I was 14 years old when I bought my first pair of Sauconys.
It was fall 2001, I was entering my freshman year in high school, and I needed a new pair of sneakers for the school year. My last sneakers were all-white K-Swiss with D-ring metal eyelets and a lace jewel right at the toebox. The exact name escapes me, and K-Swiss no longer makes them, but they were my go-to pair in middle school, and it wasn’t long before they turned into beaters.
I had my mom drive me to the mall, where I headed straight to Foot Locker to check out the selection. My criteria was specific: Because of my school’s uniform policy, I needed a pair that was white, black, or a neutral, and because I was a kid growing up in the Bay Area, I needed a silhouette where I could easily puff the tongue with a rolled-up sock. Coupled with my parents’ budget, my choices were limited. After browsing the wall of shoes, I left the store in just under 15 minutes with a pair of the Saucony Shadow Originals in white leather with grey accents.
Saucony has already released 16 collaboration sneakers with 10 different companies.
For a 14-year-old kid in 2001, it was a strange choice. Back then, everyone rocked Reebok Question Mids, Nike Air Force 1s, adidas Superstars, and of course Js. I didn't know anything about Saucony. I didn't even know if it was pronounced SAW-CUH-NEE, or SUH-COH-NEE (for the record, it’s the former). I just knew for under $70, the sneakers were clean and had a nice low-profile cut—the same attributes that drew me to the K-Swiss—and they also had this cool netting detail in the back. I wore them to the ground, and they lasted me all four years in high school. Now, unless my dad finds himself doing yard work on the weekends, they're basically just collecting dust in a garage.
These days, Saucony still isn't exactly a go-to for your typical sneakerhead. Nike and Jordan Brand still dominate the market. And even for ‘heads who are into casual runners, Saucony usually trails behind New Balance and ASICS in terms of demand. But the American footwear company, which has been around for over 100 years—longer than New Balance and ASICS—is gaining traction in the niche world of sneaker culture. And they’re doing so at a fast pace.
We’re just about at the halfway point of the year and Saucony has already released 16 collaboration sneakers with 10 different companies. Saucony’s collaborated with plenty of brands in years past, but there’s been something different about 2014. For any brand looking to penetrate a new market, especially one with such a fickle audience as sneakerheads, it’s common to partner with a brand—usually an established retailer—that already has an engaged audience. Look what Ronnie Fieg did with ASICS: He made a brand that only serious runners really cared about cool amongst sneakerheads.
Earlier this year, Saucony came together with premier UK-based retailer End Clothing to create the Shadow 5000 “Burger.” The grade-A collab had all the fixings of a release that was no different than, say, a Nike Air Yeezy. The number of pairs produced was extremely limited and a majority of the releases were in-store only. Coupled with a unique design, the “Burgers” immediately fetched $400-$500 on eBay—uncharted territory for a runner that isn’t the Concepts x New Balance 999 “Kennedy” or a Ronnie Fieg creation.
It’s not just about ultra limited releases, either. Through unique storytelling and thoughtful presentation, Saucony’s been able to catch the attention of the average sneakerhead the same way Nike’s “All-Star Game” and “Christmas” collections typically do.
Michigan-based boutique Premier launched the Shadow 6000 “Life on Mars” pack that piqued sneakerheads’ curiosity about the red planet. It was instant heat: striking, bold, and fiery. New York retailer Extra Butter partnered with Saucony on a collection that was out of this world, too. Their three-sneaker “Space Race” pack was a galaxy-themed collection that transformed Saucony signatures like the Grid 9000 and Shadow Master with modern color blocking and eye-catching hues.
What makes 2014 even more notable for Saucony is that out of the 16 collaboration sneakers that have already released this year, none have come from Boston retailer Bodega—its top collaborator to date. It’s a testament to its growing fanbase and a nod to what Bodega saw years ago in the footwear company. Whether Saucony is consciously pushing collaborations or retailers are actively seeking them out, the point is: Someone is paying attention.
Collaborations have given Saucony access to an entirely new demographic, but it doesn’t rely solely on them. Last season, they reissued the Shadow 5000 in three O.G. colorways that first debuted in the late ‘80s. There was even a slew of non-collaboration Grid 9000s that dropped in the spring, which included the premium “3 Dots” pack.
Don’t be surprised if ‘heads start going into stores with Saucony in mind.
Unlike that 14-year-old kid who walked into a Foot Locker and left with a pair of shoes he couldn’t even pronounce, don’t be surprised if ‘heads start going into stores with Saucony in mind—collaboration or not. Whether it was a super limited launch like the “Burger” Shadow 5000s or a general release model, Saucony is now on the radar of sneakerheads who wouldn’t typically dare to venture beyond the Swoosh or Jumpman. The runner is making its way into many sneakerheads’ Instagram feeds, and Saucony purists can attest to the increased difficulty of copping the recent collaborations. And you better believe that this is just the beginning.
Saucony’s formula has been the same all these years and its most popular styles today aren’t even driven by new silhouettes or the latest sneaker technology. The company’s stayed in the cut, waited patiently, and just recently started to become every sneakerhead’s new favorite brand.
But don’t call them up-and-coming. Saucony’s been in the footwear industry for over a century, perfecting its craft in a niche that sneakerheads are just barely getting into. Perhaps Saucony’s been ahead of the curve all this time, and sneakerheads are the ones who are now just catching up.
John Q. Marcelo is a contributing writer to Complex. He lives in San Jose, Calif. and you can follow him on Twitter here.