In more ways than one, sneakers are at the vanguard of fashion.
From scrappy origins on racetracks and courts, the humble training shoe has become one of the planet’s most prominent cultural touchstones. Within the next four years, analysts predict that the sneaker segment will reach $120 billion in value, and taking account of the passion and ravenous hunger for drops that characterise the ever-growing “sneakerhead” devotee community, it’s not hard to see that milestone being reached. And probably surpassed.
But raw market size isn’t the reason (or at least not the sole reason) for the sneaker industry’s standout reputation. Sneakers transcend demographics and price points in a way very few other product categories can manage; we wear them with casual wear, occasion wear, streetwear, formal wear… the list goes on. There is, in effect, no occasion when it’s not acceptable to wear the right pair of sneakers, and challenging convention in the name of comfort is all just part of the game.
And with an avalanche of styles, colourways, and collaborations dropping almost non-stop, the right pair of grails is always out there. Even if you do need to join a waitlist for it, or search for it on secondary marketplaces that have become headline-worthy success stories by themselves.
More than anything else, though, sneakers are where fashion is currently the pushing the envelope the hardest. From bold, borderline impractical shapes, to being a playground for innovative materials, sneakers are the proving ground for fashion at its most cutting-edge.
But for an industry with such a free-wheeling outward appearance, the sneaker space is also surprisingly regimented. Anyone with deep enough pockets and reserves of patience for queuing can start collecting limited-run physical footwear by attuning themselves to the industry’s launch calendar and having a little luck. And while the “hypebeast” movement that’s grown up around that calendar is always on the lookout for newness, the reality is that sneaker creation is also heavily consolidated around famous brands and longstanding institutions.
From resurrected classics to creative collaborations, these household names have come to dominate the sneaker segment, capitalising on their sportswear heritage, performance pedigree, athlete and celebrity relationships, and their stables of instantly-recognisable silhouettes.
This consolidation creates both opportunities and barriers for the legions of independent designers and creatives who continue to be drawn to the sneaker industry because of its position at the forefront of fashion innovation.
Those who want to – and are able to – align themselves with an established brand can quickly be elevated – what sneaker designer Bernard Koomson refers to as “[finding] a brand that believes in you, want to champion you, and wants to also try and let you take what you’re doing to the next level”. And this, in turn, provides access to the creative infrastructure, material libraries, and manufacturing and marketing resources those brands have.
Those who either choose or are forced to go it alone can find it difficult to achieve recognition, as well as encountering all the barriers that stand in the way of any emerging designer wishing to create physical products: minimum order quantities for production, a lack of access to materials, and so on.
Or to put it another way: as much as the sneaker market values innovation, it’s quickly become a difficult industry for new designers to break into and then differentiate themselves in. Which is why the next logical step for sneakers could be sidestepping the brand gatekeepers entirely, and opening new channels between consumers and creators.
Unlacing the creator economy
Like the sneaker industry, the creator economy is booming. Used as a catch-all term for creators (of content, products, and experiences) who are directly supported by, or sell to, their community without intermediaries, the creator economy is now one of the fastest-growing sectors of the entire direct-to-consumer market segment.
Most people, whether they realise it or not, are already part of the creator economy as consumers. Everyone who follows an Instagram influencer, or subscribes to a YouTube personality who works with sponsors is an active participant in the creator economy. But while these activities – that fall under the umbrella of influencer marketing – have been the most visible face of that fast-growing new economy, serious investment (a record $1.3 billion last year alone) is being made in building platforms that allow independents to directly monetise their creativity without having to seek out brand backers.
The most famous of these is probably Patreon, which has ascended to a $4 billion valuation in 2021, and which is aiming to double its scale this year by covering all bases of creative endeavour. But where Patreon and its competitors take a generalist approach, a new Parisian company, Futures Factory, is applying the same philosophy to a very specific audience: independent footwear designers and their sneakerhead fans.
Pitched first and foremost as a community for like-minded creatives and consumers, Futures Factory is designed to democratise sneaker creation in several ways.
First, the name: Futures Factory allows small brands and independent designers to sell either virtual sneakers exclusively – as sustainable NFTs, hosted on the Polygon network – or to use the sale of their digital designs as “Futures,” or ways to pre-finance a physical production run that’s entirely demand-driven. In this sense, the platform sets out to blend the core principles of digital fashion – the sale of limited edition capsule collections and one-off pieces that are intended only to be worn virtually – with a “presale” model that will allow creators to overcome the barriers that stand between them and actually producing physical sneakers, which NFT-holders will be able to redeem.
Second, the community: founded by the team behind the blockchain-backed Satoshi Studio footwear brand, Futures Factory is certainly built with long-term physical production in mind, but today its founders and users are focused on building a social platform that will enable passionate sneaker designers and collectors to forge connections, collaborate, showcase their work, and share revenues and royalties.
“The founders of Futures Factory already had an NFT footwear company before launching the platform, so they are very knowledgeable on the blockchain side of things,” says independent sneaker designer Shun Ping Pek. “As someone who’s deeply passionate about footwear design and the communities that can grow up around it, I resonated with their vision of what the FF platform will be and where digital fashion could bring us into the future. They are truly focused on developing and making things a reality. Most of all, I feel that they are sincere with the designers and building a community with like-minded individuals.”
Third: the potential. Virtual fashion had a banner year in 2021, and sneaker culture played a central role in illustrating the extent to which the fashion industry has internalised the collectible side of sneaker culture, and applied it to digital-only collectibles. But to date, the biggest power moves in the virtual sneaker pace appear to have focused on brand-building rather than the creation of platforms.
“The essence of creating a brand has always been making a statement, because unique products start with a uniquely personal vision, but for the virtual footwear segment to really thrive, and really unlock the potential of new creators, it needs a platform that can serve as a springboard for those visions,” explains Nicolas Romero, Futures Factory’s Founder (pictured above).
“We actually set out to build a lot of our technology to power our own sneakers brand, but the more we talked to designers, the more we realised that there were common pain points that everyone faced. Designers instinctively understood how they could leverage what web3 has to offer but they also recognized that they needed support and a hub where they can learn, experiment, use specific tools and features to unlock these new opportunities.”
Sneaker culture, supercharged
As combined trends, sneaker culture and the creator economy could be lightning in a bottle. The footwear industry shows no signs of slowing down in 2022 and beyond, and ambitions for creator-owned channels and communities are high, and it’s that primed audience that Futures Factory is targeting. And if its platform can take advantage of what makes sneakers so unique – their defiance of categorisation, their unbridled creativity, and their technical inventiveness – at the same time as uniting designers and consumers who have so far existed outside the formal system of design and production, and building a sustainable culture around them, then there’s the very real potential that it could propel the sneaker industry to even higher heights.
[Cover image courtesy of Elisa Payer.]
About our partner: Futures Factory is a platform for digital and, in the future, physical sneakers. Built by passionate designers, and a roster of sneaker and NFT collectors, Futures Factory aims to be both the face of a new creator economy, and the future of footwear.