Kicks Start: Could the high-end sneaker trend be the death of killer heels?

fashion trend: kicks
fashion trend: kicks
Photography by Peter Stigter

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A designer’s runway bow rarely generates buzz—that is, unless it’s Phoebe Philo’s. Since the 39-year-old British fashion phenom took the reins at French luxury house Céline in 2008, she has been popping out post-show in Paris to thunderous applause for her stunning minimalist-driven collections. But lately it seems all eyes have been focused on her feet. Adidas Stan Smith trainers, Nike Air Max 90s in pink—when it comes to game-day dressing, Philo prefers to rock a pair of runners rather than a haute pair of heels. So does Kristen Stewart. At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, she appeared on the red carpet in a body-skimming, floral-embellished Zuhair Murad dress paired with black stilettos, which she quickly ditched in favour of her Barbara Bui leather high-tops. First Lady Michelle Obama has slipped into metallic cap-toe Lanvin sneakers to carry out her White House duties. Even fashion’s favourite street-style star, Italian clotheshorse and editor-at-large of Vogue Japan Anna Dello Russo, who is never spotted without her five-inch spikes, was photographed wearing sky-blue New Balance trainers in Milan in January.

This spring, kicks are taking a walk on the wild side on runways, including Junya Watanabe, Moschino Cheap & Chic, Ruffian, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Ashish, and at luxury footwear labels like Christian Louboutin, Giuseppe Zanotti, Jimmy Choo and Pierre Hardy. At $500 and up, these new sartorial stars won’t be clocking any time at the gym, but they might give your wallet a workout. Surprised? Don’t be—this shift toward high-end sneakers hasn’t exactly snuck up on us. Running shoes first emerged as status symbols during the 1970s. “They were worn not just in the gym or to do athletics but for shopping and on your leisure time,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and for its latest exhibition, Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture (April 25, 2013 to April 22, 2014). Mixed-media and graphic designer Karim Rashid, famous for colourful, eclectic designs that range from furniture to footwear, also knows a thing or two about retro sneakers. As the creative vision behind this exhibition, and an avid runner, he believes that “the running shoe [conjures up] nostalgia” and that currently, “there’s a big revival going on.”

By the ’80s, working girls everywhere, with their broad-shouldered skirt suits and briefcases, were lacing up for their morning commutes. The power sneaker was born, but another movement—street culture—was hitting the pavement at that same time. “A lot of the new sneakers and old Chuck Taylors were starting to be worn again by kids on the street to play basketball,” says Semmelhack. “When Michael Jordan signed with Nike for the Air Jordan brand in 1985, people interested in sneakers began to collect them.”

Music has also made its mark on the status-sneaker world. In 1986, hip-hop trio Run-D.M.C. released their hit “My Adidas”—a rap song about the group’s obsession with Adidas shell toes. Sales of these “funky fresh” sneakers skyrocketed worldwide, with both men and women adopting the trend. Still, Semmelhack maintains that sneakers aren’t truly genderless. “Women often wear aspects of men’s attire, and women who wear sneakers are incorporating masculine attire into their outfit,” she says. Though high-heel culture has been the primary focus of her work for the past 12 years, Semmelhack admits there’s something about street shoes that trumps the objects of her affection. “When you take comfortable footwear and make it a rare edition by a famous fashion designer,” she says, “you are able to have status and comfort—something high heels have yet to offer.”

Isabel Marant’s hidden-wedge sneakers are the ideal hybrid of these two worlds. Over the past several seasons, everyone from Hollywood A-listers (Anne Hathaway, Diane Kruger) to music stars (Rihanna, Beyoncé) and off-duty models (Miranda Kerr, Cara Delevingne) have been strapping on these Parisian cool-girl kicks. In a 2012 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, the 46-year-old French designer discussed the obstacles behind the creation of her highly coveted shoe: “I’ve always found wedge sneakers unattractive. To me, it’s all about style and attitude, so when I created mine, the challenge was to keep a real balance between a nice aesthetic and the comfort of a flat sneaker.” Clearly, she found a winning formula. Since these sneakers have been on the market, they’ve been flying off the shelves at chic boutiques across the globe, like Jonathan + Olivia in Toronto. “We were the first store in Canada to carry them, and now we have customers contacting us to ask when shipments are coming in,” says Nic Jones, husband of store owner Jackie O’Brien and former partner at fashion label Surface to Air. Among the Marant styles that sell like hotcakes there, the Bobby and the Bayley are whipping fashion fans into the biggest frenzy this season. At Colette, a beyond-hip three-storey concept store in Paris that features an exhibition space, a bookshop and a water bar in addition to its well edited selection of unusual fashion finds, designer trainers are prominently displayed on the first-floor sneaker wall. There, you’ll find statement-makers like Reebok x Keith Haring Foundation (neon blue); Jeremy Scott x Adidas Originals (fuzzy camouflage print, bear included); Kangaroos (retro perfection); and Kenzo (abstract animal print). “The majority of the sneakers we sell are limited-edition or exclusive,” says Sarah Lerfel, buyer and creative director for this French boutique. Past collaborations have included the Converse Missoni Archive Project collection in October—for which 20 different unisex styles featuring the iconic zigzag pattern were created using dead stock fabric from the house’s archive—and Holiday 2012’s unisex Converse x Kevin Lyons Chuck Taylor All Stars for Colette. (Lyons is an artist and designer known for his monster characters and illustrations.) Of the latter, only 125 pairs were produced. For Spring 2013, Lerfel lists Pierre Hardy, Dior by Raf Simons, Nike, Adidas, Puma and Converse as some of the store’s hottest labels for ladies. A new generation of sneaker heads can’t be far behind.

Internationally acclaimed visual artist Shantell Martin has painted a new picture for herself, one that no longer includes her vast collection of kicks. The 32-year-old London-born Brooklyn-based talent, who has worked on projects with Adidas, Nike and, most recently, the Bata Shoe Museum, had over 100 pairs in her early 20s. “I sold them all on eBay and raised a bunch of money,” she says. “My sneaker obsession paid for my initial move to Japan.” Nowadays, she prefers a blank canvas for her sneaker art. “I just want a white leather shoe that I can draw on every day,” she says. Recently, she purchased five identical pairs of Ransom x Adidas Originals—and she’s already on number three.

Rashid owns 50 pairs of sneakers, including K-Swiss, Hogan and Y-3, yet he refuses to use the C word. “I don’t collect them,” he says. “I wear them all.” His latest score? Size 13 Pro-Keds with kid-friendly colour-blocking, though, based on his work for the Bata Shoe Museum’s current exhibition, floating shoes are his new obsession. When talk turns to the future of footwear, he doesn’t miss a beat. “A shoe that can elevate you,” he says, “so as you walk it’s like this little hovercraft.” Let the wait lists begin.