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A Shopping Guide to Wicker Park, Chicago

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A Shopping Guide to Wicker Park, Chicago

Young. Vibrant. Aspirational. As Williamsburg is to New York, Wicker Park is to Chicago.

Last weekend, I visited the Midwest’s best pantomime of a hipster paradise for a day full of eating, shopping, and touring. This was my second visit to the neighborhood, and therefore provided a great chance to avoid tourist traps in favor of seeking out the local character. After a long day of drinking in all Wicker Park had to offer, I decided to type up this guide to help you plan your own visit to one of Chicago's most eclectic neighborhoods. I even made a custom Google My Map (link) so you can follow along.

My custom Google My Map shopping guide ( link )

My custom Google My Map shopping guide (link)

Cool, right? Without further ado, here are the stores and sites that made the cut:

 

 

RSVP Gallery (1753 N Damen Ave)

If you interpret the word “Hypebeast” as “news source” instead of “insult,” you’ve probably heard of RSVP Gallery. The Wicker Park boutique is one of Chicago’s highest-end menswear outlets, a curated collection of everything luxury streetwear under the helm of street culture legends Virgil Abloh and Don C (of “Just Don”).

It is also, sadly, a strict “no photos” zone. Considering the art on display (vintage neon signs, displaying everything from Pepsi to Chanel) and the art on the racks (Cav Empt to Rick Owens; Undercover to Givenchy), this museum-style approach to photography coverage is understandable. Somethings are just best experienced in person. Start your tour of Wicker Park here to drink in the freshest boutique in the area code.   

    

Fjallraven (1708 N Damen Ave)

If latitude is any measure, Chicago and Stockholm are worlds apart.

Good thing “thermometers” came around.  

In one of America’s most notoriously-frigid cities, this outpost of the legendary Swedish outdoors brand Fjallraven seems both welcomed and expected. A quick stroll through Wicker Park reveals many Fjallraven products in action – the Kanken backpack and Greenand jacket, both heritage functional gear in their own right, are at home within the urban rustic aesthetic favored by the “single-origin coffee” set.

Perhaps Fjallraven’s gorgeous Wicker Park store (kitted out to look like a Swedish hunting cabin, antler chandelier and all) was just an inevitable step towards a Sweden/Chicago synthesis. After all, if you go back far enough, most of the Midwest was settled by Northern Europeans – now, it’s just their clothing’s turn to colonize. Special thanks to Lucas for walking me through the Spring line, including the innovative Eco-Shell rain jackets.

 

Marine Layer (1636 N Damen Ave)

Need to escape the Swedish tundra? Salt spray and palm trees are only a block away.

While other stores in the neighborhood seek to keep you warm and dry, Marine Layer (a California-based apparel brand) has staked a claim on maximizing fabric comfort. The supersoft cotton blend found in their t-shirts is as welcome as San Diego sun, and, as the name suggests, styled to layer. For a Northern audience, that means bulky utility parka on the outside, buttery cotton tees and sweats where fabric meets skin. It’s the best of both worlds without compromising either.

Oh, and lest I forget - speaking of “no compromises,” Marine Layer is the first store I’ve ever seen to offer a “Marge” in men’s shirting. No, that’s not Mrs. Simpson. As the portmanteau suggests, a shirt sized “Marge” is the perfect middle ground between sizes Medium and Large: skinny body, long arms, and shoulders sized for the person who has both.

I tried on a Marge long sleeve (above) and it is, without a doubt, the best-fitting shirt I’ve ever worn. Tall skinny dudes of the world, rejoice.  

 

Arc’teryx Chicago (1630 N Damen Ave)

Just a few doors down from Marine Layer, functionalized form awaits.

As track shoes are to loafers, Arc’teryx is to its “heritage” outdoors brand neighbors. In short: the Vancouver-based outdoors innovator is responsible for the modern outdoors performance industry. From the technology behind the jackets (GORE-TEX Pro; taped zips) to the look of the gear itself (just compare a Patagonia jacket before and after Arc’s 1990’s apparel debut), the “Dead Bird” reigns supreme.

Most impressive of all: it’s no slouch for style.Given Wicker Park’s *ahem* sub-Alpine elevation, the Arc’teryx Chicago store carries a full selection of the brand’s lifestyle line “24” as well as the elevated techwear line “Arc’teryx Veilance.” Both are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and worth a visit to ogle alone. Where else will you find laser-cut seams and 3L GORE-TEX fabrics on a street-ready fishtail parka?

While neither line comes cheap, the brand’s devotion to materials research and construction quality means your purchase is both 1) lightyears ahead of the industry and 2) built to last that long, too. If you have the coin, please cop a Veilance jacket so I may live vicariously. A special thanks to Bryce for showing me some of the fabrics and technologies behind the new spring Veilance line.

 

The Wormhole Coffee (1462 N Milwaukee Ave)

If you yawned once today, you now have an excuse to visit Wicker Park’s most eclectic coffee shop. Walk down Damen to the six-point intersection, then hook a right down Milwaukee and walk until you see the black storefront with a gleaming white “WH” out front.

Then, enter the Wormhole.

The Wormhole Coffee is nostalgia distilled, then served up hot. In short: the saccharine memories stirred up by 80’s homages like “Stranger Things” are one-upped by a coffee break in Wormhole. Collectibles peak out of every shelf. Vintage movie posters line the walls.

There’s a DeLorean in the back.

Oh yeah – and the coffee’s phenomenal, too.

Grab a drink, settle in for a quick game of Duck Hunt on the NES by the couches, and let the childhood memories wash over you. My recommendation: try the Koopa Troopa latte, a mousse-and-peanut-butter concoction made with Halfwit Roasters espresso. It’s just adult enough to keep you grounded while your inner child comes out to play.  

 

Mildblend (1342 N Milwaukee Ave)

DSC_1340.jpg

Take that last sip at Wormhole, rejoin Milwaukee, and walk a few short blocks away from the six-point intersection to find Mildblend, the most whimsical high-end boutique you’ll ever visit.

Like a Parisian antique bookstore, Mildblend is more product than place. Everywhere you turn, there’s another stack or rack – a gratuitous visual clutter that is as charming as it is overwhelming. Lean in to any part of the maelstrom, however, and the world will snap into focus: just like that antique bookstore, what was once visual noise turns out to be made of treasures.

DSC_1333.jpg

Mildblend (specializing in raw denim) carries dozens of hard-to-find brands including Studio D’Artisan, Momotaro, and DENIM by VANQUISH & FRAGMENT. They are also one of the few US accounts of the Japanese outerwear brand Monitaly, who make some of the most artful (if slightly impractical) jackets on the market.

As long as you embrace the pure quantity of goods on display, Mildblend is sure to please.

 

Kokorokoko (1323 N Milwaukee Ave)

As day follows night, all cool neighborhoods must naturally have vintage shops. However, that doesn’t mean all that organic growth is up to snuff. For the blue ribbon in recycled clothing, walk just a few doors past Mildblend and cross Milwaukee to find Kokorokoko. Whereas Wormhole presents a curated vision of 80’s nostalgia, Kokorokoko lets you drink from the firehose.

The layout is simple: collectibles up front, clothing in the back, neon everywhere. A massive t-shirt rack is organized by color; shoes and accessories are arranged in era-evocative dioramas. Pop hits blare over tinny speakers. Yes, there are fanny packs.

I spent the longest here out of any shop I visited, both searching for purchases (I left with an oversized Weird Al concert tour tee) and merely enjoying the hunt. The prices are reasonable; the selection, out of this world. If you’re in Wicker Park, you must visit.

 

Saint Alfred (1531 N Milwaukee Ave)

Last but not least: from Kokorokoko, head back up Milwaukee toward the six-point intersection and look for the unassuming white-on-black “A.” Just below it lies an unassuming white-on-black store front.

Just inside that lies Wicker Park’s premier sneaker store.

Saint Alfred (founded 2005) is a world-famous streetwear boutique that has gained notoriety for its killer collabs, notably with New Balance and Asics. On one half of the store, Saint Alfred stocks one of the largest sneaker selections in the city, with everything from Converse to Raf Simons x Adidas elbowing for shelf space. On the opposite wall, a selection of premium streetwear (HUF to Visvim and everything in between) rounds out the space.

Of course, in this era of hype cycles and sneaker campouts, I’d be remiss not to mention that Saint Alfred is also one of the few stores in the city to reliably score highly-vaunted releases like the Yeezy Boost. But, if you’ve been in the sneaker game long enough to remember a life before Yeezy, a visit to Saint Alfred is as much pilgrimage as it is quality shopping.

 

Stan’s Donuts (1560 N Damen Ave)

After a long day on your feet, it’s time for a just desserts. Directly between Saint Alfred and the Damen CTA station lies Stan’s Donuts, a specialty pastry shop that’s become world-famous for both its mouthwatering food styling (toppings on toppings) and its sheer volume of flavors on tap.

With the sun setting on a February night, I grabbed a cup of coffee and a divine Toffee Cake donut before catching my train back to The Loop. Just as I finished, two of Chicago’s finest walked and gleefully asked the cashier for “the usual.”

If that’s not a donut shop co-sign, then what is?

 

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Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this shopping guide to one of Chicago's most exciting neighborhoods. Anything else I should add? Did I miss your favorite store? Sound off in the comments below or on my Facebook here to start the conversation.

 

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A Visual Guide to Retro Running Shoes

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A Visual Guide to Retro Running Shoes

     Before 1977, shoe technology meant “make it lighter.” Everyone from elite marathoners to weekend joggers ran in the same fundamental recipe. Old-school running shoes were more checklist than innovation: a wedge-heeled (check), nylon, suede and mesh-lined (check) low-top sneaker with a grippy rubber outsole (check). Comparison shopping meant breaking out a gram scale. Then, Nike introduced the Air Tailwind.

    The Air Tailwind didn't just change sneakers; it shifted the entire footwear paradigm. Suddenly, cushioning technology was the name of the game. Gram scale? Only if you wanted a new knee.

Vintage Nike Tailwind ad (source:  arkamix.com )

Vintage Nike Tailwind ad (source: arkamix.com)

    Nike had opened the market for technical cushioned trainers, and by the mid-80’s, dozens of competing shoe makers had unveiled their own take on supportive runners. The exterior remained the same: nylon, suede and mesh (check), wedge heel (check), rubber sole (check), but the interior cushion made all the difference.

    Forty years later, these formerly-cutting edge shoes have taken on a new life. Shoes like the New Balance 996 are no longer Seinfeld-era uncool; thanks to the mid-2000’s rise of Internet #menswear culture, retro runners are more charming than outdated. Once fully removed from their functional context, the sleek trainers of yesteryear become athletic-inspired fashion statements (and comfortable ones, to boot). I’ve prepared the following visual guide to help you compare the dozens of styles available in hopes you find your new favorite shoe.  

    Here are my 20 favorite retro runners from 8 brands both old and new.


New Balance

NB 574 ($74.99 and up)

The 574 is New Balance's most popular shoe. This flagship model was introduced in 1988 as a way to repurpose leftover materials from the 576. The 574 has bonified running shoe credentials - elite marathoner Dirk Beardsley ran and trained in New Balances throughout the 1980's. Premium "Made in USA" versions of the 574 are also available. Check them out on New Balance's website here.

NB 996 ($159.99 and up) 

The NB 996 applies the same suede/mesh construction of the 574 to a chunkier silhouette. Make no mistake, the 996 is still an athletic shoe: it's just a larger, more supportive footprint. ABZORB foam cushioning lines the midsole, making the 996 a great casual shoe for anyone always on the go. New Balance 996's are also a common canvas for New Balance collaborators - famous examples include work with J. Crew, CNCPTS, and Beauty & Youth. The full Spring line is available now on NewBalance.com.

NB 990v3 ($154.99)

For those who seek comfort to no end, the NB 990 may be the objectively smoothest shoe New Balance has ever introduced. Its styling, however, is a little more subjective. As a child of the 1990's, I will forever associate the 990's bulbous, purpose-first aesthetic with “dad shoe.” But, that's not to say it doesn't deserve a place here: this early 80's technical runner has gained recent fashion cachet thanks to the work of youth culture-inspired designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy, who famously features the shoe in his runway shoes. Check them out on NB.com.

 

Saucony

Jazz ($60.00) 

photo:  saucony.com

The Saucony Jazz typifies retro runner style. Suede accents, a cushy midsole, and rugged rubber treads combine in a variety of sleek colorways to produce one of today's cleanest fashion shoes. Released in 1981, the Saucony Jazz was both capable runner and atheleisure lifestyle piece in one. Rod Dixon famously won the 1983 New York Marathon in a pair of bright white Sauconys, propelling the small Pennsylvania shoemaker to worldwide fame. At a mere $65 MSRP, the Saucony Jazz is also one of the best values in this market. Shop the Jazz on Saucony's webstore here.

Shadow 5000 ($80.00)

The Shadow 5000 is the 996 to the Jazz' 574. This chunkier distance runner retains much of its little brother's styling cues, including the distinctive "triangle lug" outsole. Shadow 5000's are available in a wide variety of multi-panel colorways, a direct homage to their lo-fi era origins. The Shadow 5000 has recently taken on a new life among sneakerheads thanks to high-profile collaborations with Bodega, END Clothing, and UBIQ, You can hunt Grailed for a pair of limited releases, or check out the full line on Saucony.com.

Grid 9000 ($85.00)

When Saucony launched the Grid 9000 in 1994, the idea of a comfortable "control" shoe was unheard of. You could have a stable run, or a pleasant run; and then came the Grid. In the mid 90's, the brand's flagship technical shoe was running royalty. While its tech advantage may have dissipated over the decades, the Grid 9000's premium materials (neoprene tongue, gum outsole, suede upper) are as relevant and stylish as ever. Check out the full line of 90's-inspired colorways on Saucony.com here.  

Brooks

Vanguard ($74.99) 

source:  brooks.com

source: brooks.com

Introduced in 1976, the Brooks Vanguard is perhaps the greatest execution of the pre-Tailwind formula. All the usual suspects are here: suede and mesh, foam midsole, and a sturdy rubber grip on the outside. The original deign's iconic "T-Toe" remains untouched. I gravitate to Brooks for the brand's running pedigree alone, but it's hard to deny their styling. Years before the Swoosh, a slick Brooks chevron was perhaps the best running logo on the market. Get your 70's homage on sale at Brooks.com.

 

Chariot ($80.00)

photo: brooks.com

photo: brooks.com

The Chariot is a Vanguard, evolved. This 1980’s runner, Brooks’ most famous shoe of the decade, took home everything from Reader's Choice awards to city marathon titles. It's no surprise, then, that this modern iteration is just as popular. The Brooks Chariot, alongside the New Balanced 574 and Nike Internationalist, defined an era of distance running shoes. Equally impressive: it looked good doing it. Suede, mesh, and nylon combine over a tri-layer molded foam midsole to merge comfort and fashion with slick retro style. Check out the full selection of Chariot colorways now at Brooks' webstore.

 

Adidas

EQT Series ($170.00 and up)

No discussion of old-school runners is complete without adidas EQT. In 1991, adidas made history by launching the first-ever comprehensive running shoe collection. Every shoe under the "adidas Equipment" label (abbreviated "EQT") was designed with a specific running style in mind. The EQT Support 93 was for supinators; EQT Guidance, for overpronators, and so on. The entire EQT series launched in distinctive white/green colorways that seemed built to accent their high-tech construction. The EQT division has long since rejoined adidas' main line, but the shoes that defined it are now available as limited-release retro styles. Check out a modern interpretation of the EQT 93/16 on the adidas website here.  

