Over the past couple of winters, above-normal temperatures and less snowfall than usual made selling cold-weather footwear challenging, to say the least. But so far this year, Mother Nature has blasted much of the country with snow and frigid temperatures, driving demand for winter boots. If the cold weather continues, retailers should be prepared to replenish their inventories for Fall ’14. However, rather than depend on whether the weather will act accordingly, manufacturers are resorting to innovative options that are not as dependent on extreme conditions.
In the core categories of light hiking, trail running, winter and casual lifestyle, vendors expect performance versatility, lightweight comfort and sophisticated styling to ignite consumer desire. “Given some of the past mild winters, the quest for ‘versatile warmth’ is at its highest,” says Marion Minary, Sorel’s footwear product line manager. “Brands are constantly looking for materials and technologies that will bring warmth yet stay versatile and wearable enough in milder temperatures.” “Retailer needs and consumer shopping habits are changing,” notes Ed van Wezel, CEO of Hi-Tec. “[Both] are looking for more products with year-round wearability.” Hi-Tec began addressing this shift 18 months ago and focused its Fall ’14 line on having maximum seasonal appeal. “We want to give retailers versatile, multi-month products that meet consumers’ needs for an active lifestyle in a wide range of weather conditions,” he says
In another effort to help broaden the appeal of outdoor footwear—particularly beyond its traditional base of older consumers—brands are zeroing in on a younger audience, most notably the Millennials. At roughly 77 million- strong (larger than the Baby Boomer generation and three times the size of Generation X), Millennials present enormous sales opportunities. “Our primary focus is on the next generation of outdoor sports athletes,” confirms Greg Thomsen, managing director of Adidas Outdoor USA. “This new outdoor customer is driving the interest, excitement and new popularity the outdoor market is beginning to experience.” As such, Adidas’ direction is younger and fresher—think sneaker-like, sleeker silhouettes, hybrid end-uses and traditional athletic color pops. “Our marketing efforts are focused on bringing more diversity and gender balance to the market and working with our retail partners to address the unique needs of this new generation of outdoor athletes,” Thomsen adds.
“The 18- to 20-year-old set is getting more excited about outdoor activities, but these endeavors are not necessarily what their parents do,” observes Charles Cole, founder and president of Five Ten. Rather than a walk in the woods, this demographic is more likely to enter a Muddy Buddy race or go rock climbing. Their outdoor pursuits are broader and more daring, and their footwear needs are more demanding. It presents opportunity to introduce new takes on the definition of outdoor footwear. “The youth market has the least resistance to trying new products and innovations,” Cole adds.
Along those lines, Cushe, a division of Wolverine Worldwide, is seeing increased interest in youthful sneaker/boot hybrids, according to Ken Taylor, global marketing manager. “We want to make tech cool,” he notes. “With the sneaker/boot trend, we’re seeing that style needs function. Consumers [want] cooler-looking winter product that merges classic boot and skate looks with waterproof and warmth features.” Taylor adds, “It’s about lightweight lifestyle, easy-wear function and style versatility.”
Sorel’s latest collection was inspired by the Millennial consumer. Following an extensive tour of college campuses, Minary says its designers were inspired to create the Campus Collection. Pulling design cues from chunky sweater patterns, knits and colorful felts, the collection offers performance and fashion versatility suitable for going to class, grabbing coffee, shopping and beyond. Minary notes that designers took cues from the fashion world, using toned-down, sophisticated color palettes and a mix of materials to add visual and tactile interest. Gone are the clashing, sometimes garish hues of seasons past, replaced by earthier, richer tones such as burnt orange and ginger, navy blue and deep burgundy. “The lines that define the outdoor market’s perimeter are getting further blurred and converging in the consumer’s need for casual products that look as good as they perform,” she says. “Consumers should not have to compromise one for the other.”
