There’s a turf war in outdoors shoes. The prize: an unclaimed slice of the growing sneaker market. As technical sneakers like the Salomon Speedcross get hot, opposite sides of the athletic world – heritage gearmakers and sneaker brands – now find themselves in direct competition.
An energized adidas is selling Boost-enabled “light hikers” through KITH collabs. An ambitious Columbia is selling waterproof sneakers at UBIQ, by way of EDM star Zedd. “I think this presents an opportunity for the outdoor industry to become more meaningful to younger people,” comments Peter Ruppe, VP of Footwear at Columbia. Ruppe is a sneaker veteran with long stints at Nike and Under Armour, only joining Columbia last November.
In the middle, endemic “outdoors athletics” brands like Salomon, La Sportiva, and HOKA ONE ONE are grappling with organic overnight interest that’s seen their once-granola products catapulted onto the likes of Rihanna, A$AP Nast, and Kanye West. “Brand and product authenticity matter to consumers,” comments Gretchen Weimer, Global Vice President of Product at HOKA ONE ONE. “The ‘perfect storm’ happened when the streetwear world discovered HOKA’s on-trend silhouette.” The brand’s super-cushioned performance runners mimic the platform creeper look embraced by nearly every sneaker brand around – only HOKA’s design is rooted in function.
Outdoors stalwarts making “urban footwear.” Sneaker brands pushing gear for the “modern explorer.” Both converging on function-first athletic designs packed with a menu of features – waterproof uppers, oversized outsoles, non-traditional lacing, etc – that scream “familiar but special.” Nearly three decades after the first Nike ACG shoes hit market, the technical sneaker space is now hustling towards a showdown.
Getting out more
Which begs the question: after an initial glacial pace, why the recent heat? “Five years ago, ‘the outdoors’ wasn’t really a topic of conversation,” explains Jean-Philippe LaLonde, Program Manager of Lifestyle Footwear at Salomon. “Slowly but surely, the outdoor sneakers movement has gained momentum in the mass market.” The last few years (starting with 2015’s Salomon x The Broken Arm collab) have seen the category reach new heights in fashion. While recent cultural heat (Yeezy sightings, the Track sneaker, even FILA’s Explore opportunism) may have made the space too attractive to ignore, isolated headlines aren’t enough to set multibillion dollar companies at strategic odds. To oversimplify: the story of outdoors sneakers is the story of sportswear.
What people wear has only ever gotten less formal. As social conventions relax, the codes that kept us in corsets then neckties then dress shoes have relaxed with them. The logical end of this “great relaxing” is sportswear. Tees. Stretchy pants. Sneakers. Sportswear is the language of what people wear today. Trends – even big ones – are just accents. So, when a trend wears out, it’s not a massive shift. It’s just a change of theme.
Athleisure is one such theme. While the term came into use decades ago, “athleisure” as we know it – black leggings, gray tech-tees, technical jackets, etc – is a product of just the last few years. Sneakerheads may not be the prime Lululemon customer, but rest assured, athleisure did as much for the fortunes of Nike and adidas as even the biggest sneaker drops. According to The New York Times, Yeezy is expected to hit $1.3 billion of total sales in 2019. In the first three months of 2019, Nike recorded $8.5 billion and released a yoga line.
But in fashion trends, success creates its own problems. As gray tech fleeces and navy windbreakers saturated the market, brands needed a new place to stretch. Once-niche outdoors wear – colorful polar fleece, hi-viz shells, the stuff of Boulder, CO townies – must have seemed like a natural fit. There’s an emotional connection to consumer passions, like sustainability and a personal connection to nature. There’s a product connection to market trends, namely Gen Z’s love of retro gear. Better still: outdoors wear has immediate analogues to sportswear (and therefore, athleisure) staples. Nike’s ACG revival, FILA’s Explore collection, and Reebok’s Trail Pack all follow this exact pattern. The cultural heat of the past five years has as much to do with things that are uniquely outdoors as it does with sportswear makers looking for their next frontier.
