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Hoop Dreams

Driven by apparel trends, a ’90s revival and a love for the NBA’s starry past, the classic hi-top basketball silo is experiencing a major rebound.

By Mary Avant

Fanatics by the thousands swarmed city streets across America, breaking down police barricades, brawling with each other and those with opposing views, including law enforcement. The riots made headlines around the world. Policemen, in full riot gear, finally had to resort to the use of pepper spray and make mass arrests to quell the angry mobs.

Driven by apparel trends, a ’90s revival and a love for the NBA’s starry past, the classic hi-top basketball silo is experiencing a major rebound.

By Mary Avant

Fanatics by the thousands swarmed city streets across America, breaking down police barricades, brawling with each other and those with opposing views, including law enforcement. The riots made headlines around the world. Policemen, in full riot gear, finally had to resort to the use of pepper spray and make mass arrests to quell the angry mobs.

Was this one of the recent Occupy Wall Street protests? Or was this ignited by the release of Nike’s new, limited-edition Air Jordan Retro Concord ($180 SRP) during the holidays? If you answered yes to each of these questions, then you hit nothing but net—twice.

But it’s not just sneakerheads who are scrambling to get their hands on coveted Nike basketball sneakers. Everyone from Jersey Shore’s Pauly D to supermodel Heidi Klum—along with a beefy front court of A-list musicians and athletes—are rocking the classic hi-top basketball silhouette of late, confirming what sneaker companies and retailers have quickly realized: The basketball shoe is back, and in a big way.

“Everything’s a cycle in footwear, and I think that’s the case with this particular silhouette coming back into prominence,” notes Tara McRae, vice president of strategic planning and brand management for Puma North America, a brand whose Clyde Frazier shoe paved the way for the first round of sneaker hysteria a few decades ago. “Consumers are always looking for what’s new, what’s next, what’s cutting edge. It’s just that constant search for something fresh.”

Ro Coit, co-owner of Detroit-based sneaker boutique Burn Rubber, agrees that hoop shoes are on the rebound, adding the silhouette looked great the first time around. “With the structure and the build of the shoe, the classic styles were good on the basketball court and they looked good when you stepped off the court.”

Old School
This go ’round, nostalgia appears to be a leading force behind the basketball silo’s revival. Unlike the past, where it was all about the bells and whistles—be it a pump, gel, air or whatever—to make you run faster and jump higher, now it’s more about the general look. Perhaps months of drama during the recent NBA lockout caused many fans to reminisce fondly of the league’s glory days in the late ’80s and ’90s—the days of Magic, Bird, Jordan and Pippen and the epic battles between the Lakers and Celtics. Let’s face it, as good as they may be, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies don’t set hearts pounding.

“It’s the allure of the retro days and the glamour days of the NBA,” explains Dr. Barry Katz, CEO and founder of Ektio, a sprain-preventing performance basketball shoe brand, regarding the category’s resurgence at retail. “The consumer is going back to the glory days of the NBA when [Michael] Jordan was playing, and that’s when essentially all of the players were wearing hi-tops.”

In fact, on a macro-fashion level, everything ’90s is in—whether it’s printed bomber jackets or laidback sportswear. A big part of this trend is basketball-related, notes Todd Krinsky, marketing director of the global classics division for Reebok. Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of how these sneakers can complement and enhance their ’90s-infused style— specifically, slimmer-fitting denim and pants. “Kids have a whole system of wearing tongues out and jeans in,” Krinsky declares.

Consumers are also moving away from a uniform mentality, embracing instead their individuality in terms of footwear, explains Hayden Biener, head footwear designer for HUF, a California-based footwear boutique and clothing brand that has collaborated with Nike and Adidas. “Everything has been so plain for so long— your basic slip-ons and desert boot shoes,” he says. “Individuality—having shoes that no one else has—was a big part of this sneakerhead thing going on in the ’90s.” That’s why the current pool of shoppers can be largely broken into two groups, explains Poe Hwang, managing editor at Freshness, an online magazine for men’s fashion and footwear. The first is the diehards— those who have been lifelong basketball fans and are bona-fide sneakerheads. The second group consists of a younger crowd that probably has no clue what it means to “Be like Mike,” but for whom fashion and cultural interests draw them to the silo today. Meld the two together and it’s a big pie, one that brands are stuffing with an extensive selection of styles. “There are so many sophisticated looks out there this time that you’re getting a bigger cross section of people wearing these shoes— even girls,” Reebok’s Krinksy notes.

Pump it Up?
If it’s a jump ball between technology and style, most industry experts say the latter continues to have the upper hand. Like back in the day, the shoes will rarely ever set foot on a court, so the old 80-20 rule between fashion and intended-end use still applies. Besides, Burn Rubber’s Coit says, “There are a lot of shoes that are great on the court, but they’re not wearable with jeans and in your everyday life.”