ZX 9000 (prices will vary)

photo: solecollector.com

photo: solecollector.com

The granddaddy of today's popular ZX Flux silhouette, the ZX 9000 was adidas' flagship runner from its 1989 to the introduction of the EQT line over two years later. The colors are loud; the shoes are comfortable; but unfortunately, retro releases are sparse. You'll really have to hunt eBay for a pair of these distinctive nylon and suede beauties.

 

Asics/Tiger

Gel-Lyte III ($110 and up)

photo:  hypebeast.com

The Asics Gel-Lyte III is my favorite sneaker on this list. At the time of its 1991 release, the GL III redefined cutting edge -  the shoe promised a triple-density gel sole, split tongue, flat-locking laces, and a buttery smooth ride on even the most grueling runs. The sports science alone is impressive; its sneaker cachet, just as much. In the 25 years since, the GL III has become as much artistic medium as athletic tool. The "Who's Who" list of GL III collaborators include Ronnie Fieg, Colette, Concepts, Saint Alfred, and countless others. If you choose one retro runner, make it the Gel Lyte III. Asics has your favorite color in stock.

Gel Saga ($99.99)

 The Asics Gel Saga was released after the GL III, but is still every inch a child of the early 90’s. Compared to its distance-ready "Lyte" cousin, the Gel Saga is a relatively casual shoe. According to Asics, the Gel Saga was designed with "casual performance" (jogging) in mind. Apart from a different heel, however, the Saga appears to be nearly identical to its road-racing cousins. Suede is everywhere you'd expect it from the GL III, but I've included the Gel Saga on this list for a reason far less technical: the Gel Saga gets some dope colorways. "Illusion", "Kill Bill", "Soft Grey" (above) ... long story short, some Asics designer really likes this shoe. Check out more Gel Sagas now at Foot Locker.

 

Nike

Cortez ($70.00)

Finally, the Swoosh. Nike's first shoe deviates from the traditional retro runner silhouette, but what its low-slung, streamlined construction lacked in pure cushion it redoubled in weight savings. The Nike Cortez was first sold as a lightweight distance shoe. However, its full-length dual-density midsole (unheard of in 1972) was suitable for training at all distances, and the Cortez became an overnight sensation. And yes, these are the Forrest Gump shoes.

My recommendation: hunt down the OG red-white-blue Cortez colorway. It's versatile, easy to keep clean, and stylish to a tee. Check out the Nike Classic Leather Cortez on Nike.com here.

Waffle Trainer ($88.00)

photo:  jcrew.com

photo: jcrew.com

While the Cortez may have been Nike's first shoe, the 1974 Waffle Trainer proved the brand was here to stay. Everyone knows the story how Bill Bowerman ruined his wife's waffle on the hunt for a high-traction outsole. It's as much Nike lore as American ingenuity. Among athletes, the Waffle Trainer represents a bold stride forward from the smooth track flats of years prior. To anyone with an eye for style, the Waffle Trainer is just as bold: stitched panels, a bright contrast Swoosh, and of course, the distinctive waffle outsole. Own a piece of Nike history - check out Vintage Collection Waffle Trainer retros at J. Crew now

Internationalist ($90.00)

The Nike Internationalist is a shoe worthy of its world-beating title. The trainer was co-developed with marathon legend Alberto Salazar, tailored for performance but far from camera-shy. Salazar won the 1982 Boston Marathon (the famous "Duel in the Sun") wearing personalized Internationalist runners, and the legend grew. In the present, the shoe's slim toebox and Air Jordan-like paneling make it the perfect canvas for rereleases. My current favorite: the Wolf Grey-Sail colorway available now on Nike's webstore.

 

Reebok

Classic Leather ($64.99)

photo:  reebok.com

photo: reebok.com

The shoe that made Reebok an overnight success. Introduced in 1983, the Classic Leather broke from tradition by replacing traditional running shoe materials (mesh, nylon, etc.) with supple garment leather. The result is minimal and pristine clean - Reebok's trainer was an athleisure shoe before athleisure was cool. 

The classic White/Gum colorway above defined 80’s workout attire. That doesn't mean the Classic looks dated today. The recent resurgence of all-white retro sneakers has made the Classic a throwback alternative in a market saturated by New Balance and Saucony. Rapper Kendrick Lamar even collaborated on a limited colorway. Cool factor, indeed. Check out more styles of the Classic Leather on Reebok's webstore here.

