An Introduction to 'Happy Trails', Sneaker Freaker's Guide to the Great Outdoors
From Mont Blanc to the Mojave Desert, Paris Fashion Week to Patta, footwear designed for cross country hiking and backwoods trails is having a serious moment in the sun. Strap your clogs on, crack open a kombucha and kick back in your camping chair as Sneaker Freaker guides you through an extensive expedition into the Great Outdoors.
The relationship between ornamentation and functionality has been much debated since ‘form follows function’ was popularised over 100 years ago. Architects, industrial designers, fashion gurus, engineers and others have all weighed in on the age-old dilemma. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright suggested that ‘Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union’, while Oscar Neimeyer, renowned for his elegant modernist buildings, had a slightly different take, ‘My work is not about form follows function but form follows beauty or even better, form follows feminine.’ On the other hand, the acerbic American software designer Alan Cooper was typically no-nonsense with his ‘Form follows function straight to hell’ riposte. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move on to the good stuff!
Endemic players Nike, adidas and New Balance are no strangers to trail-ready product. The Swoosh offered up its first outdoors footwear (Lava Dome, Magma and Approach) in 1981 with the Nike Hiking collection, which was a precursor to the All Conditions Gear (ACG) sub-label. Tinker Hatfield’s Air Mowabb, Geoff Hollister’s Aqua Sock and Sergio Lozano’s Pocket Knife are three ACG classics that still pop up occasionally in seasonal catalogues. Many of the most beloved ACG designs can be attributed to Peter Fogg, creator of the Air Humara, Terra Humara, Terra Sertig, Terra Albis and Air Minot among others.
In Germany, adidas made their first foray into the outdoors in the 1970s when they worked with professional climbers like Reinhold Messner to develop approach and trekking shoes that would stand up to the most intimidating summits. The Feet You Wear sub-label contained a few outdoors gems such as the Badlander and EQT Adventure XTR, which both arrived a decade before the adidas Outdoor range was launched in 2007.
New Balance’s track-to-trail transition started over 40 years ago when Nora-Tuff outsoles were retro-fitted to the marathon-winning 320 runner. The knobbly tread pattern on the Trail 355 may not seem like a ground-breaking moment but it can be considered a prototype of every lightweight trail runner that followed.
In an ambitious case of ‘go big or go home’, the peak of New Balance’s off-road exploits arrived in 1984 when mountaineer Lou Whittaker led the first American expedition to successfully climb the north face of Mt Everest. Built for speed, the Rainier featured a pliable sole unit that enabled climbers to move quickly, which saved energy and prevented fatigue. Sitting underneath the rich chestnut leather and CORDURA panelling was a classic Vibram sole unit. The Italian company’s proprietary pyramid tread pattern would appear on thousands more trail models over the years. The provocative print advertising campaign pulled no punches, proclaiming ‘an unfair comparison’ with overweight competitors that were three times heavier and guaranteed a ‘trail of tears’ for their owners.
In the 1990s, Helly Hansen, The North Face and Timberland were all co-opted by New York’s hip hop style scions, but these days it’s a new breed of outdoor brands that have incisively entered the lifestyle market.
Salomon, La Sportiva, ROA, Ecco, Merrell, Hoka One One and On are rotating their products through boutique retailers, collaborating with culturally credible partners and dropping specialised releases to a loyal audience that may or may not use them as their maker intended. If you walk into any leading streetwear boutique around the world today, chances are you’ll see retro Jordans sharing a shelf with the aforementioned suite of brands and GORE-TEX-infused trail burners such as the ACG Zoom Terra Antarktik and the Merrell 1TRL Moab Speed GTX.,
Triple F for Fashion
More than a decade ahead of time, Ralph Lauren’s catwalk appearance in 2006 at Olympus Fashion Week wearing foot-wide denim and shiny Salomon XA Pro GTXs on his feet was the ultimate early-adopter endorsement from the fashion establishment. In 2013, Raf Simons introduced a redesigned adidas Ozweego with extra elevation. Dismissed as an oddity at the time, the general weirdness was warmly embraced by Raf’s loyal fash aficionados.
