For decades, Dutch photographer Hans Eijkelboom watched the world go by.
Hidden in plain sight, Eijkelboom photographed public squares all around the globe. Working in hours-long bursts, he captured the people flowing through places at a specific moment in time – thousands of unique individuals, each as distinct as the last, their differences captured with only a datestamp in common.
Or so one would believe.
In reality, Eijkelboom’s work – published as the evocatively-monotonous “People of the Twenty-First Century” – revealed a world full of patterns. Whether intentionally or not, the unique individuals he saw congealed around specific macrotrends. Laid out in time-stamped photo grids, Eijkelboom’s work suggests a clear if uncomfortable message: the people of the twenty-first century were born to copy.
In a sneaker market rife with recycled material (adidas x Parley excluded, of course), it’s not hard to see his point. As sneakerheads of the twenty-first century, we must approach an industry defined by duplication with clear eyes.
Where is the line between “knock-off” and “homage”? Between “copy” and “contemporary”? And most importantly of all: what does the current state of sneaker copying mean for the future of the industry?
In evolutionary biology, the phrase “punctuated equilibrium” describes a theory of development where species change not in small, frequent steps, but through occasional and massive leaps. The environment may change; the new, better-adapted species suddenly appears; and presumably, the other surviving species in its ecosystem have also adapted in similar fashion to this dramatic change.
The sneaker industry works much the same way.
When a breakthrough idea, whether product or trend, captivates sneakerheads, shoemakers of all sorts take their own punctuated leaps.
For the ideators themselves, it’s as simple as scaling production in a way that doesn’t suffocate the trend while taking advantage of the hype. This is one of the reasons Balenciaga moved Triple-S production to China last January: while supply will still remain limited to keep up the cool factor, the “dad shoe” moment won’t last forever. Might as well make more for less while it’s here.
For all the others, it gets a little more complicated.
While the fashion business is driven by creativity, it is still first and foremost a business. No one wants to be accused of opportunism, but with a trend burning bright, it’s risky to ignore what people want when there are bills to pay. In sneakers, “copying,” as an umbrella term, tends to take one of three major forms.
In sneakers, the terms “copy” and “knock-off” are almost synonymous – but there’s a lot of nuance separating the two.
“The word ’knock-off’ is quite pejorative,” said Brian Trunzo, Senior Menswear Editor of WGSN, speaking to Highsnobiety earlier this month. “It’s packed with a lot of meaning, and part of that meaning is opportunism by people who are less creative, and the need the creative ideas of another to make any product at all.”
Knock-offs are defined by their attempted “passing off,” often done at a lower price than the original product. In international trade law, “passing off” is defined as “making some false representation likely to induce a person to believe that the goods or services are those of another.”
In English: a knock-off sneaker relies on convincing others that its design and brand are that of another, then throws a cheap price tag on the finished product to entice anyone who hasn’t heard the phrase “too good to be true.” Even if the product it’s knocking off doesn’t necessarily exist (e.g. those infamous Supreme Yeezy Boosts), the knock-off was brought into existence explicitly to deceive.
This is the lowest rung on the ladder: a flagrant imitation game, one whose very existence is illegal and whose profits have even been linked to the financing of terror groups. For more on knock-offs, check out Highsnobiety’s ongoing documentary series Counterfeit Culture.
On the other side of the price spectrum from “knock-offs” lies “the homage.” While knock-offs copy designs and logos of an original shoe in an attempt to pass off as that branded product, homage shoes are sold under their own brand yet keep nearly all design elements of the inspiration. Typically, homage shoes will also upscale the shoe’s original materials, and with it, the price.
Homage shoes are defined by wink-wink-nudge-nudge references to shoe archetypes that were likely popularized by a specific brand or product, but have since become – going back to that whole “evolution” bit – part of the sneaker market’s equilibrium.
