If you nipped out this week to buy a pair of what you thought were supercool New Balance trainers, be afraid, be very afraid. The trainer, now worn by grannies, kids - the entire planet in fact - is finally, irreversib ly naff. Cayte Williams talks us down
THEY'RE smelly, the fashion changes constantly, you never know which ones to choose and they're a bugger to clean. No, we're not talking about state-of-the-art trash cans, but trainers. It appears that these long stalwarts of footwear are finally - well, naff.

The faithful running shoe is in the throes of an identity crisis. Buffalo trainers, long a favourite of short, trendy people, are a fashion no-no thanks to the Spice Girls; Vans and Converse are so Britpop 1997; and even Calvin Klein has dumped that "heroin chic" scruffy-trainer stance for healthy-looking models wearing work boots. Even in clubland, a world where trainers might always be welcome, they're getting the cold shoulder. Wear your running shoes to Twice As Nice, the home of Speed Garage Chic, and you'll find yourself jogging back to the night bus.

Trainers just are too ubiquitous. Little old ladies buy them with their thermal socks at Littlewoods. School children argue over them in the playground. They are too closely associated with shapeless sportswear, Kangol hats and bandy boys from Manchester. In terms of style variation, there's only so much you can do to make a trainer look different at 40 paces that doesn't look ridiculous.

Wearing the right trainers is too hard and too nerdy a task for anyone over the age of 10. Those grown-up boys the Verve would rather kick the bucket than wear anything but Clarks Wallabees. In fact, it's predicted that spring/summer '98 will be the season when the Flat Shoe will replace trainers. The Face has declared that "smart shoes are the way to walk this year" and i-D tells us that "flashy silver trainers are being overlooked in favour of rugged, subtly-shaded action shoes." Wallabees, brogues, Oxfords, Velcro plimsolls, karate shoes - anything goes as long as it's got nothing to do with track and field.

For women, toe-crippling stilettos are no longer the only alternative. Shellys have launched the black and white two-tone lace-up on to the high street, Marks & Spencer's men's brogues are snapped up by fashion editors, and girls with street cred would rather invest pounds 259 on a pair of Robert Clergerie white brogues than spend pounds 120 on designer trainers that will be at the cutting edge for all of six weeks. For men, the smart money's on classic, polished lace-up shoes. Patrick Cox's red patent Oxfords are far hipper than anything from a sportswear company and much less gimmicky. Even New Balance, the hottest name in trainers (this week) aren't as cool. As further proof of the rise of the brogue, Manolo Blahnik launches his menswear range this month.

The Wallabee is also the footwear of choice for Primal Scream and Texas as well as our Hull brethren, and at Clarks they just keep selling. "The bottom is falling out of the trainer market," says a company spokesman. "People don't know whether to go for old school or ultra-techie and they're getting sick of it. Where do you draw the line?"

So why are flat shoes so fashionable? "There were a lot of flat shoes at Prada last season," says Lizzy Shepherd, fashion assistant at Frank, which this month featured "kung fu" slippers and Woolworths canvas plimsolls. "Helmut Lang actually did karate shoes for women this season and Hermes have brought out completely white plimsolls."

"Normally at shows all the fashion editors would be sitting in the front row wearing trainers," says one fashion stylist, "but now they're wearing their Prada and Dolce & Gabbana shoes. No one is really doing trainers anymore. People are over it."

DKNY have cannily judged the market with its ultra-trendy Aquasock. Half- plimsoll, half-windsurfing shoe, it appeals to both camps - those who refuse to give up their trainers, and those who refuse to wear them. They'll be in the shops at the end of April. Other labels haven't been quite so clever.

Nike is a giant in sports footwear, with 33 per cent of the world market. It made sales of more than $9 billion last year, but has just issued its second profit warning in two months. Shares have fallen from the top price of $76 in February 1997 to just over $40 twelve months later. Last year was a public relations disaster for the company. The Big Issue urged readers to stop buying Nike products after the poor conditions of its Far Eastern workers were exposed, and Tescos offered cheap Nike products under the slogan "Just Do It For Less".

At long last, the trainer has become the Nineties equivalent of the shell suit. "Around 90 per cent of people who wear trainers don't do sport," says Simon Mills, editor of GQ Active. "A few years ago people were obsessively collecting trainers but now hiking boots or 'brown shoes' are the trainers of the millennium. Trainers have certain connotations. Their casual image suggests that if you're wearing your hi-tech, hi-performance shoes to the cinema, you're certainly not wearing them for sport. People who are serious about their sport would never wear their trainers for anything else."

The total sales of sports footwear fell by 3.5 per cent in 1996, compared to a rise of 7.7 per cent the previous year. According to market analysts, the market is saturated - there are only so many pairs of trainers a person can buy - so certain large sportswear companies have targeted the high- fashion market with the "nerdy" trainer. Last year saw the launch of Nike Air Rifts, a sort of cloven-hooved trainer with a sandal front. These are guaranteed to make you look like a children's TV presenter circa 1978 with their black/green and purple/yellow colour combos. They are made from canvas, cost pounds 150 and babies point and laugh at them in the street. They have been massively popular with British fashion stylists, mainly because you could only get them in the States and Japan. "Names like Nike have been around such a long time," says Lizzy Shepherd, "and people are already over the split-toe trainer." Now that it's available in London, the Nike Air Rift looks set to deflate.

The Nike Air Moc, launched here in 1997, is a sort of suede sleeping bag for the foot. They cost pounds 90 and the brown versions look like jacket potatoes. Otherwise sartorially sussed, beautiful people suddenly looked like cartoon characters from the ankles down. Rather than giving Nike fashion kudos, Mocs and Rifts have only confused its image. The company, which built its reputation on producing the best sports shoes in the business, is in danger of becoming a fashion fad. Antony Berardi, who likes his trainers simple, recently said in the Times that he wouldn't be seen dead in nerdy trainers but "perhaps Noddy or Andy Pandy might, though."

Camper, the no-nonsense shoe store in London's Covent Garden, has just relaunched its design classic Camalen. It's made from a canvas upper, a rubber sole and string shoe laces and there's not a neon stripe, toggle or cleft toe in sight. The only place they'd look ridiculous is the gym. Which is where trainers should stay from now on.