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Are Ballet Flats the New Dad Sneakers?

Multiple designers incorporated the traditionally feminine footwear collections for the Spring/ Summer 2020 season, signalling a shift away from chunky sneakers.
From L-R: ballet flats Dries Van Noten, Thom Browne, Dries Van Noten | Source: INDIGITAL.TV
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States — The menswear market is pirouetting toward an unlikely style for Spring 2020: the ballet flat.

A flat shoe with a rounded toe, typified by minimal design in materials such as leather and suede, the ballet flat was a popular style — for women — in the mid-2000s. But it made an unexpected appearance in men’s runway shows last month, with designers as diverse as Dries van Noten and Bode incorporating the footwear into their collections.

The emerging trend, whether intended for shock value or in earnest, signals a possible sea change in the multi-billion-dollar global footwear business may be in the offing: the long-awaited demise of the chunky sneakers that have become ubiquitous on men’s and women’s runways for the last few years. Retailers and forecasters alike are noticing an appetite for something other than ostentatious styles that have dominated the market since the Balenciaga Triple S emerged.

Whether consumers will instead buy into ballet flats en masse, or some other, less-bulky footwear, is an open question.

For Spring 2020, there were literal interpretations of the ballet shoe, including at Thom Browne — where American ballet dancer James Whiteside sported them alongside a pinstriped tutu ahead of a cast of models wearing adapted versions of the slipper — and at Bode, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund-winning American workwear brand which showed a collection fit for a fashion circus. Meanwhile, Dries van Noten offered grounded leather slippers to complement a show that played "with archetypes of garments and archetypes of men," according to the brand. Luke and Lucie Meier peppered in discreet, supple-looking black leather flats at Jil Sander.

To be sure, not all of these designers are making a conscious turn away from the sneaker boom. Emily Bode told BoF that her flats, which will be adapted for her upcoming launch of footwear in January, reflected her own experiences wearing actual ballet shoes as casual footwear throughout high school. Retailers’ chunky sneaker offerings globally are up 23 percent compared with a year ago, according to Edited, and “its continuous presence on the Spring 2020 runway indicates it's not slowing down anytime soon,” said Kayla Marci, an analyst for the retail analytics service.

Still, sneakers represent but a part of the $24 billion US men’s footwear market, up 11 percent from 2013, according to market intelligence firm Mintel. That means there’s room left for retailers to capture an audience eager to buy into what’s next, be it another hyped Nike sneaker drop or a Dries van Noten leather flat.

I'm not going to burn all my sneakers and go straight for ballet flats

Meanwhile, menswear buyers say the prevalence of flats is a sign the tide is turning.

“Usually as these things go, when you’re heavily in one direction, the pendulum will swing in the opposite,” said Josh Peskowitz, Moda Operandi’s men’s fashion director. “There’s nothing more opposite [from] a big chunky, attention-grabbing sneaker than a slipper.”

Damien Paul, head of menswear at MatchesFashion, calls leather ballet shoes a “palate cleanser, refocusing trends towards a sophisticated image,” though he predicts the chunky sneaker will still be popular through the Spring 2020 season. Peskowitz, who has already placed the bulk of Moda Operandi’s Spring 2020 menswear orders, echoed that sentiment, noting “I’m not going to burn all my sneakers and go straight for ballet flats.”

The fate of chunky sneakers and ballet flats is of intense interest in the fashion world, in part because the global menswear market is driving much of the industry's growth. As tastes continue to broaden away from traditional silhouettes and ever-younger consumers become interested in fashion, growth in the luxury menswear is expected to outpace womenswear, prompting luxury giants like LVMH to invest heavily in the category.

Menswear is "a more important part of everyone's business, and more men are interested in fashion than ever," said Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder and president of Jeffrey luxury apparel boutiques. He said he has yet to buy any ballet flats for men, but did place an order for a Francesco Russo men's high heel pump to be sold at his stores this fall.

Retailers and designers alike are hesitant to declare the death of the chunky sneaker, especially since it’s difficult to always draw a clear line from a runway trend to commercial bestsellers.

“It would take a lot for a shoe like a ballet flat to catch like wildfire,” says Michael Fisher, vice president and creative director of menswear at Fashion Snoops, a New York-based trend forecasting and consulting agency. “The dad sneaker caught on in mass because it's not that extreme in its reach. It's a sneaker at the end of the day, albeit an ugly one with some nostalgic charm. Ballet flats are just a runway novelty for now, and there's no way we'll be seeing them on men in the middle of America.”

It would take a lot for a shoe like a ballet flat to catch like wildfire

Rather, retailers detect that gender-bending styles are more readily available in fashion today than ever, with women purchasing men's-specific products and men experimenting with traditionally feminine shapes. High profile insiders like Bella Hadid, who is as frequently spotted wearing traditional women's wear as she is Kim Jones's Dior high-top logo sneaker, have encouraged women to purchase men's styles for themselves. Still, only 3 percent of US men's footwear sales are made from women intending to wear the shoes themselves, though that share is on the rise, according to market research company NPD Group.

It’s possible, then, that the Spring 2020 ballet slipper offers another glimpse into the neutralisation of gender barriers in fashion, rather than the beginning of the next sales phenomenon.

“There’s always going to be styles specifically for men and for women, but I think it’s going to be more challenging [for retailers] to define the men’s and women’s businesses as that growing middle across the two segments emerges,” said Beth Goldstein, accessories and footwear analyst at NPD Group. “I would be surprised ... if [men’s ballet flats] really pick up to become a commercial success. Maybe we see a version of it, a flat for men, that’s chunkier than a women’s ballet flat than a women’s. There are no rules anymore.”

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