Adventure shoes: a new Frontier

The athletic footwear giants are sprinting into the outward-bound field, with trainers cool enough for the city but sturdy enough for the great outdoors. Melanie Rickey tries them for size
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The Independent Online
Ask Sharon Tomkinson about trainers, and you would be forgiven for thinking she has a PhD in the psychology of Athletic Footwear. As marketing director of Cobra Sports she is responsible for the overall branding and direction of the company, and has recently seen the birth of a new shop, Frontier, a concept which, she says, "I've been banging on about for ages."

Frontier has been a department within Cobra Sports stores since the late Eighties, when trendy young things and outward-bound enthusiasts alike were tramping around in pale tan Timberland boots and lumberjack shirts. Now the athletic footwear giants are in on the outward-bound act, too: rather than just making trainers for track and field sports, Nike have a range called All Conditions Gear (ACG), which was launched in the US in 1988; Adidas have also diversified into adventure shoes, and brands like Merrell, formerly used by climbers and hill walkers, are suddenly readily available on the high street, rather than in specialist shops.

Tomkinson has been watching this shift away from the retro, hi-tech, and ultra-trendy trainers with interest. Eighteen months ago she predicted that adventure shoes were going to be the next big thing, colleagues and friends nodded sagely, happy with their Nike Air Max limited editions, but most will admit now that she was right. A look at the shelves in the new Conran Group-designed shop on Carnaby Street reflects this new trend. Army green, chocolate brown and beige colours dominate, fabrics include netting and neoprene and the overall look is, well, adventurous, especially as they sit on shelves with images of grass, sky or water behind them. A few of the shelves even talk. Pick up a trainer and an American voice extols the virtues of that particular style. Its aim - not to be a novelty, but to educate.

These new-look adventure trainers can take you from a club to the moors, or even up a rock face. According to Nike adventure means mountain biking, cycling, rock climbing and any other sports undertaken in extreme weather conditions. There are very few trainers for running, as they are, in the main, designed to be as sturdy as boots. As if to prove her point, Tomkinson cites the opening credits of Emmerdale: "It used to have a cottagy opener, all green fields and farms. Now it features people mountain biking, abseiling and hill walking. It's a sure sign that it's not a niche market anymore."

Choosing the right trainers can be an absolute nightmare. With so much choice on the high street, it can be baffling to say the least, and like any specialist, Tomkinson gets cornered at parties by people looking for advice. "The most common question from women is, for example, `what kind of shoe do I need if I run twice a week, do step, and cycle?' " she says, (answer: make sure you buy a cross trainer with heel and toe cushioning). "From men it's `what's the next big thing and can I have a discount?' " People are desperate to know what to buy, and where from.

At Frontier these choices are, to a certain extent, made for you. From a street fashion point of view the very best of what is available is honed down to key styles and presented in a modern way. From the adventure side it is the same footwear, but used in a different way, or indeed bought with a dual use in mind. Much easier than having to fight through a crowd of football crazy youths, to point to a shoe two metres up a wall, and shout through loud jungle music to an assistant.

Tomkinson is already on to the next trainer movement, just as the one she anticipated is happening, and selling like hot cakes. Her gut reaction says there will be a new retro, as kids of 18 hark back to the mid-Eighties for inspiration, and white leather will make a reappearance.

There is a Frontier section in each of Cobra's 85 stores throughout the UK and in the newly opened Dublin store. Only one stand-alone Frontier exists on Carnaby Street, but there will be more. One opens on Neal Street, Covent Garden in two weeks, and there are plans for further storesn

Cobra Frontier, 41 Carnaby St, London W1; 0171-4378731.


Sharon Tomkinson (left) and her guide to what's new in the next couple of months. (Anti-clockwise from bottom left)

1. Asics, DS trainer, pounds 89.99. "These are good lightweight running shoes, and slightly over-styled for fashion purposes. Asics are trendy on the surface but underneath there is good solid technology."

2. Adidas, Backlash Low, pounds 59.99. "Classic adventure shoe, perfect for fashion and outdoor pursuits."

3. Nike, new women's Air Max, pounds 119.99. "These are the best-looking Air Max to have come out for a while, but are no longer the best-selling fashion trainers - the Tailwind and ACG range are taking over."

4. Nike, Air Minot, pounds 99.99. "These are the first trainers to use Goretex, a fabric traditionally used for hiking boots. This will take adventure shoes to another level. This shoe is very lightweight, has a quality base which can grip most surfaces, and has all the comfort of an athletic shoe."

5. Nike, ACG Amana, pounds 69.99. "These are functional and fashionable. They are performance trainers for city or country."

6. DC's Clockers, pounds 79.99. "Kids of 18 see these as retro - plain white leather shoes were big in the Eighties. I think the next big thing will be classic white leather pumps with discreet logos. Suede will lose popularity."


We have two pairs of the new range of New Balance adventure trainers (left) to give away to the first readers who send a postcard with shoe size to Independent Frontier offer, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL