There’s just something about taking your shoes off.

When Virgil Abloh delivered his Harvard Design School lecture this October, sneakers were literally hurled at the podium after an offhand mention that Abloh – arguably 2017’s pop designer of the moment – would sign five shoes. To outside observers, it may have seemed like those in attendance had been waiting for that very moment for the entire hour-long duration of the lecture.

That same charisma-driven chill wafted through Madison Square Garden on July 19, 1986. That day, a senior adidas employee named Angelo Anastasio witnessed New York rappers Run DMC command the behavior of a sold-out crowd. Atop the opening chords of “My Adidas,” the three-striped trio on stage told fans to take their shoes off and wave their adidas sneakers in the air.

Before Anastasio’s eyes, thousands did just that.

Within days, Run DMC became the first hip-hop group to score a million dollar sneaker deal. It was a watershed moment for the industry: sneakers, after all, were ostensibly performance shoes. Just one year earlier, NBA rookie Michael Jordan had launched the Air Jordan 1, a signature Nike basketball shoe designed for – and marketed with – its endorser’s athletic prowess. Forget “Be Like Mike;” with Run DMC and the Superstar, adidas had drawn a line in the sand. Suddenly, the face of a court shoe needn’t ever wear it on court.

Fast forward 30 years, and what was once watershed is now just sea level. Starting with Jay-Z’s custom Reeboks (2003’s “S. Carter by Rbk”), the role of athlete as sneaker authority has been all but recast: as LeBron sales lag while YEEZY soars, the shoe, it would appear, is firmly on the other foot. The financial success of non-athlete partnerships, both as a subjective endorsement and as a mechanism for creating limited edition product, has rewritten the rules of the sneaker game. From Fenty PUMAs to a podcast host getting his own luxury shoe, 2017 was the year of the celebrity co-sign.

More precisely, it was the year that sneakers became merch.

While all endorsement marketing relies on good will towards the endorser, an athlete endorsing a performance shoe injects some base level of objective analysis into the process, whether it be an achievement or a quantitative comparison. Curry wins a championship in the Curry 4, so it’s a good basketball shoe. Eliud Kipchoge runs a 2:00:25 in the Zoom VaporFly, so it’s a good running shoe. Even if your Jordan XI never touches a basketball court, the mystique surrounding the Jumpman as a mark derives mostly from its association with the objective fact that Jordan's six NBA titles is a lot of NBA titles. You get the idea.

With, to borrow a phrase, “lifestyle” shoes, it all gets a little more wobbly. For a non-performance silhouette like the venerable tennis-inspired low top, the entire basis for comparison between Nike’s leather and stitching and Gucci’s leather and stitching is subjective. If you personally believe one looks better than the other given your budget and a multitude of other non-performance factors, that’s the one you’ll buy. Full stop. Nothing hard and fast; just personal opinion.

The two dynamics described above aren’t as discrete as shoemakers would like you to think.

Athletic shoes worn for purposes other than sports account for 75% of sneaker sales. Lifestyle shoes marketed with stories about materials provenance or photographed on the feet of tastemakers are more of an appeal to emotion.

Athletic endorsements have always hinged, in some part, on that athlete’s image off the court and the public sentiment they carry (see: the PUMA Clyde and Walt Frazier’s legendary style). Celebrity endorsements – typically, the “x cool person wore y cool shoe” photo of a mainline product - matter more when that person is seen by the public at large as stylish. These dynamics are pervasive, understood, and have been a part of footwear since Farrah Fawcett spiked Senorita Cortez sales with that famous skateboarding scene exactly forty years ago.

Why, then, was 2017 so different?

In a nutshell, it was the year that shoemakers moved to directly monetize that non-athlete celebrity endorsement at scale. Instead of relying on a few big fish (i.e. Run DMC then, Kanye West now) or even that typical “x wore y” model of lifestyle shoe endorsement, players of all sizes have opened the faucet, granting a shoe deal (and the co-branded product that comes with it) to nearly any individual with influence over a public following.

Instead of relying on the tacit endorsement of a product that comes with a “face of the brand” photoshoot to drive sales, shoemakers have moved the ball down the field. Now, if you – ideally, a member of the oh-so-vaunted 18-34 demographic whose hunger for limited product, perceived personal interaction, and fandom affiliation made tour merch one of the biggest trends of the decade  – want to broadcast association with a personality, it’s as simple as buying that personality's product.

No matter who that personality is.