The original adidas version of the Ozweego runner debuted in 1996 and shares zero surface-level similarities to Raf’s design which is distinctly bulbous and features protruding gel blisters on the upper. It took a few years to coalesce but the attention paid to hybrid-chunky-hiking-fashion runners gave Raf’s Ozweego an extra set of legs and sales boomed between 2015 and 2018, especially among in-the-know European stylists, editors and photographers.
In the context of capital ‘F’ fashion, the hiking trend really started to percolate in 2014 when the Salomon Speedcross first appeared on the shelves of The Broken Arm, a luxury French fashion boutique. Stop by the store during Paris Fashion Week and there’s a decent chance of running into celebrities and fashion insiders like Skepta, Tremaine Emory and Luka Sabbat. Two of The Broken Arm’s founders – Romain Joste and Guillaume Steinmetz – are keen trail runners, which inspired an official collaboration between these unlikely bedfellows in 2015. Seasonal projects soon followed including the popular XT-4 and XT-6, along with more obscure silhouettes like the RX Slide 3.0. Stylist Marcus Paul placed Salomon footwear on the feet of Pusha T and Rihanna among others, just as other influential lifestyle retailers started to push Salomon to the forefront. No doubt about it, the outdoors trend was officially underway.
Shortly after that, Nike re-energised their outdoor business. The partnership with designer Errolson Hugh had injected futuristic-techwear (not dissimilar to Hugh’s own brand Acronym) into ACG, but when that creative relationship waned in 2018, Nike moved away from ‘urban ninja’ mode and eased back into classic ACG throwbacks like the Dog Mountain and the pun-laden Air Revaderchi. The overarching message was simple. You don’t need over-engineered $1000 outerwear to go out and have fun under a big sky – get out there any which way you can and just do it!
Then came the tsunami that was the Triple S. Shown on the Parisian runway in January 2017, the Balenciaga Triple S derived its name from the cartoony proportions of its triple-layered sole, which was created using moulds taken from running, basketball and track shoes that were stacked on top of each other. For better or for worse, this hulking specimen was a runaway sales success for Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director. Described by the brand as ‘high-fashion spec’, the $800 price-point and discombobulating shape made it a monstrosity in some eyes and a desirable status symbol for others. The Triple S wasn’t the only high-fashion hiker demanding attention. Gucci, Prada and Acne Studios all weighed in with their own trail-ready offerings to meet the growing demand for $500 mountain boots. Matthew Williams’ label 1017 ALYX 9SM also created a curious low-top hiker that came with a detachable Vibram harness, similar to ice-climbing crampons.
All of this coincided with an explosion of outdoorist accessories, including Oakley ‘speed-dealer’ shades, The North Face jacket retros, Patagonia side bags and quilted shell jackets from every brand on the planet. Louis Vuitton’s (hilarious) $1600 chalk bag was the pinnacle moment as demand for quasi-outdoors gear boomed. Collaborations also started to propagate, with Engineered Garments x Hoka One One, Palace Skateboards x Salomon and Outdoor Voices x Merrell leading the charge.
Every brand with a decent archive was soon digging in the basement for a 90s-retro hiking silhouette they could resuscitate and bring back to life. Merrell went one step further and introduced a retro-futuro collection they dubbed 1TRL, curating a selection of outdoors-tested footwear gems like the MTL Long Sky, a lightweight racer equipped with a Vibram sole, as well as the Jungle Moc, a heritage slip-on defined by its suede upper.
Kanye West couldn’t resist lacing up the Hoka One One Tor Ultra Hi 2, a waterproof high-top that featured the brand’s trademark maximalist sole unit. Hoka’s super-chunky midsoles are equally noteworthy for their performance credentials and strong looks, as evidenced by the Clifton Edge and the all-new TenNine Hiker, which is reviewed here in Happy Trails.
In February 2020, the Hadid sisters walked Virgil Abloh’s Off-White runway wearing custom Arc’teryx Alpha SV GORE-TEX shell jackets in 24K Black, as well as mountain-bright Utopia green and Thalassa blue, the latter of which Abloh was seen rocking himself. The Alpha SV is specifically engineered for the harshest mountain conditions (SV stands for severe) so it’s as far from a flippant fashion accessory as you can get. Abloh reportedly obtained the jackets at his own expense and with tailoring scissors in hand, hemmed them into crop tops.
