The concept of athletic footwear making the leap to lifestyle is nothing new. Long before Kanye West and Rihanna decided to collaborate with adidas and Puma, respectively, athletic shoe brands often aimed for “looks good with jeans” appeal.
But although we’ve long referred to casual footwear as “tennis shoes,” nowadays that actually means retro running shoes. And running brands are mining their back catalogs like never before, rereleasing classic models rebuilt with contemporary materials (like a Flyknit upper into the Air Max 1) and creative colorways (like Onitsuka Tiger’s Brazil-Japan artist collaboration on the California 78), and are meant to be worn dressed up or dressed down (like New Balance’s classic 696).
“Part of it is a cultural shift where nostalgia and authenticity have become valuable to the Millennial customer—and it also allows footwear brands to have an extension of their storytelling,” says Shane Downey, Brooks Running’s global director of Heritage.
Downey adds that the look and form of classic running shoes conveniently dovetails with current trends in fashion.
“When you think about a ’70s or ’80s running shoe, really streamlined and clean, it looks great with joggers or track pants or a really tailored pair of jeans,” Downey says. “Ten years ago, jeans were much wider, so the running shoe was overpowered by the jeans. It’s the flip side now. Pants are skinny, and the prominence of athleisure wear and sweatpants has definitely lent itself to this style of footwear.”
Claire Wood, senior product manager for performance running at New Balance, says mixing casual aesthetics and performance features takes cues from both sides. Last year, New Balance released a lifestyle version of its Fresh Foam Zante performance running shoe with an upper that looked and felt like an old-school sweatshirt. It sold out within a few weeks with very little marketing hype behind it.
And the trend should only get bigger and more ubiquitous. Fashion designers are increasingly featuring their own high-priced sneakers with retro running-shoe silhouettes on runways.
But even when fashion trends inevitably move on, don’t expect classic running shoes to go away. Brooks and other brands are increasingly rereleasing shoes from the ’90s, and, as apparel style changes, other decades of shoe design will surely be a hit with consumers.
As is often said, vintage never gets old.