Perhaps driven by the aforementioned success of premium tour merch, 2017 was significant for the sheer quantity and diversity of collab opportunities given to individuals. A non-exhaustive list of partnerships, both new for 2017 (denoted with asterisks) and ongoing, by brand as of the time of publishing:

Nike: Kendrick Lamar* (from Reebok), Aleali May*, John Mayer*, Drake, Kevin Hart, Travis Scott

adidas: Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Pusha T, A$AP Ferg, Kendall Jenner

Reebok: Gucci Mane*, Future*, Ariana Grande*, Lil Yachty*, Rae Sremmurd*, Teyana Taylor*

PUMA: Rihanna, The Weeknd*, Amber Rose*, Big Sean* (from adidas), JAY-Z*

Under Armour: A$AP Rocky*, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson*

By and large, these aren’t fashion lines, retailers, or even celebrity designers with an authentic license to work in visual design via a body of past work (i.e. Ricardo Tisci x NikeLab, Jeremy Scott x adidas). They’re people with fans whose behavior they can influence, and the ability to leverage that. Sometimes, that’s getting a crowd to take off their shoes. Ideally, it’s getting a crowd to put yours on. Get enough of those people on board, each creating their own ephemera-driven branded product, and you’ve got a multiplier you can take straight to the bottom line.

In theory, pushing celebrity-branded product onto eager fandoms is a cynical and patronizing way of handling the subjective business of lifestyle shoe endorsement. In practice, it’s very effective. Reebok and PUMA – both, arguably, challenger brands against the Nike/adidas duopoly – have been the most bullish on this trend towards directly cosigned product. They’ve also seen some of the best sales growth in the industry.

PUMA's “celebrity-fueled approach” caused a 16% increase in year-over-year sales for the first half of 2017, causing the brand to overtake Under Armour for US market share in March 2017.

Reebok (owned by Run DMC-signing, Kanye-leveraging adidas) saw first half sales up 9% for 2017, driven by double-digit growth in Reebok Classics, its lifestyle line. Kendrick Lamar produced frequent collaborations with Reebok until he was poached by Nike just this August.

If it works, why stop it?

Authenticity judgments aside, in my opinion, the shift towards non-athlete individual endorsements as a way to push non-performance product is neither good nor bad. Subjectivity is messy – because you can’t measure “cool” with the same precision you measure LeBron’s PPG, you’ve gotta hustle.

It is, however, truly fascinating to watch “influencer marketing” (that bile-provoking buzzword) cross the line into actual product creation vs. simple promotion. While general release shoes sit on shelves, the mounting evidence that lifestyle sneakers can be reliably sold through personal co-signs attached to the products themselves does create some rather interesting dynamics.

As the signings and snipings of this year show, there’s already a tacit arms race for celebrity co-signs within music. I wouldn’t be surprised if, before long, stars across other buzzworthy channels that lend themselves well to cults of personality – TV, movies, even blogging – have their own co-branded products. Even in a creativity-driven industry like sneakers, an authentic license on design can easily take a backseat to the pure merchandising potential of a developed channel. That GREATS “podcast” shoe? One of the company’s fastest-selling, ever.

On the other hand, in channels that already have a reputation as aligned with sneakers (music, designer fashion, etc.), I’d be equally unsurprised if co-branded sneakers became just another component of the merch table. Imagine lining up after next year’s OVO Fest to buy a special colorway of the XO Parallel, available that night only. Or for that matter, lining up after a Gucci show. A similar dynamic already happens during NBA All-Star Weekend (see: limited edition Jordans) – if celebrity-powered branding really did contribute to a jump over the Jumpman, doubling down on the ephemeral aspect of premium tour merch just seems like good business.

Yet, at the end of the day, there’s nothing corrupt or nefarious about changing with the times. Celebrity co-signs bring a lot of fresh eyes to sneaker culture. While some of those eyes may just be experiencing their first glance of the words “Air Max,” they wouldn’t even be in this orbit if it weren’t for the massive reach of pop icons like Rihanna making sneaker culture accessible.

Shoes like the Amber Rose x Reebok Freestyle Hi will never replace the design influence of something like the Nike x ACRONYM Air Presto, or other sneaker collaborations that accomplish something that would have been impossible without both parties working together, but then again, they don’t have to. That’s the nature of pop anything: quick, light, and familiar by definition. One may have arguably more influence on its artistic field than the other, but that’s far from the only criteria most people have for consuming something. Some listen to Ke$ha; others prefer Joy Division. If you enjoy the music, play on.

2017 may have been the Year of the Cosign, but as long as the shoes look cool and give pleasure through ownership, who cares where they come from? To quote D.M.C. himself: “My Adidas only bring good news.” Lifestyle sneakers are inherently subjective. If you believe yours look better than the others, the rest falls into place.

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  • Main & Featured Image:PUMA

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