As sneakers have jumped from gym floors to catwalks, they have also become high-priced collectibles. Brian Noone dissects an emerging footwear trend that’s here to stay
There was a whiff of scandal in 2014 when Karl Lagerfeld shod all 65 models in his Chanel haute couture catwalk show in sneakers. You could almost hear the older fashionistas hiss: Were the American imports really a suitable match for the sophisticated, handwrought treasures of a Parisian grand couturier?
Six years later, the answer is a resounding yes, at least if you measure in terms of global impact. Many of the top fashion houses have embraced the most comfortable of flats, and sneakers are truly everywhere: all ages wear them, men and women, from smart London members’ clubs to the aspirational suburbs of Seoul.
More surprisingly, perhaps, sneakers have also made their way to the leading auction houses: a new record price was set earlier this year at Sotheby’s, a snip at $560,000. Noah Wunsch, the former head of e-commerce at Sotheby’s, spearheaded the auction house’s first blockbuster sneaker sale in 2019. “Sneakers are a multibillion-dollar category in the secondary market,” he told Departures, “so for me it was kind of a no-brainer.”
The success of the sale – and of dedicated online retail platforms like StockX, which was valued at $1 billion last year – is cementing sneakers as an asset class that appeals not only to Millennials, but to collectors of all ages. “Our ultra-high-net-worth audience collects across categories,” says Wunsch, “and there is a propulsive quality of the crossover with fashion.” He cites Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones at Dior and Matthew Williams at Givenchy: “They helped build the streetwear category, and it’s taking over luxury in a real sense.”
For Adam Lewenhaupt, founder of Swedish handcrafted sneaker brand CQP, the emergence of sneakers is part of a “trend of breaking up old rules. When I worked in banking around 15 years ago, people would get laughed at for wearing brown shoes with their suits.” Now, he says, “there is a trend towards less formal attire overall” and for him “a bit of contrast makes it interesting”.
The production of his brand’s trainers is driven by artisanal methods for making traditional dress shoes, with touches like metal shanks in the soles for stability. But ultimately they are all about the smart casual look – and, of course, “supreme all-day comfort”, in Lewenhaupt’s words.
And yet comfort, for all its various attractions, is not what’s driving the top of the market, in either primary or secondary sales. Instead, it’s the twin forces of boundary-pushing aesthetics and limited-edition scarcity. These combine most frequently in collaborations, whether it’s the Dior Air Jordans – “the ultimate luxury- streetwear crossover”, says Wunsch – which sold out minutes after their release in June, or other unlikely marriages this year: the super- stylised Maison Margiela Reeboks, the rebooted Adidas Superstars with Prada or the delightfully off-the-wall Nike SB Dunk Grateful Deads, whose psychedelic hue matches the ethos of the jam band, as does the stash pocket in the tongue.
For collectors like Ryan Chang, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur, it is something even more elusive that appeals: he focuses “almost exclusively on artist and designer collaborations, one-of-one prototypes and samples”. They ought to be treated like the art objects they are, he contends, though he has rejected offers for joining various hedge funds to do just that as a sneaker portfolio manager. Such rarities are acquired, when new, through private networks, and they only reach the public in sales like the one Chang held at Sotheby’s this September, which saw him sell a pair of Nike FLOMs – just 24 were made by artist Leonard Hilton McGurr – for $63,000.
This is a small fraction of the value of Chang’s collection, and it’s his view – shared with many others – that the market for sneakers “is at the very beginning”, largely because the next generation of collectors is just starting to come of age. And so men (most current aficionados are men) now have a counterpart to the handbag: a talismanic, treasured collectible that may not quite be a perfect match for the couture world but can occasionally reach the heights, at both auctions and social functions, of its recherché cousins, jewellery and watches.