They’re everywhere—not just in gyms or on jogging trails. They’re sleek, snazzy and some might even say downright sexy. They come in a rainbow of neon colors, with pink being the most popular of late. They are lightweight, minimal shoes born to run in, although many are used for strutting as much as for huffing and puffing. Leading the way is Nike Free with its distinct chalk-white outsoles. Other chic and techy minimalist running styles making the scene come from Adidas, Saucony, New Balance, Brooks and Skechers, to name a few.
Why have minimal running shoes in a kaleidoscope of shocking brights become as fit for the runway as the treadmill? I’ve been covering the footwear industry for nearly 20 years and I’ve seen many a trend come and go. But the fact that the latest must-have women’s shoe is not a pump, a flat, a platform, a wedge, a boot or a sandal intrigues me. It harks back to Reebok’s Freestyle craze of the ’80s, which coincided with the aerobics boom when headbands, leg warmers and body suits were all the rage.
Is there an epidemic of women catching Olympics fever? Perhaps. NBC sure has promoted the London games heavily in the hopes that people will tune in to events like the 5,000-meter run. But an Olympics-generated style boost won’t really kick in until the games begin. So my Summer Olympics theory, while possibly a contributing factor, is not the main driver.
Is the increasing popularity of marathons, triathlons and charity runs and walks fueling the running shoe fashion surge? More women are lacing up their runners to do good for their mind, body and soul. I’ll buy that as another contributing factor to sales growth, but it’s not enough to make running shoes a hot fashion accessory for people who aren’t exercising.
How about the recession as a contributor? People accuse it of influencing pretty much everything, so why not? Try this theory on for size: When the world fell into the financial abyss a few years back we ushered in dark, austere fashions. (Remember recession chic?) The pendulum was bound to swing back to brighter and lighter eventually. Let’s face it, consumers have enough economic baggage weighing them down without having to pile on heavy fashions. Moreover, wearing the economic downturn on one’s sleeve just isn’t all that fun.
And if you think about clothing beyond basic needs, having fun is pretty much the whole point: It should make you feel good both physically and emotionally. The world might be going to hell in a hand basket, but that doesn’t mean people want to dress the part. Maybe that’s why colored denim is so popular this spring. All those bright jeans scream, “I’m happy!” Or at least they put a happy vibe out there, which beats the alternative.
One final theory ties the running shoe’s current popularity to technology. The thinking goes like this: What’s really fashionable these days is smart phones, iPads and iPods, Kindles, Garmins, flat screens and the need to be charged. Running shoes are just keeping stride with a macro design aesthetic that says lighter, quicker, smarter and sleeker (i.e. more efficient) are today’s key consumer touchstones. The only difference is that the shoes are human-powered. But maybe that’s only a matter of time, too.