This tendency to focus on a look that goes with any outfit has allowed lifestyle brands to cash in on the growing hi-top craze, as well. Even luxury labels like Lanvin, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Giuseppe Zanotti and Christian Louboutin are throwing Converse- esque shoes into their assortments. “There are a lot of ancillary brands that are creating basketball- inspired shoes,” Krinksy says. “On the fashion side, it works.”

Color—whether its bold blood red or eye-catching neon green—is another major factor in today’s market. “The idea of color has really been big,” says Jon Epstein, president of Fila, known for its FX-100 and the Grant Hill hoops shoes. “That’s given the shoe a new look, and it’s energized the market.” Not only is color significant, it can be the deciding feature for many buyers, declares Adam Goldston, co-creator of Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL), a brand whose basketball sneakers’ Load ’N Launch technology claims to increase vertical leap.

But just because fashion is on top of consumers’ wish lists doesn’t mean performance should be benched entirely. “The performance athletes still care very much about not only the style and who’s wearing the shoe, but also about how the performance component is going to make them a better player,” Ektio’s Katz notes. That’s why many sneaker brands, including Fila and Puma, are incorporating shoes with slimmer and lighter silhouettes. “Lightweight is a major trend that continues to resonate with consumers, and we’ve applied that to some of our basketball-inspired styles,” explains Puma’s McRae, noting that Fall ’12 will see more vulcanized outsoles inspired by its iconic GV shoe.

This fall, APL will highlight the Concept 2, the second edition of its technology-packed shoe, with features that give players the ability to add up to 3.5 inches to their vertical jump. (The brand’s Concept 1 was actually banned by the NBA.) Meanwhile, Fila will follow on the heels of its successful natural-motion Skeletoes shoe with the lightweight, fused upper One on One Memory shoe for the “younger, fashion- forward athlete that’s interested in game improvement and speed,” Epstein says. For Ektio, the fall collection will show off its patented ankle-stabilizing basketball shoes with a new stitchless, molded upper and enhanced inner-core technology to boost the wearer’s performance.

Gimme the Beat
The multimillion dollar athletic endorsement days of Air Jordan, The Answer (Allen Iverson), Shaq and Grandmama (Larry Johnson) may be long gone. Today’s heroes are more apt to be hip hop stars like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Swizz Beatz and Nas—celebrities who have the greatest influence on a new generation of young adults. They’re not one dimensional—where an injury can instantly take them out of the spotlight—or possibly forced into retirement before the tender age of 30. Moreover, they’re not held up to the same role model standards as athletes. In fact, it might very well be a good thing, promotionally speaking, if they are (a little) bad.

Swizz Beatz’ collaboration with Reebok, for example, helped re-launch the brand’s classic Kamikaze shoe, spiced up with a much slimmer and flashier design, with hues like neon green, pink and purple. West designs a series of Air Yeezy sneakers in collaboration with Nike, and Freshness’ Hwang even credits the rapper with setting the form- fitting denim and hi-top sneakers trend. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve realized that music culture influences fashion more than athletics does,” confirms Reebok’s Krinksy, adding that hip hop’s dominance is a good thing for hoops shoes. “Basketball silhouettes are synonymous with hip hop culture.”

Another reason for the shrinking importance placed on athlete hero shoes is that no one may ever match the icon status for which Jordan set the bar. As good as NBA stars Lebron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Paul may be, until they duplicate Jordan’s near-nightly highlight reel performances, as well as bring home six world championships, it all pales in comparison. “It was what Jordan did on the court in that shoe that made it so big,” Burn Rubber’s Coit says. “Lebron isn’t doing what Michael Jordan was doing, but it’s a new day and brands have to find a way to make the shoes relevant without players doing these phenomenal things.”

However, athletes’ influence hasn’t evaporated entirely. Sneaker brands continue to rely on a new crop of endorsements each season. Under Armour, which jumped into the basketball market in 2010, recently signed LA Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan to a multiyear partnership, where he’ll join the ranks of other Under Armour up-and- coming stars like Brandon Jennings, Greivis Vasquez, Derrick Williams and Kemba Walker. “To a lot of consumers, athletic endorsements are still important,” declares Katz, whose Ektio line relies on former stars like the NY Knicks’ John Starks and Hall of Famer Rick Barry for endorsements. “It adds a certain degree of validity to a product.”

No matter the approach—whether it’s breakthrough designs and signing the next heir-apparent to Jordan or reissuing classic styles from back in the day—brands are expecting to prosper from the category’s resurgence this year. “It’s going to be a growing part of our business,” Fila’s Epstein predicts, noting that basketball shoes will account for almost 20 percent of its total business.

To that end, Finish Line already reported a 35 percent increase in third quarter sales, buoyed by consumer demand for basketball gear. In addition, many sneaker boutiques are projecting an upswing, too. Coit notes that although Nike’s Air Jordans are always a hit in the store, he’s seen an uptick in sales for several other sneaker brands, such as Adidas and Reebok, as well. “Basketball shoes have been doing great so far,” APL’s Goldston agrees, “and that will continue to be the trend.”

The April/May 2024 Issue

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