Sportswear is the language. Trends are just accents. If “outdoors” is really another colorway of the same casual staples (see: Reebok’s recent Trail Collection), the turf war in tech sneakers should be a blowout. The big brands with scale and market access can dominate by selling the same $30 T-shirts and $100 shoes in fun #outdoors colors, while the smaller players (some billion-dollar brands in their own right) may grow, but lose share as the sportswear giants blaze ahead.
And yet, it’s anything but over. The reason: in outdoors (even scaled-up, hybrid-hikers-at-Foot-Locker outdoors), authenticity is everything. “We’re looking at traditional Salomon product, reworking the colors and materials to speak to an urban consumer, but there [are] no ads of characters crouching on buildings,” comments LaLonde. “It’s about the outdoors.”
Perhaps it’s the mystique of it all: in the “wilderness,” choosing the wrong product could be dangerous. Perhaps it’s just another expression of the granola-wholesomeness coursing through the outdoors industry as a whole. “Consumers are looking for honest product,” explains Michael Carli, product manager at La Sportiva. “All of our projects start with a very clear goal in mind: pushing the boundaries of the footwear to benefit the outdoor enthusiast.” That expertise is regularly consulted during researches regarding sole packages, eye-stay constructions, and more. The Italian climbing mainstay has been in business for over 90 years; A$AP Nast recently rocked a pair of the brand’s Ultra Raptor sneakers.
While all of fashion leans on authenticity, something about outdoors gear makes it more intense here. That fact alone may keep smaller, endemic brands from going the way of the dinosaurs. Or of, say, British Knights.
The only question: as the industry shifts, will that “small and authentic” intensity still remain? For one, some big brands have strong claims to their outdoors authenticity. Adidas can trace its outdoor heritage to the ’50s, starting with a pair of hiking boots handmade by Adi Dassler himself. “We took inspiration from our long history in the outdoors,” says Markus Westerberg, Senior Designer of Outdoor Footwear at adidas TERREX. Westerberg led design efforts for the brand’s Free Hiker silhouette, a Boost and Primeknit high-top which made waves last season as part of a KITH collab. “Past, present, and future was then translated to create the best performance hiking shoe.”
TERREX’s performance hiking shoe is stocked everywhere from Dick’s Sporting Goods to sneaker outlets like Titolo and high-end boutiques such as Lot 333. For another, younger brands – like HOKA ONE ONE, founded in 2009, and On Running, 2010 – are embraced by outdoors enthusiasts. While a long history doesn’t make or break a brand’s authenticity, the fact that a 10-year-old HOKA can collab with Outdoor Voices, Engineered Garments, and XTERRA alike, while still being sought by elite mountain athletes, speaks to a redrawing of map lines – at least in outdoors.
The great outdoors
There’s more heat than ever around techy, outdoors-oriented sneakers. Sneaker brands are seizing – and, arguably, may have created – the opportunity. Gear brands are introducing their own sneakers to catch up. In the middle, “outdoors athletic” brands are making their own in-roads, carving their own place in culture through authenticity stories and a commitment to product. All around them, a long-overlooked market segment grows by the Fashion Week. But that’s the present. Where this turf war will shake out, no one knows.
History warns not to bet against Nike or adidas. Outdoorswear is sportswear with an accent, and the big players have weight to throw around. Columbia and The North Face have a chance to lead from the outdoors side due to their pure scale, but appear to have a long road ahead before their products really connect with sneakerheads. In the middle, it’s likely that the Salomons and HOKAs of the world still have a long runway. Their shoes are sportswear sneakers in appearance, with overtly “outdoors” features like speedlacing systems and GORE-TEX uppers.
Unless sneakers as a whole fall out of favor, the past five years have just put their niche on the radar, same as “dress sneakers” in the early 2010s. Hell, there may even be room for an outdoors Common Projects – a Balenciaga Track-like pantomime of outdoors features, but priced under $500.
Hiking-inspired tech sneakers have yet to peak. As long as the heat stays on, there are countless routes to the top.