Sneak peek: How the humble trainer kick-started a high-fashion revolution

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It's a key concept in fashion: what was once considered ugly can, at some point later, become the epitome of good taste. What was scruffy and nonchalant, is now elegant. Basically, you're wrong, the designers are right, and the anti-establishment style statement you've spent years perfecting is now floating down the runways of Paris and Milan. In cashmere.

This spring the latest, surprising recipient of the luxury industry's Cinderella treatment is the humble trainer. We're not talking blinged-out hi-tops (which have been around for a while) or minimally-elegant plimsolls (thank goodness, for all the now-flat-footed hipsters that had to deal with that trend in the mid-2000s), rather, it's about running shoes. The kind of comfy, functional-looking things that live at the back of your wardrobe where no one can smell them. You probably bought a pair for going to the gym (and didn't), but found them so ridiculously comfortable that you wear them all the time.

Or at least, you do when nobody's looking – a quick trip to the supermarket here, a DIY job there, that sort of thing. To be clear: what seems to be in vogue now is the kind of athletic silhouette whose earliest incarnation was in the 1970s, Nike's 1972 Cortez style being an obvious example. These shoes come with a thick, curved, often cushioned sole; an upper that follows the shape of the foot rather than, like most style-driven shoes, providing a pleasing shape for the foot to fit inside. Lots of panels and loud colours that ultimately don't really go together, or with anything you're wearing. (The clash being all part of the go-faster appeal.)

Where you previously would have bought such beauties from JD Sports, you can now get them for 10 times the price at Louis Vuitton. And Moschino. And Balenciaga. And why, exactly, is that a good thing? Because the world of men's high-end fashion has a tendency to dwell on long-past successes of the early-20th century (tweed, tailoring, loafers, trenchcoats) and to ignore the kind of futuristic, comfortable things that a lot of men (secretly) want to wear. Meanwhile, the world of high-end sportswear has plenty of things to teach the luxury industry, with its history of innovation based on performance, comfort and lightness – not to mention its devoted buying publicf It's an unexpected marriage, but certainly a happy one.

This is not least because the shoes themselves seem to be of a different breed from previous designer attempts to make inroads into the athletic shoe market. Many of the running shoes on the spring 2013 runways, though still essentially form-over-function, nonetheless felt more comfortable with the vernacular of sportswear (rather than branded, luxury items) than they have ever been. Massimiliano Giornetti's trainers at Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, really played with the idea of the athletic shoe's loud, contrasting colour clashes, using the familiar idiom to pick out shades from the works of David Hockney, and that way making sense of the riot of colour. What's more, in the press notes, alongside the usual bumph about elegance, cut and sophistication, the shoes were described as "soft, deconstructed and with extremely supple soles". It sounded comfortable. Weird, huh?

At Missoni, the Italian knitwear titans showed one of the best iterations of the trend, a collaboration with Converse in which the 105-year-old shoe brand's Auckland Racer model was dragged from obscurity into glittery, vibrant splendour, with the addition of an upper completely made from a multi-coloured Missoni knit textile. With their lurex yarns, complex but sophisticated patterning and chunky white sole, Missoni's sport shoes look fantastic, and like nothing else previously seen. But, off the runway and out of the box, they, like Ferragamo's Day-Glo runners, are more practical than you might expect, wearing like a particularly cosy pair of socks and combining style and comfort in a way that, madly enough, you would never expect from a high-end designer shoe. Angela Missoni has referred to them as "the coolest sneakers ever", and it is hard to disagree.

Then there's the lux-est of the luxe. The sneakers at Valentino came in multi-coloured suede, embellished with the house's trademark studs on the heel plate, and decorated with layers of painted leathers for a deconstructed camouflage effect. Far from your run-of-the-mill premium leather sports shoe, the Valentino running shoes this season are unique and expensive-looking fashion objects, which, like a Louis Vuitton handbag, you can have monogrammed with your initials if you wish (and why not?). Valentino's designers, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, say that that the new shoe is "a modern object of desire that maintains the authenticity of sport while giving it a new couturish angle". Cor. "The spirit of couture to us is definitely a culture we want to infuse into contemporary objects," they write in an email. "Sneakers, so far from the classic atelier world, can embody this new philosophy."

