Suddenly they are everywhere–on catwalks, in high-fashion stores, and on the street in hip neighborhoods. Hiking shoes and everything else that has been worn in the mountains, deep gorges, deserts and forests, are now conquering the cities and in-store inventories. Why? We are following the trend...
The love for durable and comfortable outdoor products cannot be overlooked. Hiking shoes with rough-and-ready soles, metallic lace eyelets and colorful shoelaces have not only made it all the way to major urban centers, they’ve even cleared another hurdle–going from specialty stores to high-fashion product ranges. The Italian shoe label Diemme, for example, offers functional shoes for outdoor activities such as hiking, hunting and backpacking. As the company says, “Our ambition is to produce the highest quality artisan goods with an exceptional level of comfort, with progressive designs as well as sharply executed takes on classic styles.”
Today, the Italians’ most robust models are being sold at international (online) stores such as Luisaviaroma, Smets, Lost & Found (Canada), Nitty Gritty and Harvey Nichols. Or take Danner: Founded in 1932, the company designs and manufactures a complete line of hiking, hunting, uniform, work and lifestyle boots in its factory in Portland, Oregon–building on the same traditions and quality standards instilled by Charles Danner and his family generations ago. Not a word is said about trends, influences or other such phenomena, and yet even died-in-the-wool shoe professionals like M. Coleman Horn seek out Danner footwear (see interview).
Where does this love of original high-performance shoes come from? Is it the city dwellers’ longing for untouched, rough, increasingly threatened and repressed nature? The call of the wilderness and adventure? Or are some of us–after at least four decades of sneakers–simply tired of sneakers and looking for alternatives for everyday wear, which we want after all these years of casual goods without comfort and functionality? We asked those who ought to know–the suppliers of genuine outdoor footwear.
Roa, an Italian hiking shoe specialist, explains the phenomenon this way: “Probably because outdoor shoes until now was an unexplored field in fashion, as the functionality has always eclipsed the aesthetic value of the shoe,” says Davide Veronesi, Roa sales manager at Slam Jam. In other words, it was simply time for something new. According to the Danish outdoor label Ecco the answer is: “Interpreting signals from international catwalks is a notoriously tricky business. I think we’d see the phenomenon as having two roots: The first is co-optation–the fashion world appropriating inspirations from areas outside conventional fashion norms. When inspirations are appropriated from outdoor, like hiking boots, it probably indicates a desire to link fashion more forcefully to the world outside for a generation who are starting to value the accumulation of experiences rather than the accumulations of possessions. The second is the increasing influence of hybridization within design. Hybridization of electric and gas engines, hybrids of smart phones and wrist watches, hybrids of athletic and leisure, and so on. Creating a hybrid concept expands functionality by increasing versatility.”
The new combination of performance and urban seems to work, because just like sneakers these waterproof, no-nonsense shoes are functional and comfortable, making them very highly suitable for everyday use–for young, fashion-conscious urban consumers, who often cycles as a lifestyle (or for even more profound reasons) instead of sitting in a traffic jam with a disposable cup of coffee in their hand. At Ecco they are certain: “The combination of fashion and function is the future and urban explorers are getting more important for outdoor brands. Furthermore, we are experiencing many outdoor influencers in the high street and fashion sector and see them on the catwalks and streets around the globe. This macro trend represents a whole universe, a complete lifestyle.”
We are really grateful to the contemporary market
Are hiking shoes and the like thus not a sudden phenomenon that vanishes just as quickly as it showed up? Do these functional as well as comfortable features have the potential to remain in fashion as a required basic? “It is not easy to predict. Clearly, being a fashion trend has an intrinsic cyclic value. What we hope will happen is that the consumer–who comes to buy/wear these products–can recognize a benefit and make them become part of their own daily life, even if the trend should run out of in the future,” says Veronesi of Roa. But for Ecco it’s clear: Urban outdoor has become a stable category in fashion that is here to stay.
But who is this new customer? “We would describe him as an enthusiast for details with a strong sense of self-distinction,” says Veronesi. Ecco sees above all a younger target audience following the urban outdoor trend. And how can they be reached? “The use of new media such as Facebook and Instagram allows us to get into direct contact with the desired target group, where we want to place our products and to be top of mind,” according to Ecco.
Facebook und free-climbing–outdoor shoe sellers now have to make the link between the established outdoor community and new target groups. How can they manage that? What does it mean when suddenly not only ambitious backpackers and soldiers in Afghanistan wear their shoes, but also ambitious influencers? Isn’t that bad for core business? Not at all, say the labels, although they have developed different strategies for dealing with the hype: Companies like Diemme and Danner refuse to get excited and continue to count on their tradition, supported by the latest technical features.
Ecco, on the other hand, is starting at the design level and trying to combine “old” and “new” worlds, for example in the case of the Danes by creating a symbiosis of hiking and street style: “The Ecco Exostrike collection definitely meets these expectations. Blending the full functionality and high-tech performance of a hiking boot with a contemporary street-style aesthetic, the Ecco Exostrike illustrates our fresh, modern approach to the urban outdoor segment. The design team is passionate about shoes and that includes a deep interest in what happens in all parts of the market, including fashion and lifestyle sectors.” However, it remains important “that our design teams also work naturally within the Ecco brand ethos which is distinguished by firmly rooted principles of Danish design (inspired by nature, with modern versatile utility and truth to materials). But certainly, trends inspire and refresh the team and we are always seeking to produce products that resonate with contemporary consumers.”
Obviously, shoe labels such as Diemme, Danner, Ecco and Roa are no Guccis. They don’t want to be, either, even if some outdoor shoe models are hunted down with as much euphoria online as models by Supreme, Off-White or Balanciaga. However, outdoor shoe labels do not produce haute couture fashion. Instead, the make highly complex high-tech models which have to perform in both subfreezing temperatures and in desert conditions. This means that these companies simply carry on with their business as they always have–trend or no trend. They refine and develop, conceive and design models which work. The advantage: They don’t need to busy their heads with what will come after Supreme. “We have never split the fashion and performance categories in our products, so we will continue to make shoes with high technical reliability, wearable in different contexts of everyday and urban life,” says Roa’s Veronesi. “We are really grateful to the contemporary market, where even the most considerable maisons try to insert a ‘hiking’ look to their shoes we are not influenced by stylistically but confirms that we are in the right place–at the right time.”
However, suppliers such as Roa do not shy away from glamour completely. Quite the contrary: “It was our goal from the first day, hence the partnership with Slam Jam, to be able to interact with people high specialized in footwear and at the same time to collaborate with the most important companies in the fashion market,” according to Veronesi. That is why Roa deliberately chose to join forces with the Slam Jam agency as an ally in the boot sector that is a big player in high fashion, something that is an enormous advantage for the shoe supplier.
These examples show: The better the shoe, the better the business. And just because or precisely because of this, this segment functions so well ̶ because there are labels like Diemme, who simply don’t allow themselves to be led astray, who do their thing, develop their shoes for their target groups, regardless of any fashion upswings. Especially in the outdoor segment, tradition and roots seem to play an enormously important role: “For us it is essential to maintain a spirit of traditional design, celebrating an aesthetic that has accompanied romantic and heroic undertakings. We do not feel it’s necessary to use design references to tell our story,” says Veronesi. And so these shoe brands remain firmly rooted in “their” market, but from there they have enough stamina and know-how to vigorously step out into other segments.