The Rise of the Mule
The mule is one of many silhouettes that has defined 2020. We’ve seen the Reebok Beatnik take over the globe, Birkenstock’s Boston enter the mainstream, and multiple sneaker brands respond to the movement with a mule or mule-esque design. They’re constantly featured on the biggest moodboards, and even have their own Instagram page (muleboyz) run by industry insiders Jian DeLeon and Noah Thomas.
Whether you like it or not, the mule has infiltrated this year’s sneakerscape, and it wasn’t just a random occurrence – the mule movement has been brewing for a hot minute. We think it’s here to stay, because it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
The world’s sneaker titans have recently started to cater to the growing need for backless designs. The current attitude of consumers is that they want ease of entry and exit. Loungewear is massive, and has been for years, so it makes sense that lounge-esque shoes are joining in on the action. Nike came out with their Offline at the perfect time, almost predicting that we would live in a world where we’d all be stuck at home 24/7.
Classic silhouettes have also been switched up, having their heel removed. Reebok came out with the Club C mule, and DIY queen Nicole McLaughlin has also been paving the way, creating mules from literally everything – including oranges and lunchboxes! The North Face’s Traction Mule has even been given a Hender Scheme makeover.
The backless shoe/mule/clog isn’t a new thing by any means, it has deep historical roots, going all the way back to ancient Rome, and enjoying heightened popularity throughout Europe in the 16th century. A shoe never to be worn outside, it instead remained on the feet of the upper class within the confines of their houses.
Fast forwarding to the 90s and early 2000s, and sneaker brands started experimenting with the mule silhouette. Team Swoosh came out with backless Air Maxes and the Clogposite, which notoriously turned the fan-favourite Foamposite into a clog. ACG, Nike’s hiking off-shoot, has also been creating mules for years, such as the Rufus 2. Reebok came in clutch in the early 90s with the birth of the Beatnik, which is now making the resurrection of a lifetime. A Bathing Ape also chimed in, with their Bape Sta Clog, before bringing it back in 2019 in collaboration with Ugg. New Balance even have their notoriously dad-style 801 Clog, and later reworked the 990v3.
Taking it to 2015, Alessandro Michele was busy brewing his vision for Gucci. He had models hit the runway over the following few years rocking backless beauties. Loud, proud and in-your-face, the mule started to make a name for itself among the mainstream.
Moving away from the luxury-side of things, and back to sneakers, you may have also seen a growing trend of people stomping around in their Yeezys or Vans Old Skools with the backs folded in. There are a number of reasons for this, but we’re going to point at K-pop star G-Dragon. The style icon was seen on multiple occasions rocking Vans as slippers, prompting fans to adopt the trend. Vans took notice, and recently have been pushing their key silhouettes with no backs on them at all!
Another integral ingredient contributing to the rise is, of course, the Birkenstock Boston. Although in the past they’ve been considered to be the shoes of modern day hippies, it has morphed from that reputation into the shoe of the jawnz enthusiast. It’s now entered the mainstream market, becoming almost an everyday-guy kind of shoe.
In a way, the rise of GORPcore has contributed to the rise in the popularity of the mule silhouette, especially the Reebok Beatnik. Born in Japan in the early 90s, the Beatnik was part of Reebok’s entry into the hiking market, boasting a moccasin-like upper, a strap to secure the heel, and a rugged outsole. Although it didn’t take off in the West, it quickly developed cult status within the Japanese market.
Many years later, the Beatnik experienced a modern resurgence thanks to Japanese brand Needles, whose roots are deep within Japanese fashion culture. This was a strategic move from the ‘Bok, as Needles wasn’t exactly a well-known brand within the hype-community, but this colab got the Beatnik into the hands of the trend-setting if-you-know-you-know crowd. They then followed on with the Pleasures and Brain Dead colab, plus a slew of GR releases that cemented it into 2020.
New Balance Design Studio is also paving the way for mule hiking-lovers. NB came out with the Niobium, a transformable shoe that transfers effortlessly from the trails to the living room. This, and the fact that 2020’s Beatnik has the option to remove the strap, further confirms how badly people wanted the slipper design. Even the ACG Moc 3.0 and Gucci’s Ace sneaker have arrived with heels that are able to be collapsed.
Of course, the fact that a global pandemic is currently changing the lifestyles of many, a decent chunk of the population has been spending quite a bit of time at home. The flow-on effect of this current state of affairs could be that people don’t want to be wearing their sneakers in the house, so they opt for that #cozyboys option instead.
The final theory about the rise of the mule is its moodboard potential! There’s no doubt that in 2020 moodboards are running the scene, and the picture-perfect aesthetic nature of a shoe has a massive impact on how it’s perceived by the mass audiences. Seeding shoes to the right people who then take those ultra-artsy pics that then get featured on the biggest moodboards on IG is integral. Assuming you’ve been paying enough attention, you’d be lying if you said you hadn’t seen a clog mixed with Kapital Smiley Socks, aesthetic shots of obscure early 2000s ACG mules, or Chrome Hearts Birkenstock Bostons as you scroll across your IG feed.
Whether the mule movement has got you buggin’ or lovin’, they’ve become a daily driver for many sneakerheads out in the world today. Which begs the question: if the mule can make it this far, what else could? Will the tabi finally be appreciated by the masses? Or will we start exposing other parts of the foot like when Virgil cut out circles in the Off-White x Air Jordan 5s? Whatever the case, we’re keen to see what the future holds.