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Why trainers have overtaken heels in the UK footwear market

As research from Mintel reveals trainers are outselling heels for the first time, Drapers explores the UK’s sneaker obsession and whether classic sports brands still have the edge over fashion retailers. 


314251 use if possible

314251 use if possible

Whether it is battered New Balance donned for the morning commute, sneaker geeks queuing for the latest collaboration or white Adidas Stan Smiths on the feet of fashion’s front row, trainers are having a moment. Asos’s dedicated trainer destination Looped, which the online retailer launched after recognising trainers were among its best-performing and fastest growing departments, is just one example of how retailers are sitting up and taking sneakers seriously.

Women are fuelling the trend for trainers, according to new data from analyst Mintel. Trainers outsold high heels for the first time this year and almost half of women aged 35 to 44 had purchased trainers in the past year, compared to 30% who had bought heels.

“The athleisure trend has just continued to grow and because of that, trainers have become part of the modern working women’s wardrobe,” explains Nivindya Sharma, senior analyst at Verdict Retail.

Increasingly sophisticated styles and colour combinations from trainer brands, combined with the influence of premium fashion brands like Dior, has also increased the number of women ditching heels for trainers, argues Brian Lynn, senior lifestyle global product manager at footwear brand New Balance.

“The industry has moved away from the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach to women’s trainers and is now offering women the same colours and often the same styles as men,” he says. “Where we’ve had particular success is on the more unisex and masculine styles. New Balance has experienced huge growth in Europe over the past few years and that’s been driven by women, because you were getting high fashion brands using trainers in their catwalk collections.”

One retailer taking advantage of this growth is women’s trainer, clothing and lifestyle independent Pam Pam in London’s Bethnal Green. 

Img 0426 (1)

Img 0426 (1)

London indie Pam Pam is making the most of the trainers trend

“We’ve been open for a year and in that time, we’ve seen massive growth,” says co-owner Bethany Heggarty.

“[Basketball] court styles have been very popular, there’s been no let-up in customers looking for Adidas Stan Smiths. The brand has been very intelligent and kept creating new versions, so it doesn’t look like everybody’s wearing them. Reebok’s collaboration with [Danish trainer retailer] Naked has also gone wild for us, not because it’s a collaboration as women don’t tend to be as interested in them as men, but because it’s a beautiful shoe.”

Premium offering 

As the trainers market continues to grow, fashion retailers are creating their own styles for both men and women to go toe-to-toe with classic trainer brands.

Fraser Hamilton, sales manager at Italian brand Superga, says premium fashion brands are also “trying to get a piece of the action.”

“Every single one is doing a plain white leather sneaker,” he says. “The premium brands might pinch a bit of business from the original trainer brands, because they have their own dedicated customers who can now buy the designer version where they might have previously bought a collaboration.”

However, Hamilton stresses that the likes of Adidas, Nike and Puma still often have an edge over fashion retailer’s own brand offerings.

“Footwear has become a bit homogenised, which is why customers have polarised back to brands that resonate with them from a while ago, like the Stan Smiths. People are going back to the originals. It’s a confidence thing - it’s tried and tested.”

While Verdict’s Sharma points out that both sports brands and fashion retailers have experienced a “second wind” thanks to the athleisure trend, she agrees that sports brands often have a technical advantage.

“Both players have done really well out of the trainers trend. Desirable sports brands with a fashion element have performed well, because they often produce very fashion forward propositions. JD Sports has had a good year, which is partly due to its huge choice of trainers. With trainers, people care about fit and comfort and in that sector the sports players are unrivalled. Trainers from a fashion chain like Zara or Primark won’t have the same benefits.”

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img 4472

Retailers must focus on comfort if they want to stand out in the increasingly competitive trainers market, argues Heggarty. “Even within the trainers market, there are some styles that are more comfortable than others and it’s the more uncomfortable styles that don’t tend to work as well for us [at Pam Pam].”

The demand for fashion-forward women’s trainers from both classic sports brands and fashion retailers shows no signs of slowing down. As retailers and brands develop new styles and technology to compete for consumers spend and attention, it looks like the trainers market is putting its best foot forward.

Four of 2016’s biggest trainer collaborations


Best pic 2

Best pic 2


PUMA x FENTY by Rihanna 

“The Trainer” is pop star Rihanna’s take on a sports trainer, with a fashion-forward and futuristic flair. Debuted at the Puma by Rihanna fashion show at New York Fashion Week in February, the womenswear shoe was launched in June and retails at £140. 











NikeCourt Roshe LD-1000 

Nikecourt air max 1 ultra 1 original

Nikecourt air max 1 ultra 1 original


Featuring an embroidered rose pattern on the upper and a Serena Williams quote on the inside, the NikeCourt Roshe LD-1000 is designed to pay tribute to the tennis icon. The womenswear trainers were launched in May with prices ranging from £130 to £165. 




Adidas + Kanye West Yeezy Boost 750

Kanye West’s ongoing colloborations with Adidas have been instant sell-outs as soon as they hit shelves. The latest version of his space inspired Yeezy Boost’s were released in October this year.  








ho16 classics toy story elevated buzz aliens line

ho16 classics toy story elevated buzz aliens line

Vans x Toy Story 

Trainer giant Vans has teamed up with Pixar to launch a hotly anticipated collection featuring Toy Story characters. The mens, womens and childrenswear collection is inspired by childhood favourites Woody and Buzz and will be avaliable from the end of November.   





Readers' comments (1)

  • Couldn't agree more! The Brand Ambassadors fashion agency has just taken on Danish sneaker brand WoDen (WOrks of DENmark) for the south of the country and initial reaction has been far better than we had thought. Fashion trainers are perfect for our busy lives and the comfort factor plays a huge part in this.

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