Sneakers
From the ground up
Titelmedia / Rupert LaMontagne

The old adage “you can tell a lot about a man from his shoes” may ring less true today than it has in years passed. In 2018, a sneakerhead might incorporate basketball shoes, skateboarding shoes, tennis shoes, and even hiking shoes into their rotation on any given week. To an extent, subcultural styles have blended into one homogenous “streetwear” uniform, but the benefits of performance technology remain more tangible.

In the past few years, a growing trend for decidedly practical trail and running shoes has emerged. Calling bullshit on the conventional hype-machine that fuels much of the so-called “fashionable” sneaker market, an increasing number of clunky, awkward and often garish styles have become a popular kind of anti-fashion statement – and, as such, have invariably become a micro fashion themselves.

While most major luxury brands began offering their own lines of sneakers from around the mid-to-late ’00s, in most cases this simply amounted to copying existing popular styles with high-end materials (and even higher price tags). Those that were less predictable include John Galliano, whose styles resembled skate shoes on steroids, and Bernhard Willhelm’s notoriously outrageous collaboration with Camper, which managed to foreshadow today’s growing trail/hiking trend by some eight years.

However, arguably it’s Raf Simons’ conceptual and decidedly off-kilter take on sneakers that has proven to be the most enduring and influential, successfully kicking off a trend in footwear design that is deliberately awkward, if not plain ugly. Known for his subversive slant on youth culture, Simon’s wrong-but-right approach to shoe design reimagines the codes of those gawky styles that would have once made you the laughing stock of school.

The beginnings of this approach can be seen in his SS08 collection, with his hiking-esque De Stijl Mondrian Lego boots. Resembling a rock-climbing shoe, with their excessive straps, blunt toes and bold primary palette, the model received a great deal of attention again in 2013 when A$AP Rocky performed on The Late Show with David Letterman wearing a pair.

In fact, 2013 was an important year for the growth of Simons’ sneaker vision, with the launch of his first adidas collaboration and the now infamous Ozweego shoe. The original Raf Ozweego is perhaps the most significant of Simons’ styles, as it’s here that the awkward trail shoe trend truly began to crystalize.

Though officially inspired by adidas’s largely forgotten performance running shoes of the same name, the reimagined Ozweego combined eye-wateringly garish color combinations with high-arched soles and those signature rubberized gel pods to create something entirely new. Although many found them bewildering when they first released, the collaboration expanded for FW09 and has since ballooned to be the most enduring and successful of adidas’ entire portfolio.

Taking up the same mantle, both Juun J and kolor have produced similar turns of the wheel in their work with the German footwear brand. Juun J’s solid, component-heavy reworking of the adidas ZX 8000 has many of the same hallmarks, and while kolor’s Junichi Abe creates collections that are famously reference-free, his recent take on the adizero XT fits very neatly into this expanding trail shoes category.

It’s not hard to see the similarities these comparatively expensive designer collaborations share with cheaper, more specialist, shoes intended for running, hiking, walking, and climbing. Decked out in bold colors and fitted with aggressive, gnarled soles, they mimic the wares of brands like Salomon, Merrell and Mizuno — names ordinarily only found in dedicated outdoor stores.

In some cases this pattern has been noted by the brands themselves, who have been quick to capitalize on the anomaly. In fact, you can now find shoes by Salomon stocked in trendsetting boutiques like Berlin’s SOTO or Paris’ The Broken Arm, proving how seriously some of the world’s top fashion buyers are treating the trend. Salomon is also working on an ongoing basis with Boris Bidjan Saberi, to produce special-edition versions of Salomon’s mountain-ready designs.

For some, this embracing of items from the diametric opposite end of the cultural spectrum is laced with irony – after all, the cosmopolitan showboating of the fashion world could not be further removed from the rugged environment such footwear was originally designed for. However, for others it’s more about making a statement that kicks back against what fashion itself has become.

This kind of “anything-goes” inclusive perspective has also taken hold in the work of high-end designers. In London especially, some of the most exciting names in menswear have started looking to niche shoe manufacturers for styles that strike an intentionally awkward appearance alongside their clothing. Recent examples include Martine Rose, who chose to work with Bates Footwear – a company that manufactures army, police and security boots – for her FW13 collection, and countercultural cult darlings Cottweiler, who used customized chemical protection footwear in their FW15 presentation and have a self-confessed love of the outrageously un-fashionable Rockport XCS boot.

Elsewhere, Christopher Shannon recently unveiled his third footwear collection with construction worker favorites CAT, inching the brand yet further into the fashionable territory. Presented at LC:M as part of his SS16 collection, the five-style range has a distinctly all-terrain feel, blending hiking laces, fluorescent accents and super-chunky rubber soles in a re-working of CAT’s Walking Machine model first released in 2000.

Shannon himself is a graduate of Central Saint Martins renowned MA Fashion program, which has long been considered a hotbed of future talent and forward-thinking ideas. One of the latest names to emerge from this illustrious stable is the hotly-tipped Kiko Kostadinov, who gave his own spin on the trail-ready trend when he chose the little-known French brand Hoka One One as the footwear provider for his final presentation in February.

Having gained a cult-like following for his expertly deconstructed take on fashion (in particular his two highly-publicized collaborations with Stüssy) it’s unsurprising that the shoes, with their ungainly, almost orthopedic look, have since been spotted in a number of fashion-forward boutiques, including BEAMS in Tokyo. Later on, Kostadinov’s ASICS collaboration imagined the performance-injected GEL-BURZ 1 in runway-ready colorways.

In the wake of other post-Soviet success stories like Demna Gvasalia (Georgian) and Gosha Rubchinskiy (Russian), the designer’s work has “next big thing” written all over it.

In fact, these designers share a lot more than just their Eastern European provenance. Each one has built a formidable reputation for presenting subtly distorted visions of reality that revel in a certain kind of fetishistic wrongness. As Gvasalia himself explained a little more bluntly to W Magazine in March: “it’s ugly, that’s why we like it.” In keeping with that sentiment, Gvasalia showed some hiking-inspired Balenciaga sneakers on the runway for FW18.

And if you don’t believe us, just keep an eye out on the streets, because before long you won’t be able to miss their glaring, garish shades. Just like Raf’s Ozweegos, at first glance they might startle or even offend. But, given time, you might find their unorthodox looks begin to grow on you — and that’s precisely the point.

All sneakers provided by SSENSE.

This article was originally written by Vincent Levy and published on April 18, 2016 with the title “Are Hiking & Trail Sneakers the Next Big Trend?” but has been updated to reflect recent news.

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Vancouver-born, Berlin-based writer, photographer and editor with a steady hand on the keyboard.

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