LONDON, United Kingdom — Socks for Christmas? One should be so lucky. What was once the bugbear of its recipients is increasingly a prized gift, courtesy of the wide array of designer brands that have tapped into the often-ignored category.
Gucci’s crystal-embellished, logo-monogram socks stole the show in the recent Resort 2018 collection (they’re also approximately $1,000, but then again Falke’s vicuña socks consistently sell out, despite their $620 price tag.) Off-White and Gosha Rubchinskiy have tapped into the athletic socks that were once the reserve of the gym, imbuing them with graphic branding — and millennials can’t seem to get enough. For a few seasons, Thom Browne has been making fashionable socks that complement his abbreviate tailoring. Vetements, Loewe and Fendi have even gone so far as to create shoes that are designed to look like trompe l’œil sock-footwear combinations.
What is clear is that the ankle is having a moment. “It became a trend at Gucci,” says Chelsea Power, a buyer at MatchesFashion.com, who says the e-commerce site has experienced quadruple-digit growth in sales of socks in the last two years. “Two years ago, there were absolutely no socks at Gucci. Designers now understand that it’s a big opportunity in the same way that sunglasses are — it’s accessible for those who can’t afford a runway look but also appeals to those who want the full runway look.”
For men, socks have long been a way to express a sense of style — bright, block-colour socks can often be seen peeking beneath the trousers of sharp-suited city slickers — and the trend also resonates with more casually-minded male consumers. “Due to the rise of sportswear and sneakers from brands, it has meant that the athletic sock has come to the forefront of men’s style from a fashion point of view,” says Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter, who also credits the boom to adjacent fashion trends. “With trousers and jeans, as well as shorts, getting shorter, socks are becoming increasingly more important in order to complete look.”
“Essentially we’re all wearing the same shoes now — Stan Smiths, Converse, Vans, Nike — so it’s a great way to dress your footwear differently,” adds Donna Wallace, accessories editor at Elle UK. “As a whole, hosiery is coming back in a big way as it gives an indication of what lies beneath.” Socks and sandals — once considered a sartorial sin — is now also a pervasive look. “Now you have slides and socks, which is very much a look,” she adds. “‘Normal’ is a fashion reference and bad taste has become good taste. It’s all about the high-low mix.”
There’s also the status symbolism of wearing branding on one of the most banal pieces of clothing, an act that strikes the perfect balance between a knowing sense of brand allegiance and an insouciant off-kilter attitude. “Logomania is making a comeback and we're seeing this in our customer's appetite for socks featuring luxury logos,” explains Hollie Harding, non-apparel buyer at Browns. “There truly is a sock for all looks, whether it's sporty for day or sequin for evening, and the great thing about it is that it's not gender specific — men are buying socks from our women's offering and vice versa.” Both Harding and Fiona Firth say key brands for their respective retailers are Gucci, Balenciaga and Off-White. But Vetements, it appears, is the most popular by far. “They actually sell out within minutes,” says Harding.
Socks are a big opportunity in the same way that sunglasses are.
The opportunity has not gone unnoticed by entrepreneurs. Bombas, the New York-based socks start-up founded in 2014 by Randy Goldberg and David Heath, sold over $150,000 worth of athletic socks within its first 30 days. “We went on to do about $1.8 million in 2014, $4.6 million in 2015, last year we did $17.2 million, and this year we’re on track to do about $50 million in sales revenue,” says Heath. Approximately 45 percent of those sales are down to the double-striped, logo-branded athletic sock that Bombas is best known for.
Heath compares the global socks market to the coffee market. “Most people 30 years ago were drinking Maxwell House and weren’t really concerned about where their coffee beans were coming from or how they were being roasted. Then you had the introduction of a company like Starbucks, which has seamlessly taken over the coffee industry, convincing people to step up from their 25-cent cup of coffee at their local coffee store to spending $3, $5 or $6 on a cup of coffee. Now you have third-wave coffees like StumpTown, Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle that are getting people to spend $8 to $12 for a cup of coffee.”
Stance, a socks brand founded in 2009, has become one of the biggest proprietors of premium socks. In 2015, it was named the official on-court sock of the NBA and would be the first brand since 2009 to have its logo displayed on the league’s equipment. That same year, it collaborated with Rihanna and Ronnie Fieg, and has since added Willow Smith and Hanne Gaby Odiele to its large roster of collaborators.
“Most guys just wear some version of a pant and a shirt every day, and socks are this small piece of real estate that can provide a pop of personality like almost nothing else can,” says John Wilson, president of Stance. Wilson recalls how in May when Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, was photographed wearing Stance’s “Star Wars” socks ($16.55) to meet Enda Kenny, former prime minister of Ireland, a frenzy ensued. “Social media and the press went crazy, because here you have him wearing the typical suit that a prime minister would wear to a normal diplomatic meeting, but when he sits down and his pants pull up you see R2-D2 and C-3P0 on his ankles — that small thing tells you a lot about his personality and not totally confining himself to standard expectations.”
“When we started, people thought it was crazy that we were making $14 pairs of socks, but then people put them on and their eyes were opened because they felt a huge leap of improvement in terms of comfort and then how the socks made them feel,” continues Wilson. “That's what it really comes down to: socks can be a luxury item because of how they feel and how they make you feel.”