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Why the luxury sneaker is set to run and run

Tom Bottomley
29 September 2018

It may have started out as a trend, but luxury designer brands have now had a taste in the lucrative high-end sneaker market, and they want more.

With every season comes a new wave of over the top super-expensive trainers, or sneakers as they are more commonly referred to. They have become the male equivalent of a woman’s designer handbag, and a key new design focus for luxury brands, who had been watching the likes of Nike and Adidas have it all their own way for far too long.

Collaborating with the sports brands has been one way for the designer brands to get a foot hold in the massive sneaker market, but they have also taken it in to their own hands and brought in specialists to design ever more luxe models just under their luxury brand names. More than just a trend, this is now a recognised and highly lucrative area of the market. And it’s getting bigger.

The designer sneaker business has been going from big to bigger, and there is really something on offer for everyone

Sam Lobham, VP men's designer & new concepts, Nordstrom

Sam Lobban, formerly of MR PORTER in the UK, but now VP of Men’s Designer & New Concepts at Nordstrom in New York, says: “The designer sneaker business has been going from big to bigger, and there is really something on offer for everyone. Lanvin were arguably the first true designer brand to pave the way, but brands such as Balenciaga, Gucci, Dior and Margiela have really taken the idea and ran with it.”

Lobban believes it was only a matter of time before the big luxury houses paid more attention to how men with money generally dress. “I think the big luxury houses were really paying attention to how most guys are dressing, and the broader casualisation of men’s fashion. Outside of the City, a lot of guys can wear a clean smart sneaker to work, and are looking for something elevated and interesting.”


Balenciaga Triple S at Brownsfashion

At Nordstrom, Gucci sneakers are particularly high in demand at the moment, and Christian Louboutin is one of the luxury department store’s best performing luxury sneaker brands. Louboutin high-top sneakers range from $1,300 with spikes on them, to $3,300 with crystal embellishment. “I’m a personal fan of the Prada Cloud Burst range,” offers Lobban. “I just bought the all black strap version for a/w18 for myself.” Lobban also calls the Balenciaga Triple S shoe “one of the hottest sneakers on the market.” But the chunky design is certainly not to everyone’s taste. “Dior have their own version of the ‘Dad Sneaker’ with the B22, so if the Balenciaga is a little too full on for you, then the Dior might be the better move.”

The designer sneaker in turn has become the ‘IT’ item for a man, in the way that a handbag is for a woman.

Lee Goldup, menswear buyer, Browns

Lee Goldup, Menswear Buyer at London designer boutique, Browns, has also seen this area of the market growing season on season. He comments: “Over the past few seasons, several of our brands such as Balenciaga, Gucci, Prada and Calvin Klein have really put a strong focus on sneakers and invested heavily in this area. The designer sneaker in turn has become the ‘IT’ item for a man, in the way that a handbag is for a woman.”

Far from being a trend, Goldup just thinks it’s a now a new category that’s here to stay. He says: “Sneakers have completely replaced the traditional shoe in menswear, and it’s now even acceptable to wear a pair of sneakers with a suit. Designer brands have realised that customers are willing to invest in a pair of sneakers, and with the likes of Nike and Adidas collaborating with designers, high-end sneakers won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon.”


Sports brands and designers are collaborating such as Adidas and Raf Simons at Nordstrom

According to a Reuters report on the luxury trainers market in May this year, luxury groups are now increasing investments and marketing budgets to face down their opponents. Global sales of sneakers, or trainers, rose 10% to €3.5 billion last year, outperforming a 7% rise in handbags, according to consultancy Bain & Co. Both luxury groups and sports companies are looking to cash in on a booming market. Limited editions can sell for well over $10,000, including the Chanel X Pharrell Hu Race Trail, or Nike’s Air Jordan 3 Retro DJ Khaled Grateful.

Far from being put out by luxury brands getting in on their area of the market, the sports brands are actually lapping it up as all it has done is elevate the sneaker market and made the more expensive designs ever more desirable. Vibrant sales, and sell-outs of specific models, are testament to that.

Ben Leaver, Men’s Senior Buyer for Selfridges and Brown Thomas footwear offer, thinks it has now just become de rigueur for men to splash out big on high-end sneakers. He offers: “It’s a key statement piece for men and it’s become the most important element of a man’s wardrobe. Customers are open to price point, depending on the rarity and exclusivity of the piece, or how many pieces are released. Our most expensive sneakers right now are the Margiela Fusion Sneaker at £1,075, which is a patchwork of multiple sneakers stuck together, which gives a real distressed look.

"The very same sneakers got their own headline in the Evening Standard recently, which read: “Maison Margiela is selling ‘worn out sneakers’ covered in glue, scuffs and rips for £1,075.” It may be that the ugly trainer trend eventually runs its course, but big price point sneakers are very much going to be a key factor in the men’s market for the foreseeable future.


Gucci Flashtrek with removable crystal belt at Brownsfashion

And it’s certainly not just men who are picking up on some of the chunkier, clunkier and sometimes quite ridiculous takes on trainers. Women are very much in on the act and willing to spend big too. Says Leaver: “The Gucci Flashtrek, which is really a luxury interpretation on a hiking sneaker, even features a removable jewelled belt that you can wrap around it.

But it’s not all over the top bling shoes that are grabbing the limelight. David Morris, Senior Buyer for shoes at MR PORTER, which has added its own label Mr.P Italian leather sneakers to its offer this month, says: “There’s also modern-luxe versions of tennis shoes and 70’s retro runners that are designed with hi-spec materials such as cashmere suede, butter-soft nubuck and Italian leather. The attention to detail and signature design elements elevate these styles, while the carefully considered muted colour palettes make them easy to adopt and wear.”

The Larry sneaker from Mr Porter's own label Mr P.

Morris is particularly excited about receiving the new Tom Ford sneakers this autumn/winter. “He’s taken his luxury sneakers in a new direction this season. Launching on MR PORTER in early October, customers can expect a new shape of a modern style running shoe with neoprene finishes. Think LA inspired sock-style sneakers, but for the sophisticated, ultra-luxurious Tom Ford man.”

Needless to say, they won’t be ending up in the Sale section. Sneakers are now such a big driver of the luxury shoe business, and it appears the fashion industry’s fastest growing area which holds no bounds.

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