Aspirational Trainers—Some Meditations on Premium Footwear

A couple of things that have been popping up over the last few weeks have got me thinking about premium footwear; sneakers, to be more specific. I’ve been weighing a few different thoughts and reflections over in my head, having a little internal discussion about the concept of sneakers and this growing wave of luxury-renditions of classic trainers and I felt like putting some of these thoughts out there.

Before I go forward I have to clarify that I am by no means an expert on trainers, sneaker culture or any of those things. At 23 years old I’m never going to be able to fully grasp the roots of the culture or the depth of knowledge and insight that comes with having been there from day one with the genuine experience. There will no doubt be things in the following ramble that will be wrong, misguided, incorrect and off base, so please feel free to get in touch and correct me and fill me in if I’ve missed anything. As far as this is concerned, it’s a personal reflection of my own perspective and an attempt to put random thoughts on paper and see if it makes any sense. TL;DR—Gary Warnett, Kish Kash, Joel LDN et al, please don’t flame me too badly.

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It feels like over the past few years the sneaker world has gone through some pretty crazy transformations. It’s no mystery that the very idea of sneakers and casual footwear being a legitimate part of the fashion world is actually quite a recent occurrence, and even then it’s been a pretty unsteady path. Yes, there were a few wildcard moments in the past like Chanel’s 1996 Reebok InstaPumps, but overall there’s been a pretty solid divide between high fashion’s luxury footwear and typical street-level trainers. Over time, however, that wall seems to be gradually breaking down, or at least becoming less clearly defined.

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Firstly, it seems like some of high-fashion’s casual footwear icons like Margiela’s Replica trainer or Carven’s slip-ons have gained a bit more traction in the wider sneaker world. I guess that’s probably due to a broader relevance of high fashion and premium product in general. I definitely laughed a bit when James Corden did that skit making sneakerheads compete for a new pair of Air Jordans and everyone dismissed his choice of footwear, only to change their tune upon learning they were a $600 pair of Margielas. More impressive was the fact that something James Corden did made me laugh, but whatever. This feels pretty significant in general. That divide between high and low wasn’t a one-directional thing; sneakerheads didn’t really seem to care about what high fashion was saying in the past either. Nowadays people are staying fairly switched on about what they’re offering, even if they’re not necessarily buying them.

Then you’ve got the blatant rip-offs coming out of high fashion labels that have in some sense validated the original design principles of classic sneakers in a “couture” sense. Here’s looking at you, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld and so on. In the same way that fashion has had a troubled, “push and pull” relationship with broader street culture in general, that same dynamic has played out between sneakers and snooty footwear—“We don’t need your approval, but the fact that you ripped us clearly proves we were right”. It’s difficult to deny that these “tasteful” “homages” to shoes like the Air Force 1, Air Jordan 1, ZX 500, Stan Smith, 574, Sk8-Hi and so on have brought those designs into the “canon” of classic footwear, so to speak.

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It’s also further highlighted a divide between those brands, however. Valentino brings the ZX 500 into the fashion world because adidas’ original running sneaker is, by definition, unable to or disallowed from doing that entirely. Saint Laurent’s SL Court model, arguably a flip of the already coveted Air Jordan 1, was touted by sneakerheads as a premium model for people who wanted a sneaker flex that went beyond the original’s deep cultural capital—Jordan dunked in those ones, but these are high fashion and cost a shitload as well. My favourite example is the slew of Stan Smith copies by labels like Visvim, Saint Laurent etc. that are totally dualistic in their perception. On the one hand, everybody knows that they’re a total rip off of the adidas Originals classic; on the other hand, we all accept that some of them are utterly beautiful.

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So in the modern age where high fashion and premium product appears to be increasingly accepted and appreciated, could we argue that these brands are in a symbiotic relationship of sorts? That high fashion needs sneakers and sneakers need high fashion? Maybe. But I’m still not entirely sure where the whole thing seems to be going.

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The most bizarre development, in my opinion, has been an increasing wave of mainstream sneaker manufacturers releasing “premium” or “luxury” editions of their original sneakers. Jordan Brand has been putting a lot of weight behind projects like the MTM series and the Jordan 1 “Pinnacle”—a model with snakeskin leather and solid gold hardware—and then you’ve had other companies doing special “Made in Japan” editions, or premium materials and other variations that seek to inject a bit of pizzazz into their standard product.

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To me some of this seems a bit strange, though. The original allure of Air Jordan, for example, was never about the quality. It was culture and association with Michael Jordan and a burgeoning street culture. There have been jokes and remarks about poor production quality in questionable labour conditions far longer than there has been a sneaker collection culture. The hype was never really about quality product.

