Best foot forward

Obsessive trainer collectors value exclusivity and credibility – which is why more and more big-name shoe manufacturers are doing everything in their power to associate themselves with up-and-coming designers and illustrators

Never one to miss a trick, the sneaker industry is waking up to the current trend for all things ‘illustrated’ and adding imagery to shoes – whether they’re hand-painted one-offs, batch-produced special editions, or mass-produced by the thousand.

With the collector’s market continuing to grow, while sources for vintage and dead-stock trainers are rung dry, shoe brands are adopting a wide range of tactics to create difference and stoke demand – and it all comes down to giving the customer more choice than they know what to do with.

Over at Converse, for instance, catering to an audience of old-school die-hards, you’ll find a range of Converse Jack Purcell’s slip-ons, lace-ups and pumps, currently only available on-line. The canvas uppers feature iconic, mid-century prints by the legendary textile designer Lucienne Day, which complement the retro styling of these classic court shoes.

By contrast, the reinvention of Keds continues. A collection by US-based illustrator Eleanor Grosch builds on the traditional perception of Keds as a female brand by appealling to a younger, fashion- forward market.

Grosch’s agent, Helen Rush of Zeegen Rush, explains. ‘We found Eleanor through an exhibition of screen-printed gig posters she’d contributed to, and Keds contacted her when she was featured in Nylon magazine. Her first collection was considered ‘experimental’ and short run, so she was paid a flat fee. The designs proved so popular that Keds have increased the production numbers and will be paying Eleanor a royalty for her second collection, launched in the UK next spring.’

Brand managers not only work with trend forecasting companies, but also trawl the media and galleries for new faces. And, to emphasise the ‘art’ angle of her collection, along with the cute, animal-print shoes, Grosch has designed limited edition posters for sale on-line.

Sneaker lore dictates that, when it comes to launching special editions, it’s best to start with a popular model if the new shoe is to retain or increase in value – a case in point being Staple Design’s Pigeon Dunk for Nike, a grey shoe with a subtly embroidered emblem on the heel, which now trades for upwards of $1500 (£780).

Over at Gravis, the footwear brand of snowboarding outfitter Burton, a roll call of up-and-coming illustration and street-art stars have been commissioned to enhance their popular, must-have model, the Comet Mid, with a project called The Collective.

Just about to launch its third incarnation – this time featuring work by artists from The Scrawl Collective – one of the first featured artists was London-based Matt Sewell. ‘The European office contacted me back in 2004, wanting a 2m2 canvas to exhibit at the spring 2005 trade shows in Manchester, London, Berlin and Barcelona’, explains Sewell. ‘Then the canvas was cut up and made into a numbered edition of 36 shoes, launched at the July 2005 Bread and Butter show in Manchester; and the shoes have just gone on sale for £180 a pair.’

When asked about the practicalities of turning a painted canvas into a sports shoe, Sewell recalls, ‘The brief was simple; make sure the composition covers every part of the canvas, and don’t layer the paint too much or it’ll crack. I knew what model I was working with, and could choose a colour-way for the sole and stitching.’

From limited edition to true customisation, Adidas reinvented the idea of personalising your trainers with the relaunch of the Adicolor concept (it first saw the light of day in the 1970s). An accompanying pack of felt-tip pens is sold along with an all-white shoe.

But, with the collectable market in mind, Adidas also launched a colour co-ordinated range pre-treated by a ‘who’s who?’ of in-the-know individuals. On offer are versions by design-legend Peter Saville, Def Jam’s logo-meister Cey Adams and sneaker-freaks at Crooked Tongues, in editions from a few hundred to 5000. The range also includes shoes designed by specialist retailers in London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, that have the exclusive rights to retail their models; part of being a collector is knowing when and where the valuable models will ‘drop’.

A graphic designer who has worked with a number of shoe brands, Chris Law, of the sneaker info website Crooked Tongues, has recently collaborated with New Balance on a special-edition product launch, aiming for a more holistic design approach than simply re-colouring a shoe.

Working on four models – the 1500, 577 and 575, plus a new custom-designed sole unit for this edition, the 991 – the Crooked Tongues approach is about attention to detail and less is more. For its Confederacy of Villainy range, it has colour-coordinated every stitch, leather, fabric and application of 3M, in anticipation of how die-hard aficionados scrutinise the most collectable offerings.

With only 99 pairs of each model made, and custom box artwork by master tattooist BJ Betts, each model is named after a legendary rogue, reflecting the team members’ nationalities – Black Bart from the Old West, the Chinese bandit Black Sword, infamous pirate Blackbeard and feared highwayman Black Tom.

Designing custom packaging may seem like simply icing on the cake, but having run a website that sells hard to find trainers, Law is clued-up on what the discerning collector is after. Just think about it – if you own over a hundred pairs of trainers, all boxed up, special packaging will, no doubt, look tempting next to all those generic shoe boxes.

So, is it worth it, as a consumer, seeking out those special editions, and, as an artist, applying your mark to a shoe and, in the process, loaning kudos to a worldwide brand? Law thinks yes to both, but with reservations. ‘For the consumer, in the case of small production runs, you can get a piece of the action for relatively little outlay; and for the artist, it’s massive exposure.

‘Credibility is the name of the game – associating with artists is an easy way for shoe companies to connect with movements and some brands have worked hard at targeting certain scenes. The science is in making it seem logical that the two go hand in hand, rather than generating cynicism that another big name is trying to pollute a niche market by buying into it. At the end of the day, it’s dependent on both the artist and the shoe in question,’ says Law.

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