The philosopher Confucius taught the importance of imitation. Students learn by copying their master’s work and masters apply what they copied as a student. Centuries before Oscar Wilde declared it the highest form of flattery, Chinese scholars made imitation the root of innovation.
Now, in an era of luxury bootlegs, a curious trend nods toward fashion inversion. Fast fashion and luxury sneaker designs are converging, and might even be heading for a place where the high street does the creating.
Could the student really become the master? In many ways — for sneakers, at least — it already has.
Old dog, shoe tricks
The sneaker industry is based on copying. Since the days of the original Chuck Taylor, footwear companies have followed a three-step strategy: take an archetype, make branding changes, price to your audience.
Archetypes (or "macrotrends") are a combination of material, silhouette, and use case. The adidas Stan Smith, Reebok Club C 85, GREATS' The Royale, and the Common Projects Achilles Low are all “low-top leather tennis shoes.” The Saucony Jazz, Nike Cortez, Spalwart Tempo, and Valentino Rockrunner are all “suede-and-nylon wedge runners.” Don’t take our word for it — take Prada’s.
Every once in a while, a new archetype — or more likely an old archetype tweaked with new materials — emerges to market success. Knit runners replace suede-and-nylon. The Nike Free RN Flyknit becomes the Margiela Coated. A trend happens by way of sportswear innovation, is copied for casual wear, and the cycle repeats.
The fast and the luxurious
Because of the way the sneaker industry works, fast fashion and luxury brands sit in a similar position, waiting on sportswear for new archetypes, new materials, even just a price signal. Once a macrotrend has been identified, it’s game on.
Luxury brands typically move first, identifying a sportswear macrotrend and reshaping it with their own design language (read: swapping logos and colors). Because luxury houses sell products by building desire and then pricing for inaccessibility, fast fashion is then primed to copy, tweak, and price for mass accessibility.
The past decade has brought two major shifts. First, luxury houses have learned to speak streetwear. Second, fast fashion has matured, with its own collections and own collabs. The upshot? Both are primed to make sneakers based on archetypes as soon as the macrotrend says “go.”
While fast fashion used to deal in straight knockoffs, its relationship with luxury now looks… well, collaborative. Take the example of one of today’s biggest trends, chunky sneakers. The archetype (“’90s tech runner”) comes as a reaction to the slimline silhouettes of recent years past. Luxury adds a few aesthetic traits like stacked soles. At almost the same time, fast fashion rapidly iterates its own traits (with luxury as partial guidance) in what amounts to A/B testing.
Does one color sell better than another? How did toe box straps do in Asia? When there are more than 7,000 ZARAs worldwide, each pushing new product almost every week, you get reliable data on what works and what doesn’t.
The “optimized” fast-fashion sneakers that stick around send a clear message to competitors: these features work. And as the sneaker industry is based on imitation, this feedback, in a roundabout way, ends up influencing the luxury brands.
A case in point: Balenciaga’s Triple S put chunk on the map. ZARA, Bershka, and the usual suspects rapidly iterate. What works for chunky shoes? Colors? Features? Materials? Styles? As it turns out, Air Trainer-like straps are a hit.
These shoes stick around, designers and businessmen alike read the tea leaves, and before long, voila! The Burberry Regis. A strapped-up chunky sneaker with enough branded tweaks to justify its exclusivity.
Apply this model of push-pull collaboration to today’s luxury market and you’ll see examples everywhere:
Ask yourself, without looking at the label, if you could honestly tell which of the above cost $40 and which cost more than $400? If two shoes are made from the same materials — nylon, rubber, synthetic yarn — and all are made in factories without a compelling “made in” story like you get with leather or cashmere, what exactly are you paying for?
Parity or parody?
This is no indictment of luxury, nor a gold star for fast fashion. What is most meaningful is how it could shape the industry of tomorrow.
The convergence of fast fashion and luxury sneaker designs creates a more dynamic sneaker market, wherein macrotrends are overexposed more quickly, giving more of an incentive for the technological and design breakthroughs that create new archetypes. Unfortunately, it also means less of the benefit goes to the innovator — especially if it’s a high-end luxury house that can always be undercut on price.
For luxury brands, one of the solutions for this could be logomania. As long as the customer has the appetite for it, putting your branding loud and proud on the side of a shoe is a smart move, as it moves any potential lawsuits relating to fast fashion “collaboration” from difficult-to-enforce design patents to cut-and-dry trademark infringement.
Fast fashion has a tougher and arguably more expensive road should it choose to embrace its new design parity. There’s no real incentive to dump research-and-development dollars into an archetype-creating breakthrough. At the same time, spending on ads and product placement to make their logos seem as cool as a luxury house’s is like paddling upstream.
But hey, stranger things have happened. If the next Margiela-like designer drops all pretense and collabs with Primark for a Paris runway show, just remember: we’ve already seen Balenciaga Crocs.