Admit it. When you read “sneaker brand” and “copying” in the same headline, a single name jumped to mind: Skechers.
In its fifteen years of life, the California-based shoemaker has earned a reputation as the sneaker industry’s shadow. Skechers’ strategy is nefariously simple: while other brands risk fortunes gambling on innovation, Skechers cherry-picks the proven winners then flaunts intellectual property laws to steal market share, denying others their hard-won rewards.
In the past five years alone, Skechers has knocked off the Nike Air Max 90 (“Skech-Air Varsity”), the Nike LunarEpic Flyknit (“Skechers Burst”), the adidas Stan Smith (“Skechers Onix”), and most notably of all, the Adidas Springblade (the, wait for it, “Skechers MegaBlade”). Equally impressive as Skechers’ knockoff roster is the resulting stack of legal bills: of the four shoes mentioned above, Skechers has been taken to court by the brands they allegedly stole from on three. A federal judge banned adidas from selling its “tennis-inspired” Onix shoe in 2016. Nike is still fighting Skechers on patents relating to its Flyknit lookalike Burst series. In an industry that thrives on perceived creativity, biting so hard that lawyers get involved would seem like the kiss of death.
Instead, this unabashed copying has breathed life into post-recession Skechers. Counting Nike subsidiaries together, Skechers is the third-largest athletic footwear maker by US sales. While it trails inspiration sources Nike and adidas, it has more than twice the market share of celebrity-powered Under Armour (6.3 percent vs. 2.4 percent of all sales). The cherry on top: by all accounts, Skechers is now producing legitimately good performance shoes using tech developed in-house.
Crazy? Perhaps. But it’s far from unprecedented. What may seem like an opportunist getting rich off injustice is actually just proof of concept for an industry powered by pantomimes. In fact, every major sneaker brand – yes, Nike included – grew by copying.
While Skechers lawsuits seem as recurring as the seasons, the concept of a sneaker brand defending its designs through legal action is relatively new. The first patent suit in sneaker history took place in 1987 – a small-time dust-up between '80s mainstays Avia and LA Gear. Avia won the case based on a savvy knowledge of “design patents,” legal filings that protect “novel, original, and ornamental” (read: non-functional) features on products from unauthorized reproduction. With the precedent set, lawsuits become a part of the competitive landscape: only three years after its executives “defended the widespread copying of footwear,” LA Gear filed suit against another company for infringing design patents. However, those LA Gear execs had a point: copying was widespread.
Earlier in 1987, adidas launched the Power Phase, a nearly 1:1 copy of 1984's Reebok Workout. Four years before, Reebok unveiled the Classic Leather, a wedge-shaped leather and mesh runner bearing significant similarities to archetypical silhouettes like the Saucony Jazz, Brooks Chariot, and Nike Cortez, among others. These two models – among other “inspired” sneakers like the Stan-similar Club C 85 – helped propel Reebok from relative unknown to the hottest brand of the 80’s. In 1988, Reebok even passed Nike as the largest US shoemaker by sales. One year later, the company introduced its proprietary Pump cushioning technology. It would sell over $1 billion worth of Pump sneakers in one year.
While Nike fought Reebok bitterly throughout the '80s, no one in Oregon could have knocked their opponent’s hustle. If anything, Nike executives were simply watching their “copy-cash-create” growth pattern from the other side.
Nike’s first original shoe, the Cortez, is long-acknowledged to be a 1:1 copy of the Onitsuka Tiger Corsair runner, featuring a Swoosh substituted for stripes and a Bowerman midsole in place of Tiger’s own EVA foam. The Corsair launched in 1969; the Cortez, 1972. That same year, then-fledgling Nike released a white leather low-top tennis shoe called the “Wimbledon,” featuring a white heel tab and three stripes – er, lines - of perforations on each side.
Two years later in 1974, the Nike Blazer Low basketball shoe was sold with a plastic shelltoe cap.
The adidas Superstar, which had introduced both leather and shelltoes to court shoes, launched nine years earlier in 1969. Shameless copying? Sure. But it was also a means to an end. Pockets filled by these “proven winners,” Nike had enough cash on hand to begin the risk-taking R&D they’re known for today. Only four years after ripping their largest competitor’s storied shoes, Nike Air cushioning was introduced to the world. It was the first fundamental development in sneaker soles since the invention of vulcanized rubber nearly a full century earlier. The rest is history.
But I digress.
There are few Golden Rules in the sneaker game. This, however, is one: sneaker brands have only historically grown by copying. With the exception of day-one innovators adidas and Converse (who, in all fairness, both stood on the shoulders of giants like Foster and Keds, respectively), a single three-step strategy has powered the rise of every sneaker brand since the turn of the 20th century:
1) Copy presently-loved designs and market the hell out of them
2) Get enough cash on hand to begin risky, expensive in-house R&D
3) Develop proprietary tech that lets you make your own market.
Once you’ve got that proprietary tech and begun designing around it, other brands will then start copying you, and the cycle repeats. Cue the Lion King music.
While the post-’87 legal environment has added some potential speedbumps to the road, many sneaker brands follow the same path to this day. After Flyknit came Primeknit, Ultraknit, and Evoknit, showing that even established brands with their own R&D will steal with a smile: Nike’s ill-fated Air Pressure was an attempt to copy Reebok’s Pump shoes. Then, there’s the YEEZY 700 Wave Runner, which is literally just a rebranded skate shoe from the early 2000s – and that’s without even diving into the pure luxury space (another “Made in Italy minimalist white leather low-top?” Tell me more!)
So let’s cut to the chase about copying.
Yes, there’s a mountain of evidence to suggest that sneaker brands can only truly grow by copying. However, what may some see as a convenient excuse for cynical marketing is, if anything, a blessing in disguise.
The human foot hasn’t changed shape in close to a million years, and if we’re being practical, there are therefore only so many basic shapes a shoe can take to shield that foot from injury. If you hit the end of that tunnel and still desire something truly original, be prepared to pay a lot per pair. Most people simply don’t want the more avant-garde styles that “true originals” take, so sneaker companies that do deal in those models (Y-3, ROMBAUT, etc.) have to charge more per unit just to keep the lights on. Hence, $2000 CCP “Drips.”
Yet, if you dump the vicious “cult of originality” mindset that has powers most flame threads, this copy-filled sneaker game we love so much becomes, ironically, rather creative. As long as no one’s going full-on counterfeiter and ripping off a logo 1:1, it’s all just creative destruction in the end.
Even Adi Dassler - the “father of the modern running shoe” - repurposed his old performance designs to create market-expanding sportswear styles. An original copying himself produced the German Army Trainer, which in turn produced the adidas Samba, which in turn produced the PUMA Whirlwind, and eventually, the Margiela Replica.
If no one’s immune, then why point fingers? One brand copying another is how we got Nike Air, the adidas Ultra Boost, and in a broader sense, the frantic, addicting, never-static pace of the sneaker game that draws a millions-strong community into forums, group texts, and convention halls to obsess over true greatness. In many ways, copying may just be the paste that keeps the shoe game together.
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