Waterproof technologies combined with slimmer, athletic designs are helping to drive the segment. Companies are also paying closer attention to versatility and fit. For instance, Hi-Tec’s Cool Season collection is designed for year-round use. Key models, such as the men’s Valkerie Lite 200 i WP, boast proprietary i-shield hydrophobic technology. According to Simon Bonham, CEO of Hi-Tec USA, i-shield gives footwear water repellency and is stain- and oil-resistant. “The solvent-soluble, low-viscosity liquid provides an invisible guard for all open types of leather and most types of fabric and mesh, and when combined with Hi-Tec’s Dri-Tec technology (a waterproof/breathable bootie membrane), footwear becomes completely waterproof and protected,” he explains.
Adidas Outdoor will introduce new energy return foams for hiking boots, and lighter weight materials and construction techniques that allow for faster, lighter adventures. Such advances are also trickling down to more casual styles that can go from trail to street while still being waterproof, breathable and stylish. In terms of color, “The days of all-brown leather hiking boots are over as new technical styles embrace pops of color to accent technical materials and performance components,” Thomsen says. The Terrex Swift R GTX Mid Cut boot is a particular standout, and its low-to-the-ground silhouette accommodates fast and light hiking. Thomsen adds, “Lightweight and rugged is the direction for materials: new soft shell materials for cold weather, new rubber compounds for better grip and new foams for both energy absorption and energy return.”
For the most part, extreme minimalism has run its course, and now trail running footwear brands are responding to consumer demand for cushier rides and more protection, albeit in a lightweight construction. Toward this end, manufacturers are employing 3-D printing, sonic welding and molded components on uppers to reduce or eliminate stitching, increase flexibility and improve stability.
Tony Post, founder and CEO of Topo Athletic, believes that it all boils down to shape, platform and weight. For Topo, this translates to a roomy toebox, a more neutral platform (0-mm to 4-mm drop) and low-profile mid-stack height and lightweight constructions and materials. “There’s a trend toward thicker platforms and more cushioning, but sometimes this can prove to be more of an insulating experience,” Post offers. “The market often over-reacts. People need a range of products; some days they need to be fast and agile, and other days they need more protection.” Post adds that it’s good for retailers that consumers need more than one product. “Ultimately, people will find the middle ground between minimalism and super-thick shoes,” he says. Similarly, Topo came onto the scene last July with split-toe shoes, but Post doesn’t want the brand to get pigeonholed. The company’s new Speed Trainer (ST) and Mountain Trainer (MT) models both feature a conventional toebox. In addition, three of the eight models include BOA closure systems for a customized fit.
Chris Dunn, Salomon’s product category manager for footwear, suggests that although the minimalist trend is behind us, it has left its mark on upper constructions. “Brands have been looking for a sock-like fit, playing with fabric variations and seamless uppers that offer enough protection with welded or printed overlays,” he says, adding that outsoles are increasingly moving toward the versatility of a hybrid. “We still see trail-inspired lug patterns, but the lug depths are becoming road-friendly.” The Salomon S-Lab Fellcross 3 illustrates both of these trends with its welded upper, EndoFit internal sleeve technology and low-profile outsole.
For New Balance, the emphasis is on developing flexible, less-bulky options, as well. It includes the launch of the T980v1 trail Fresh Foam model that utilizes 3-D printing technology to add stability. A new outdoor collection called Multi-Run, which includes mid-cut, entry-level low-cut and Gore-Tex models, is designed for outdoor adventurers who enjoy both hiking and running during a single excursion. “Merging the two worlds of traditional performance shoes with the barefoot running category, we see lightweight, flexible performance shoes combined with more underfoot cushioning to allow for an overall faster look and feel,” says Brendan Murray, senior product manager for Running/Outdoor.
The latest winter performance boots are designed to handle a wide range of temperatures and conditions. The offerings are lighter, sleeker and more stylish than their traditional pack boot brethren, making it easier for consumers to wear the items for more months out of the year.
