Fashion: Sneakers? Not.

Fashion adds new bounce to the market for athletic footwear

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The Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto creates the sort of high-art apparel often referred to as innovative, cerebral and, on occasion, unwearable. Only the particularly adventurous--and wealthy--are likely to don his elaborately constructed designs, with their asymmetric hemlines and exaggeratedly large collars. But some of his most coveted offerings of late are supremely practical. Last year Yamamoto teamed up with Adidas to design a line of sneakers, and the results--slip-ons in floral patterns or brocades, for example--are comfortable and versatile enough to wear with his own collections or even jeans from the Gap. Of course, at $240 to $590 a pair, they aren't targeted at the customary Gap shopper. But that's not the point, really. For these Adidases represent the high end of the hot new market that is women's sneakers; women now spend nearly $4.5 billion a year on athletic shoes, and the figure is growing fast.

Until a few years ago, athletic-shoe companies designed their women's lines to mimic their men's lines, only in smaller sizes and pastel colors. Today virtually every athletic-footwear company, from Nike to Reebok to New Balance, is competing to offer women shoes designed expressly for them. Not only are the heels tailored for the narrower female foot, but the shoes may come backless or toeless; they may be styled to resemble Mary Janes or bowling shoes; they may be made of woven or mesh fabrics; and they come in a panoply of colors. They are sturdy enough to wear while smacking a tennis ball and chic enough for post-doubles cocktails. The majority of the shoes sell for $70 to $120. The marketing niche even has a name: athleisure.

The athletic-footwear manufacturers started experimenting with sneaker design more than a decade ago, but initially for the men's market and then primarily with gadgetry purported to offer technological advantages on the court or field. (Remember the Reebok air pumps?) Despite such marketing, surveys showed that in almost 75% of sneaker purchases the decision to buy was based on how the shoes looked or who endorsed them rather than on their intended purpose.

Fashionization of women's shoes started to take off in 1997, when, in an attempt to ignite its lackluster image and sales, Puma enlisted revered designer Jil Sander to create a limited-edition women's running shoe. It was basically a standard-issue Puma, with a gold Jil Sander logo. But the fashion cognoscenti loved it, and suddenly the Puma name was chic.

At about the same time, Skechers, a Southern California-based footwear company that launched in 1992, started making great strides with teen and female consumers by keying in on trends and marketing itself as a "lifestyle" company. The flat, well-cushioned Skechers boasted comfort and the latest sneaker technology, but the company's advertising emphasized the shoes' stylish look.

Now the golden rule is that for men and women, fashion is as important as technology. With that in mind, the women's market offers unlimited possibilities. Women account for only one-third of the $14 billion in annual athletic-footwear sales, but evidence suggests they would be willing to spend more. "Women tend not to be price sensitive. They will pay full price," says Carol Murray, senior analyst for apparel and footwear at Salomon Smith Barney. "And it's clear that color and fashion are as important to women as performance."

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