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In the past decade, the “quality” approach has been handled by entirely different agents, often catering to an entirely different group. Common Projects is about a decade old now, and its birth was motivated by a desire to create simple, accessible footwear unladen with logos and branding with straightforward high-quality production. A Bathing Ape’s BapeSTAs, RoadSTAs etc. were blatant Nike copies, but with a standard of quality that only the Japanese could achieve. Whilst perhaps better known for its more outlandish offerings, Visvim’s Foley and Skagway models, for example, have always quite clearly channeled cheap-and-cheerful casual models at a premium price point with all the accompanying quality. One of the newer success stories, Hender Scheme, is even more intriguing because their purist, traditional production methods completely forgo any sort of the modern technology or performance-focused aspects that made the original shoes famous. Air Jordan IVs with no gripped outsole, let alone an air bubble?

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The beauty of the Hender Scheme approach, in contrast to other high fashion brands, is that they’re so frank about what their product actually is; a real, honest, pure homage. Whilst sensibly wary of trademark and copyright sensitivities, they don’t really seem to deny the source material of each of their Manual Industrial Products, but anybody who I speak to says the same thing; their shoes are completely beautiful, how could anybody interpret them as anything but an homage to great design and cultural legacy?

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And the people who appreciate those things snap them up. Hender Scheme flies, wherever it is. Common Projects is an unbelievable success story that demonstrates how a conscious effort to circumvent the brand can become a brand itself. Visvim’s footwear lines have only gone from strength to strength and made way for an entire clothing line (plus womenswear) in an industry where brands normally start with clothes and then struggle through the footwear market with a mixture of optimism and financial resentment. But what is the point I’m trying to make?

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The world of sneakers is not always about quality; it’s not always about hype; it’s not always about culture; it’s not always about sports; it’s not always about tech. The appreciation for premium product in recent years has given birth to consumers that touch and feel garments, appreciating good craftsmanship and admiring brands that go the extra mile to make a quality product. The sneaker, or sneaker culture, is often rooted in repetition and nostalgia. People don’t want Jordan’s to get better in quality, unless by “better” you mean closer to a vague nostalgic ideal of how the original release used to be. For a touch of luxury, you have footwear collaborations and the like. Teaming up with a respected brand or doing something different with a store can make way for some premium touches and create some of the necessary culture and hype to make the whole thing worthwhile. At least then, to me, that same product can at least hide behind the mystique of a premium brand or some contrived narrative of how two groups came together to create something unique. Oh, naivety, how I miss you.

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But as for premium releases from the brand itself? I just don’t know, the whole thing seems a bit misguided to me because it’s frankly not what these guys were ever known for. It doesn’t matter how many times Burger King tell me they’ve got an Aberdeen Angus beef burger, I’m never going to be convinced that they’re selling anything better than a bog standard hamburger. If McDonalds announced a Kobe burger tomorrow, what would you genuinely expect? Are you really expecting a premium product from the people that brought you the McRib? Be real.

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This market has emerged, at least in part, because the consumer is now becoming savvier to what quality actually is. Given the right reasons and motivations, they might be tempted to spend a little more and get a little more in return. The problem for me is that the niche, quality manufacturers have already set the bar. We’re learning what it means when a sneaker is made in Italy, we know about polyurethane glues and the relatively short shelf-life of mass-manufactured sneakers and we know there are high-end alternatives out there if we want the same story but printed on better paper. So often, when I see any of these new “it’s all premium now” releases being announced, there’s a little part of me that says, ‘You can put all the luxury shit you want on that shoe, but I’m still going to open the box and see Made in Vietnam on the tongue and ask myself if these details were really worth the extra 00s on the price tag.’

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There was a recent story about the owner of ShoeZeum selling his entire collection of Nike Dunks with over 60 pairs of some of Nike SB’s most coveted models, and a lot of sneakerheads were really shocked as to why he would shift something like a decade’s worth of commitment and collecting like it was all for nothing. He gave three reasons: 1) the shoes deteriorate over time, 2) they look worse as they yellow and age, and 3) as each shoe gets retro’d and reproduced, it’s just another reason for people to buy that instead, wear them and enjoy them, something that even he would genuinely prefer to do.

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This is kind of the heart of what I’m trying to say. People don’t buy those sneakers because of anything other than the fact they’re sneakers. They love sneakers. There is a lot more to them than quality and premium materials. Sometimes there’s not even that. Sometimes they’re just trainers. There’s no point, to me, trying to bridge that gap between mass manufactured trainers and the premium approach like that if you’re coming from the original mass-market perspective. If people have left the sneaker world for high-end models, it’s probably because their priorities have changed in one way or another. I love premium footwear and premium anything, genuinely, but I’ve still got my pairs of Stan Smiths and Sk8-His or whatever because they’re just essential. Warts and all.

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