Enter Columbia’s expanded Minx collection for women that now includes lower heights. The line also features mixed textiles, quilting details and visually interesting patterns and prints. “Shorter styles are especially popular for fall Lewis,” reports Todd Lewis, global product director. “The boots are winter-capable, but aren’t limited to winter-only.” For example, rain boots feature the brand’s Omni-Heat reflective technology to extend the style later into the season. For men, Lewis says the trend is products that can go from street to trail and, along those lines, the incorporation of OutDry waterproof/breathable technology improves performance and eliminates bulk. Enter Icebug’s new urban, upscale aesthetic collections: Outdoor City that takes traction to a higher fashion level and Stockholm that is designed for commuting, city walking and après ski. Also, the brand’s popular Ivalo boot will be offered in men’s sizing for the first time. “We are seeing more textures being used, such as the layering of different materials to create new looks,” says Evan Wert, general manager. “Also, we are seeing more embossing and more color—wine, apple, off-white and tans—in the winter boot channel. But black still continues to be the most popular color for the season.”
The fact that the weather hasn’t acted according in recent seasons makes this a difficult category. “We’re seeing assortments shrink as buyers take a more conservative position with their winter-specific styles,” says Salomon’s Dunn. “They are looking for products with a longer selling season; something comfortable and warm enough to pair with jeans and can be worn from the beginning of October through the end of March.” For example, Salomon’s Hime High lace-up boot for women provides a waterproof upper trimmed with faux fur, a natural motion midsole and a Contagrip ice grip rubber compound outsole.
This is represents the fastest-growing segments in the outdoor footwear realm. Its buzzwords are versatility, craftsmanship, authentic heritage, functionality and youthfulness. The application of mixed materials, metal hardware and handcrafted details harmonize with a toned-down color palette. Silhouettes run the gamut from waterproof insulated boots to action sports-inspired sneaker-boots, retro hikers, furry pull-ons, classic leather lace-ups and packable après sport styles.
Of the latter, Pakems makes its debut with a collection of lightweight, packable footwear. The shoes, made of ripstop nylon, come in high-top and low-top versions, and are insulated and water-resistant. “We are a solution shoe, so our attention is more on getting people out of their specialty outdoor footwear and into something comfortable,” says Pakems Founder Julie Adams. “We invented the shoe to be comfortable during après ski, but our customers are finding all kinds of uses, such as traveling, après hiking, getting out of cycling cleats and commuting.” Pakems plans to introduce a kids’ collection next fall.
Another relative newcomer is Zdar, a maker of Bavarian wool boots (a contemporary reinterpretation of a Russian classic). Features include uppers made of handmade 8-mm lambs wool felt, Poron shock-absorbing footbeds lined with leather and outsoles comprised of hemp and sticky rubber. “We use texture as a palette in knitted uppers, faux fur, shearling lamb and select real fur that’s sustainably sourced,” notes Markus Mueller, Zdar’s U.S. sales director.
Timberland’s take on its classic wheat boot includes a fold-down style with a cozy fleece lining. “The yellow boot is trending younger (18 to 24) and suburban,” says Jennifer DiBello, senior merchandising manager. “Even though that boot is 40 years old, 20 year olds are just discovering it.” In women’s, Timberland is staying true to being “a crafted, heritage brand with a beautiful, rugged aesthetic.” DiBello adds, “Hiking boots are a declining business and our consumers are looking for more refined styles that showcase lower heels, rich saturated leathers, clean lines and hardware such as buckles and zippers.” Chelsea, biker and prairie silhouettes are becoming especially popular, she adds. As for men, the focus is on “refined rugged” looks that pair clean uppers with rugged outsoles, or vice-versa. Look for mixed leathers and overlays, rolled prints, whipstitch crafted details and the use of wool in trims and linings.
Cushe is aiming for similar crossover design appeal, offering outdoorsy takes on action sports and casual athletic styles. “The outdoor footwear market is evolving and growing in the area of lifestyle,” Taylor says. “While there will always be the need for classic, activity-driven footwear such as hiking and running, there’s also a desire in this market for style-driven product that holds up and, most importantly, keeps your feet warm and dry.”