All that's well and good, but (we have to ask) is it new? This season certainly isn't the first time fashion brands and high-end designers have tried to take on the running shoe. In the licensing madness of the Seventies and Eighties, many fashion houses produced sportswear to diversify their offerings and capitalise upon the perceived value of their luxury brand names. Some examples of that period, such as the Gucci Tennis 84 – a beautiful, simple white tennis shoe with the slightest hint of a green-and-red Gucci stripe on the back – did in fact replicate their parent houses' ethos of refinement, elegance and aesthetic purity. Others not so much – think of the logo-spattered, over-designed fake-looking-but-actually-legit styles that were churned out by most big fashion houses in the mid-Nineties.

Following that, in the late Nineties to early 2000s, there were increasingly serious attempts to unite the worlds of luxury and high-performance shoes. The glaring initial example is the launch of the very successful Prada Sport in 1997, which provided a growing big-brand customer base with sporty shoes that were comfortable and 'designer'. Around the same time, fashion houses were finding a different way to produce running shoes: collaboration. In 1998, Puma started making shoes with Jil Sander, then Japanese designer Miharayasuhiro.

In 2001, Karl Lagerfeld fielded a spring Chanel collection featuring co-branded Reebok Pump Fury sneakers. (Shamefully, they were never produced commercially, and now go for bundles on eBay.) Y-3, a line from Adidas designed by Yohji Yamamoto, launched in 2003, saw quick success. Adidas by Stella McCartney followed in 2004. At this point the mould was set and many more projects followed, from one-off design projects like Junya Watanabe's 'Vintage Project' with Nike in 2007 (in which Watanabe reissued some of the earliest Nike running shoes) to Y-3 style full collection launches, such as Gyakusou, the much obsessed-about collaboration between Nike and Undercover designer Jun Takahashi, which debuted in 2010.

However, though fashion designers, in the past decade, got ever closer with the athletic shoe companies (and produced ever better products – Gyakusou is an impressive example of fashion turning its focus on to function and performance) the journey of the running shoe to the runway has been less direct. One designer who has been pushing it for several years is Raf Simons, who as early as autumn/winter 2009 was showing trainers, via a collaboration with Asics, that looked just as tech-driven and functional as their cousins on the high street. They even came with neoprene ankle guards, as if you'd actually go running outside, in the wet, in a pair of £300 shoes.

"He understands performance and he understands technology, and it sits with his own aesthetic really well," says Gary Warnett, sneaker expert and editor of e-tailer/blog crookedtongues.com. "There's a puritanical essence to running that really works well there." Of course, as one of the progenitors of the running shoe trend, Simons is on board for spring 2013, with a particularly spectacular (or spectacularly ugly, depending into which camp you fall) collaboration with Adidas, which featured in his grungy show, worn with suit trousers and greasy hair as a so-wrong-it's-right, anti-fashion statement.

Though these running shoes are probably not the most wearable of spring 2013, Simons has, as he so often does, got the essence of the trend and its genesis spot on. Because the emergence of the running shoe as a high-end fashion piece proposes an element of couldn't-care-less-ness to menswear that flies in the face of the dandyism that's been following it around for the past decade. It's a styling trick that's come to the fore in part because of the increased influence of hip-hop stars and celebrity sneaker freaks, such as Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, who have increasingly become involved in the world of European high fashion since the late 2000s. (Warnett talks about a "Post-Kanye" period in luxury sneakers, though has to add, "I hate to use that term. But he opened up the market".)

But there's also another key aspect to the running sports-shoe trend, and it comes from, not the catwalk, but the front row: for several seasons now at the men's shows, it's become more commononplace for editors and stylists to pair their obligatory designer clobber with simple, bog-standard running shoes, rather than the tired brogues and penny loafers that are recommended by most contemporary men's dressing guides. The running shoe, in a fashion context, stands in stark contrast to the beautiful, delicate clothes that surround it. It's an anti-fashion statement: "I care – but I don't".

