Ahead of her historic Oscar win this year, director Chloé Zhao set social media abuzz by setting foot on the red carpet in a beige, smocked Hermès gown paired with white, calfskin Hermès sneakers. One of the world’s most exclusive and decidedly French fashion brands had produced an American shoe style long associated with athletes—that’s the radical transformation sneakers have undergone over the past few years.
We see sneakers on the red carpet, worn with lehngas, on fashion magazine covers—and made from eco-friendly materials. Collectible “kicks” have their own market, with Christie’s auctioning a pair of game-worn Nike Air Jordan 1s for a record-setting $615,000 (around ₹4.5 crore) last week. Sneakers are now everywhere—thanks to their versatility, style quotient and comfort, the most desired after more than a year indoors.
“The cooler sneaker you wear, the more rapidly you become the talk of the town. Your stride changes when you put a sneaker on, you feel so confident,” says Sanjay Kumar Dauhaliya, a Mumbai-based fashion stylist and personal shopper to actors. Dauhaliya credits social media and international trends for sneakers becoming a more mainstream, preferred choice in recent months. “Any time I post a sneaker pic, I get a huge amount of response on Instagram. Everyone wants to get their hands on the latest shoe. It’s the ‘it’ accessory of the moment. Shoots are crafted around sneakers, and actors pose with their foot front and centre. You will see it first, before the clothes.”
Dauhaliya also makes note of the thriving resale market that has sprung up online since shoe brands only offer limited pairs per “drop”. As someone who has watched sneakers reign supreme over the past two years, the stylist notes the recent complete transformation in the shoe’s “clout” or fashion cachet: “Elderly women wearing chunky shoes with their traditional clothing, walking around a park are a common sight. You can see that same look more often now.”
Shruti Kasat, the designer-founder of The Saree Sneakers, cites the twin themes of comfort and personal preference as the driving factors for the launch of her shoe brand in 2019. Her Kolkata-based boutique customises sneakers with traditional Indian embellishments and craft techniques—like chikankari, zardozi and dabka—that pair especially well with traditional bridal wear. “I am a sneaker-head myself. Being the mother of a toddler, I wanted to wear something comfortable to a wedding I was going to attend. When I couldn’t find any shoe that would suit Indian attire, I decided to make my first pair, and they were an instant hit,” says Kasat.
She attributes the increased acceptance of sneakers as a wedding shoe to changes in bridal fashion and the growing confidence of the Indian bride: “We are mixing in elements like trousers and crop tops with our Indian wear. At the same time, urban brides are opting for lighter, more comfortable ensembles over heavy, traditional ghaghras. Brides no longer want to sit demurely on a stage, they want to dance at their own wedding and a bridal entry is now as attention-grabbing as the arrival of the baraat.” When she first offered her shoes to retailers, Kasat assumed that the 18- to 35-year-old age group would be her target audience. She has been surprised by how eagerly the 50- to 60-year-olds have adopted the shoe. “While the young don Indian wear only for a special occasion, it is daily wear for older women. And they are really happy to find a comfortable, stable and stylish shoe to wear with their clothes,” she says.
Also read: Sotheby's strategy to attract younger clients: sneaker sales
A green route
To attract the more eco-conscious post-millennial generation, brands are also experimenting with greener solutions.
Customised, upcycled sneakers are a fixture on the runway presentations of contemporary-wear fashion brand péro by designer Aneeth Arora. “The brand style is very effortless and comfortable and sneakers go very well with this. That is why we keep innovating and collaborating with good sneaker brands from around the world. It started with Adidas Stan Smiths and now we are working with Grounds, a Japanese shoe brand, this season,” says Arora.
Arora has worked not just with multinational firms like Nike and Adidas but also smaller European brands like Golden Goose, creating limited-edition, upcycled collections for sale. The hunt for the season’s shoe begins when she is designing the fabric for a collection, and a version of the season’s experimentation with embellishments and craft techniques makes it to the shoe too.
Talking about the genesis of her latest collaboration, Arora says: “I found Grounds on Instagram and really loved their sensibility. Grounds shoes play with gravity and making the step light on the surface. They have a transparent sole which is filled with air. I saw a picture in which the model was standing on a lit floor and I thought that there were lights in the shoe sole. So I ordered the shoe and when it came I kept searching for lights! Eventually, I added LED lights to the sole and Grounds were quite thrilled with what we had done.”
Designer Ujjawal Dubey of Antar Agni also debuted striking matching sneakers for the runway presentation of his gender-neutral Spring Summer ’21 collection Echoes. Sleek and minimalist, the shoes are fashioned from the same fabric as the clothes, and mirror Dubey’s explorations with pleating and colours.
For Kasat, the exciting developments lie in the new, eco-friendly substitutes for the shoe’s plastic and rubber elements. In fact, so completely do sneakers now reflect the fashion and popular culture zeitgeist that even the mass-produced shoes are not untouched by the move towards circularity, sustainability and eco-friendly construction.
Garima Gupta is a Delhi-based writer.