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Why Are Running Shoes So Ugly?

And will they ever get better?

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Right now, I own two pairs of running shoes. They’ve carried me through hundreds of miles over the past five months, on dozens of runs and one marathon. They’ve been on my feet in the summer heat, during the fall rain, and in the recent freezing cold winter temps. They’ve been comfortable, consistent, and constant companions, and, most importantly, helped prevent any injury. In other words, they’ve been everything I wanted.

They are not, however, beautiful. Far from it. One pair marries a gray base with blue accents. The other trades the gray for bright red and the blue for electric yellow. The uppers of both have a pattern that’s simultaneously subtle and unnecessary. They aren’t exactly ugly — frankly, on the continuum of running shoes I’ve owned over the past few decades, they are some of the better ones — but they remain undeniably and obviously running shoes.

If you’ve ever walked into a store looking to buy a pair, you know what I mean. You’re greeted with a wall of bright, loud shoes. The colors are intense, the textured add-ons more so. These are shoes you wear to run (and maybe a workout class) and nothing else. They aren’t for style or investment or sneakerhead blogs. They are functional, and this is the point. “The technical running market is really focused on people who are going to run in their shoes,” Matt Powell, a footwear analyst at the NPD Group, says. “They tend to be more, shall we say, athletic looking. People aren’t buying them for fashion. They are buying them for running.”

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But does it have to be this way? Can the running shoe world mimic the larger apparel space, which has seen a move toward muted colors and styles that fit in when grabbing a post-workout pint?

It can, and there’s some reason to think it’s headed that way, but a few factors about the running market slow the progress or make following trends less vital.

The first is that you and I are not a running shoe brand’s customer; wholesaler buyers are. They want to see success, and they define success by sell-through rates. By that metric, what’s been available has been working. Prices of individual shoes inch up while the market as a whole grew to $3.2 billion in 2016, up 40 percent since 2010. Those bright shoes are flying off the shelves. “Both consumers and buyers are living in the right now,” Bennett Grimes, Brooks’s footwear product line manager, says. “My job is to go to that buyer and help them understand that the future doesn’t look like what they have on their wall right now. What we’ve learned is that the consumers are a little bit more willing to listen to you and see where product is going in the future, whereas buyers are responding to numbers. They have hard facts that they sell a blue shoe better than anything else.”

The second limiting factor is that the look of a particular shoe is, at best, a tertiary concern to the individual buyer. When runners find a shoe model that works, they tend to stick with it. I’ve gone through at least a dozen pairs of the model I currently wear, including a truly hideous white-with-red-stars version. Five or six years ago, I went to a running store, hopped on a treadmill, and jogged for 30 seconds. Afterward, a sales clerk suggested a model that would complement my running style. I bought it, liked it, and half a decade later I’m still wearing the same shoe. Would I like them to be a bit more fashion-forward? Sure. But they are fine, and I’m much more concerned with whether I’ll get hurt or not. I haven’t, so I stick with the same pair. Powell, the footwear analyst, says this is typical behavior across the industry. When a runner settles on a brand and a model, he or she usually continues buying that shoe.

The third is price. Running shoes operate on a “good-better-best” model, ranging from $80 or so to $120 or higher. And since sticking out on a wall is a primary concern, even the low-end shoes require some flair in the form of logos showing what technology is used in the creation of the shoe that are sewn on or integrated into the mold. The overlays, color gradients, and logos increase as the price point increases, always in search of a higher perceived value. More equals better, full stop. “In running, you can’t do less is more,” Tracksmith founder and CEO Matt Taylor, the man most responsible for bringing the muted aesthetic to running apparel, says. “That doesn’t exist.” (Even minimalist shoes tend toward a maximalist aesthetic.)

The buyer, the lack of aesthetic focus, and the pricing model all contribute to running shoes that trend bold and bright. But that doesn’t mean that things can’t or won’t change. “We have been tasked with playing up to [the muted colors],” Kate Locke-Peck, Brooks’s color and trend manager, says. “We’re hearing that from consumers and retailers. We’ve been given the feedback, ‘People are going for runs and then straight to brunch or the bar.’ They want a shoe that reflects that lifestyle.” (I also reached out to reps from Nike and Adidas, who declined to participate.)

Locke-Peck’s colleague Grimes and his team spent the last two years talking to runners around the world about their needs, about fit and comfort but also about color and style. The goal is to take what’s happening in the wider apparel space and graft some of that DNA into the shoes. “To be a successful brand in run, you have to understand how trends are relevant for you and how you can make them relevant for a given consumer,” he says.

You also need to be ahead of the game, as the development process takes 18 to 24 months. “Trying to predict the future has been really interesting,” Locke-Peck says.

At Brooks, one factor that determines how closely a shoe hews to trends is the target audience for that specific model. The company breaks down the shoes into four types — Cushion, Energize, Connect, and Speed — while thinking of four types of runners as well: Pacer, Soul Runner, Goalseeker, and Highly Fit Active Consumer. Of these, the Energize shoe, designed for the “fastest-moving consumer,” follows trends the closest. The Pacer, meanwhile, is the person who reads running blogs and is most likely to be aware of a brand like Tracksmith and how it’s altering the tastes of the running community.

Larger trends in the footwear world also play a role. Tracksmith’s Taylor pointed to the success of Allbirds, the unassuming favorite shoes of the Silicon Valley set, as something that would find its way into the running shoe world. “Those are along the aesthetics of flyknit,” he says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2018 you’ll start to see some attempts to mimic those colorways.”

A muted colorway from Brooks’ Spring 2018 Launch line.
Photo: Brooks

Indeed, he’s right. Brooks sent along its 2018 spring and fall lineups, and both include at least one model that could best be described as featuring muted colorways. One spring model (pictured) features a gradient of gray that still feels fast without any blinding brightness. The shoe looks light and comfortable — and wearable.

”You have to be smart about how you create footwear that is going to work for that type of aesthetic,” Grimes says. “I would point you to the Launch. It has pretty easy-to-wear colorways but the designers have fun with the print and the pattern on it. That’s definitely a Tracksmith person shoe.”

Those blue and red shoes at the beginning of the piece? Brooks’s Launch model from a couple years ago. I’ll be buying another pair soon, and when I do, they’ll pair nicely with the Tracksmith shorts I got for Christmas. Meet me at the bar? We can fit in together.

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