GL 6000 ($84.99)

Two years after the Classic Leather made waves as a casual shoe, Reebok set out to prove it could still make cutting-edge performance shoes. The result: 1985's GL 6000 runner. Built on the foundation of the Classic Leather, the GL 6000's performance-tailored upper included breathable mesh, a multi-layered midsole, and copious support straps to provide mid-run stability. The GL 6000 cemented Reebok's performance credibility, and even looked good doing it. Check out retro versions of the GL 6000 now on Reebok's webstore. 

Ventilator ($74.99 and up)

The Ventilator represented a bold step forward for the Reebok of yesteryear. Gone was the Classic Leather genealogy - in its place, an entirely new strap-and-webbing system. The Ventilator provided a smoother (and more breathable) run than the aging GL 6000, and came in a variety of overstated 90's-appropriate colorways. Retro versions feature a complete leather-and-mesh upper for an added premium feel. I highly recommend looking up some of the many Ventilator collabs out there before choosing your pair. My personal favorite: Packer Shoes' "Four Seasons" (above), a washed-out take on summer pastels. Check out more Ventilator styles at Reebok.com.

Greats

Last but not least is Greats Brand, a Brooklyn-based sneaker startup that launched in 2012. Greats was founded on a simple idea: sneakers are needlessly expensive, and you shouldn't overpay. Greats sells shoes direct-to-consumer to keep costs low, relying on their website (and a small company-run Brookyln boutique) to act as both shopping experience and point-of-sale. The results are extraordinary: not only does Greats make a great sneaker, but their devotion to slashing costs means you'll pay a full 33% less for the exact same product sans logo. I'll take a weekend's worth of social budget over a Swoosh any day.

photo:  greats.com

photo: greats.com

Greats currently offers two takes on the retro runner: the Rosen (above, suede and mesh, made in Asia, $49) and the Pronto (below, calfskin leather, handstitched in Italy, $249). If you have the budget, spring for the Pronto so I can live vicariously. At $250, it's all the luxury of a Hender Scheme or Valentino equivalent at literally half the cost. Enjoy the eye candy below, then check out Greats.com for more.

photo:  greats.com

photo: greats.com

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There you have it: 20 retro runners from 8 brands, just in time for spring. Do you agree with the choices? Did I miss your all-time favorite? Comment below or on Facebook here to start the conversation.

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State of the Shoenion 2015: Have We Hit Peak Sneaker?

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State of the Shoenion 2015: Have We Hit Peak Sneaker?

In 2015, sneakers took center stage. I’m not going to use this space to count down my “Top 10 Releases”, or even wax poetic about how resellers “ruined” a hobby that occasionally wakes me up at 3am on a Saturday (8am London time) to compete over an exclusive release. To the millions of ‘heads around the world, these are old hat. But now, sneakers have a new life.

Thanks to people like them, doing things they never thought significant, sneakers went everywhere from the red carpet to the Wall Street Journal to an international traveling museum exhibition. Sneakers entered mass cultural consciousness - and my family’s group text message - in a comeuppance decades in the making. The Yeezy Boost was suddenly an object of desire that transcended Sneakertalk Facebook groups; Drake’s love for all things Jumpman was worthy of an ESPN feature; and the Adidas Stan Smith gained the cultural nod it had waited five decades for.

Banner promoting "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" at the Toledo Museum of Art, Jan 2016

Banner promoting "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" at the Toledo Museum of Art, Jan 2016

The icing on the cake: designer iterations of classic shoes, rendered in dress-quality leather and handmade in Italy, were now yuppie attire rather than cutting-edge. Common Projects, a brand producing minimalist luxury sneakers long favored by Internet fashion gurus and the style zeitgeist at large, now generates “roughly $10 million” of annual revenue worldwide. Every silhouette imaginable can now be affixed with some variation of "premium leather uppers".

