The Niche Sport Driving Sneaker Sales

The $150 billion athletic footwear market is faltering.

Trail running, an endurance sport that takes place over rough terrain over hills, forests and mountains, is growing in popularity. According to World Athletics, global attendance increased by 106 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year. The specialty shoes that have to withstand grueling physical exertion make up a tiny but fast-growing segment of the performance footwear category.

While it’s still a niche sport, megabrands and startups alike are betting that trail running will become the next big activewear category.

In 2020, fashion industry veterans Willa and Nick Martire founded Norda to make an ultralight sneaker that looked good and looked good on dirt trails (trail races can range from three to 100 miles), said Nick, a past president the Authentic Brands Group and the Canadian fashion group Aldo.

Designed at their home outside of Montreal, the Norda 001 trail running shoe caused a stir among running enthusiasts and fashion insiders when it was launched in July 2021, hitting the shelves of Dover Street Market, Kith and Ssense.

Three months later they received a surprise call from the Italian luxury house Ermenegildo Zegna asking them to work on a product collaboration.

Norda’s $210 trail shoes are now available at over 160 running and fashion specialty stores worldwide, and in February Zegna took a minority stake in the fledgling footwear brand. On Monday, the pair launched their first collaboration, a capsule collection of trail-inspired footwear designed by the former and outerwear designed by the luxury Italian menswear brand, available in Zegna stores worldwide and retailers such as Harrods and Ssense is to be sold.

Going beyond just collaborating and investing in a small trail shoe brand that operates in a tiny niche market was an interesting decision. The Italian luxury group is in a hot phase as it repositions itself as a luxury casualwear brand and no longer as a formal wear specialist. Its newfound presence in the outdoor and performance wear categories should help the brand further diversify its appeal amid the casualization of menswear.

The partnership will allow the company to access a customer base focused on the outdoor luxury category, Zegna artistic director Alessandro Sartori told BoF.

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Tapping into a business at the top of the fast-growing trail category could also boost the group’s bottom line over the long term.

Zegna's investment in Norda comes as the Italian luxury house shifts its product offering to focus on lifestyle rather than formal wear.

Trail shoes, apparel and accessories are beginning to generate significant sales for larger activewear brands like On and Asics as they expand their trail offerings and enlist professional trail athletes as brand ambassadors.

Fashion brands and retailers are embracing the gritty, outdoor aesthetic of trail running by collaborating with established specialists like Salomon and Merrell. Buzzy brands like Soar Running and Paris-based Satisfy make stylish trail apparel and accessories like breathable balaclavas and hydration vests to capitalize on the sport’s growing appeal among regular running and lifestyle consumers who value the durability and… technical elements of trail products such as water resistance, insulation and ultra-lightweight materials such as the Dyneema fabric used for the uppers of Norda’s running shoes.

Meanwhile, the Gorpcore-friendly outdoor aesthetic of trail products has caught the eye of fashion consumers. Salomon’s recent evolution from a niche outdoor gear brand to a sneaker powerhouse was built on the sudden popularity of its XT-6 model, the now famous trail shoe worn by the likes of Rihanna and Bella Hadid. TikTok has also helped spread the aesthetic and well-being of sport: #trailrunning has over 400 million views on the platform.

“Whenever an activity heats up, especially one that attracts a broad demographic, a product will follow,” said Tim Newcomb, journalist and athletic footwear specialist. “Just as we’ve seen tennis and basketball impact shoes, Trail is starting to have a similar impact.”

A merchandising gold mine

For Japanese sportswear giant Asics, trail is one of the fastest-growing performance categories in terms of revenue, with a compound annual growth rate of 10 percent over the past three years, according to Magdalena Gassebner, the brand’s trail product marketing specialist. In 2018, trail inspired the first iteration of Asics’ most iconic lifestyle sneaker collaboration with menswear designer Kiko Kostadinov, who borrowed the upper of the GEL-VENTURE 6 trail shoe.

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Since 2020, Asics has invested heavily in the category, adding new performance products and growing the roster of sponsored trail athletes from six to 45 trail runners, with the addition of 24-year-old rising star Sara Alonso.

Last week, Nike announced an expansion of its own trail category and presented new shoe models such as the “Nike Kiger 9” and the waterproof “Pegasus Trail 4 GORE-TEX”.

Swiss running brand On is also “dedicating more and more resources” to its trail category, said Annaleigh Hockaday, the brand’s Global Head of Product Performance Outdoor. Following the launch of trail shoes in 2016, On will introduce a head-to-toe sports apparel line this summer. “Trail is a small but significant part of On’s business – this segment is growing year over year and we plan to continue to evolve and grow to reach more trail users,” said Hockaday.

As participation in the sport increases, thanks to the range of gear that participants need, there are endless merchandising opportunities for brands with dedicated trail offerings like Nike, On and Asics. Due to the extreme nature of trail running competitions, many of which are over 100km long and held in sub-zero or blisteringly hot temperatures, each race comes with a list of mandatory gear, including hydration vests that allow runners to drink through a hose and store essential groceries and medical gear, as well as breathable jackets, shorts, visors, thermos and sunglasses, depending on the conditions.

In addition to the growing popularity of trail running itself, Gassebner credits the adoption of trail products by regular runners and lifestyle consumers for the increase in sales.

So does Brice Partouche, founder of fast-growing luxury running brand Satisfy, which raised $2.5 million in a funding round led by public investment bank Bpifrance in late 2021.

Satisfy, trail running, BoF, active wear

Over 70 percent of Satisfy apparel is made for trail competitions and meets the industry gold standard UTMB, named after a famous trail race in the French Alps. Today, a growing portion of the brand’s sales come from casual road runners who see the durability and quality of trail gear as worth the extra investment, Partouche said. (For example, a Satisfy windbreaker costs 390 euros, and the brand’s shorts cost 180 euros – far more than what consumers pay for performance running clothing at Nike or Adidas.)

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Gorp friendly equipment

When Partouche founded Satisfy in 2015, “He made it a clear strategy to align ourselves with the fashion calendar,” hosting showrooms and group runs with buyers and friends of the brand each year during Paris Men’s Fashion Week, he said. Often shot mid-race in deserts and forests, the brand’s visually stimulating marketing campaigns feature many of the long-haired, tattooed, hipster ultrarunners who make up their community. Meanwhile, the popularity of trail products as a fashion item has skyrocketed in recent years in the form of trends such as Gorpcore-centric technical footwear and apparel.

It’s Satisfy’s fashion-forward approach to trail aesthetics, combined with its reputation for creating technologically advanced gear for experienced trail athletes, that has led to the brand being featured in market-leading running specialty stores like Glasgow’s Achilles Heel, as well as luxury fashion retailers like Browns , Mytheresa and Mr. Porter.

“Trail culture is like skateboarding — even if you don’t practice the sport, people still want to show they’re part of the community by wearing trail shoes or technical clothing,” Partouche told BoF.

Brands are betting that demand-trail products will long outlast the trends like Gorpcore that helped propel the niche sport into the broader fashion industry.

It’s no longer about the watch you own, but what the sneakers on your feet say about you as a person.

Merrell, a 40-year-old Michigan hiking and trail shoe manufacturer, has become an incredibly well-known Gorpcore favorite over the past two years, collaborating with brands like Sweaty Betty and recently launching a capsule collection in colorful iterations of its shoes Collaboration with the famous stylist Jason Bolden.

“Performance is now a lifestyle,” said Nick Martire of Norda. “Especially in men’s fashion, it’s no longer about your own watch, but about what the sneakers on your feet say about you as a person.”

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