Who would have thought that, in fashion, the decade that started with Lady Gaga's meat dress would largely be shaped by a once-niche, performance-heavy subsection of the industry? If you had told me then that, by the end of 2019, sneakers would represent a growing multi-billion dollar business, I would've probably been skeptical. But that's the reality as we enter the 2020s, with the sneaker industry outgrowing the margins and coming to dominate the mainstream and resale platforms like StockX being valued at $1 billion on their own.
But just ten years ago, the retail landscape was totally different — especially for sneakers.
In the early 2000s, "you could buy online — eBay was a great way to dig for vintage without getting your hands dirty, and there were little sites like Vintage USA that inexplicably had older shoes in size runs. Other than that it was mainly big retailers like Foot Locker," says Russ Bengtson, arguably one of the most knowledgeable sneaker journalists working today. "Sneaker boutiques weren't really a thing yet."
That started to shift, he says, when Flight Club opened in New York in 2005. "At first it was cool because it was a place you could sell stuff you didn't want anymore, or you realized you were never going to wear — all of a sudden you could buy a pair for $150 and flip them for $1500 that same week," Bengtson says. "Once that happened there were a lot more would-be buyers. You might not care about a particular shoe, but you'd care about making 1000% profit. Retail became the new wholesale."
However, in the early 2010s, the sneaker community was still primarily enthusiast-only, connected online through forums like NikeTalk. Slam, Complex and a few other publications were covering sneakers and streetwear at the time, but it hadn't quite found a mass audience. Around the same time, the purchasing process — drops and all — began to migrate from brick-and-mortar to online. Jazerai Allen-Lord, a creative strategist at Crush Lovely and sneaker designer, remembers "that time being very segmented" when it came to shopping: "Every shoe had a different way or set of rules around how to buy it."
Then, of course, came Instagram. "It leveled the playing field in another way, in that you get a lot of people chasing the same things," says Bengston. "I feel like the past 10 years in sneakers has been a great example of 'be careful what you wish for.'"
The democratization of information that has come to define the social-media era afforded access to niche, geographical trends to the masses. "We started to see more of like a uniform rather than clear differentiation between groups," Allen-Lord recalls. "Before there were tons of sub groups — people that liked SBs, people that collected running shoes or Asics or Jordan heads."
It wasn't until the second half of the decade that we started to see sneaker culture recognized and covered in legacy media. Publications like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times began trying to cover streetwear like they would a luxury fashion house. Among the traditional fashion industry, tastemakers would wear high-end apparel with Nikes, Adidas Stan Smiths or Vans Old Skools to Fashion Week by 2016.
Early collaborations, like Nike and Supreme in 2002, laid the foundation for sneaker brands collaboration with fashion houses. As streetwear was adopted in the mainstream and athleisure peaked, higher-end designers like Jeremy Scott, Alexander Wang and Stella McCartney released their own collections with sneaker giants. But there was one partnership that really shifted the conversation to those outside of sneaker enthusiasts: Kanye West's Yeezy x adidas.
"[Yeezy] really became super hype, but in a different, more exposed, entertainment way," Allen-Lord points out. "Not just the Yeezy [sneaker], either — but Kanye's presence in sneaker culture changed the relationship to talent and sneakers from a performance stance."
To some sneakerheads, though, the bandwagoners really began to hop onto their lifestyle when aftermarket platforms like Stadium Goods, GOAT and StockX — which let consumers flip new and used sneakers — popped up. They added structure to the longstanding process of reselling sneakers, plus authentication to deter counterfeits. In some cases, they also offered data to consumers that even brands hadn't been able to capture: StockX, also known as "the stock market of things," publicly provides sales information like how many shoes of a specific silhouette sold (and for how much), the trade range and the volatility of the price; even if you don't purchase through the platform, you can accurately see the demand for a shoe.
"The expansion of all these reselling platforms turned sneakers into a commodity in ways both good and bad," says Bengston. "It's cool that you're no longer restricted by geography in terms of what you can acquire but the very rarest sneakers have market-driven values. Once it's easy to find out what something's worth—and at this point it's all a Google search away—the chance of getting a 'steal' becomes increasingly unlikely."
You no longer had to be a sneakerhead to appreciate sneakers. All this access allowed the casual consumer a place to shop for sneakers that may not be the most coveted Virgil Abloh collab of the moment but were still cool nonetheless.
"You own a pair of sneakers if you are a 20- to 25-year-old woman — because you do HIIT or yoga, you hike or do an activity, whatever that looks like, because wellness and self-care is pinnacle in this holistic experience of a young woman," Allen-Lord says. "In the last 18 months, every single request that I've gotten for either brand voice help or partnership or strategy or product activation has been about how to authentically talk to this young girl. Are we talking to this young girl? And there has never been a greater focus on it."
Another surprising turn in this evolution is how the old guard of retail is now turning to the new kids on the block to stay relevant in an ever-changing market. For Foot Locker, this means investing in GOAT Group (to the tune of $100 million). In others, it means adopting a more innovative, reactive approach to traditional brick-and-mortar retail: Nike opened its first Nike Live location in L.A., for instance, which carries merchandise according to geographically-specific data, marrying the best of the offline experience with the best of the online insight. Its also connected with shoppers digitally with two separate apps: SNKRS, a place for high-heat and even more exclusive releases; and its official Nike app, an extension of Nike.com.
"Gen Z is looking to see how you fit into their brand — they're not interested in coming into your atmosphere. Brands have to find a point of alignment, and that point of alignment has to be an emotional connection," says Allen-Lord of the generation most retailers are scrambling to reach. "That emotional connection is not going to happen on the internet. It has to be some type of human value to them. This new consumer is concerned with social sustainability, environmental sustainability, justice, diversity and inclusion," she adds.
Sneaker brands have begun to address their impact on climate. Nike Grind takes back sneakers — from any brand, not just Nike — and recycles the pieces into athletic surfaces and materials for new shoes. In August, the company also introduced its first subscription service specifically for children's shoes (which, of course, have a short lifespan). Adidas has an end-of-life program, which includes in-store product take-backs and recycling plans for excess pre-market product. While StockX and Stadium Goods only resell unused shoes with the box they came in, GOAT and marketplaces like Grailed, Depop and Poshmark offer a way for people to get rid of gently-worn shoes without creating more waste.
Ultimately, from 2010 to today, the greatest change in buying sneakers is the options that the constantly growing and evolving consumer base has access to. Online, in-store or from a total stranger with an amusing description on a secondhand marketplace, the biggest struggle left for buying sneakers at this point is choosing among the infinite options when there's always going to be a new release just hours away.