The company hadn't enjoyed such popularity among style-conscious youth since the 1970s. The lucrative market, pounds 870m in 1994, had been dominated by the Americans and training shoes supposedly designed for sport. These trainers are released, like Hollywood movies, first in the States and several months later in Europe, and the hype has often been so successful that kids have queued outside stores to buy the first arrivals. When Reebok invented the Pump (in 1990), a trainer you could inflate by squeezing a valve in the shoe's tongue, it caused a sensation and sales rocketed. Nike won us over with the Visible Air Shoe that had a little window in the sole: they told us it made the shoe lighter, but we knew it was just a style statement and we bought and bought. This summer, however, the best-sellers have been re-releases of old trainers such as the Adidas Gazelle, a simple suede shoe without any gizmos.
For 15 years the market for training shoes has flourished, as dress codes have been relaxed for work and leisure. But now, with teenagers buying into the past and ignoring marketing strategies, insiders wonder whether the bull days are over.
In this fickle market, the resurgence of Adidas can be put down to a mixture of luck and planning. (A huge back-catalogue of retro trainers also helps.) The luck was in fashion picking up on the company's famous three-stripe trademark, and the unprompted adoption of retro-look Adidas trainers by such bands as Run DMC. The planning involved a huge advertising spend - more than $25m worldwide this year.
"What we have tried to do is re-establish the Adidas connection with young people who thought it was a label for dads," explains Tim Little, board account director at the advertising agency Leagas Delaney. The Adidas boom has also been aided by the style resurgence of football - which for years has been a key market for the company. "US culture and sports have helped a lot in the past but won't be so important in the future; following the impact of the World Cup, soccer is huge."
Strangely, Little's views are endorsed by Simon Taylor, marketing manager for the ultimate US brand, Nike. "We're not trying to be American but global. And football is the world's No 1 sport..."
Over the past decade Nike has proved adept at directing sports-shoe trends. It has also won favour with its strategy of using the hard lads of sport, including Eric Cantona, Ian Wright, John McEnroe, and Ian Botham, in its advertising. Taylor labels the company's attitude as "irreverence justified". This tough street mentality plus corporate muscle has helped Nike win many high-street battles. And if it has lost ground to Adidas's skilful pushing of football-inspired trainers, it is now fighting to direct trends again.
Until now a brand for the boys, Nike has started to market products to women with the aid of its new icon, the beach volleyball star Gabrielle Reece, who has the luck to look like Cindy Crawford's sister. Nike will also be sponsoring street-hockey tournaments across the UK to create an interest in the sport and develop a market for hockey shoes.
Sharon Tomkinson, marketing manager for the store chain Cobra Sports, believes that the industry giants are having trouble controlling new sporting trends which are creating a complex, fast and fashion-led market. "In the Eighties you couldn't sell a shoe unless you had performance credibility, but I'm not so sure that's the case in the Nineties. The real boom hasn't been in performance shoes but retro-trainers."
Although happy to make a profit from this fashion, the manufacturers do little to support it, because it threatens to undermine their market strategy, which relies on built-in obsolescence. If the public starts to revere the obsolete then sales could tumble. Worse, these shoes often sell at half the price of state-of-the art trainers. "The trouble seems to be that someone else apart from the marketing teams is deciding what's fashionable," says Tompkinson.
Stephen Rubin is chairman of the Pentland Group, whose labels include Ellesse and Lacoste. Regarded as a legendary figure in the trade because he bought Reebok in 1981 for $770,000 and sold it 10 years later after making $770m, he is one of the few to acknowledge that trainers are mainly bought for fashion: "I would say only 20 per cent are used for sport."
Rubin may have made a fortune from trainers, but he's convinced tough times lie ahead. "Even though sales have continued to increase, a lot of the sales are of retro styles, and they're a fashion, not a sports sale. There will always be a core of sports sales, but that's not growing. We believe the big growth area will be walking and hiking boots."
He may be right. A recent report from the market researcher Mintel said that "the most dynamic segment by far is the Great Outdoors market". What's more, the number of 15- to 24-year-olds in the UK had dropped from 9.3 million in the mid-1980s to 7.5 million by 1994. So although the training- shoe boom was started by young people, the future could rest with middle- aged folk who spend their weekends fell-walking.
Smaller companies, such as Vans, are also picking off the key players' business by concentrating on cult sports such as skateboarding and snowboarding. Others, such as the French label Chipie, make "non-performance trainers" aimed solely at the fashion market.
John Hartigan, footwear agent for Chipie, which sells to such stores as Miss Selfridge and Top Shop, says: "Unlike the sports brands, our trainers are far more female-orientated. We brought out a silver trainer two years ago that's still a huge seller." And what does he think is the future of the trainer? "Oh, they'll become less and less sport-orientated. We're going to do trainers with high heels."
! Andrew Tuck is a features editor at `Time Out'
trainer wars: a brief history
1978-80: While every schoolboy may be playing soccer in Adidas or Puma boots, Dunlop tennis shoes are the rather sad forerunners of the training shoe. But then the jogging craze arrives in Britain and running shoes by Nike are fashionable.
1981: The first Nike Air trainers are sold. They have a small air-pocket in the sole to increase comfort and reduce the weight. Such models such as Tailwind are huge sellers, but the label is still considered exclusive. Already Adidas is beginning to lose its hip status.
1982-83: Aerobics starts to ruin the nation's knees - Reebok comes to the rescue with the Freestyle, one of the first shoes designed specifically for this activity.
1985: Cross-trainers - shoes that can be used for several sports - are big business, especially if they are made by Nike. The company's hard attitude increasingly makes it a brand for urban male youth, while Reebok goes after the girls.
1987: Nike releases the Visible Air Shoe which cuts out bulky mid-sole material and inserts a small plastic window in the sole. Not to be outdone, Adidas brings out Tortion, a range of trainers that have a bar in the shoe to prevent twist.
1988: High-top heaven, with the huge boot look becoming crucial to street style. In the US kids are murdered for their trainers. Also essential for burgeoning rave culture.
1989: The Dynamic Fit System from Nike puts an inner glove inside shoes to stop seams touching your feet. The company benefits from big sales of Air Jordans, a range endorsed by Michael Jordan.
1990: Reebok launches the Pump, with air chambers in the shoe's upper which are inflated with the aid of a pump in the tongue. A huge hit with people who can't be bothered with shoes that fit.
1991: Recession bites, and loud white high-tops begin to die off. Few style points for wearing trainers outside the gym. Sports stores move into boots by Caterpillar and Timberland.
1992: Reebok puts Graphlite in its shoes: this aerospace material is said to be as strong as steel, yet lighter than the foam it replaces. Despite technological breakthroughs, the public still clings to its DMs.
1993: The retro sports-shoe look kicks in, with the Adidas Gazelle becoming an instant bestseller. Puma also manages to win a hip following. Reebok launches the Instapump, which is the same as the Pump except you now get a CO2-filled inflator; a bit sad. A return to trainers such as the Nike Air range, now available in black to pass as boots.
1994: Reebok tries to muscle in on the football market and signs a deal with Manchester United star Ryan Giggs. Nike starts to parade its football credentials but Adidas is storming ahead, making training shoes a Euro thing.
1995: New lightweight shoes promised by Nike for this summer and Reebok launches Dynamax, which involves more tricks with air cushions in the heel and forefoot. Meanwhile Adidas produces a trainer made from hemp, which is covered by the style press but has failed as yet to appear in UK stores. Will the company rename itself Adihash?
1996: Snowboarding and skateboarding will influence youth trainers, but hiker-style boots for all ages are tipped for the top. ATReuse content