Out of all the running shoes worn by fashion insiders – who the public have seen more and more of on reality TV programmes, street-style blogs and in magazines like Industrie – the most common are the classic styles from New Balance (notably 574, 576, 577) which are obviously a key inspiration for many of the running shoes on the runway for spring 2013. The Missoni x Converse Auckland, though based on an archive Converse design, has found a niche because the New Balance late-Seventies running silhouette has become favoured once again among fashion insiders. The same goes for the other models at Valentino, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton and even Balenciaga, though each house has completely reinvented the shape in its own way. Why has this shoe design inspired the fashion community?

Warnett says the New Balance brand, which still manufactures in Maine and the Lake District, rather than completely outsourcing to the Far East, has, in the past few years, become such frequent choice for fashion insiders as well as trainer afficionados because of its historic lack of endorsements, and its refusal to shout about what it does. "New Balance has always felt like an alternative to the mass-produced product," he says.

He notes the influence of celebrities such as the director Wes Anderson (who has a collection of New Balance trainers), Kanye West (again – he wore the New Balance x United Arrows CM1500 in 2009) and, also, a Japanese obsession with the brand that saw it featured in style magazines such as Smart and in an early look-book of cult designer Takahiro Miyashita's latest line, The Solo-Ist. "It's like any fashion," says Warnett. "Everyone wants to feel like they're wearing the alternative." And so he says, it's no surprise the New Balance-style trainer has become a fashion statement. "As with a lot of anti-fashion things, people will be drawn to it. In the same way as if someone in a room doesn't like cats, the cat will go to them."

Stephen Mann, a stylist who is a consultant for Missoni's menswear collection, notes two interesting points about this season's enthusiasm for mixing the stylish with the comfortable and functional. First, there's the ingrained male aversion to being too "fashion". "I think for young people, young men in particular, being dressed up is always a weird thing. I think the idea that you can legitimately wear sneakers with a suit, or something like that, is comforting."

Mann is also of the opinion that the subtle shift in emphasis towards the sporty and functional is something we'll see more of, if we ever make it out of this recession. "The whole thing of sneakers-with-anything-other-than-sporting-attire is a clash," he says, "but we all like things that are comfortable. I think there's a movement towards [comfort], and I think, within that, there's a movement towards technology. In times of recession people will look to the past. [When we're] moving away from a recession is when people start embracing the future again and I think that in some way is what you're seeing."

In truth, the intersection at which sportswear and high-end fashion meet is an enormous topic that touches on many aspects of men's style and street culture. Warnett says the designer-trainer phenomenon really started with lesser-known New York tailor/designer/bootlegger Dapper Dan, who in the early 1980s custom-made streetwear with heaps of Gucci and Louis Vuitton monograms. But that, and the influence of hip-hop culture on high fashion – which is actually a crucial part of this – is another story. The main question is, ultimately, is this a trend that will make a difference to the buying habits of normal people?

Apparently, yes. Missoni's knit Converse sneakers, first shown for spring 2011, were never meant to go into production – they've only become available this season (at £210 a pair) because of sustained lobbying from press, buyers and customers themselves. Those shoes, and spring's other super-charged runners, have been selling out once they hit the shops, despite the ostentatious stylings and incredibly high price points.

Terry Betts, buying manager at men's e-tailer Mr Porter says the Missoni Converse were "some of the fastest selling trainers we've seen on the site", while several styles of Valentino's offering (at a cool £440) completely sold out "within hours". He likens the appeal of these items to the appeal of handbags for women, calling them "the most democratic way for a man to demonstrate his allegiance to a brand". In terms of sales, in fact, the continuing development of men's trainers in the luxury market is one of the most powerful forces in the industry, turning more and more men into dedicated followers of the fashion. "It is not an exaggeration to say the luxe sneaker has revitalised men's footwear," announces Betts. So here's to the future. May it be springy-soled and comfy.

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