The last couple of weeks have been a story of footwear. Former basketball player Michael Jordan’s “Bred” Air Jordans, worn during Game 2 of the 1998 NBA Finals, sold for a record US$2.2 million at a Sotheby’s Auction. At the other end of the scale, if you follow Lyst’s hotlists, you will know that in the final top 10 for 2022, Crocs from a Salehe Bembury collaboration were featured at prices around US$150 and more, although they are almost impossible to find now. It is not a strong story for leather. The list of materials in the black and red (hence Bred) Air Jordan’s do contain some soft leather and suede but they are alongside a myriad of fossil fuel-derived plastics.
We have seen a certain shift back to leather among the higher value, luxury and replica sneakers. Since many of the plastics used deteriorate after 20 years of standing in the light, as a consequence of additives like softeners leaching out, if you own a valuable non-leather pair for investment purposes, keep them in the dark and as cool as possible.
The Croc comes from a colourful boat shoe competitor, brought to market first in 2002 in bright colours using a proprietary EVA-like material called Croslite, which is good for cushioning and impact absorption. It has a closed cell structure which avoids odour and resists bacterial and fungal growth but cannot be recycled. Crocs were a pandemic success story, being favoured by many healthcare staff. Even standard Crocs are not cheap, but they do last for about five years and offer good comfort in everyday wear. Since the pandemic, they have continued to do well.
Since they cannot be recycled, they are frequently found among the plastic flotsam on remote island beaches in the Southern Seas. However, as Crocs have grown in volumes and offered strong cash flow, investments have been made in finding methods of creating Croslite from biomaterials rather than fossil sources and this started to be introduced in 2022. It could eventually help towards making recycling possible.
But the question that has to be asked is: where are the new fashions in leather footwear? The mid-20th century saw the arrival of a wide range of sneakers that used big volumes of coated splits and pigmented lower grades. The question is being asked currently about the long-term strength of the luxury trainer as the return to the office brings more formal footwear back into demand.
Leather in the form of brushed pigskin suede was brought to life when Hush Puppies were started in 1958 as part of an attempt to find more comfortable dress type footwear, and much more recently Ugg boots and Birkenstocks have done well, with some recent enthusiasm for ladies boots. Yet, where is the new trend based on a new Floater or Jim Dandy leather, or a WR100 that were able to support new ideas and concepts?
Back in the early 2000s, alongside Crocs, Keen shot to prominence with their protected toe Newport sandals and fairly quickly evolved into a clever range of casual footwear incorporating the characteristic rubberised toe, before moving on into a full range of outdoor and hybrid footwear.
Yet, while Keen are still very much around today, it is non-leather Crocs making the headlines. So, we need to get leather back on the march in the footwear sector. Celebrities may be implying excitement with the Tasmanian Blundstone boot and there is a certain excitement again around Timberland brown boots, but these are a long way from any suggestion of a powerful trend.
Leather has lost market share in footwear as a result of volatile material prices and for the first time failed to recover when raw material prices fell. There is some recovery underway, but for real success new designs and promotions are required, probably catalysed by exciting new leathers. And leather should come with better options for repair, longevity-in-use and end-of-life than other materials.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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