Sneakers have long been a men’s domain. In part, this is because they’re not merely bought, but collected: they are furiously snapped up and carefully stored, like vintage Cabernets; their leaks are prolifically blogged about, like rare b-side recordings; they are resold and unused, like sports cars. Sneakerheads subscribe to that particularly male brand of fetishistic consumerism, which goes: buy first, then look—and never touch.
But by all accounts, sneakers are having a miniskirt moment: they are everywhere in womenswear. They are $30 at Forever 21, $160 at Nike, $675 at Saint Laurent, and an estimated $4200 at Chanel. They are all over street style blogs. Their appearance at Chanel and Dior gave couture week a refreshing jolt of relevancy, and they seem to have been the foundation, too, for Chanel’s spring ready-to-wear collection, a mischievous rendezvous through that most female of retail spheres, the supermarket.
And whereas a few years ago, Isabel Marant infamously propped sneakers up on pie slices of leather and suede and disguised them as “wedges,” the new women’s sneaker is simply a sneaker. Now Elle.com calls Stan Smiths—an understated, cultish men’s Adidas low-top that’s been at once everywhere and sold out since it relaunched in January after a three year hiatus—“a Fashion Girl ‘Thing.’” And do these Fly Knits look like Chanel, or do these Chanels look like Fly Knits?
With this boom in luxury trainers, are women poised to become the new sneakerheads?
Lawrence Schlossman, the editor-in-chief of men’s style website Four Pins, is quick to shut the notion down: “This is the bubble,” he told me shortly after couture week. “I don’t know how long the bubble’s gonna last. But this is the peak. This is the zenith. This is as big as the bubble could potentially get. I don’t see it lasting.”
Still, I ask Schlossman if sneakers for women might be something more than a trend: a new addition to the all-important accessories category. Fashion houses live and die by the sunglasses, leather goods, and it-stilettos they turn out season after season. Might sneakers be the new handbags? “Women just don’t care about casual footwear,” Schlossman said. “Right now, women are as into sneakers as they will ever be.”
Perhaps more importantly, the sneakerhead codes of buying can appear Delphic even to the most seasoned womenswear consumer. As Russ Bengston, a senior staff writer at Complex and member of the sneakerhead cognoscenti, explains, sneakerheads are all about the chase: a photo leaks, a sneaker shows up on a blog or Twitter, and the sneakerhead intelligentsia begin issuing their opinions. Then it’s seen on influencers in the hip-hop and sports worlds, and an official image is released. “And by that time,” Bengston says, “people are probably like third guessing what they think of it: they have already gone from liking it, to hating it, to, ‘Oh my God, I have to have this,’ so that by the time it comes out, there’s already a fever pitch of anticipation.”
A brand releases just a small number to ensure the sneaker sells out, according to Bengston, and then men either buy another shoe on the site to fulfill their desire, or, if they’re a serious sneakerhead, they go to the secondary market. “People will spend five, ten times retail just to get that particular shoe, depending on how hard it is to acquire,” Bengston says. “When those red Air Yeezys came out, people were spending like $5000 for a $250 shoe—you’re spending a huge markup just to say you have it.” And it’s onto retweeting the next leaked sneaker photo.
Yes, that’s right: sneakerheads expend all this energy and money for something they’ll likely never wear. Bengston says, “If you’re buying like 100 pairs of shoes a year, or even 50, like one pair a week, how often can you wear all those?”
Women, on the other hand, tend to regard a purchase they never wear as a failure; the months-old garment hanging unworn in a woman’s closet, tags still dangling, is a familiar wardrobe menace. But then, as Bengston points out, “You think back not too long ago and all the jokes about having too many shoes were about women—like the Imelda Marcos thing. Now, if you’re a guy, you’re like, ‘2000 pairs of shoes? I dream about that.’ Or in some cases, ‘Oh, I have that.’” (For the record, Bengston adds, “I always say I have between 200 to 300, but it’s probably creeping up on like 500. I don’t want to count.”)
Still, Schlossman insists there’s an impending obsolescence to the women’s sneaker craze, because it’s part of the current excitement for streetwear seen in the ubiquity of luxury menswear sneakers, and in lines like Public School, Hood By Air, Givenchy, and Y-3. “Fashion and streetwear are in this kind of honeymoon, romantic, passionate embrace,” he says. The men’s market has accepted ostrich skin Balenciaga high-tops and leather Alexander McQueen trainers into its fold, snapping them up alongside performance shoes by Nike and Adidas, and womenswear has taken note. The fervor for luxury sneakers, Schlossman says, “started in menswear. That should be a feather in our cap. If Chanel is putting trainers on the runway, we should be like, ‘You’re welcome, guys.’”
In that regard, sneakers are perhaps the most Chanel thing the house has done since Coco herself cribbed the Eton schoolboy look from the Duke of Westminster. And if womenswear is borrowing from men’s luxury streetwear, as Schlossman suggests, it might be argued that it’s part of a larger move towards fluid, post-“borrowed from the boys” silhouettes. From Patou to Philo, women’s designers have long won when they can resolve the tension between wearing casual garments and looking elegant. Perhaps sneakers aren’t the new handbags, but the last trousers.