I can count the number of sneakers I’ve bought this year on one hand. Part of this is due to getting older and becoming more selective with how I spend my money, but, honestly, a much bigger part of it is because 2016 has been an underwhelming year for sneakers.
Sure, some hot shoes have dropped. We recently covered the best sneakers, best sneaker collaborations, and the best Air Jordans of the year so far, but something just seemed off compared to past years. That much is apparent—the hard part is finding a single reason for the lack of enthusiasm, and that’s because it’s more of a combination of factors.
Let’s start by looking at Air Jordans. Last December, Nike announced it was “evolving” its remastered retro Jordan campaign by bringing “Nike Air” branding back to certain Jordan retros and, in the words of vice president of Jordan Footwear Yuron White, “Diving into the internal part: innovation of the fit, feel and comfort of the shoes.”
“Nike Air” branding and improved comfort? Count me in. These improvements started with that month’s “Maroon” Jordan VI launch and have continued into 2016 with the return of the “White/Cement” Jordan IVs—which are one of the best releases this year—and the upcoming “Black/Metallic” Jordan Vs. The problem is that these O.G.-style retros are simply too few and far between. For every proper Air Jordan retro we get, it feels like there’s a month or two worth of duds that follow.
The best and most premium new colorways, like the “OVO” Jordan Xs, Just Don x Jordan IIs, and “Wings” Jordan XIIs, are also some of the hardest to acquire at retail. Unless people get lucky on release day or are willing to shell out big bucks on the resell market, they’re often left simply scrolling through Instagram to catch a glimpse. That’s enough to have anyone feeling a little disillusioned, but the disappointment doesn’t end with Air Jordans.
Retro footwear aside, Nike’s new performance and lifestyle releases have been uncharacteristically bland. Look, I love Flyknit as much as anyone, but a) not every shoe needs a Flyknit makeover and b) throwing Flyknit on a sneaker doesn’t automatically make it great. It seems kind of surprising to me that a brand known for raising the bar with innovation and doing crazy things with design seems so comfortable relying on technology that debuted in 2012.
Sneakers like the LunarEpic Flyknit, Air Zoom All Out Flyknit, and the SB Koston 3 were touted as innovative, game-changing designs, and while they’re all nice shoes, game changers they are not. Along with other recent releases like the Free Mercurial Flyknit and Flyknit Magista, everything sort of starts to look the same after awhile. Not only that, but they’re not the easiest shoes to wear; they’re hard to get your foot into, and most of them only look good with sweatpants. It’s really hard to get excited about buying a shoe that’s basically just a Lunar Flyknit Chukka—which was an outstanding shoe when it released over three years ago—with a sock attached to it in 2016.
Elsewhere, the common perception is that adidas is killing it lately (it is), and some might even say that it’s even “taking over” Nike in terms of buzz (that’s partially true, too). But that’s not to say that adidas has had a flawless track record in 2016.
One thing adidas could have done differently was its Yeezy releases. After catching lightning in a bottle in 2015 by introducing the one sneaker franchise that can even be mentioned in the same sentence as the Jumpman, I can’t help but shake the feeling that adidas squandered a chance to keep the momentum rolling strong into the new year.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take a lot more than a few months without a Yeezy release to make people lose interest, and I know the last thing that adidas and Kanye want to do is saturate the market, but it’s surprising that the brand waited almost half-a-year to drop a new pair. When the “Light Grey/Gum” Yeezy Boost 750s finally arrived, they were unquestionably one of the year’s best, but they were one of the hardest sneakers to purchase this year.
Not only that, but February’s “Pirate Black” Yeezy Boost 350 re-release left everyone scratching their head a bit. As much as people appreciated a second chance at one of 2015’s best sneakers and the slight tweaks like improved ankle padding, it felt like this slot could have gone to something more exciting—“All White” 350s, anyone?
With all of that, one of the biggest stories of 2016 has been the rapidly growing adidas NMD. After debuting in late 2015, the NMD range caught fire early this year. People were lining up in droves to get their hands on the sneakers, resell values are through the roof, and all of this was happening without a celebrity endorsement or co-sign. Unfortunately, as great as the NMD is, adidas is showing little restraint with new releases. This is great for those who struggled to pick up a pair, but the countless colorways are starting to give everyone Roshe Run flashbacks, and we all know how those turned out.
2016 has been something of a rollercoaster year for Under Armour. The brand came into the year with more momentum than anyone, reporting a 95 percent increase in footwear sales in 2015 and kicking off 2016 with some of its highest quarterly earnings ever. The numbers don’t lie, but when it comes to really moving the needle with sneakerheads, it feels like there’s something missing in this equation.
By now, you’ve seen how the “Chef” Curry 2 Lows became victim to Internet memes and late night talk show roasts. While one can make the argument that any publicity is good publicity, there’s no getting around the fact that these are just an extremely boring shoe. They’re also a pretty good indicator of the state of sneakers so far this year—when a shoe this dull is making headlines, you know something’s off. At the end of the day, they’re not nearly as bad as people are making them out to be, and we’ve seen much worse throughout the years, but you won’t catch me rushing out to cop a pair anytime soon.
Not only that, but it seems like one of the only times people were really excited for Curry’s Under Armour sneakers was when the brand rolled out pre-orders for a limited edition “Back 2 Back MVP” pack. Both pairs of shoes were nice, but it felt like most of the fanfare around them was because they were special—and, more importantly, limited. Where was this kind of buzz for all the other general release Curry 2s that dropped this year? Are people buying them because they’re a great shoe, or is it because Curry’s a great player? It’s starting to look like the latter.
It’s not just the big brands that are to blame, either. Sneaker collaborations seem like a dying art these days, with almost every boutique from coast to coast throwing their hat in the mix, many of whom have no business choosing a colorway, much less designing a sneaker, in the first place. This is something that's been bubbling for awhile now, but it's worse than it's ever been in 2016. Listen, just because you own a sneaker store or clothing brand doesn't necessarily mean you need your own shoe.
As frustrating as all of this is, one of the bigger issues is brands relying on retro product too much. Everyone will always love Air Force 1s, Stan Smiths, and Jordan 1s, but there’s other product making its way onto the market that we’ve seen for the umpteenth time, and it’s starting to get boring.
The indifference that many of us are feeling about sneakers this year has more to do with the things brands aren’t doing than what they’re doing wrong. Instead of creating an excellent product first and letting the shoes do the talking, the trend these days is to attach a sneaker to a particular theme or moment in time, slap a limited edition tag on it, and hope that it’s enough to generate interest. It’s nothing new, but it’s happening now more than ever, and the “pay to play” stigma makes it especially hard for newcomers to get involved in this lifestyle.
It seems like there are less fresh ideas than ever these days; once a brand finds something that works, they ride it until the wheels fall off, often ruining what made it special in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle, and, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like like one that will slow down anytime soon. On the bright side, things can only improve from here, right?