and futuristic aesthetics to create a fun mix of new and old. Sneakers will also become slimmer and the focus will be on the uppers with unexpected and interesting colour and material designs.”

Although the trend may be at its peak, the key will be keeping styles fresh to maintain momentum.

“The opportunity is expanding and will do so for at least the next five seasons,” believes Cat’s Borthwick. “The product, which was seen as so alien only 12 months ago, has become normalised in the eyes of consumers. The brands that remain relevant throughout will be those who continue to develop and push forward within it. This is not a time to sit back.”

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