The sneaker display at a Saint Laurent Paris boutique, Dec 2015

The sneaker display at a Saint Laurent Paris boutique, Dec 2015

In 2015, sneaker culture hit peak exposure. I’d like to blame generational divides. Or social media. Or another nebulous, macro-level force. Instead, the enthusiasm I have towards everything footwear may have caused something I love to hit critical mass right before my eyes. My cool, exclusive, differentiated hobby had suddenly become everyone’s cool, exclusive, differentiated hobby. Sneakers have always been casualwear. But now, sneakers had become… casual.

That’s not the fault of footwear, though: since the turn of the twentieth century, American fashion has only ever become more casual. Even notable anti-casual reactions (the homogeneous “man in the grey flannel suit” of the postwar 50’s, etc.) are mere blips in a far grander trend line. Look no further than the modern “white shoe” workplace to see these effects firsthand: a traditionally conservative, “business professional” law firm is now the subject of a New York Times editorial on “statement suits.” Quite a contrast from the white shirt-black suit days of old.

From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, the emphasis has changed. Business casual has become business casual. As early as 2013, “office style” guides have included designer sneakers as dress shoe alternates suitable for the younger, style-conscious business professional. Men’s magazine Esquire even broached the subject of pairing sneakers with a suit all the way back in 2010. Perhaps sneakers – long considered oafish and unrefined - had instead just gained broader legitimacy and instead become fashionable. Sneakerheads have always thought their deadstock pairs were the best-looking shoes on the block; the rest of the world just needed time to catch up. 

Sneakers on the fashion runway at a Public School show during NYFW:M 

Sneakers on the fashion runway at a Public School show during NYFW:M 

That’s not just a turn of phrase, either - I do mean the rest of the world. Given the “soft power” of American music, movies, and culture, the casualization of our dress has set off a chain-reaction across an increasingly globalized planet. Fashion historian Deidre Clemens, speaking to The Washington Post in a recent interview, phrased it best: “The American love of sportswear and comfortable clothes has redefined the limits.” Those limits being redefined deal exclusively with the ever-diminishing difference between what’s comfortable and what’s socially accepted as fashionable. The two seem diametrically opposed, but perhaps the two categories were simply waiting for the right bridge between them.

In a 2007 study by the International Journal of Consumer Studies, participants significantly emphasized comfort when given the choice between dressing for fashion or comfort (vs. other “fashion conscious” behaviors such as following the latest apparel trends). However, they all still prioritized fashion conscious behaviors at a higher than average level! The relationship between fashion and comfort is less conflict, more trade-off. Give any waitress the choice of working dinner shift in heels or Converse, and you’ll see how the desire for comfort in style often correlates directly with a love of athletic footwear.

As a college student uniquely exposed to the recent athleisure trend (though I choke on that word), every auditorium lecture is visual proof of those redefined limits in action. That’s not to say I see row after row of Seinfeld-esque New Balances; we may value comfortable shoes and enable their wear like never before, but that 2007 study forced participants to have their cake or eat it.

The "athlesiure" trend (though I choke on that word) in full plumage: t-shirts, sweatpants, and eye-catching status sneakers. As a college student, I'm uniquely exposed to this phenomena.

The "athlesiure" trend (though I choke on that word) in full plumage: t-shirts, sweatpants, and eye-catching status sneakers. As a college student, I'm uniquely exposed to this phenomena.

Consequently, as the function of sneakers has shifted from performance to fashion, a new wave of athletic-inspired silhouettes has combined the two into blockbuster success. This year saw adidas’ expansion of its Tubular lifestyle shoe line, Nike’s retro-homage Air Max Zero, and New Balance’s release of “running shoes” rendered in full-grain Horween leather that still sat on a rubber outsole. All of the preceding are sold as sportswear and carefully separated from each brand’s athletic offerings, even though they take both materials and styling cues from their purpose-built brethren.   

In 2015, sneaker culture offered anyone with an internet connection and an eye for style the prospect of fashion without compromise. To quote Elizabeth Semmelhack, the Senior Curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum: “The function of sneakers has shifted from athletics to fashion.  The "image of function," or more accurately the "image of athletic function," is used within fashion to convey ideas of authenticity… but the real function of the majority of sneakers is to shift form in the effort of following fashion.  Form follows function and that function is fashion.”

