The sandal, an ancient piece of footwear symbol of the Greek and Roman aesthetic tradition, as well as an icon of freedom for the hippies, has been avoided by young and hip people for decades. Espadrillas, loafers (penny or deck), sneakers and even platform boots have succeeded one another in the scorching summer sun in the name of trends or subcultural affiliations, but now it’s all about who’s got the most performing polymeric foam.
If in the realm of sneakers the era of chunky and oversized silhouettes inspired by the ‘80s and ‘90s seems to have given way to a far-from-shy return of early 2000s narrow and slanted silhouettes (see the acclaimed Adidas x Wales Bonner collaboration on the German brand’s bonafide classic Sambas), sandals, mules, clogs and sliders have retained a taste for generous and hyperbolic volumes, not without an ironic and pos-tmodern spin.
From the garden to the catwalk, the return of clogs and slippers via social media
An example of such a trend is the return, not utilitarian but glamorous, of Crocs. The perforated rubber clogs, which up to just a few years ago were associated with swimming pools, gardens and reckless children, made a comeback. They did so taking the fashion discourse by storm and showing their design desiderability to the eyes of a more mature audience.
The public of children who loved to adorn their clogs with decorative pins has now grown adult and, thanks to the frenzy for the y2k revivalism, has grasped their aesthetic as well as ergonomic potential, reevaluating this footwear.
In the wake of Crocs, many are the designs that have turned into cult icons thanks to the key contribution of social media such as Instagram and Tik Tok. Models including the Merrell Hydro Moc and the Adidas Yeezy Foam, conceived by the polarizing but undoubtedly futuristic mind of Kanye West, oscillate in that liminal space suspended between the endorsement of key influencers and the memetic of fashion. They have hence found in the materiality that encourages tactility and in the unusual silhouettes the secret of their commercial appeal.
Another Adidas model, the Yeezy Slides made of monochromatic polyurethane foam in delicate pastel shades that increase their playful and ‘rubbery’ dimension, have made virtue of a similar communication dynamic. They have succeeded beyond the niche of industry initiates, becoming a transversal status symbol that is now available in knock-off versions also on budget Asian e-commerce websites or in local markets.
Who said sandals are for tourists only?!
The subtle ironic vein of the approach to slippers, clogs and sandals in both streetwear and haute couture is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating subversions of the semantics of fashion design to happen in recent years. Also instrumental to its success is the adoption of the sock – once derogatorily associated with the iconography of the Central European tourist – as a key accessory.
As pointed out by Enrico Pasi, EMEA Global Brand Director of Japanese brand Suicoke, whose sandals are among the most futuristic on the market, “The ‘bad’ reputation that characterised it for years was due to the fact that in Italy, in particular, the sandal had always been seen as the shoe worn by your typical elderly tourist, German or American, who wore it with white socks and cargo shorts”.
The sock-and-slides combo was also officially restored into fashion heaven by influencer Chiara Ferragni, who made the headlines of Italian newspapers by wearing her Yeezy Slides with white cotton socks.
Similarly, sandals with velcro straps and foam soles like Teva’s have been able to (re)establish themselves in recent summers precisely in symbiosis with socks.
Tradition and design experimentation at the roots of success
Suicoke’s Moto was the fulcrum of this turning point in understanding the sandal as an on-trend shoe in all respects. The Japanese brand, especially in its synergy with Vibram soles undertaken since 2014, is one of the most interesting demonstrations of how this footwear can be much more than what our imagination has long associated it with. The philosophy rooted in the Japanese tradition – the Zori and the Jika-tabi are among the references of the brand – meets fascinating studies on ergonomics and design, contributing to the rediscovery of sandals by a young and even countercultural audience, now the driving force of Suicoke.
