Defining Classic: The Next Class of Classic Footwear

For nearly a decade footwear brands have been in a cycle of classics, touting ‘classic,’ ‘heritage’ and ‘traditional’ styles to satisfy demand for multi-purpose footwear. This footwear would endure a recession, the further casualization of the workplace, a number of fitness fads (barefoot or rocker heels, anyone?) and an uninspiring period that quite frankly, saw no single fashion trend emerge as a hero.

Instead, shoppers have been justifiably sold on the idea that their ‘traditional’ Allen Edmonds brogues can be re-soled, worn to work and dressed down with jeans on weekends. Their ‘heritage’ Timberland boots can be worn into the office on a wintery day and out to Happy Hour. Their ‘classic’ leather ankle booties—offered by virtually every women’s brand—will look chic with jeans and leggings.

Since the start of this cycle, oxfords, tennis shoes, flats and loafers have secured a place in brands’ collections, refreshed each season in new colors or by swapping out a wedge heel for a block heel. Likewise, Fall ’17 sees the return of autumnal classics, including Mary Janes, oxfords and a traditional fall color palette consisting of olive, navy and merlot. And once again ‘classic,’ ‘heritage’ and ‘traditional’ are buzzwords used interchangeably to describe these trends.

As a team of writers and editors, we’re left to wonder, from white tennis shoes to cordovan penny loafers, how does the industry define classic footwear nowadays?

“When I think of a classic shoe, I think of iconic silhouettes—a white Keds sneaker, a black pointed toe pump. Manolo Blahnik specifically comes to mind. A Bass penny loafer,” said Britt Aboutaleb, Racked editor in chief. “While they might have a moment in the spotlight every few years, they always feel right.”

Out of longevity comes memories. At its core, Hallie Spradlin, accessories editor for trend forecasting firm Fashion Snoops, says the definition of classic footwear is connected to sentimental memories and traditions.

“Classics are staple items that have some sort of sentimental attachment to them, whether it be comfort or meaning. [Classic] is an item that fails to lose its charm and becomes a go-to for any occasion,” she said.

A classic shoe is often defined by the brand and silhouette—two features that are equally important in the athletic footwear category. As the popularity of athleisure apparel grew, many consumers grew to equate athletic brands as classics because sneakers have become staple items.

“Classic shoes are inherently simple in shape and design, and for me, always have a worn-in feel but are reliable and versatile,” said Spradlin. “I consider items like slip-on sneakers and tennis shoes to be classics because of their flexible fabrications and design.”

According to NPD Group Analyst Matt Powell, the overall retro sneaker category grew at a 29 percent pace through October 2016, with classic runners and tennis shoes going for the win. The retro category proved to be a boon during recent back-to-school seasons and provided a boost to 2016 holiday athletic footwear sales.

In his blog, Sneakernomics, Powell predicts that retro will remain important in 2017 as every brand with an archive is exploring ways to benefit from the “retro trend.” The brands that will succeed the greatest will be those that rework their classics. Powell wrote that “brands cannot simply resurrect shoes from the archives; today’s consumers demand that the products they wear be modern.”

Sneaker brands are taking note. Last year Converse introduced the Chuck Taylor All-Star II, a design with all of the DNA of the original, plus Nike Lunarlon sockliners for cushioning and arch support, perforated micro suede liner for breathability and a foam padded collar and non-slip gusseted tongue. These small but impactful upgrades were the first since the Chuck Taylor debuted in 1917. Likewise, Adidas introduced its Boost shock-absorbing technology into one of its biggest collaborations, the Yeezy brand.

To understand why classic footwear remains popular, examine the social and political climate. Consumers yearn for heritage and comfort, and Spradlin says brands like Adidas, Vans and Red Wing are delivering pangs of nostalgia for consumers seeking something recognizable.

A few key signatures denote Red Wing Shoes—Goodyear welted construction, puritan stitching and the brand’s own Minnesota-made S.B. Foot Tanning Co. leather. “Keeping true to those details and our traditions keeps our Heritage line classic,” said Gaal Levine, Red Wing Heritage women’s product designer. “Our commitment to quality and staying true to our traditions is what has kept Red Wing Shoes classic. Our boots have been sought out… because of our quality and craftsmanship.”

Levine predicts consumers will continue to streamline their wardrobes by relying on timeless footwear. “Investing in an item that will last you for years, and actually get better with age resonates with anyone who cares about quality and the integrity of how these products are made,” she said.

Spradlin agrees that ‘classic’ trends will always have a place in men’s and women’s fashion. However, she believes the definition will change depending on the direction brands take and on the subcultures and influencers who wear them.

In the immediate future, Spradlin says to expect to see comfortable silhouettes like mules and slides dominating the classics category. “They can vary in shape and design, from fur-lined Fendi loafers to a boudoir-inspired slipper style, and I think that versatility is appealing,” she said.

Aboutaleb predicts that strappy sandals, specifically those with a single strap around the ankle and toe (à la Stuart Weitzman’s ‘Nudist’ stiletto) will gain access to the elite term. The style may not be a symbol of comfort, but Aboutaleb isn’t concerned. “Classics never feel wrong, that’s why they’re classic.”

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