Shoes aren’t made just for walking. They’re an indicator of wealth, status and changing trends. No wonder there’s so much money behind this industry.
Evidence shows that our ancestors were shielding their feet in icy environments as far back as 40,000 years ago. Over time this custom is believed to have changed our foot shape and toe strength. Fast forward to the last few centuries and shoes have acquired significant cultural capital.
Footwear today isn’t just about form, fit and function; like fashion itself, it also takes on a role of displaying status and defining identity, while reflecting changing trends.
Shoes with heels, for example, were originally made for men to give them extra height and stability when riding horses with stirrups. Today, high heels like Louboutins – with their instantly recognisable red soles – are highly sought after, regardless of (dis)comfort levels.
Function might have been the essence of Dr Martens when their air-cushioned soles first made them popular with blue collar workers. But later the boots became associated with a rebellious youth culture. As for sneakers, they’re no longer really meant for physical activity – the growth of the ‘sneakerhead’ subculture reveals a new kind of luxury good, at the centre of a reselling and collecting market that could reach US$120b globally by 2026.
Where athletic performance is still paramount, the major players cater to multiple markets. We’ve come a long way from Nike’s ($NKE) famous waffle sole to its Alphafly, one of the latest ‘super shoes’, developed in a lab to help Eliud Kipchoge break the men’s marathon world record. Just last month, Tigist Assefa shattered the women’s record in the Adizero Adios from rival Adidas ($ADDYY), known for its lightweight and forward-sloping features.
Meanwhile, many of us might prefer to shuffle around in cosy UGG boots ($DECK), stroll through the day in understated Allbirds ($BIRD) or accessorise colourful Crocs ($CROX). As far as comfort-focused brands go, Birkenstock's upcoming IPO reflects a product that has amassed a huge following worldwide. Apple ($AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs was one of the fans, and a pair of Birks he once owned was auctioned off for a whopping US$218,750 last year. It’s the type of generous valuation the company would hope to see when it rings the trading bell for the first time.