The last-minute catwalk stunt raised eyebrows, but if you consider Abloh’s signature ‘AIR’ branding as similar to quotation flairs used by graffiti writers, plus the fact that many covert practitioners covet and thieve Arc’teryx jackets, then things start to make a bit more sense. A year later Arc’teryx created collaborative Alpha SV jackets with Palace Skateboards. The product description on Palace’s website noted ‘DON’T BE MOIST’, totally in keeping with the London brand’s irreverent style of copywriting.
Fashion’s obsession with outdoor gear was now impossible to ignore. Arc’teryx was duly written about by Vogue, who ran a quote from Abloh saying, ‘They’re a Canadian brand, considered a luxury by everyone in that world. So they’re like the equal of haute couture in fashion.’
Sneakerheads have long obsessed over suede, mesh and nubuck, but the conversation has now turned to outdoors buzzwords like BOA Fit lacing, Vibram Megagrip soles, ballistic CORDURA nylon, Polartec fleece and GORE-TEX waterproof membranes.
The latter has experienced a colossal surge in popularity as it became a streetwear staple at Supreme and other brands. The ‘GTX’ branding has become noticeably bigger and bolder, featuring in all-over patterns and oversized typography. ASICS dropped a pack of GEL-Kayano 5 360s with massive GORE-TEX letters taking up half the upper. Converse issued Chuck Taylor All Stars with prominent lettering, which would have seemed utterly strange just a year or two ago but now looks absolutely natural. ‘Guaranteed to keep you dry’ was suddenly cooler than ever.
Slip and Slide
When the summer months come around, sandals, slides and clogs pushed the outdoors trend into lower-intensity social applications. Teva and Birkenstock both had moments. Suicoke is an open-toe specialist from Japan, where oddities like Crocs somehow cemented their cool status long before the oft-derided go-to brand for nurses and chefs collaborated with Post Malone and Pleasures. Merrell’s HydroMoc and the Yeezy Foam RNNR Ararat are far from qualifying as legit hikers, but their current ubiquity is certainly underpinned by the rise of technical footwear.
In 2020, The New York Times covered this trend in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, writing ‘Weird Times Call for Even Weirder Shoes.’
Instagram mood boards have emerged over the last few years, acting as online archives that chronicle streetwear, sneakers and culture. Accounts like organiclab.zip and veryadvanced have attracted large followings for their curated view of the outdoors, specifically vintage Patagonia catalogues, Vibram FiveFinger approach shoes and beauty shots of vintage Toyota LandCruisers. Memes illustrated a degree of self-awareness, acknowledging it was a bit strange that sneakerheads were now obsessed with high-spec outdoor gear, including ‘I bet you can’t name five climbers.’ The Archivist SOH is obviously as dry as Colorado mountain air.,
Is this snowballing outdoors movement part of the larger wellness trend? Perhaps. Fresh mountain air has long been a tonic for humans looking to recharge circadian batteries. The correlation between mental and physical health has never had a higher profile and many youngins do seem to be trading late nights at the disco for early starts on the trail. Given the endless COVID-19 lockdowns, this yearning has obviously been amplified, but maybe it’s also a subconscious attempt to rediscover and reconnect with nature at a time when climate change has become a critical global issue.
Or maybe it’s none of those eminently worthy things at all! As sneaker trends wax and wane – as they always do – perhaps we have simply arrived at one of those magical moments in the universe where the zeitgeist collides with brands at the mountain peak of their powers and obsessives hungry for dope hikers and the latest fly-fishing vest fashion. These are just a few random thoughts as I pondered the bigger picture.
As they say in the classics, if you’ve got the gear, you might as well flaunt it! Time for a glorious 80-page hike as Sneaker Freaker takes the long road home via the scenic route. From Salomon, La Sportiva, Hoka One One and Danner, to Merrell 1TRL, Ecco, ROA and On, enjoy our preview of this year’s trail and hiking footwear highlights. We also catch up with the musical maverick Teki Latex, who brilliantly contextualises his appreciation for multi-coloured outerwear and abstract footwear. Happy Trails, peoples!
Grab your copy of Issue 45 now via the Sneaker Freaker shop!