Water shoes are now streetwear
What would you look for in a pair of shoes if you knew your feet might get wet? Be lightweight, dry quickly, be made of waterproof material? Shoes that created a seal around the foot could work but, in a hot climate, shoes with holes to let water through would be even better.
Luckily for adventurers, we have the water shoe. Produced by outdoor brands such as Merrell and Hoka, and now available at fashion boutiques such as Arket, Browns and Ssense, the water shoe is a rubbery cage designed for amphibious treks, providing traction on slippery surfaces and protection against sharp debris.
The porous design of the shoe seems to make it unsuitable for city life, yet it has become a street staple. Consumers turned to offerings from outdoor brands that pioneered the style, and fashion houses introduced their own riffs on the format. The trend is part of the allure of down-to-earth utility that has driven fashion to fixate on outdoor gear in recent years, a fascination with forward-looking production techniques – and the pure comfort.
The Croc has played a big part in the rise of the water shoe into everyday casual wear. Once favored by nurses and cooks as workwear, the Croc became mainstream in the late 2000s. thanks to fashion collaborations. Christopher Kane first did it with his own Crocs in 2016, but it was Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga that brought them back to the forefront of pop culture as part of the brand’s Fall/Winter 2018 collection. brand. Other limited-edition Crocs, like designer Salehe Bembury’s Pollex model, sell out almost instantly when released.
In late 2019, Kanye West revealed the Yeezy Foam Runner, one of the weirdest results from his ongoing partnership with Adidas. It has the fundamental hallmarks of a Croc – made from a frothy mono-material pierced with large holes – but it’s styled with sci-fi panache. Its openings are irregular but symmetrical, like those of the leaf of a large monstera plant: the Foam Runner seems to have come out of an HR Giger sketchbook. Despite some initial public bewilderment, the style caught on. (In this respect, Kanye West has an outstanding track record.)
What your shoes say about you
Balenciaga Hardcrocs Sandal You’re the most comfortable dancer at the fashion week after-party-slash-rave
Yeezy foam runner You’re a card-carrying hypebeast, or you just prefer something with a bit of flair to stuff your apartment into – these things are really, really comfy
Camper Kobarah Sandal You’re excited to look like a Memphis Group piece of furniture
Merrell Hydro Moc You have an amorphous job in the creative sector and can identify 20-year-old Arc’teryx cases from zipper placement alone. You feel a little guilty for not having hiked more this season
Slipper Prada You’ve cultivated a kind of Zen-technocratic vibe and plan to move to the countryside to live off the grid in a house 3D printed from raw earth
Daniel Bailey, a London-based shoe designer who has worked on high-profile designs for Adidas and Timberland, explains that shoes such as Yeezy’s Foam Runner, or Crocs, are produced by a process called injection molding. Although injection molding is capital intensive to start with, once a mold is cast, production is relatively inexpensive per unit and requires little specialist skill. Shoes are made from unique materials, usually petroleum-based ethylene vinyl acetate, similar to rubber. The process and the products are almost anti-artisanal.
“What we saw with Kanye was kind of a cultural and consumer unlock,” says Bailey. “Now you see brands like Bottega, Balenciaga, producing shoes in exactly the same way, but with the cost associated with a high fashion brand.”
Under designer Daniel Lee, Bottega Veneta produced the Puddle series of loafers and boots, which helped define Lee’s tenure look. Prada also now offers a mule in the same rubbery matte monochrome. And Balenciaga’s shoe range includes, beyond its Crocs collaborations, several injection-molded models, including the Space Shoe and the Mold Closed slip-on.
“I’ve been to the factories where these shoes are made and I’ve seen the actual shoe come out of the machine,” Bailey says. “Brands do a good job of validating their prices from a consumer perspective. The type of textured finishes they put on these products are beautiful. It sounds expensive, but at the end of the day, it’s a process that’s meant to be cheap. A design that goes beyond clog format: Camper’s unisex Kobarah sandal, crafted from a single piece of curvaceous EVA.
In 2004, English designer Marc Newson designed a shoe for Nike called the Zvezdochka, which featured a perforated rubber exterior and a removable internal sock liner. It was marketed as one of the first shoes to be designed entirely on a computer. Inspired by Newson’s early fascination with the space age and named after the Russian dog launched into orbit aboard Sputnik 10 in 1961, the Zvezdochka was ahead of its time and looks utterly current in 2022.
Bailey thinks fashion brands are still scratching the surface of the creative potential of this production style. “There are peaks and troughs in shoe innovation in general, where it’s like you can see where everyone is really excited about a particular thing and where the most ridiculous things are being made. it’s years after something has become popular that you really start to see how it could be integrated in a nice and interesting way.
We’ll likely see more design innovation now that process and materials are part of the luxury playbook. The amphibious sabot is not a wet firecracker.
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