Nike Flyknit Lunar 1+ running shoes. Capable? Certainly. But this Black/White pair has become a fashion item in its own right.

Nike Flyknit Lunar 1+ running shoes. Capable? Certainly. But this Black/White pair has become a fashion item in its own right.

So what spurred this paradigm shift? A breakout year like 2015 doesn’t come together overnight. In many ways, a perfect storm of image culture, social media, fashion casualization, saavy marketing, and plain old design innovation decades in the making just happened to overlap at the right moment in time.

In 2015, Kanye West’s Yeezy Season shows used his galvanizing star power to propel the line’s signature sneakers to command four-figure price tags on the open market. Fashion designers Ricardo Tisci, Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Jun Takahashi, Hiroshi Fuiiwara,  and Yohji Yamamoto all released sneakers in partnership with the world’s largest footwear brands.  Sneaker collaborations tapped the celebrity of pop culture icons Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Pharrell Williams, and even Christiano Ronaldo (the “most popular person in the world”) to drive demand for limited editions.

Raf Simons SS16 (shoes: Raf Simons x adidas Stan Smith)

Raf Simons SS16 (shoes: Raf Simons x adidas Stan Smith)

Y-3 SS16 (shoes: adidas x Yohji Yamamoto)

Y-3 SS16 (shoes: adidas x Yohji Yamamoto)

In 2015, photo-sharing service Instagram hit 400 million users, granting nearly 1/20th of the world’s population an unprecedented ability to share their lives (and their footwear): As of December 5, #nike had collected close to 38 million unique posts – a paltry one million behind the genre-encompassing #shoes at 39. Meanwhile, “experience” apps like Adidas Confirmed, Nike SNKRS, and the Nike Holiday 2015 “Tech Book” for iOS further integrated sneaker culture into the lives of the smartphone generation.

Graphic showing Nike's SNKRS app 

Graphic showing Nike's SNKRS app 

2015 also introduced the world to 3D-printed runners (New Balance), sneakers made from 100% recycled plastic (Adidas), and auto-lacing “Air Mags” straight out of science fiction (Nike). And on top of it all, both Nike and Adidas stock are trading at five-year highs with yearly earnings for both companies forecasted to be, well, as comfortable as their shoes. Technical innovations put sneakers in the headlines of newspapers, fashion magazines, design journals, environmentalist blogs, and even primetime television. Sneakers were unavoidable.   

So yes, sneakers stole the show this year. As a fan of the shoes themselves, what a time to be alive! My 2015 Flyknit Chukkas are the coolest shoes I’ve ever laid eyes on, and their production wouldn’t have been possible without the decades of sneaker culture development that hummed along in the background until just this year. From high-tech runners to Italian calfskin tennis shoes, I have never been more impressed with the versatility and construction of footwear than I am now.

Nike Lunar Flyknit Chukkas, a "sportswear" shoe that features the same functional technology as the Lunar 1's above but in a silhouette specifically designed  not  for athletics.

Nike Lunar Flyknit Chukkas, a "sportswear" shoe that features the same functional technology as the Lunar 1's above but in a silhouette specifically designed not for athletics.

But as a fan of sneakers, I can’t help but worry. Throughout all of 2015, Nike released on average ten or more shoes a day. A privileged few models (limited releases; the aforementioned celebrity collaborations) sell through with any reliability.

The rest, well, don't. 

They sit. For months at a time, even as a near-constant release calendar builds up back pressure and pushes thousands of undesirable colorways to outlets. Then, the cycle repeats. With the dialogue surrounding fashion burnout growing louder, I can’t help but wonder if the fashionable, comfortable athletic shoes that made 2015 “peak sneaker” are immune because of their utility or merely approaching their decline.

For now, the State of the Sneaker is fresh. I just wonder if it’ll stay that way.       

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AS RAKESTRAW | The personal site of Alex Rakestraw.