Much of the luxury sneaker market is built on exactly this sort of copying. At the high end, brands like Common Projects and Hender Scheme were built on taking silhouettes from other eras (i.e. the adidas retro catalog) and stripping away logos while adding handstitched construction and nicer materials. These homage shoes then sell for prices many multiples above – not below – their design inspirations. At the mid-level, brands like GREATS and Artefact.NYC take this same approach, but price their homage designs below those of the highest-end homagers as a marketing strategy. (Disclosure: I used to work for GREATS.)
Why, however, are homage brands limited to drudging the past? Given the popularity of the Achilles Low, wouldn’t a “Common” touch on a breakthrough shoe like the Triple-S be just as sensational? Trunzo again: “I think it’s impossible to pay homage to a contemporary. If you’re designing in the same era as another brand, it’s a commercial decision to go after a successful product.”
Between the high-end homage and the rock-bottom knock-off lies a very cloudy middle.
Gold Rush. Feeding Frenzy. Speciation boom.
When a technology or category hits the right nerve, it creates opportunities for the industry as a whole. With equilibrium now upset, brands rush into the new space as quickly as possible to capture their slice of the excitement.
For some breakthroughs (e.g. knit construction), that excitement represents a fundamental shift in the sneaker industry. For others (luxury dad shoes), it may simply be a stickier trend. Regardless, the sneaker business is a business. There are bills to pay and employees to feed. Hence, the commercial play – imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, but in a Platonic sense, a copy just the same.
That’s not to suggest, however, that all commercial plays are of the same form. In general, they take one of two major directions.
Some sneaker copies are emulations: riffs on an original design, with the copier’s own design language transposed onto the shoe. The most visible example of this is the realm of luxury sock runners, a category which was arguably inspired by football hybrid sneakers like the Nike Air Footscape Magista. Since Balenciaga’s white-hot Speed Trainer dropped late 2016, nearly every luxury house in the world has produced their own iteration of a minimalist knit shoe. Acne has the Tristan; Fendi, the Sock High-Top. Versace will soon launch their own, and Dior Homme’s version launched recently. But each of the above is distinct, thanks to the crossover of design languages. Logotype aside, the Speed Trainer and Sock High-Top have little in common past a high-level idea and the materials tag.
Other commercial plays are, instead, imitations: instead of riffing on and transposing an original, imitators simply record it for playback. Unlike knock-offs, imitations aren’t passed off. Unlike homages, imitations are based on contemporaries and typically priced in-line (if not below) them. And unlike emulations, there is little design language contribution from the imitator.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Without imitations, many couldn’t access the styles they like without dipping into the illegal counterfeit market. In the realm of knit runners, a particular example is the NID de GUÊPES 2084 Sock Sneaker. For luxury dad shoes, there’s the Brandblack Aura II. While emulations are like remixes, imitations are cover tracks. There’s not much language added; just a different voice in the mic.
Again: this is not a bad thing.
If anything, the cycle of “innovation-imitation” provides the financial pressure that keeps a fresh stream of creativity pumping through the sneaker industry. Remember, while the rest of the world plays catch-up, all the owners of a breakthrough idea have to do is simply make more. Compared to waiting decades to make an homage shoe or cutting prices to play commerce, owning an original idea makes for one pretty preferable alternative.
What’s more, there’s a body of evidence that suggests that most of history’s greatest ideas are born through recombination – in fewer words, by first copying the old, then later mixing in the new.
In 1939, legendary creative James Webb Young published “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” in which he broke down a 5-step process for having groundbreaking thoughts. Webb’s first two steps? Go out into the world and see what exists. Then, take what you’ve observed and see how it fits together.
Although written nearly a century ago, Webb’s advice on copying as part of the creative process is as relevant for the people of the twenty-first century as it was for the people of his own.
Avoid the counterfeits, sample the rest, and above all, never stop observing what exists. When approached with clear eyes, the punctuated equilibrium of the sneaker market makes no more “copies” than a flock of Darwin’s finches. Perhaps it’s smartest to leave copying accusations for the birds.
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