There was a wondrous time when socks were socks and sneakers were sneakers. It was easy enough to discern the difference between the two: the socks would be made of cotton or wool and the sneakers would be made of mesh, suede, or leather. But those idealistic days are gone. Now we have the best (or worst) of both worlds: Fucking sock sneakers. And they’re everywhere. So much so that they’re causing issues within economic supply chains and need to be stopped at all costs.
According to a recent report by Bloomberg, wool prices have jumped to an all-time high, causing the fabric to skyrocket 30 percent over the past year, largely due to the fact that the footwear industry is being driven by knitted sneakers at the moment.
“It can only go up, it can’t go down,” said Chief Executive Officer Stuart McCullough of Australian Wool Innovation in regards to the price of wool. Which means that subsequently the price of sock sneakers will go up as well.
To say I hate these sort of sneakers would be an understatement. Your feet squirm around in them. You can see the knuckles of your toes in the sneaker. You can’t wear regular pants with them without looking like Michael Jordan. You can’t wear them when it rains (yes, I know there are Gore-Tex versions, too). And, last but not least, you have an elastic sock collar on most of these sneakers that pry away at the circulation in your feet. You have to reach down in the morning and yank them on to your feet, and at the end of the day you go home and have indents on your ankle. Fuck that.
What’s ironic about my current disdain towards sock sneakers is that I actually used to be their biggest proponent. The first sock shoe, the Nike Sock Racer, was designed by Tinker Hatfield in 1986 with a purpose. Nike was looking to make a marathon sneaker that felt like you were wearing socks. And it worked. The Sock Racer ended up being worn by runner Ingrid Kristiansen as she won that year’s Boston Marathon. Talk about big socks, I mean, shoes to fill.
I was always fascinated with Sock Race. It felt important, although weird. But as quickly as it emerged, the sock shoe design kind of disappeared from the market. Then, in the year 2000, Tobie Hatfield, Tinker’s brother, designed the Nike Air Presto, which was billed as “the T-shirt for your feet.” The shoe was revolutionary and is the genesis of nearly every slip-on, sock shoe today. Virgil Abloh designed a pair last year and we ranked it the best sneaker of 2017. But Tobie Hatfield never saw the success coming. In a 2016 interview, he told me, “I don’t think any project starts with that expectation [of being popular]. You hope, but you never know until it gets out there. Never did I think it would become a global icon and touch the feet of millions. It’s crazy.”
But, still, the sock sneaker was still a micro trend in the footwear industry. It wasn’t until 2004 when the modern sock shoe was created by Tobie’s older brother, Tinker, when he worked on the Nike Sock Dart. It was the brand’s first fully knitted sneaker and even Nike didn’t think it was a good idea. At least at the time. It was limited to an HTM release (Hatfield’s collective with CEO Mark Parker and Hiroshi Fujiwara), which meant that only a few thousand pairs were made and sold through limited retail channels.
“I was disappointed when the brand didn’t get behind that shoe very much. Part of the problem was that it was so different. It was difficult for a lot of people to recognize it as a new idea,” Tinker Hatfield told me during a 2016 interview. “I was bummed that we only made a few thousand pairs. They sold and then the project went away for awhile. Yet, what’s great about Nike is that that someone else took the mantle of knitting and built off the foundation of the Sock Dart, and we ended up with Flyknit.”
Nike went all in on knitted sneakers in 2012 with the debut of Flyknit technology and integrated into nearly every sneaker in the brand’s line. If we’re talking about the success of Nike over the past five years, Flyknit is one of the biggest attributes to it. After the technology’s success, the brand brought back the Sock Dart in 2014 to rave reviews.
Another step in the sock shoe evolution is the Nike Free, which Tobie created, too, that revolutionized sneakers into products that went with a person’s natural motion. Kind of like a sock.
The technology became so ever present that it spawned other brands to follow suit. But when Adidas introduced their Primeknit in, it caused a legal battle with Nike, around the same time that Flyknit launched in 2012 at the London Olympics. When Kanye West stuck his foot into the sneaker game even he made sock shoes. Then, came the NMD, which Adidas has since made 10,000 colorways of and sold at every sneaker store around the globe. Now nearly every other sneaker that Adidas makes looks like a sock. The same can be said for Puma, Under Armour, Balenciaga, Skechers, and even LeBron James’ signature basketball sneaker. They all look like socks.
There are low-cut sock shoes. Comfortable sock shoes. Not so comfortable sock shoes. Shoes that are just a little bit of knitting. Ones that come up to your shin and are made to replace your actual socks. Or, are you supposed to double-wrap your foot and wear a sock underneath? Who knows. It’s gotten to the point where it’s harder to find a sneaker that’s leather or suede than one that’s a sock. Even the $15 pairs that you find on the racks of discount and bootleg retailers are socks.
The trend has gotten so absurd that Vetements, the high-end streetwear brand famous for its trolling designs, has made a sneaker with Reebok that's literally a pair of its socks placed on a midsole. As far as I'm concerned, that sneaker and anyone who wears it can fuck all the way off.
I’m over it. I’m not the only one, either. There’s been a backlash brewing. Just look at the rise in popularity of dad sneakers, with their white leather uppers and chunky midsoles, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Is Adidas going to sell more pairs of the 37th iteration of the NMD in 2018 than New Balance will of its 990? Absolutely. But it shouldn’t stop you from moving on to the new trend, which is actually the old trend.
What made sock sneakers feel special was that it was something new. A different approach to the same conundrum: How can we make a cool and functional sneaker? Last I checked, leather shoes worked just fine. I know there are ethical issues, yada, yada, yada… and it’s easier to produce wool or yarn than leather, and it will make vegans feel good about the shoes. But I want sneakers that look and feel like sneakers. Not socks.