In an industry addicted to retro, Highsnobiety presents The New Vanguard of Footwear, a dedicated hub that celebrates the pioneers from around the globe who are changing the face of what today represents a multi-billion dollar industry. For this debut iteration we spotlight nine designers (most of whom were born after the Air Jordan) working across sportswear, streetwear, luxury and everything in between. They represent youth culture today, and show us early glimpses of where it's going next.

When Kim Jones was appointed artistic director at Dior Men in March, 2018, the luxury industry was at a defining crossroads. Gen Z and Millennials — generations that had long been deprioritized as valid customers by heritage luxury houses — became the most influential consumer groups, with nearly half of the projected global luxury spend hailing from the two cohorts.

And so, in appealing to them, Dior owner LVMH had to play catch up. Its biggest rival Kering already saw great success following its appointments of Alessandro Michele at the creative helms of Gucci and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, both pivoted their respective brands towards a new digital, more social media friendly, strategies and product both ironic and fashion forward enough to engage young consumers. Now with Virgil Abloh at the helm of Louis Vuitton, and Kim Jones at Dior, evolution was on its way. And evolution came fast.

Jones’ first point of action was to create a close team of collaborators and partners that would lead Dior to the next, global level. That meant Melanie Ward — a long term collaborator — on styling; Matthew Williams on hardware accessories; Yoon Ahn, founder of jewelry-turned-fashion label Ambush on jewelry; legendary milliner Stephen Jones on hats; Berlin DJ Honey Dijon on the deck; Brett Lloyd on photography, and a list of artists including including Kaws, Hajime Sorayama, Daniel Arsham, and Shawn Stussy on collection-wide collaborations. Among the household names, one stood out: Thibo Denis on men’s footwear.

Under the creative direction of Kim Jones, the relatively unknown Frenchman has been responsible for some of the heritage luxury house’s biggest hits over the past four years. Together with Jones, Denis has been responsible for the creation of Dior’s technical B22 sneaker; the brand’s hit Chuck Taylor-like B23 model, first introduced in June 2018 during Kim Jones’ debut runway show for the house; and the B27s, its next biggest hit. Then there was the Made-in-Italy Dior x Jordan collaboration that broke the internet earlier this year. (On StockX, A pair of Dior x Jordan 1 Retro Highs resold for $10,500 over the summer).

It's a big feat for someone who never stepped foot in a fashion school. “I didn’t study fashion, but I managed to get an internship in a PR office because I was very curious about fashion, not just footwear,” says Denis, who grew up in the suburbs of Paris where Nike’s ‘Air’ technology was hyped early on. “I always liked the Air Max 1, Air Max 95, and Air Max 97. I really liked the idea of Nike not giving up on the design while they were also progressing in terms of technology. I have a very good memory of the release of the Nike TN as well, we called it ‘requin’ in France. Later on, and with the arrival of Sandy Bodecker at Nike Skateboarding, I became obsessed with Dunk SB. The Dunk is like a blank page, such a perfect design to express creativity.”

It was the mid 2000s and Denis started working for small brands in Paris. Interest in brands like Undercover, Number Nine and Kim Jones’ own London-based label was already there, what was needed was a way in.

“I met some people that trusted me, they gave me a change, so I designed my first sneakers and since then everything has gone quite fast,” he says.

Now at Dior, Denis is ushering in a new era for the brand’s men’s footwear category that has big growth potential. According to a recent report, the size of the global luxury footwear market is projected to reach $49 billion by 2027, growing around 5.6 percent yearly between 2020 and 2027. Mainly driven by Millennials, the casual shoe segment, including sneakers, is anticipated to be the fastest-growing category. Yet formal luxury footwear led the market, accounting for 58.3 percent share of the global revenue in 2019, clearly marking an opportunity to look beyond sneakers alone.

And so Denis is tasked with rejuvenating footwear beyond sneakers alone. Walking a fine line of having to engage a new young audience of luxury shoppers who are increasingly gravitating to shoes outside of the sneaker realm, while equally paying attention to Dior’s more mature audiences, Denis has struck a right balance with a number of new footwear models over the past three seasons, including a pair of transparent boots for Spring/Summer 2020; buckled calfskin ankle boots; slip on sandals patterned with the house’s famed ‘Oblique’ motif on jacquard; and ultralight logoed loafers. They’re all the best of both worlds, the old and the new luxury.

“Before any drawing, I like to have an idea of what I would like in the end. Always starting with a shape, the last and materials,” Denis explains. “Besides the drawing and the design, I pay a lot of attention to the development of the first prototype. I try to spend as much time as I can in the factories, and work closely with the people that make everything happen. To make a sneaker, you have so many suppliers, and everything needs to be coordinated the right way.”

Yet what catches the eye at a time when new sneakers drop daily?

“I feel like it’s all about materials, comfort and lightness. I’m very interested in how we will make 3D printing technology meet our standards of quality and our expectation of durability. [Still] the future for me doesn’t mean futuristic [design],” he says. “The brand that designs the next white sneakers [and stands out], that’s what I’m into.”

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