Footwear
May 30, 2024
by Karl Smith
Footwear’s Love Affair With Excess Keeps Dragging Us Backwards
by Karl Smith
May 30, 2024

One hand giveth, the other taketh away. Or should that be “one foot” instead?

For some time now we’ve seen the sneaker industry making strides toward Earth-friendlier products – new materials, new processes, new modes of design – and that shift has been rightly celebrated. At the same time, however, we’ve consistently seen those gains trampled over by rapid movement in the other direction. And, to be clear, that other direction is backwards. Where Newton’s Third Law says that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” the sneaker sphere has taken that maxim to (and past) the extreme – to a place where, for every positive action, there is an opposing and ultimately more powerful reaction.

In practice, what this seems to mean is that, for every big-ticket “sustainable” release there’s either an equally hulking caveat which either comes tied-up in the product itself – maybe there are only 100 of them, maybe they’ve had virgin leather added at the last minute for no particular reason, maybe the material sounds progressive but is actually just plastic – or in the fact that, while everyone is looking up at the eco-marketing fireworks display, down on the ground there’s little being done to curb the footwear industry’s worst impulse. An impulse best described in one word: excess.

Case in point: just today, BALENCIAGA revealed a new version of its signature Triple-S sneaker – an iteration which replaces polyurethane and polyester with BANANATEX banana fiber material. It’s an interesting move – particularly when you consider that the silhouette has been leather-free now for some time – and one which follows on the same trajectory as the Paris house’s recent forays into mycelium and into bio-based materials.

As a standalone fact, of course, this is very much to be applauded: most luxury fashion houses – most brands, even – would stop at the polyurethane, slap a “vegan” tag on the shoe and consider their good work done. That BALENCIAGA has gone the extra mile and done its due diligence, selecting a material that’s genuinely better for the Earth and not just better for optics from one perspective, does point to genuine progress.

“Every one of these brands has made choices which demonstrate the fact that they know better and yet have decided, against that knowledge and that show of ethics, to not only continue with the status quo but to stretch the possibilities of how far that can go.”

But, again, it comes with a polarized force. The release of the BANANATEX Triple-S comes fresh on the heels of several less progressive drops – notably the Bouncer Trainers, the Circuit Trainers, the 3XL trainers, and, as of just this week, the Platform Sneaker – all of which, being massively oversized and crafted more or less exclusively from fossil-derived plastics, are about as neat an embodiment of the concept of excess as you might find anywhere.

These shoes are so comically large – actually, maybe comical isn’t the right term; perhaps it might be funny if it didn’t represent such a serious issue – as to tip over into vulgarity. The newly-revealed Platform Sneaker, for example, is exactly what its name suggests and then some: a ten-stack platform sneaker mixing animal-derived leather and fossil-based plastics in what feels like an attempt by the label to one-up itself in the hedonism stakes. There’s a kind of Last Days of Rome feel to the whole thing – a sense that if things are going to fall apart they might as well do so in spectacular fashion; not with a whimper, but a bang. Or, in this case, a stomp.

BALENCIAGA, of course, are not the only culprit. They are, quite probably, the single most obvious example – the most distilled version – of the problem, but by no means are they the only perpetrator. Elsewhere, you’ll all sorts. In fact, look close enough and you’ll find the same sleight of hand taking place at more or less every major footwear brand in the world.

There’s adidas, bigging up its work with Sean Wotherspoon on their collaborative hemp and mycelium Gazelle iterations, not only using defunct materials that can’t (and were never intended to be) produced at a meaningful scale, but also having the temerity to release single-use running shoes at the same time. There’s Nike, hiding behind the genuinely groundbreaking work at the ISPA sub-brand when it comes to materials and modular design, all the while releasing unfathomable numbers of new product on its main line with no thought to the same standards.

Still the perp walk continues: There’s Converse, which has done such good work in collaboration with Stüssy on using lower-impact materials, adding virgin leathers to a silhouette that’s normally crafted from Earth-friendlier canvas material. There’s ASICS, having just released a game-changing zero-waste running shoe, slapping virgin leather accents on a new collaboration with Studio Nicholson. There’s New Balance, deliberately crafting a sneaker from an Earth-kinder canvas material and then throwing suede in as a branding exercise at the last minute.

And then of course there’s MSCHF: a label which might not fit into the traditional brand model of those other global-level household names mentioned above, but which seems to exist solely in order to portray consumption as a joke – producing borderline-unwearable products from ill-considered materials simply because they can and simply because it’s funny; a harmful, poor-taste philosophy best summarised by paraphrasing author Alec Leach, “The world is burning and we’re still laughing at you for buying shoes.”

The list, it’s fair to say, is long. And this version is far from exhaustive.

“Perhaps, rather than looking to hurtle into the abyss at full throttle, brands see change on the horizon and are purging those impulses while they still have the chance.”

And, while the products themselves may be different, they all have something in common: each of them is designed to give the impression of luxury and of profligacy – of excess. Every one of these brands has made choices which demonstrate the fact that they know better and yet have decided, against that knowledge and that show of ethics, to not only continue with the status quo but to stretch the possibilities of how far that can go.

All that being said, perhaps there is another reading of that Roman allegory – another way of thinking about The End. Perhaps, rather than looking to hurtle into the abyss at full throttle, brands see change on the horizon and are purging those impulses while they still have the chance.

Of course, in a sense, this reading is no more generous: it still points to an industry inclined toward wanton destruction and reckless consumption – an industry looking to wring the last drops out of its most damaging preoccupations until there’s nothing left. An industry slowly changing for the better but throwing the mother of all tantrums.

Still, that’s the thing about tantrums: they don’t usually end in getting what you want.