A concept that also distinguishes the Reebok Beatniks, which have established themselves since last summer. The idea of designing a clog with a lunar taste and technical and waterproof materials was no doubt one of the most catchy and peculiar in the industry. And so it was the idea of naming the mules Beatnik and adorning them, in the collaboration with Story MFG, with an embroidered peace logo recalling the one adopted by the anti-nuclear campaigns of the CND: a reference to the ideals and footwear worn by the the Beats of the 1960s during their hitchhiking trips.
A similar project, although more traditional and definitely characterised by a distinguished rural feel, is that of Birkenstocks, the real stars of open footwear of the summer of 2022. Geographically and culturally transversal, the Birkenstock Boston, just like the A630 in polyurethane and the more traditional Arizona with their iconic two straps, have won the favours of tourists as well as the ‘too-cool-for-school’ DJs of online radios, from beaches to European capitals never as warm as in this long hot summer.
The (re)discovery of sandals and mules as a renewed field of experimentation in the realm of footwear design has opened up to fascinating scenarios. Despite the historical distance of such shoes from streetwear, they are now able to compete with sneakers in terms of appeal and innovation. The combination of polyurethane with the technical opportunities offered by the use of 3D printers are reminiscent, to a broader extent, of the exciting and futuristic race for plastic design that characterised the Space Age.
It is now more common than ever to see sandals, such as the Nike x Serena Williams Design Crew Air Max Koko, sitting next to the most acclaimed and desired sneaker brands in cult outlets like Size?.
Indeed, the performative dimension of the sandals brings them closer by design philosophy to that school of sneakers inspired by technical clothing, as well as by sports and mountainwear. See, for example, the ACG line by Nike, the Adidas mules in collaboration with the 032C magazine developed starting from the Adidas GSG 9.7 Tactical Boots, or Prada’s love for mixing its haute couture and sports components, an attitude embodied by the garments for the America's Cup. And, again, the success of CAT in the sneaker and mules field with their Crossover slippers, which can be transformed into a streetwear garment through the application of a removable rubber sole.
The collaborations that turn sandals into design icons
The many collaborations with designers and high fashion brands have been fundamental for the reevaluation of sandals. Among these we recall the Crocs designed by Salehe Bembury, formerly of Yeezy Gap and now Versace vice president of sneakers and men’s footwear. But also Midorikawa’s hyper-realistic take on Suicoke’s already iconic FiveFingers - minimalist footwear that wraps around the foot reproducing its five toes and offering a barefoot walking experience comparable.
Although not a collaboration, the reinterpretation of the tabi – the typical Japanese work shoe that divides the big toe from the index finger – made by Nike with its Air Rift sandals followed suit the momentum built around this footwear by Maison Margiela and its Tabi boots, hence contributing to a renovated appeal for one of the classic open models of the American sportswear colossus. Japanese references which appear to be an industry leitmotif, also resurfacing in Brain Dead’s woven sandals in partnership with Malibu Latigo.
The memetic of fashion saved the sandals
The success of open shoes is undoubtedly linked to the iconographic comeback of the ‘00s in the fashion industry. It is therefore no coincidence that many of the aforementioned models seem to offer an ergonomic and street-oriented take on the sabot, which were all the rage at the dawn of the new millennium. Summer 2022 did in fact coincide, even beyond streetwear, with the broader return of the style, from the revival of high-street chic brands such as COS and Arket, up to Miista and Sunnei.
Undoubtedly, the lol-fi culture – that has previously opened the doors to the reevaluation of a cornerstone of the dadcore aesthetic such as the Steve Jobs-style New Balance sneakers – also contributed to a better understanding of all those sneaker-mule hybrids that several brands, including Nike and Puma, had already started experimenting with between the late ‘90s and the early ‘00s: a time where the memetic of fashion was however still ripe.
The genderless attitude, as well as the increasing side effects of global warming, are also factors not to be underestimated in the success of open shoes, which now seem destined to overcome the ephemeral summer success to establish themselves, perhaps with a woolen sock, even during the autumn and winter as shown by the success of the versatile North Face slippers.
Opening image: Birckenstock Arizona Eva. Courtesy ShopStyle